Her dog, Ike, pulls on the leash attached to Maureen’s wrist, as Thomas, her four-year-old, holds on to the back of her coat and her purse slides to the crook of her arm. Maureen feels stretched and off balance.
Before entering the nursing home, Maureen needs to right herself.
“Hold my hand,” she says, unclenching Thomas’s small fist from the back of her winter coat. She wets a finger and rubs a blob of peanut butter from his cheek.
“Smile. Okay?” They count on us to help them forget, she thinks. He’s four. He goes where she goes. His cool little hand in hers is grounding.
“Heel. Heel.” Maureen pulls on Ike’s leash as she opens the door.
Rule #1 of the Pet Visiting Program: Control and Protect Your Pet. Maureen fears Ike could hurt himself or others in his great bounding happiness; knock down a wobbly person on a walker or grow tangled in the wires and tubes that encircle some of the more infirmed residents.
Linda, the nursing home activities director, calls from down the long beige hallway, “The guests are so excited you’re here! They’re all waiting for your visit!” The word “guests” catches Maureen off-guard, as if the old folks are just here for a little getaway — as if they have a choice. Linda’s enthusiasm is overwhelming and genuine. Her optimism shames Maureen. This was not a good day to come, perhaps. You have the winter blues, her husband said, kissing her temple that morning. But it’s almost the end of March. Shouldn’t winter be over by now?
At the sound of a low familiar whistle, Ike pricks up his ears and lunges. Maureen’s wrist is exposed and she can see her Timex, the one with timers and alarms and splits for working out, something she hasn’t done in months. A half an hour max, she tells herself. Then they need to pick up Luke and Isabel from elementary school and get them to piano lessons and gymnastics. Russell is waiting for them in his wheel chair at the end of the hallway near the nurses’ station. He is always the first to greet them, toeing his wheel chair over the shiny linoleum toward them. When he puts four fingers in his mouth to whistle again, Maureen runs her tongue over her own teeth, glad for them. Russell slumps in his wheel chair as if the bones of his spine have been ground to sand. His face reminds her of those Richard Nixon Halloween masks, every feature over-exaggerated, bulbous, sagging. But Maureen watches as Russell, straining toward Ike as eagerly as Ike strains toward him, lights up, lifts up even for a moment. She experiences a feeling of lightness in herself. Yes.
“Good boy. Good boy.” Russell’s thick knuckled hands rub behind Ike’s ears. Ike’s tail slashes back and forth against Thomas’s ankles and he giggles. Russell reaches into his sweatshirt pocket and pulls out chunks of donuts, which Ike snarfs up.
Rule #2 of the Pet Visiting Program: Get Down on Their Level. Maureen stoops down by Russell’s knee and puts her arm around Ike’s neck to keep him from leaping into Russell’s lap, strewn with donut crumbs. Thomas throws his body across Maureen’s back. She’s hot. The brightness and heat pulsing out of the lights and the radiator vents make her feel like the chicks the kids hatched in a little incubator last spring, ready to shed the shell, ready to fly the coop.
“Oh I missed this dog! You haven’t brought him in a long time!” Russell’s voice sounds like it is coming from a meat grinder.
“He missed you, too. Look at him.” We come as often as we can, Maureen thinks, feeling a little prick of guilt.
Russell reaches out a palm to offer Thomas a bite of donut, too. Before Maureen can protest, Thomas stretches his neck and flickers out his tongue.
“Thomas!” Maureen stands up. Thomas looks up at her with those big green impish eyes and swallows.
“Do you know I’ve got two German short-hairs?” Russell asks, as he does every time. “I love those dogs.” For a second he rests his empty hands in his lap. A quiver of drool leaves his lip. “Oh I miss em.” He shakes his head.
“But you can’t remember their names!” Thomas announces. It’s true; they go through this each time.
“It’s okay, Russell,” Maureen says, “I can’t remember a lot of things either.”
Did I take the chicken out to defrost?
She reaches out a hand to pat Russell’s shoulder. It shocks her how it feels like there is nothing between the skin and the bone, as if essential parts of him have just disappeared.
An orderly blasts by with a bucket of sudsy water and a splash hits the top of Maureen’s clogs.
Did I leave the house unlocked for the cleaning lady?
She remembers leaving the check. But, in the bustle of combing the dog and changing her clothes and finding Thomas’s favorite hat . . . There is soap scum on the door of the shower in the master bath and she wants the window sills vacuumed before she puts on the storm windows. Last night after the kids were asleep, she headed into the kids bathroom with rubber gloves and a bottle of 409. Her husband called from their bedroom, “What are you doing now? Come and tell me about your day, honey.” She squirted some cleaner in the sink and looked into the mirror. “How was my day?” She had no answer.
“Okay, Thomas. Shall we say goodbye to Russell?”
The old man is looking up toward the ceiling, or maybe into his own brain, as if he could retrieve the names of his dogs there. Sadness drags him further down in his wheelchair. He knows enough to know he has forgotten something he swore he’d never forget.
How old was Thomas when he took his first step?
A food cart pushed by a headphone-wearing teen in pink scrubs skitters by and down the shiny hall. Maureen pulls her little entourage to the side, just in time. Ike’s nose twitches after the cart and he starts to pull. Over her shoulder Maureen calls, “We’ll see you next time Russell. Okay?” He is brushing crumbs off his lap and looks up and salutes them.
Maureen and the dog and Thomas pause at the door of the next room. An Asian woman with a fuzz of white hair and a tiny O of a mouth sits in a rocking chair by the window with a pile of Fig Newtons in her lap. She shakes her head and flaps her hands to send them away. Her roommate is a wisp of a woman with a face the color of butter who has been asleep at every visit. Ahead of the game, Maureen thinks, to maybe sleep through your last days, if this is what they are.
“Would you like a little visit with our dog today, Mrs.” — Maureen squints at the name plate by the door — “Tang?”
“No. No. No.” The old woman shakes her head again. Her glasses slide off her nose and are caught by the chain around her neck. She covers the Fig Newtons with her hands. Despite the fact that the nurse told them that Mrs. Tang can’t even remember her name most days, Mrs. Tang seems to recall that Ike gulped a cookie off her lap during their last, aborted visit.
Rule #3: Respect Their Wishes. Some people may be allergic to or afraid of your pet.
On the wall outside Mrs. Tang’s room, someone has created a collage. In the middle there is a photo of Mrs. Tang. Her short black hair is stylishly cut. She’s wearing a simple white blouse with pearls and red pants. Standing shoulder to shoulder with her is a handsome Chinese man in a business suit. They are both resting their hands on the shoulders of three little girls, all of whom are wearing blue pleated skirts and sharp white blouses. The girls are beaming, as if the photographer has promised them lollipops or a puppy when the photo shoot is over. Mrs. Tang looks like she’s suppressing a smile and her eyes are wide, as if she’s taking it all in, as if she doesn’t want to blink and miss a thing.
“What, Momma?” Thomas asks.
“See the pictures of Mrs. Tang before she lived here?” She points to the radiant and young version of Mrs. Tang. Surrounding this center picture are other photos. Mrs. Tang holding a ping pong paddle in one hand and a trophy in the other. Mrs. Tang alone on the top of a mountain, the wind blowing her short hair, the sun shining in her eyes. Mrs. Tang giving a kiss to a young woman in a cap and gown. A gray haired and beaming Mr. and Mrs. Tang each holding an infant –Â¬ twin grandbabies? –Â¬ in each arm. A white-haired Mrs. Tang in a pink sweater cutting dahlias in an endless, radiant garden.
Like Thomas, Maureen turns her gaze from the photo collage on the wall and into the room where Mrs. Tang pitches back and forth in her chair by the window.
“They’s the same person?” Thomas gasps.
“She.” Maureen corrects absently as she looks for some snap and sparkle in the Mrs. Tang by the window. “She is the same person.”
Maureen tries to picture Thomas, his flashing green eyes, the tender spray of freckles, his whole four-year-old being nothing but snap and sparkle, 80 years hence. It’s like someone put a feather in one palm and a stone in the other and said, these are the same.
She takes Thomas’s hand and clucks at Ike to keep moving. She cannot bear at this moment to picture old man Thomas and all the loss and heartbreak and loneliness he will endure, without her there holding his hand. Could the Mrs. Tang with the triumphant smile and the uplifted trophy be the same agitated Mrs. Tang with her lapful of cookies?
Maybe Thomas is right. She is they. We are many.
They pass by a ceiling vent blowing hot dry air.
“Hold on a sec.” Maureen puts the leash in Thomas’ hand, unbuttons her wool coat, and flaps it open and closed like a fan. “Hot,” she says and reclaims the leash. Thomas looks at her, unzips his little red jacket, and slips it off on to the floor.
“Whoa, Doodlebug! Can you pick up that jacket? Here, hand it to me.” He’s been such a good boy. She’ll get him a treat afterwards. M&Ms; he loves those.
Thomas swoops up his jacket and tosses it onto her outstretched arm.
Ike, nose down, strains toward the next room. Flora’s back is to them, her fine auburn hair neatly coiffed. The bed nearest the door is empty, the nightstand holds only a box of tissues. Maureen can’t conjure up who used to be here.
Maureen calls gently from the door, “Good morning, Flora. It’s your dog visitor.” The three of them navigate widely and carefully into the room.
Flora turns her head from where she stares into the parking lot. Today she is wearing a thick cable-knit purple cardigan with silver buttons and camel-colored pants. She always looks so put together. Someone comes weekly, it appears, to take her to get her hair and nails done. The first time they visited, Maureen for the life of her couldn’t figure out why a woman who looked like she could still work behind the counter at a Talbots, or command a board room, was in a place like this with the barely alive and the barely there.
“Well hello! Hello, young man!” Flora extends her wrinkled hand like a queen would, as if Thomas should kiss the large diamond and ruby ring sparkling on her middle finger. The boy eyes Flora but squeezes the bones in his mother’s hand. Ike sniffs at Flora’s knees.
“Good morning, Flora. Don’t you look lovely today.” Maureen gently transfers Thomas’s hand to Flora’s for a little shake.
Flora smiles as Thomas’s plump little paw squeezes her fingers. Then she blurts, “Who are you anyway, by the way, today, zebras are gray?”
And that’s what happened the first time they visited. Like she’s been slapped silly, Flora begins to talk nonsense and then plunges into some murky place as if the gray matter of her brain is the contents of a blender and the machine got plugged in.
“No don’t tell me!” Flora puts a finger coyly on her cheek. “I’m going to guess who you are!” Her eyes scamper from Maureen to Thomas and back and forth again.
“When we were down on the farm picking blueberries, you –” she points a rosy nail at Thomas Â¬– “took my bucket and I told Mama on you.” Her face gets pouty.
Maureen watches Thomas carefully. It is a lot to ask, these visits. He stares, his arms limp by his sides, and yawns vastly.
“There are Life Savers in the bottom of my purse.” She hands her purse to Thomas and he wanders to sit on the edge of the bed with it. Her watch says time is almost up. They will go soon.
“And you . . . are my niece. Yes.” Flora nods. She’s gotten hold of something she likes.
“No. No, Flora,” Maureen shakes her head. “I’m Maureen. With the dog. The pet visitors.” She squats down, takes Flora’s hand, gives it a little shake, as if to wake Flora up out of her dream. She feels the surprising lightness of bone and softness of skin. She pinches Flora’s palm.
“Ouch! Oh dear that hurts.” Flora looks confused, but then she gives her head a quick snap. “I always loved that about you! Impish. Your mother might give you a good spanking though.”
Thomas has moved to the window, the pack of Life Savers clutched in his palm. He is blowing steam on the glass. Ike sits by Flora’s chair.
The visits with Flora always take this turn and Maureen is freshly startled Â¬– and to tell the truth Â¬– angered by it each time. Why am I angry? It’s not her fault.
She pulls a chair from the corner and sits down on the edge. Maureen is suddenly exhausted. She is tired of explaining the unexplainable to children who need facts and truth. She is tired of separating darks from lights and sorting by item, in pairs, by child. She is tired of preparing food balanced by color and texture and taste. She is tired of creating order in cupboards and closets and days. She’s tired of always looking at her watch and wondering where else she should be.
Bright flashing lights make them all turn toward the window. An ambulance slowly pulls up to the entrance.
“Coming for someone again.” Flora’s face deflates and her eyes look like Russell’s when he can’t remember the names of his dogs. Then she throws that off as quick as it came on. “I’m just here while they fix my car. I’m going home any time. I am a lucky one.”
Rule #4 Don’t Argue with People’s Version of Reality.
Maybe that’s not a rule, but it should be.
“Down boy.” Ike obeys and lays his big golden body on the floor. Maureen puts her elbows on her knees, leaning in toward Flora.
“When I was little . . . Aunt Flora . . .” why not, she thinks? “What was I like?”
“Hoo yoo! I’ve got stories to tell.” When she smiles her teeth are like little pearls and her face shines on Maureen.
“Tell me something now.” Maureen feels like she might start crying. Who is she to pity Flora? When it comes down to it, Flora finds ways to spring her own trap, to create a reality that frees her for a moment.
Thomas sits on the bed and unspools the foil wrapper around the Life Savers.
“I can tell you this; we are a lot alike, you and I. Everyone always said so.”
“How so, Flora?” She looks intently at Flora, at the crooked skim of lipstick on her upper lip, at the flashing lights behind her head, signaling desperation and saving all at once.
“You know what?” Flora looks at Thomas and points her finger, “You were just like that!”
Thomas is lying on the bed, staring up at the ceiling, and gnashing a mouthful of wintergreen Life Savers with gusto.
Maureen feels the heaviness of her good winter coat pressing down on her shoulders. She shrugs it off and lets it slide down the back of the chair. She does remember being like Thomas. She remembers going into the upstairs bathroom when she was just a bit older than he with four rolls of wintergreen Life Savers. She’d heard they sparkled like fluorescence if you chewed them with your mouth open in the dark. How wonderful it would be to see lights and sparkles coming out of her! She stood in front of the mirror in the pitch dark and did it over and over until her mother called her for dinner.