by Jim Brega

 

Gloria has been in a nursing facility for six years, will never go home, and hasn’t been told that her children have put her now-empty house up for sale to pay for her care. She suffers from a cruel disease, crippled by rheumatoid arthritis that has turned her lovely pianist’s hands into twisted claws permanently clasped to her chest, as if resting from playing the final chords of a concerto. With her neck, legs, and feet also affected, her active mind has become a prisoner within a body that has failed her almost completely. She can still move her tongue and jaw and therefore can chew and eat food—if someone places it in her mouth—and speak, though the length and volume of her sentences, often limited to single words, are limited by her varying ability to force air through her vocal cords.

She will never again rest on her side or stomach; she spends her days and nights, mostly asleep, partially sitting up or on her back, unable even to shift position without help. She keeps a box of Kleenex on her lap from which she can barely manage to pull an occasional tissue, grasping it between the thumb and immobile fingers of her left hand, to wipe at the phantom drool that obsesses her. She is bathed, changed, dressed, made-up (on special occasions), fed, and wheeled about by someone else; someone she knows and is used to if she’s lucky, on many days by a stranger.

The nursing home is a terrible, depressing place to visit. One can get used to the smell of adult shit that drifts into the hallways and stays in your nose even when you escape outside. What’s harder to stomach is the desperate false cheerfulness of the place, a feeling that everyone—staff, residents, the occasional visitor—is colluding in acting out an elaborate lie: the “return home” myth. Over the several days my partner, John, and I visited his mother, this is the most frequent plea I overhear: “I want to go home.”

In reality few patients, if any, leave this place alive. But the return home is a sustaining myth, one that patients cling to in the face of dully repeating routine; one that the staff pushes to keep the population compliant. To do otherwise would be to acknowledge the specter of death that haunts the place, to admit the fact that for most of us death will not be the peaceful, gentle slipping away—our heads resting lightly on lace-edged pillows, our already-grieving loved ones gathered quietly around the bed in our own bedroom—that’s replayed in various versions ad infinitum on the Lifetime channel, so popular here. Through the miracle of modern medicine, death will come for many of us only after years of the soul-numbing boredom and pain that comes with chronic illness, years of repeating the same activities on the same schedule every day, years of pissing and shitting ourselves and waiting hours for someone to clean us up, years filled with thousands of hours of TV-watching, with endless commercials full of inexplicably excited pitchmen pushing products we no longer have any use for.

At lunchtime we take Gloria down to the dining room in her wheelchair; it’s a relatively cheerful spot with high ceilings and tall, broad windows. Her permanent table is on the edge of the room near a window that looks out over the trash dumpsters to the woods beyond. She doesn’t like to face the room, where she’d be forced to acknowledge her fellow patients. Many of them are dressed carelessly in unfastened hospital gowns; some appear to barely function, their heads drooping toward their plates gooey with lunch’s leftovers. Gloria always manages somehow to be neatly dressed and groomed, choosing outfits from her tiny closet through a tedious “no-no-no-yes” system and paying extra to have her hair styled and make-up applied.

The dense New Jersey woods form an impenetrable screen around the home, twenty feet from the building. During lunch John sits on his mother’s right, facing the side of her chair, the better to guide a fork to her mouth. I face her across the table, my back to the windows.

Gloria rejects the soup: too salty. We’ve finished the salad—a few pieces of iceberg lettuce, French dressing—and moved on to the main course—a slice of turkey in glossy gravy, canned, cubed carrots, a spoonful of mashed potatoes (which Gloria also will not touch)—when she suddenly becomes alert.

“I see a little red bird,” Gloria announces in the emotionless voice she has adopted as her most effective means of speech.

“Where?” John and I snap to attention. Subjects of conversation are hard to come by here, and Gloria rarely introduces one.

“Small bush.”

We search the greenery outside the window. There are no small bushes. I go to the window, greedy for the sight of a little red bird.

“Was it a cardinal?” I ask. “I don’t see it.”

John goes back to placing the tiny forkfuls of carrots in her mouth.

Gloria chews carefully, swallows with some effort.

“Little red bird.”

I’m still inspecting the masses of foliage visible from the window, much of it made up of what I call “trash trees:” those that lurch up like weeds every spring and grow to seven feet within a season. But there are also cedars, oaks, tulip poplars, and lanky wild azaleas. And dogwoods. Cardinals are often seen near dogwood trees, whose red fall berries, when eaten by the birds, contribute to their bright color.

“Your eyes are better than mine,” I tell Gloria, disappointed, returning to my seat across from her.

“Do you see it.” Gloria’s speech difficulties turn questions into statements.

“Yes, I see it,“ John says.

I look at him quickly. In his position beside her, his right hand and arm poised for feeding, Gloria can’t turn her head far enough to see his face.

There’s no bird he mouths to me.

 

Today is the last of three exhausting visits we’re making to Gloria’s nursing home. We’ve only about an hour after lunch before we have to head off toward the airport for a late afternoon flight back to California. We wheel Gloria out to a small lounge with a giant flat screen TV and find a channel she likes to watch. It’s still an hour until Dr. Phil comes on, her favorite show. She dozes under the influence of a full belly and New Jersey’s late-summer heat and humidity.

Guiltily we allow her to sleep. We’re wasting expensive minutes together, but it’s easier than the constant struggle to find things to talk about. I wonder how John’s sisters bear it, trading off every other day, year in, year out.

“What are you two whispering about.” Gloria has roused from her nap.

John moves around to sit in front of her, where she can see him.

“We were just talking about Laura and Connie,” John says. “Mom, we’re going to have to take you up to your room a little early. We have to catch a flight.”

“Where are you going.”

“We have to go home. To California.”

Gloria is silent. I realize she didn’t know we’re leaving today.

I remember the tortured good-byes at the bedside of my own mother twenty-five years ago, under similar circumstances: her gradual paralysis by the creep of ALS—Lou Gehrig’s disease—from her hands and feet toward her chest and throat, she begging me—while she could still speak—at the end of every rare visit to move nearer to her so that she could see me more often.

“I can’t,” I would say. “I have a job, friends. It’s my home.” Those things were true. The idea of giving up the life I had built for myself and moving three thousand miles to sit at her bedside was ridiculous. What I couldn’t tell her is that I didn’t want to see her more often, that the visits I made were out of a sense of obligation and arranged by my father. Our past together was too complicated, too painful for me to really feel connected to her. Still, when she died a month to the day after my last visit I was sorry that I never told her I loved her.

 

Back in Gloria’s room John maneuvers her wheelchair next to the bed and points it toward the TV, her only dependable companion. I quickly give her a kiss on the cheek and croak some inanity—“take care of yourself”—through a thickening throat. I want to leave the room and make space for a private goodbye between the two of them. They’re both weepers.

I wait in the dining room where we had lunch an hour ago, gazing once again out the tall windows. Suddenly I see a flash of red: a cardinal in a dogwood tree.

Little red bird! Goodbye, goodbye! I love you!

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