My mother’s room was at the end of the hall on the third floor of the nursing home. Her neighbour’s door was always open when I walked by. There was no real privacy in the place.
The neighbour’s bathroom was to the left of her door; I could see through to the mirror. Straight ahead, the view opened to a small room and two forest-green armchairs. A highboy dresser occupied the back wall next to the only window.
If the neighbour were napping, which she often was, her small feet, sensible shoes still on, would be visible at the end of her narrow bed. If awake, she would be seated in the green chair that faced the hallway, one wrinkled hand on each of its plush arms, eyes gazing up at the ceiling.
Mom and her neighbour hadn’t yet met despite sharing a common wall. No one had introduced them.
“Why don’t we say hello to the lady next door,” I suggested one winter afternoon. “I think she’s lonely.”
When Mom knew who I was, she called me by my nickname. When she didn’t, I was just another anonymous helper. I was okay with that. I know who I am and I knew who she was. The rest didn’t matter.
Our first visit was a success. From then on, Mom and I spent an hour or two almost every evening with Gabby. “Short for Gabrielle,” she added when she told us her name.
Mom and Gabby sat across from each other in Gabby’s armchairs while I perched on the end of the bed or on a small straight-backed chair, the seat of which was lumpy and covered with faded needlepoint. Gabby would fetch it from under the window and put in front of a glass-topped table between the armchairs.
“Let me do that, Gabby.” I would protest.
“No, you are my guest. The least I can do is make you comfortable.” She reproached.
We passed the time talking about trivialities. Sometimes we sang. Or rather, Mom sang and Gabby and I croaked along with her. Mom knew hundreds of songs and had the voice of an angel. Gabby and I, not so much.
I manicured Mom’s nails several times each week, just as I had throughout the year I lived and cared for her in her own home. Initially, Gabby didn’t want hers done. But after watching the process a few times, she warmed to the idea. The manicures became a ritual. I would alternatively remove the old polish, file with a well-used emery board, apply new bright pink polish, and top with a quick-drying finish. While I painted Gabby’s nails, Mom blew on hers; fingers curled inward, their tips almost touching her palms.
“That’s it, Mom.” I encouraged her.
“Am I doing it right?
“Yep, you got it Mom.”
Mom usually picked and peeled the polish off her nails within a day. Gabby’s stayed perfect for more than a week. Her hands were gnarled, arthritic and shaky, but her nails were hard as rocks, nicely shaped, long, and tough to file.
“I have the homeliest hands in the world.” Gabby would sigh as I bent to the task. “All my sisters had lovely hands, and mine are so homely.”
“You always say that, Gabby.” I would chuckle. “I think your hands are lovely, especially your nails.”
I got a wide-eyed look and smile in return.
“Are you fishing for compliments, Gabby?”
“Yes! And it worked!” Impish dimples would appear in her cheeks.
We learned more about Gabby as time passed. She was ninety-seven, the youngest of seven sisters, and the last one still alive.
“My sisters were beautiful,” she would say when she spoke of them.
Gabby had worked as a clerk in a fashion boutique and had been married twice. She lived with her niece after her second husband died and, when that was no longer possible, she took a room in the nursing home. That had been six years before.
Mom’s new friend still had all her marbles. Her only occasional complaint was the corn on her left foot, which hurt when she walked. She was a little hard of hearing, but her eyesight was perfect. Mom, on the other hand, wore eyeglasses, but she could hear a pin drop at twenty-five paces, even at eighty-two. Sadly, many of her marbles had absconded with Alzheimer’s disease.
Gabby adored my mother from the moment they met. ‘My Patty,’ she called her.
Their friendship flourished despite my mother’s dementia. They shared a table, along with two other residents, in the dining room; they had breakfast, lunch and dinner together. The atmosphere was somber and hushed. Mealtime conversations were short and infrequent. Perhaps because there’s little to talk about when you dine with the same people three times a day, every day, for years, and there are few activities between meals to discuss.
The only real news was the illness or death of a fellow resident, neither of which were acknowledged by the staff. Ironically, when I asked why not, the nurses told me nothing could be said for ‘privacy reasons.’
What about the need to mourn? To remember a friend or neighbour? What about respect?
If a seat in the dining room were vacant for a few days, the rumour mill began to churn. But the only way residents and visitors such as myself knew with certainty that someone had died was when a new person occupied the empty spot. It was as if the deceased had never existed.
To break the monotony, I brought Mom and Gabby to my place once or twice a week for lunch or supper. We all loved my place. There were lots of windows. The space was open, bright, and breezy. The back deck looked out onto a small field with a tangle of brush beyond.
On one such occasion, Mom and Gabby helped set the table. They held hands and teetered slightly as they arranged the knives and forks while I prepared the meal: tuna salad with celery and mayonnaise, a few leaves of local lettuce, carrot sticks (parboiled to suit Gabby’s tender teeth), golden-toasted sesame seed bagels, and mixed olives.
The food, though simple, was healthy and appetizing—a pleasant change from institutional fare. Mom and Gabby drank orange juice from crystal glasses my brother accused me of stealing from Mom’s home when she and I decamped from it, and I sipped Sauvignon Blanc from a funky goblet my cousin gave me. Afterwards, I made my guests comfortable in twin plastic lawn chairs on the deck, and then returned to the kitchen to prepare a dessert of fresh peaches with vanilla ice cream and maple syrup.
On the way back, I stopped near the screen door to eavesdrop on their conversation. Gabby was a woman of few words, which is atypical for a Quebecoise, and when she spoke, she did so in flawless, unaccented English.
“Isn’t that a beautiful sky?” she asked Mom.
“Yeah, and I told them it was. Dad thinks so too.” Mom looked around. “Where’s Dad?”
“Yes, you did.” Gabby waited for this to sink in before she continued. “He went to get our dessert.”
A moment of silence. Then another. Then several.
Gabby reached over and gently felt Mom’s arm, which was bruised from the Coumadin she took to stop blood from clotting in her swollen legs. Other medications – antipsychotics – caused her to shuffle instead of striding purposefully as she had her whole life. I had been unable to convince the medical professionals to provide her with more hugs and fewer drugs.
“Are you cold?” Gabby asked.
“I don’t think so.” Mom paused, searched. “Do I feel cold?”
Cool air drifted through the screen door. Goosebumps rose on my arms. My throat constricted.
“You feel a bit cold.” Gabby withdrew her hand.
Mom fiddled with a napkin on her lap. Folded and unfolded it. Smoothed it flat. Folded and unfolded it again. Gabby watched the folding, unfolding, and smoothing. Her breath was raspy from her asthma.
The sun sank a little lower.
“Are you cold, Gabby?” Mom often parroted what was said to her. A strategy to conquer the aphasia that stole her words.
Gabby turned to look at her. “I’m not cold. But you feel a bit cold.”
Whatever Gabby said, Mom accepted, and vice versa. They never argued. The facility staff could have learned a thing or two from that. If they had, there would have been no need to sedate my mother into compliance. If they had respected her, Mom wouldn’t have lashed out at them.
More silence ensued. One looked this way, the other one that, staring at nothing in particular. They stared at nothing in particular day in and day out.
Gabby swung her foot and inadvertently kicked Mom.
“Did I hurt you?” She said, alarmed.
“I wouldn’t want to hurt my friend, Patty. You’re my best friend.” Gabby reached over and stroked Mom’s arm again.
The sun went on setting as it is does on kindred spirits everywhere in summer and fall, each day earlier and earlier until late December. Days such as this, when Gabby and Mom escaped the facility for a few hours, were special, even if they didn’t remember the visits. And the time we spent together was precious to me.
“Your hair looks nice, Patty.” Gabby spoke after an interlude.
I stood frozen with the bowls of peaches and ice cream and wondered how many times Gabby had paid Mom the same compliment that day. Three? Five? Ten?
Mom said nothing. She touched her hair with her hand. Patted the curls in a gesture I recognized from when I was a little girl watching her get ready to go out. She remained silent. Perhaps she had already forgotten Gabby’s words. Or maybe she needed a mirror to confirm what her friend had told her. Not knowing the truth of one’s own reality is part of Alzheimer’s disease.
“And that top looks beautiful on you. You have the nicest clothes.” Gabby knew compliments brought my mother joy, even when Mom was unable to show it.
Mom looked down at herself. She moved her hands to just below her waist and pinched the bottom of her beige-and-white-striped shirt. She pulled it out from her body to see it better. The stripes matched her caramel capris.
“Do I?” Her voice was flat, her face expressionless. More side effects of the antipsychotics that caused her to shuffle instead of stride.
My hands tightened their grip on the bowls when I thought of the drugs. My mother’s vibrant personality had been sacrificed for the sake of convenience and cost.
“Oh yes! You are so stylish.” Gabby radiated enthusiasm.
A mental image popped into my head. Mom and I shopping in exclusive boutiques when I was a teen. She bought one-of-a-kind pieces. Dressed with panache. People noticed her.
“Oh yes. Very! I wish I were stylish like you.” Gabby’s grin stretched like the horizon. “And you have such beautiful rosy cheeks. I love your rosy cheeks.”
Gabby leaned in closer and planted a kiss on one side of Mom’s flushed face. Mom was again unresponsive.
“I’m glad I’m here with my friend, Patty, enjoying the sunset.”
“Is it time to go home yet?” Mom asked. She didn’t realize she would never go back to the big red brick house on the hill, her home of forty years.
“Almost.” Gabby slid her hand down her friend’s bruised forearm. Wrapped her gnarled fingers around Mom’s soft, plump ones.
“We’ll go together,” she said, and she kissed Mom’s cheek again.
A little ice cream dripped from the bowl in my right hand as I swiped the back of it under my eyes. There was a pain in the middle of my chest. I took a deep breath, nudged open the screen door with my foot, and stepped into the oncoming twilight.
© 2022 Susan Macaulay. I invite you to share my poetry and posts widely, but please do not reprint, reblog or copy and paste them in their entirety without my permission. Thank you.