Noontime on Mondays I would go to the nursing home to help feed my husband’s aunt. She couldn’t move her arms – or wouldn’t. Couldn’t speak – or wouldn’t. She had not taken a single step since she had first come to this place after breaking her hip some six years before. Her caregivers said she uttered a chance phrase from time to time, “pretty good,” or “yes indeed,” emerging clear as clear from the depths of her silence. Mostly though, she regarded us all with a dull and lifeless gaze.
In the beginning she had talked a little. “The years are passing so quickly!” she said once out of the blue. And “Eddie is so good to me.” And, one day, “You look exhausted!”
Back then, a look of animation would flash over her face when I first arrived. She would smile and color would mount to her cheeks and I would begin talking and talking, hoping to keep her there. It never worked. Within moments she was gone again, far away and alone. Our communication remained focused on the simple ceremony of feeding.
“What should I do after she eats?” I asked Uncle Ed once. “Where she won’t talk, I mean?”
“Just sit with her,” he said. “Just hold her hand.”
So I did that, and watched what went on around us.
Mostly I watched Edna, tall and big-boned, with wispy hair.
“Girl! What time is it, Girl?” she asked me once. “That poor soul,” she added, indicating another with a nod of her head. “She’s touched, you know!”
I liked Edna. “I’m goin’ out for a smoke! Where’s my bag?” she would say, just as if she could walk on out whenever she liked. She carried that small black purse with her everywhere. Once I saw her bring it to the dining room and put it in the trash. Later in the meal she became agitated. “Where’s my tea?“ she kept saying.
“Right here,” said her helper.
“No! My TEA! ” she exclaimed, looking now under the table.
“Is this it?” I asked, going to the trash and fetching forth her purse.
Later, she spilled her actual tea and saw the erratic shape the spill made on the tiles. “Girl!” She hailed me. “There’s a chicken on the floor here!”
In time, Edna fell permanently quiet, as sooner or later they all fall quiet on this ward. When she died, I cut out her obituary. I have it still.
It took almost ten years before Auntie Fran died. By then she had long stopped wrinkling her nose as she once did when I would bend to kiss her and my hair would tickle her face and she had gotten so she would hardly eat.
I stopped worrying what to say to her when I came on Mondays.
And I got to wondering if she were in there at all, until two things happened in a one-month period.
Once, when I did not briskly pull up and away at embrace’s end but stayed there, my cheek against her cheek, she made that little sound people make when you kiss them and they like it. And another time – it was in this same month of new beginnings that we are now in – I brought her an Easter lily when she was already in bed, blue eyes on the ceiling. I tipped the plant until it was nearly horizontal, and the soft chalice of its blossom dipped toward her face.
She shut her eyes and inhaled deeply.
She was in there all right, and to this day I am still so glad I was able to reach her there just that one time, deep in her cave and waiting for the great Transformation.