My latest endeavor failed so horribly there wasn't any amount of aspirin to help.
My blinds were drawn at the Elder Care Home. My roommate, Fern Louise Peabody, was waking me by exhaling across my face and thumping her thumb on my forehead. Her morning routine bugs me but not enough to complain at the nurse’s station. There are far worse elderly residents. I don’t want to replace Fern. I kindly remind her how much I prefer a silent wake-up call. However, Fern doesn't remember much. When she isn’t thumping me, she’s my friend and sidekick. Each day we sit in the cafeteria across from each other and she tells me the same stories and I make up different ones.
“Please Fern, don’t thump me.” I exhale and close my eyes. “Also where’s your toothbrush?”
“That one stole my navy blue suit.” Fern coughs and points left. “The other one loves me.”
I roll over and try to disappear in a dream.
Growing up our family tradition was simple.
Get along with everyone.
Above all else NEVER make waves.
Now and again, only in rare circumstances when pushed to the brink of almost cursing my dad would type a sternly worded letter to the editor or attend a meeting and ask a pointed question. Life was as moderately good as life could be.
When my life clock struck eighteen I was married. After our honeymoon, I was blessed and fortunate enough to be able to donate both time and money to charities.
I was a somebody.
A helpful somebody.
A good somebody.
I had regularly scheduled dental visits, bunion-free feet and a first floor spare bedroom decorated in a Caribbean beach theme. I had a faux wood paneled den. I read to the poor and pushed people in wheelchairs from admissions to radiology. Under no circumstances would I serve any guest in my home on Styrofoam.
In those days my husband sat at his oak desk carefully massaging our plans. Detailing every detail. He polished our checkbook and I polished our furniture. I was wrapped in a cocoon of bliss and I loved it. He took care of everything (or so I thought.)
My husband Paul wrote instruction manuals for radios, TVs, toaster ovens and children’s toys. Perhaps you’ve read his work? Think back to Christmas Eve? Aha. Yes. Now you do remember.
Meticulous as he was about all that kind of stuff, he forgot to plan for his job elimination, his illness, and his early death.
Most of all he never planned for life without him.
Therefore, as a consequence, I found myself at age fifty-two living in suburban angst and seeking my first job. I made a list of things I could do and ultimately gave up. I thought to myself, the right job will hit me when I least suspect it. And it did.
When I saw the help wanted sign in the window of the Whippy Dip, I fantasized about being a taste tester for frozen dairy delights topped with fresh whipped cream and a cherry. I do love ice cream and was certain I could lend some great ideas to the Science of Ice Creamery. I could envision myself working late and quickly advancing through the ranks as a professional taste tester. However, being very realistic, which I always am, I guessed the real job description would involve a hair net, an apron, and a lot of smiling while serving ice cream to happy, appreciative customers. And bonus--- I’ll make great tips!
However, during my very brief job interview, the owner from inside the window asked me how long I could dance and if good knees ran in my family. Before I could answer, he disappeared, quickly reappearing face-to-face. He stood nodding and holding a large fabric ice cream cone costume.
“You’re perfect.” He said. “You’re about five foot four. Try this on, and, oh-- by-the-way, you don’t overheat easily, do you?”
More or less, my first paid job was quite an endeavor twirling and dancing by Twenty-Sixth Street.
Followed two days later by my first ambulance ride when a sixteen-year-old put his sedan in reverse (instead of drive), ran me over and shattered my hip.
Fern died on a Wednesday. A small part of me was happy for her because my sidekick cried every day. A larger part of me was so sad because she was gone.
In my sadness, a wheelchair became my easiest transportation. I politely asked to quit physical therapy (P.T.); they bribed me with chocolate ice cream. I hate to admit how easily I become agreeable when offered frozen carbohydrates. The next day I returned to P.T. reluctantly, always bringing something to read.
My next roommate, Thelma Mills, worked on crossword puzzle books non-stop. She spent hours, filling all the letter blocks with random scratch marks. Thelma didn’t speak or thump my forehead in the morning.
She died on a Sunday.
Monday morning, I quit P.T. And I didn’t just quit. I quit in an embarrassing fit of tears and rage. My legs wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do but more so every roommate died. Just call me the black widow spider of roommates. Then call me in big trouble.
I’m dreadfully embarrassed to admit that I caused such a scene two nurses held me down and another injected me. I stayed in bed for who even knows how long. If my mother wasn’t dead she’d be furious for me for causing such a fuss. I heard her words. “We’ve never been the type of people who raise a fuss. We go along and get along. March yourself over to the chair and sit and think about your actions young lady.”
Finally when I was up and moving around again, I rolled to the common room and learned about a virus that prevented any visitors from visiting. Not that anyone came to visit me. Who wants to visit a sad place; it reminds them they may end up here, living on chrysanthemum hall wearing diapers and a bib.
A few days or weeks or months or who the heck even knows what day it was anymore a horrific video played on the TV. Long after I returned to my room and the lights were off, the video played over and over in my mind. Then came the protests.
The next morning I wrote an apology to physical therapy.
“I’m sorry I behaved badly. Please can I begin again? I pinky promise (the best kind) to work hard and give it my all.”
Days later, how many I don’t know. I’ve come to believe days don’t matter here they are only something to survive like food poisoning.
Another video surfaced.
A different state.
A different situation.
Same deadly outcome.
I watched more protests and shed more tears. All around me nurses answered phones, dispensed meds and did other “nursey” things. Residents played bingo, sang songs and cried to go home. My thoughts somersaulted. I sat next to the fish aquarium and counted fish laps. Then I counted grains of gravel.
Visitors came and waved through the big front window. Millie (I don’t know her last name) turned 90. We had a tiny birthday party. Her family watched through the dining room windows. They brought big blue balloons.
After the party my thoughts continued to flip flop. What can a gray old woman do? What is possible? What might I do? How many people will hold me down?
At P.T., I sweat willpower to grow stronger. During my breaks, I brought a newspaper to sweat and grow resolve.
One morning, after oatmeal, I asked for a mask and art supplies. I grinned and rolled to my room. After I made a huge sign I put my mask on and snuck out the side door rolling past the front courtyard. The sunshine warmed my skin. A breeze! I felt a breeze blow across my skin. I almost forgot what a breeze felt like. I positioned myself close enough to smell the road. A grasshopper jumped up and landed on my knee. I exhaled and hoisted my sign high above my head. The grasshopper jumped on my head and thumped around. I like to think that Fern remembered me and sent Mr. Grasshopper my way.
Almost immediately, the responses started.
The horns fueled me. After a short time the muscles in my arms screamed in pain but I refused to let them win. A nurse called to me from the door. I swallowed hard and ignored her. My mother would be so disappointed in me ignoring authority. The nurse yelled again. My hand went up and I gave the friendliest wave possible. There, Mom would approve of my cordialness. Then I turned half way and pointed to my mask. Mom would also so approve of me wearing my mask correctly.
Day after day, the three of us sat by the road. Me, my mask and my sign. I flew solo for the first I don’t know, day or week. The sun burned my skin, my lips chapped and I missed playing bingo.
One night after some sort of soft questionable meat dinner, the activity director helped me make another larger sign. Polly Macintosh (who wears pink curlers in her hair all day) asked me if she could join me.
“I hope you are going to keep your curlers in.” I said. “The pink will draw more attention to our cause.”
With her eyes, she measured me up. “The curlers are in a wig.” She exhaled. “I’m bald.”
I pointed at her and then back at myself. “We roll after oatmeal.”
And then there were two.
As I was finishing some sort of beige-ish casserole for dinner Floyd (I don’t know his last name) came up to my table. Floyd wears a bow tie above his bib. He walks with an aluminum walker with a plaid knapsack. In all my time here I’ve never seen Floyd without a bib. Or a bow tie.
“I don’t think it’s safe for you girls to be out by the road without a man. So I’ll be accompanying you two tomorrow.”
And then there were three!
After that came four and five and ten. The dietary staff packed brown bag lunches for us.
Joey Markus from Action News 24 came to interview us.
“So I have a plan.” I say. “It goes like this. Lift, honk. Lift, honk.” I handed my sign to Joey. “Now you try it.”
He hoisted the sign high above his head.
He lifted it higher.
He nodded and stretched up higher. “Wow.”
“That's all I do. It gets the word out. When all you have are words, you use them. It takes sweat and courage to build change and to not quit. We’re building unity and love for all. Any big mouth simpleton dimwit can lie, stomp and destroy.” I stood up, felt a sharp pain quickly I sat back down. Yikes, I’m always getting ahead of myself. “Growing up it was our family tradition to not make waves. But it’s time for me to do my part and make waves. Commit your words to raise others up, and everybody wins.” I opened my brown bag and offered Action News 24 Joey half of my peanut butter sandwich. “Stick around, unite with us on my newest endeavor, maybe, just maybe--- we can break some horrific traditions and change our world. Together.”