The thing about nursing homes is that they’re essentially daycares with high school politics. Daycares have the troublesome toddlers, high schools have the mean kids, and we had Zora. Everyone knew Zora. There was no way you could miss her - the most vivacious, loud, chatty person at the Blue Island Care Facility.
I’d been working at the facility for six months when they promoted me to Activities Manager. Up until then, I’d just been doing paperwork in the dusty back room, but their Activities Manager had gotten pregnant, and suddenly I was thrust into a world where I was supposed to read stories to the residents, make them walk outside, that sort of thing. The truth was, I’d been promoted without any sort of explanation or handbook on what my job was, exactly.
“Who’s this?” An elderly woman with only one tooth snarled at me, wrapping herself in a thick wool sweater. “Got any food?” “Hey girly, help a man out,” another one barked, laughing to himself, oddly sinister in his wrinkly helplessness.
“My name is Ruby.”
“What’s that, sweetheart? These old ears don’t work like they used to.”
“RUBY. My name is Ruby.”
“Ah, our very own Ruby Blue,” this, from a woman in a floor-length satin dress, even though it was 10am, and as far as I could discern, there was no occasion to dress up for.
The first days were admittedly rough. Everyone looked the same, and talked too much, and no one liked the snacks I brought or the stories I read to them. “Are you crazy? Look at my ankles. They’re so swollen, I look pregnant, and you want me to go walk on them?”
The one who had called me Ruby Blue - she introduced herself as Zora, but her paperwork called her Elizabeth - continued to do so, and continued to be just as harsh as she had originally been. “You speak too quietly” “I’m lactose intolerant, if you’re going to bring me food at least pay attention” “This water is too cold, I’ll get pneumonia” and so on.
It was, I think, exactly a week from the first day I worked as Activities Manager, that I sat in the supply closet and cried. I was just finishing up a text to my mother when the door swung open and Zora stood there, cigarette in hand.
“Sorry, sweetheart, are you busy? I just need a quick cig, then-” suddenly she seemed to notice my tear streaked face.
“Oh honey.” She sat down. We stared at each other for a moment, and I was suddenly all too aware that despite being a good sixty years older than me, she was infinitely more glamorous. Even in her old age, wrinkled face and paper-thin skin, she had an air of finery about her that I couldn’t even dream of achieving. It was something innate.
“You have nothing to worry about. You’re doing a great job.”
“Everyone hates me,” I said, my eyes filling with tears again, and I was acutely aware that I sounded like a child, whining to her grandmother.
“Darling, everyone hates everything. We’re all old and miserable. It sucks to be locked in here all day, everything hurts, every joint cracks - don’t take anything we say seriously. And don’t get so offended every time we criticise you. It makes us want to do it more, to be honest.”
“I just… I feel like I can’t do anything right.”
“You never will do anything right. That’s the secret. Just accept you won’t do it right, and do it anyway.”
It felt strangely like one of those pivotal moments in movies, when the generational gap is closed with a few well-placed words of wisdom. Something deep inside shifted. And things didn’t change right away, especially not with the crankier ones, but Zora and I started getting along, really getting along, like a house on fire.
She shared a room with three other women, but her corner was invariably the best decorated, and the busiest. She’d had seven kids, and every single kid had had kids, so there was a steady stream of family bringing her snacks and gossip. And she spread that gossip like it was the gospel. Everyone in the facility knew which one of her nieces had gotten pregnant, which uncle had died, which high school friend was on her third divorce.
I did my best to move about the ward, and slowly friendships with the other residents developed, but I inevitably ran back to Zora whenever I had a free moment. As much as I liked the others, I was always a little bit on edge around them - after all, I was being paid to engage them in mentally stimulating activities and keep them entertained and busy. Every spare second that I spent in their rooms, not being productive, felt wasteful. I delivered coloring books, I held their thin, bony wrists as they paced around the flower-filled courtyards, I read them their favorite authors out loud, but I longed for the comfort of Zora’s room. Sitting on the stool beside her bed, I could just relax. I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I should engage in small talk, whether I should offer my help with something, or what they were thinking about me. I knew what Zora was thinking, because she told me.
“Stop reading me those stuffy Shakespeare stories, I had enough of that in school. The only reason I survived English literature classes was because cute Michael Bennett sat in front of me.” She asked me to read her granddaughter’s text messages out loud instead. That was the day we found out her granddaughter was a lesbian, and the shockwaves rippled through the facility for a week.
Zora was friends with everyone. She was the first to wake up in the morning, and the last to go to sleep at night. She knew everything about everyone, so if I had any questions, I’d just ask her. It was always less awkward. Like when Todd from room 5 sat sobbing on his bed, and his wife sat stony-faced on the bed next to him.
“Are they breaking up? Did his wife ask for a divorce?” I asked, unbearably curious, as the other residents shuffled around with their heads down, sensing the tension.
“Oh no honey, he’s upset because he wants his wife. He misses her.”
“But… she’s right there. Is he upset because she doesn’t visit enough?”
Zora sighed and faced me. “He doesn’t recognise her. He wants his wife, and sure enough, she visits, but he doesn’t remember faces anymore. His dementia gets worse by the day. Poor woman, she must be exhausted.”
“He has DEMENTIA?”
“Shut up. Don’t be so loud. Of course he has dementia, you’ve seen him walk around. He gets lost so easily, he loses track of time, of his clothes, everything.”
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed Todd’s dementia. It made me feel wildly guilty, and so for the next few days, when my shift ended, I forced myself to walk around the ward and say goodnight to everyone. It was torture at first - I hated awkward interactions, and they ewre clearly clueless about what I was doing as well, but after a while it became smoother, even if I continued to dread that part of the day.
Friday night, I volunteered to take on the night shift for one of the night time nurses whose kid got sick. This inevitably led to Zora going for a smoke in the supply closet and asking me to come with her.
“Honey, it’s Friday, and you don’t have a single grey hair on your head. What the hell are you doing in a nursing home?”
“I like it here. I really don’t mind spending Friday night here.”
Zora shook her head. “Go to a club. Go to a bar, or a movie, or a play. Don’t be stuck in this stuffy old building, just because we have to be.”
“I don't like bars, and the movies coming out just aren’t interesting. And I can’t dance.”
“Nobody cares about dancing at a club. That’s not why you go there.”
“Uh, Zora, I don’t want to be rude, but the whole point of a club is the dancing.”
Zora took a long drag from her cigarette. “Darling, if someone at the club likes you, they don't care how badly you’re dancing. And if they don’t like you, they really don't care about your dancing. Clubs are for darkness, energy, and passion. It’s not a dance competition.”
“Oh, I don’t know, I’d feel too uncomfortable I think.”
“Well, your friends MUST be up to something.”
I stood there, willing myself to tell her the truth. She looked up, and sort of guessed it from my face.
“You don’t have friends to go anywhere with,” she sighed, and I stood, rooted to my spot in the corner, feeling more like a pathetic grandchild than ever before. That night, Zora set up profiles for me on every dating app she could download. She and the other women in Room 8 sorted through my pictures, hmphing and filtering, until they were satisfied with the results. My screen name was Ruby Blue, of course.
It took some getting used to, but just like the ward, I started making friends. I went out to dinners. I went to the movies, even to watch stupid movies with cheesy predictable plotlines. I went on a run (once) and swore never to do it again - luckily, the woman I went on a run with had the same mindset, and we spent the next few meetups watching 90s sitcoms instead. Eventually, I even pushed myself into shiny pants, straightened my hair, and went to a club. I only lasted forty-five minutes before I walked out, shiny pants be damned; it was too loud, too hot, too crowded, and I felt awful and self conscious holding a drink in my hand, standing with my back to the wall, watching everyone else writhe. But, the next morning, Zora high-fived me for going in the first place, and Lola and Marie from room 6 made me show them the selfies I took before I went, and even Todd told me “congratulations”, although I’m fairly certain he didn’t know what he was congratulating me for.
“It takes me an extra hour to get ready, because I have to just sit there and stare at the wall and get ready for it, but I really do think I’m becoming more outgoing, I mean, just last week, I-”
There was a crash behind my back, and I spun around and screamed as I saw Zora crumpled on the ground, ghostly pale, a thin trickle of blood seeping from a cut on her elbow.
“It was a large stroke, and she will most likely never recover fully, but we are hopeful that she will regain some capabilities,” the doctors said, a swirling herd of white lab coats and clipboards and serious faces. I wasn’t allowed to visit her at the hospital, and I felt ashamed of how jealous I was of her children and grandchildren, visiting her and visiting us, filling out papers with such self-importance. You don’t spend nine hours a day with her, I wanted to scream. At the same time, I knew my life was insignificant compared to theirs. I had nine hours a day with her and they had, at maximum, one, but they also had their whole lives, and I had only had a thirteen month snippet.
When Zora came back to the facility, I nearly cried. For the first time, ever, her glamorous aura had faded, and all I saw in its place was a tired old woman. She looked thinner, sadder, more worn.
As her physical state improved, so did her mental state. She began physical therapy, and then she began behaving semi normally, although her left eyelid was still droopy. But she wasn’t interested in swiping through my tinder, and she didn’t ask how I spent my Friday nights. Sometimes, she stared so blankly at me that I feared she’d forgotten who I was. Then, she’d blink a couple times, and it would seemingly ground her back in the present.
Still, she was weaker, and the constant ebb and flow of relatives gradually slowed to a trickle. The gossipy laughter became a wheezing cough, and for her own protection, we began limiting the number of visitors who could see her, even from within the facility. The fighting spirit was there, but it needed regular naps and sometimes, oxygen tubes.
“So, how’s your boyfriend?” she asked me on Tuesday morning, perfectly well aware that I didn’t have one.
“What? I’m old, I should be allowed to have some fun,” she pouted, then gestured at my phone. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed all the texts you’re getting, young lady.”
I laughed. “Don’t worry, when you’re all better I’ll start taking you on my dates.” I watched her face change. “What?”
“Honey. I’m not getting better, not by much anyway. I doubt I’ll ever leave this facility, until I’m in a body bag.”
“Don’t say that!” I gasped, horrified at the thought. “That’s so depressing. God, Zora, you’ll be better in no time.”
“It’s the circle of life, darling.”
She died Friday evening. It was fast, and I wasn’t there. I was at a restaurant with three women my age who all had an enthusiasm for science fiction books and martinis. I got the call from one of the night nurses, who knew about our relationship. Overcome by emotion, I sat on the stoop, staring into nothingness, until the three women I was with came and surrounded me in a blanket of warmth and sympathy. I got a tattoo that night, a little circle with an arrow on my ankle. The circle of life.
I went to the funeral mostly out of a sense of duty; I didn’t want to be there. But once I stepped into the cemetery, I realized how much I needed to be there after all, to see her grave swamped by dozens of friends and family. Several generations, milling about her grave, her college roommate eating finger sandwiches next to her stony-faced grandkids. As I sat there, listening to the tearful speeches, I got a text from my film club group chat, inviting all of us to Italy for a week. I looked up at the brilliant woman, halo of silver hair, being lowered into the dirt. Yes, I texted.