Betty turned 95 yesterday.
She gazes out at the grey March morning and tries not to think about how old that sounds.
She tries not to hope for 96.
Her window on the third floor of the Glenview Manor overlooks a barren snow-strewn field, lined by tired fence posts and spotted with scrubby shrubs.
It’s not an exciting view, but it’s a view, and she’s grateful for it—there are many residents across the country that aren’t as fortunate.
A few weeks after moving in, she asked Ameena, one of her favorite nurses, to move her chair to the window. She sits with her back to the bland room every day, sipping fruity tea and watching rabbits and deer wander under sunrises and sunsets, blue skies and starry nights, drizzling rain and drifting fog.
Her room has ample space, but although she tried to warm it up with photos and doilies and colorful quilts, it’s still too hospital-like for her taste.
There are rails on her bed.
There’s a tray table on wheels.
The floors squeak against the nurses’ white shoes.
They threw her a party yesterday afternoon, dressing the beige walls in dull balloons and wilting crepe streamers. She sat in her walker, fiddling with the brakes while her younger grandkids chased each other, her sons discussed the latest football game, and her daughters-in-law helped Ameena and Marcy with paper plates and plastic forks.
It was about as exciting as she expected her wake would be, only she had the privilege of attending the party that had cake instead of limp sandwiches.
She asked for a beer and everyone said no, apologetic but firm that beer should not be mixed with her outrageous medley of medications.
“What about a glass of wine then?” she asked cheekily but also a tad desperately. “Red wine is good for the heart, isn’t it?”
“Oh Betty,” the nurses had laughed, “You’re too much.”
It still irks her a little, but she knows the girls were only doing their job. She does wish she had known her last beer would be her last, though.
She’s about ready for another pot of tea when Marcy bustles in, strands of her wild red hair escaping the claw clipped above her neck.
“Good morning Betty!” She says with eternal perkiness and a white smile that Betty only resents because she misses her own teeth. “How are we today?”
“Fit as a fiddle,” Betty replies.
“Oh good,” Marcy beams, “So you’ll be joining us later then? For today’s exercises?”
Betty shrugs. She’s not a big fan of group activities with the other geezers, trying to stretch and twist within the confines of wheelchairs and crumbling bodies. It makes her feel, well, old.
She changes the subject. “You have a husband yet?”
Marcy’s laugh is bright and bold. “I sure don’t!”
“Well, why-ever not?”
“I don’t know if husbands are for me. They just seem like too much trouble.”
“One of my grandsons is about your age.” Betty points at a college graduate on the wall. “He’s very handsome, you know.”
“He is at that, Betty. You should be very proud.”
“I’ll introduce you next time he visits.”
Marcy laughs again and winks as she pours Betty a new cup of tea. “I’m sure he’s lovely.”
That afternoon the country’s first case of COVID-19 is detected, and Betty knows she’ll have to wait a long time to play matchmaker. Here we go again, she thinks, recalling the polio quarantine of her youth.
The next week, as predicted, her children call to report that they’re working from home and the schools are closed. She’s also disappointed but unsurprised when Ameena announces visitors are no longer allowed, the dining room is closed, and she can’t leave her room.
In the spring, the nurses’ pearly smiles are lost behind masks and shields. Marcy leads exercises in the hall, with each resident participating from their doorways. Betty longs to sneak out and do laps with her walker when no one is looking. She tries once but is caught and scolded before her door swings shut.
In the summer, when things ease up a bit, her family makes appointments to see her. One at a time, they sit across the room, masked and gowned and smelling of sickly sanitizer. They talk about moving her out of Glenview and in with one of them, but she effectively dismisses their heartfelt but hesitant plans. She yearns only to reach out and clasp their hands, not to add an extra daily burden on their shoulders.
In the fall, Thanksgiving is spoiled even further when the virus worms its way onto Glenview’s second floor and the long-dreaded ‘outbreak’ is declared.
Thirty-three residents are infected. Fourteen die.
Betty washes a dry turkey dinner down with apple juice and grumbles that someone ought to smuggle her a real drink.
Family visitors are once again barred from the building. Her boys come every now and then to sit outside her window. They’re good kids, but busy, and she doesn’t hold them to account for the long weeks that often stretch between their visits.
As the holidays approach, she sits in her shrinking room, trapped and lonely as the walls press in.
She hates puzzles. She despises Solitaire. She refuses to use the computer tablet even when Ameena sets it up. Sometimes, she snaps at the girls and feels bad about it for days after.
There’s some talk about vaccines, but they don’t come in time and Christmas is cancelled. Betty admires the nurses’ valiant effort to pretend otherwise in spite of their exhaustion, bringing her a tiny tree donned with silver bells and organizing almost festive hallway caroling.
Christmas Eve is quiet save for the soft music Ameena sets to play on her television before heading home. Betty fields a few phone calls and then settles in to watch falling flakes pirouette in the night, blurred behind welling tears of age and frustration.
It’s the first Christmas she spends alone in nearly a century.
In the New Year, she receives two doses of the vaccine. They still don’t let her out; they still don’t let anyone in.
Finally, she turns 96.
Her family gathers outside her window, lighting up the blank canvas of the mucky snow-melt with a crowd of color and smiles that she can see even beneath their masks. They wave sparkly signs that read Happy Birthday Grandma! We Love You!
Ameena knocks on the door. Betty can already smell the Lysol-lathered gifts she’s there to deliver. She waves Ameena in and presses her knotted hands to the glass.
Ameena sets up the speakerphone so Betty can hear her children and grandchildren sing and laugh and drop their well-wishes.
The encroaching walls retreat just a smidge.
“Ameena,” Betty points down, “That one there – don’t you think he and Marcy would make a fine couple?”
Ameena chuckles with flushed cheeks. “Sure they would, but I think Marcy might already be taken.”
“What, by who?!” Betty demands, and then pivots. “Well, then what about you?”
“Don’t worry about me or Marcy,” Ameena grins. “Enjoy your family.”
Betty turns her attention back to the ground, waving and blowing kisses. Soon they’ll all be vaccinated. Soon they’ll stop worrying about masks and gowns and shields. Soon they’ll be able to hug and kiss and play cards and drink tea and eat dinner together.
This year, Betty desperately hopes for 97.