I lay dying in bed in the nursing home. I hate this place. I don’t want to be here. I won’t stay long. Everyone knows this. I made my wishes known my whole life. I’m here because I fell at home when getting up during the night to pee. I missed the toilet and went over backward into the tub.
My husband tried to lift me out, but he’s old, too, (three years more than my eighty), so he called the emergency squad, and even though I said no, they brought me to the hospital and then moved me here for therapy to get me back on my feet. But that isn’t going to happen.
I don’t open my eyes in the two days I’m here. I’m too tired to bother. I refuse to eat or drink. The staff despairs of my uncooperativeness. They tell my family that if I don’t eat or drink, they will put me on IV fluids. My veins no longer have room for needles. My flesh is marked with bruises.
My husband sits next to me all day watching “The Andy Griffith” show. I hear the TV. I know the episodes by heart from listening to him watch them in the other room at our house.
I am silent. Words no longer leave my mouth. Me, the great talker, never at a loss for words. Never afraid to voice an opinion. Always ready with a comment. Not shy about saying what I want.
I hear muffled sounds. Voices that I know well. Other voices I don’t know. Those voices irritate me, and so I focus on them.
“She’s not trying. She should be up and walking around by now, but we can’t even get her to eat.” The voice of a stranger.
Shut up, I scream in my head. It sounds so loud to me, but the people in the room don’t react.
“You go home,” says the girl I gave birth to. “It’s still light out. Go home, rest, eat. You can come back tomorrow. I’ll stay.”
My husband, her father, kisses my crepe paper cheek. He sits with me all day until she gets here. She’s here, now, so he feels it’s safe to go. He lets her help him with his coat. I don’t see this. My eyes won’t open. My lids feel like anvils or the heavy lead drapes you wear when getting an x-ray at the dentist. But I know because she instructs him what to do. He needs the structure; he’s so lost. We’ve been together for sixty years, so long he no longer knows what to do without me.
“I’ll be back in the morning,” he says.
I feel them both looking at me, expecting me to respond.
“Yes, back in the morning,” she says for me. She interprets my internal dialogue the way she used to explain what I meant when I got angry and said hurtful things in my desire to hide my fears. She always knew how afraid I was, and I hated her for it. And she knew this, too.
The noises from the nurses and night visitors stop. The draft dies. The light dims. She closes the door to the room. We are alone.
I smell coffee—my mouth waters. I love coffee. I’m not thirsty, but I want the taste of the coffee. A motor whirs. The back of my bed rises, and I sit up. She arranges the blankets around me. She tucks a cloth under my chin. She knows I hate a mess, and even though no one will see me but her, she makes sure there will be no stained linen to change.
“It’s coffee time,” she says and laughs. “You always drink coffee in the evening, and it never keeps you awake.”
A straw slips between my lips.
“Doesn’t it smell good?”
I feel a slight breeze, and roasted coffee, sugar, and cream waft into my nose. I salivate. I suck on the straw and draw the bittersweet smoothness into my mouth. The flavor washes over me, and I am thirsty and ravenous. I keep at it until I exhaust my need for my favorite drink.
“Good job,” she says as I sink into my pillows. “We won’t let them stick you anymore. You’ll show them.”
I sigh. A cup presses against my lips. A dribble of water enters my mouth before I compress my lips and turn away.
“I don’t blame you,” she says. “That’s nasty stuff.”
Cold, wet paints my mouth. Ice cubes. I lick at them, my tongue darts out, and she holds one still as I suckle at it. I no longer feel parched as laundry on the line. I taught her how to hang clothes, but she never had time for it. Books occupy her attention. I told her once that only lazy people read. My aunt read instead of doing dishes. My daughter understands that obsession. Dirty dishes in the sink when visitors show up didn’t embarrass them.
I said so many hurtful things to my girl over the years. Words meant to teach her, but instead only inflicted wounds, and now I can’t say what I really meant to say.
Cold, creamy, sweet vanilla. Ice cream. A spoon tip nudges my mouth open, and I slurp it. I make mewling sounds, like a baby suckling at her mother’s teat. I didn’t breastfeed her. It was too messy and vulnerable, exposed.
She wipes my face with a damp cloth. Her caress is gentle and soothing. Her fingers smooth back my hair. The motor whirs, my head lowers, pillows fluff, and adjust. She covers my arms. My feet warm. I think about the patchwork quilt she made me one year for Christmas with the red cardinal on the top. I can’t remember telling her I loved it. She gave me diamond earrings once, and I never wore them. I wore that blanket every night while sitting in my lounge chair, watching “Jeopardy.”
“I’ve covered you with your quilt,” she says. “The bright colors look so much better than the starched white of the hospital bedding.”
A chair scratches on the floor. She uncovers my right hand. She cradles it in both of hers, her fingers wrapping around my fingers, stroking my thumb. It feels like a hug like my soul is a baby bird nestled in her palm.
Where did this girl, who I never hugged, learn how to do this? She used to reach out, and I gave her the dead-fish-face. She gives me what I never gave her - the comfort of a mother to a helpless babe. I made her hide it so well that it now shocks me that she still finds it within her to try one last time to let me know she needed me; she wanted me. And I am still unable to give her what she needs. I remember all of the times that I didn’t hold her hands. I marvel that she finds it within herself to give to me, and I know she never gave up on us.
“You’re a good daughter.” I force the words out loud before it’s too late.