It has been weeks since Alina had a restful sleep. Lately, it was the eerie nightmares that has kept her up. Nightmares plagued with fear of the unknown had become her norm; and although she wanted to believe that this too would pass, her hope was dimming. I could stay in this bed all day, she thought to herself , but she knew that would only make her feel more overwhelmed. With a long stretch and a few harsh coughs; she began to pick herself up out of her warming bed. She freed herself from the comforting weight of her fleece blanket, wisped away the almost fully white hairs until the soft curls just coiled around her ear and placed her tired toes on the cold tiled floors. She began to start her day the same way she has for the past three years of residence – brush her teeth, wash her face, wash her hands and dress herself with the clothes she laid out on the chaise chair by her nightstand.
“Ms. Chance.” A voice called behind her front door. “Ms. Chance.”
Alina slowly made her way to end of her bedroom and opened her door. Down the hallway, a petite frame in scrubs was already rolling away a cart with trays. Alina picked up the tray that was left in front of her door – metal silverware clanking as she lifted. Hearing the noise, the voice spoke with a nurturing sound that was muffled by a cloth mask.
“Oh. Good morning Ms. Chance.” said the nurse. “What a lovely shade of purple we have on today.”
“Oh thank you hunny. You know my daughter gave me this ole' thing so long ago.”
“Well, it's beautiful. By far, the best moo moo I've seen today.
“Can we eat in -
“-No” the voice called back already knowing the question, “the cafeteria is still closed. But don't worry I snuck you out half and half instead of 2% - just our little secret.”
“You're an angel. Would you like to -
“Oh I would just love to eat with you Ms. Chance but I have to wheel all these trays to the other residents as well.
“But don't you worry, soon enough, we are going to eat all together again soon.”
Begrudgingly and disappointed, Alina picked the tray off of a metal cart that barricated the door. She made her way to the back of her small one bedroom apartment. Her slippers squeaked as she went to the frame of her balcony and stepped outside. The sun greeted her like an old friend. She bathed in the light and inhaled the smell of the slightly brisk Spring air.
“A better smell than that cleaning stuff, right?” Alina turned to face the smiling Ms. Cane, the accompanying resident next door. “I'm so tired of those fumes they keep on spraying. It hurts my allergies. I told you I have allergies, right? My whole family's got' em. Hell, I mean, look at me going on and going about allergies at a time like this.” The only time she took a pause was to take a bite out of a piece of toast, red jam smeared across her jaundiced face. “
Alina took a seat and faced her body towards the smiling old lady on the adjoining balcony. She opened the container for her food tray and poked at the food before spooning small portions of muffin into her mouth.
“It's nice to be able to eat outside.” she said.
“It is. I mean, it's not the cafeteria.... I miss the cafeteria.... The Karaoke Thursdays, the Bingo Tuesdays-”
“-Serving my own coffee.-” Alina said as she took a sip from her lukewarm beverage
“-Serving anything for myself. Though... it is nice, the lovely ladies asking us how we are feeling all the time.”
“I hate that they're wearing masks.”
“Oh, I'm okay with that. It's not uncommon where I'm from. Have we talked about this before?”
“-When you immigrated-
“-As a child-”
“Yes, that's right. Oh, all these memories in my head and I don't know what's a dream or what's real. I don't know who I say what to or what to say at all. I use to be a smooth talker. Oh, I use to be beautiful, too.”
“Getting old's a drag” she said with a chuckle.
“Hey, have you heard about Mr. Thompson?”
“He passed last night.”
“No, Tobias!” Alina said mourning.
“Such a sweet man. Always kind to me. Kind of a talker but not a mean bone in his body.
“He has been sick for only a couple of days.”
“No. Weeks. Almost three. That's what Nurse George told me today when she was giving me my breakfast. I don't like that they left it, just out on the floor like that. It's so cruel.”
“Well, they don't want to get sick.”
“Posh! I just know I can't get anyone sick.”
“You know thats not how it work.”
“If you believe you will be alright, then you will be. Mr. Thompson stopped fighting.”
“He wasn't the first to pass this week.”
“No... but it's still sad.”
“It is sad. People seem to come and go here. Seems, whenever one gets too close, life snatches them away.”
“That's a terrible thought, Ms. Chance. The virus just started not too long ago.”
“I'm not even talking about the virus. I mean being here. In this place.”
“Oh but the ladies are so lovely. You know, they always ask me how I am feeling.”
“Are you still throwing up?” Alina asked changing the subject.
“Kind of, but that just means Nurse George gives me toast.” She laughed as she fed herself more.”The chills are bad. Have you gotten chills yet?”
“Yeah, but it's not as bad as the pain in my body. I feel like I'm caving into myself. My organs just crushing within me.”
“Oh.” Ms. Cane paused. “I get lonely with all these new distant rules. If I could just get my gosh darn phone to work I can call my kids. It's broken you know-”
“-You told me-”
“that's why they haven't called-”
“Yes, that's why they haven't called.” She sighed. 'That's why my kids haven't called either,' Alina thought to herself.
Last week her daughter turned fourty, but Alina was unable to see her. Her grand children must be teenagers now. She wanted to blame this dreary isolation on the quarantine but she couldn't. She was quarantined for a long time prior. It felt as though aging was a symptom of weakness – a virus in itself that others wanted so desperately to rid of, that they locked away all those with wrinkled skin and thinning hair to assisted living. It was normal to feel lonely, normal to seek comfort from the staff. Waiting for a child that never called was like waiting for Godot.
“What did she say when you told her you're sick. Your daughter. What did she say.”
“Oh, uhm. I didn't tell her.”
“Why bother her”
“Oh no. That is not right. She needs to know.”
“Why bother her. You know, it's been a hard year for her and my son in law, with the counseling they have been going to. I didn't want to add on to that stress.”
“You think, they wouldn't be stressed out by not knowing. And besides, it can give them something to talk about in therapy. From what you tell me, they need all the conversation starters life can throw at them.”
“What about your kids?”
“Oh, you know they are so worried. They have been trying to call.”
“Well, yes, but-”
“-they are so worried, of course they have been trying to call. I believe that they will call.”
She didn't want to argue. It's better to let her believe that she is missed. Alina closed her eyes and sunk her back into the frame of her chair; soaking the rays of morning light. Would it be the same if she was in her own home. Would she still have gotten sick? Would she still feel so alone? It has only been a few days since she had been told that she had contracted some new sickness. “In all these years, I have not heard of this” She was told of the signs and symptoms that she would experience. But somehow, it was still alarming when the sickness began to run its course.”
“Ms. Cane. What do you think happens when we die?”
“Are you religious? I forgot.”
“My family was.”
“But do you believe.”
“I want to, but-”
“-No. No. If you want to believe than believe-”
“-it's not that-”
“-Easy. No. But it's hope. What else do we have right now than hope? Every bad time gives us the opportunity to want to get through it. I say, if you have something worth fighting for then you try your hardest to stick around.” Ms. Cane point to her own empty plate and glared back at Alina. “You better finish those supplements on your plate too.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Are you scared?”
No, she wasn't scared of dying. She has lived through seven decades. In that time, she learned a lot about herself and about life. Vividly, she started to have flashback of her life. It was not that she was scared to die, but rather scared of giving up hope before she does. Alina reveled in her persistence, a virtue she had to contentiously built through out her life. She reflected on past times – Watching long haired Americans protesting the war with bell bottoms and peace signed flags. Years later, she remembered evenings spent jumping on her bed with teased hair while her older sister blasted music that made their parents blood curl. She remembered growing older and owning a plethora of pastel colored tube tops that would not be able to pass as a scarf around her now rubenesque frame. She recalled the euphoric sight of seeing bright blue eyes glaring at her when she held her daughter for the first time. She remembered the smell of wet dirt when she threw a rose on each of her parents graves. She remembered the first time she heard that her uncle's office was hit by a plane and that it fell down into a pile of ashes and rubble. The relief she had when he called her later to tell her that he had missed his morning train. Memories looped into more memories like a sideshow. Sometimes, she felt like a spectator in that sideshow, other times she felt like a freak on display.
“We will be alright, Chance.”
Alina bit her up lip and nodded slowly. “Yeah.”
“No, we will be alright. If we just-” A phone rang in the distance. “Oh, Alina, my phone is ringing. Maybe its my babies .I got to-”
“Yes. Go. Go.” she said but Ms. Cane was already gone. 'I never saw her run that fast before. I guess her children really did want to call.
There's a melancholy in being locked in a place that still doesn't quite feel like home. Where the only hope one gets to have is the belief that if we can will it away, it will go away. She wanted to believe that hearing her daughters voice would make it go away. Maybe, Ms. Cane is right, that we should tell our loved one's that we are sick, maybe it's a worse if they know. She doesn't know what challenges await, but Alina wanted to see it through. She took her supplements, in between coughing fits and chasers of now cold coffee. She'll listen to Ms. Cane talk about her children. She will eat the same food in rotation. Have the same abrupt conversations with nurses. But maybe Ms. Cane was right about faith, maybe, all we have in the end is the belief that it will all be alright and the will to see it out.