I stretch, attempting to ease the ache in my back from the long, hard hours of working as a nurse's aide. There's a lull in call lights, everyone's in bed. Only two hours until the end of my shift. The sound of footsteps draws me from my thoughts and I look up to see Ruth Ann, a fellow aide, approaching me.
"Remember that new admit that was supposed to get here this morning?" I remember. They never arrived. New admits rarely arrive on time around here. It seems as though the families want just a few more hours with their loved one, as if delaying the move delays the disease and decay of aging bodies and minds.
"Yeah. I remember her. What happened?" My coworker sighs and shoves her hands on her ample hips.
"Just got a call from her son. They'll be here in like twenty minutes." Ruth Ann sets her jaw in the frustration and irritation that comes with thirty years as a simple CNA and no hope for any other career options.
"I'll get it. Do we know anything about her?" So far we don't even know the new admit's name. The admin does, and the head nurse of day shift, but not us lowly evening aides.
"Some old has been performer. Sever dementia, Alzheimer's, sundowners. Often agitated, calmed by singing." It's a miracle her eye's haven't remained permanently rolled, as often as Ruth Ann rolls her eyes.
"Thanks. The computer's working again if you want to get your charting done before shift change." She nods and then stalks off. I'm grateful for the opportunity to do something more rewarding than 'would you like fries with that?' at a young age. Barely still a minor, I'm the youngest of all the aides working here. New with lots to learn, but also new with lots of drive and passion. I frequently ask questions, but I'm always the first to jump up and do what needs done. A glance at the clock shows 9:30pm. Time for bed checks. By the time I've finished changing the last incontinent resident, a new vehicle has arrived out front. I go out to greet them and am met but a mocha skinned man in his late forties.
"Come on, Mama. You're alright. Let's head inside." He helps a pale skinned woman out of the passenger's side front seat. Her gray hair hangs down past her shoulders, framing her aging face. In the dim light her face looks familiar, like I should know her.
"Are we home?" She shuffles around, trying to take in her surroundings.
"Yes, Mama. This is your home now." He swallows hard as he takes his mother's hand and tries to guide her inside. The late fall night is chilly without a jacket and I subdue a shiver. The son notices my efforts out of the corner of his eye. "Mama, you're making the poor girl cold. I know you've got a coat on and the cold might not bother you but—"
"The cold does bother me, dammit! I wish you would all stop saying it doesn't!…" Her son gives a sad chuckle as she continues on her rant, mumbling under her breath.
"Alright, Mama. Let's go inside." She finally turns to begin shuffling towards the building. "No one's told her that for going on forty years. Well, I guess it's good she remembers." He extends his hand to me. "Walker Diggs. Thanks so much for letting us come so late. We were at a funeral for one of mom's old coworkers." The pieces fall in place and I wonder why I didn't recognize her sooner. I step on the other side of the old woman to assist her and she latches on to my arm with surprising strength. I support keep a hand on her back as our trio heads inside.
"I'm so sorry. That's awful. You're no problem coming late. We're here to help in anyway we can." My heart aches for the woman and her son, for everyone involved. Death may be expected, even welcomed in some cases, but it's always hard.
"It was a day of many emotions. She remembered him, remembered her relationship with him, even if she couldn't remember where we'd been before the funeral." I nod my head in sympathy. We pause at the slight step and but the woman takes it with relative ease. At the door, the son releases a hand from his mother and opens the door wide. I lead her inside and down the hallway to her room. A private room has been set up for her, as with most new admits.
"Where's James? Is he coming soon? Is he waiting for me?" Tears spark in my eyes. The funeral they attended earlier. Of course.
"Not right now, honey. It's late. He already went to bed." It's not really a lie, is it? A rewording of the truth for sure, but the one least distressing for her to hear.
"Oh. Okay. Maybe I'll see him tomorrow. He's supposed to come and see me. He promised he'd come and sing with me again. Just like we used to." My heart breaks for her. She speaks with the innocence of a small child, her mind and cognition deteriorating past remembering how the world works. First the short term memory goes, then moderate impairment, before significant confusion confusion sets in, quickly followed by inability to complete basic activities of daily living on their own.
"Maybe. Here you go, honey. Do you want to get in bed?" We turn into her room, last one on the right, all the way down the hall. She wanders to the window, gazing contentedly at the snow beginning to fall.
"We could catch snowflakes on our tongues. He made me do that once. Can you keep a secret?" I join her by the window. Never mind my question didn't register with her. She's more than just a number. All the residents are. The other aides are there to get paid. I'm here to take care of people who've lived. When you stop and listen to what the elderly actually have to say, you understand why in many cultures they're revered, and wonder why they aren't revered here.
"Sure. Of course I'll keep your secret." She nods slightly, eyes never leaving the falling snow.
"I loved it." Her son walks in with her belongings, stopping at the sight of us. He sets her bag down silently, standing just inside the doorway, listening, just as I am. "It was a two show day, the first snow of the year. He knocked on my dressing room door until I had no choice but to answer. I told him I was too old to be fooling around like a child in the snow, told him I had things to do, that I was busy. He didn't listen. He never did. He grabbed my hand and practically dragged me out the door into his beloved alleyway behind the theatre. We must have been out there over an hour, catching snowflakes on our tongue, attempting a snowball fight with what little had fallen in that hour. I punched his arm because he wouldn't shut up about if I wanted to build a snowman or not. But we did. It was a pitiful little snowman. Maybe five inches high? James scooped it up and ran back inside to show Jenn. She told him it looked pathetic and he dropped it down the back of her shirt as soon as she turned around. I think he might have forgotten how much she could whip his ass." She gives a small chuckle, still lost in the memory. "I laughed so much that day. December fourth. The day before I hadn't thought I'd ever laugh again. He showed me different. He always reminded me how to laugh." She pauses, blinking back tears, before she whispers. "I miss him." A chair alarm goes off a few rooms down and shuts off almost immediately. Most likely a resident thought about standing up and decided to just lay back down. But the brief shock was all it took. The woman's vacancy returns to the woman's eyes, the memory gone in the past again. I glance at the son to see him subtly trying to wipe away his tears. I offer a watery half smile, attempting to comfort him in some small way yet struggling to hold back my own tears. "Are we home? Do I sleep here? Can I take this dang bra off? Come on, chicky. Young as you are your boobs still hold themselves up. I don't get that delight anymore. I want this thing off. Where's the bathroom? Is this the bathroom?" She shuffles over to the door in the corner of her room, me and her son both at her side. She opens it and takes in the toilet and sink. She steps to enter and her son lays a hand on her shoulder.
"I'll see you tomorrow, Mama. Be good, okay?" He draws her in for a hug, easily wrapping his long, strong arms around her petite figure.
"I've been around for eighty-six years. Being good is overrated." She smiles up at him as he chuckles.
"Alright, Mama. Good night." He leaves and I help her into the bathroom, showing her how to pull the call light when she's done and I'll come back to help her. A quarter of an hour later she's ready for bed, but not ready for sleep. Question after question about where James is, when he's coming back. Calmed by singing. It all makes sense.
"Hey Idina, want to sing with me?" She continues rambling to herself, not coherent enough to really understand. I begin to sing. "There's only us, there's only this." The rambling stops. "Forget regret, or life is yours to miss." She begins to sing with me. "No other path, no other way, no day but today." We finish the entire song together, and begin again. Her agitation ceases and her voice begins to soften and slur. Halfway through the third repetition, she's asleep, a slight smile gracing her peaceful face.