She sleeps a mere ten feet away from me, in a rehabilitation center set atop a little bluff in a busy college town. The walls of our room are painted a celery green. They’re not unpleasant looking, but they don’t wow me much either. The color of the walls are muted, but the drapes are another story. Though washed in earth tones, the design ‘pops’. Little circles of brown connect large dots of sage and spinach. I can’t say I’d have them hanging in my house but I’m sure the designer was going for neutrality and comfort when they designed the place.
I lie in bed, my foot propped up on a cushion. I’ll be this way for at least twelve weeks, then with a little luck and a lot of prayers, I’ll go back to a semi-normal life, though I may never run or dance again. That’s a story for another day though. Today it’s about her, my roommate. An elderly woman, hard of hearing and dealing with dementia.
While I recover, I keep reverting to the short story by Stephen King, The Woman in the Room. It’s an agonizing story about a mother with terminal cancer and the son that takes care of her. The decisions that she and her son come to throughout will make you question your morals and ethics. I surmise that it’s because I’m the youngest person here, single and due to a serious injury unable to care of myself completely yet.
Thick white hair adorns her head and covers her shoulders. She has a smile that must have charmed a few men when she was in her prime. Her hands are gnarled, yet dainty.
“Hi there,” I called out brightly from my adjustable bed, our first morning together.
“Hey,” she yelled. “I’m E, and I broke my back.”
“Oh my Dear, I broke my ankle and had it reconstructed,” I announced.
This little woman yelled back, loud enough to drone out the throbbing sound of a diesel truck, “I’m hard of hearing and I can’t hear a word you say!”
With effort and my walker I hopped over to her and repeated what I said. She smiled and shook her head, but I know she still didn’t comprehend one word. Right before me she transformed into my Grandmas N, H, G and B. Four fine women that were more than wives, mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers. They were women once. The kind that charmed. The kind that felt fear. The kind that felt everything we women have felt throughout our lives. Sexy, desirable, exhausted, even dead inside.
My Grandmas all battled growing older, while I battled my emotions watching them deteriorate and eventually surrender. They died at different stages in my life. A young adolescent girl, a teenager, a young wife and mother, and a wife and mother of teenage children. Each of their deaths effected me differently. At my youngest, it was barely a blip on my radar, at my oldest, gut wrenching.
Miss Cotton Hair had to be assisted with all aspects of self-care. Teeth brushing, toileting, washing, and dressing. Those are things we take for granted, and here I am doing them on one leg. The staff here are sweet but not too sugary. They do their job with tender loving care. We shared breakfast on that first day. I tried to chat, but she could not hear for shit. We communicated with smiles, and she ate everything on her plate.
Throughout the day she carried on conversations with herself. Sometimes with her children who weren’t there. She moaned and cried out because of her injury. She did physical therapy like a trooper, yet after she had her clothes changed she was convinced her son was coming to pick her up. To take her home. He wasn’t. He did come and visit that evening. His conversation skimmed the surface. He didn’t ask much about her care. Or how she felt. It unnerved me. That woman bore him, the least he could do is ask her how she was being treated.
Don’t get me wrong, not all humans should be parents. There are some kids that have had enough, dealing with the neuroses and self-destruction of their parents. They must preserve their own hearts and sanity. They must put up barriers to protect themselves. I don’t believe that’s the case with sweet and confused Miss Cotton Hair. I’m guessing that the son only sees her in one role, that of mother.
He read her the paper. Talked about his life. The kids and wife. She’d respond, but he didn’t acknowledge the weight of her replies. Didn’t ask her about any of her life stories that will die when she does. Stories of how she danced all night and drank champagne with a young soldier on New Years Eve. The first time she fell in love. What her 13th summer was like. How it felt to kiss her husband at their wedding. What it was like the first time she had sex. What her biggest fear is.
Inside the shell of the old woman beats the heart of a girl. One that used to giggle and flirt. Or sipped soda from a straw in a small town soda fountain. That collected lightning bugs in jars and danced in the grass on a sultry summer night amid sheets still damp from the humidity.
Remember, we will all be there one day. We’ll be old. If we get lucky that is. Stay strong and healthy but have fun. Share your stories with your kids whether they want to hear them or not. Listen to your parent’s stories too. LISTEN! Even if they’ve never left their home town, they have lived. We need to know more. We need to know that they are a man or woman. That they are a dignified, passionate, strong and weak human.