(With Jeff Sanderson)
“What time is it?” my wife asks.
“Breakfast time,” I tell her and take her arm. “Shall we go into the dining room?”
But still Bernice resists and I look over at Edna’s side of the room. The curtain around the bed is drawn. The doctor is in there along with a nurse, Edna’s daughter, Janice and her ex, Marty. Their two kids are slouched in the chairs in the corner, staring at the floor, saying nothing while a man I don’t recognize paces in the hall. Janice’s boyfriend perhaps, and good for her. People aren’t meant to be alone.
“If you have any more questions,” the doctor is saying. “Come to my office. And again, I’m very sorry for your loss.”
Edna passed away last night. I don’t know the cause. She always looked healthy enough to me, sitting by the front door, shouting every time the doctor went by. It’s odd to think of that spot being empty now.
“I’m so sorry about your mom,” the nurse is saying. “Please let me know if you need assistance in gathering up her things.”
The doctor steps out from behind the curtain and I look away, acutely aware that I shouldn’t be witness to any of this.
“Morning, Jeff,” he says as he walks to the door.
“Isn’t it a lovely day,” Bernice sings, her smile bright and vacant. “Your room is all ready.”
Edna’s grandchildren look over. “I’m sorry,” I say and try to coax my wife to follow the doctor. But the Bingo Lady, Joyce, has arrived, distracting Bernice once again.
“Come in, come in,” she says. “Do you have a reservation, dear?”
“I do,” the Bingo Lady says. “And don’t you look lovely this morning. “ She smiles at me. “Bingo at ten in the common room.”
“She’ll be there,” I say, watching her step aside so the doctor can pass.
“Who died and made you king,” someone hollers.
The doctor jerks around, then heads off in the opposite direction, moving quickly but followed by that voice all the same. “I know who you are.”
The words might have belonged to Edna but that voice is strictly Grace, the woman in the next room. A friend of Edna’s from way back, as I understand it.
She walks briskly past the door, chasing the doctor. “I know what you’re doing,” she yells.
Does Grace understand that Edna is gone? Is this some sort of tribute?
I know only too well that lucid moments can be magical, giving those of us on the outside a glimpse of the person we knew, the one we loved. I hope that’s what this is for Grace, a moment of clarity for a dear friend. But even if it’s simple mimicry it makes me smile. And wonder if the good doctor really is up to something.
“Such terrible news,” the bingo lady is saying. She’s behind the curtain now too. “Your mother was a joy to know. A real gem at the bingo table.”
“I didn’t realize she played,” Janice says, her voice cracking.
“You mustn’t be hard on yourself,” Bingo Lady says, her tone soothing, just this side of patronizing. I’ve never cared for her myself, but I respect the work she does, coming in five days a week to hold bingo games that no one here can really play. She’s a retired therapist of some sort and brings along her own specially designed bingo cards and enough dabbers for all. The program has grown so popular she doesn’t finish until nearly noon now.
Bernice seems to enjoy the games, so I try that to get her going. “You need to have breakfast so that you can play bingo later,” I say, and she starts walking.
Who knows if the promise of bingo did the trick, or if she simply lost interest in whatever is going on behind the curtain. Either way, I don’t care. I just need to get to the dining room before 8:00.
I take my wife’s arm and we stroll along the hall. “Morning Jeff, morning Bernice,” a passing nurse says.
Bernice calls out, “your room is ready,” and I smile and we keep going.
After two years, I’m a familiar figure here at Willow Tree. Arriving every morning at 7:30, making sure Bernice eats breakfast, goes to the activities and doesn’t give the nurse a hard time on bath day. I stay until after lunch when she takes a nap and then head off to take care of my own health. After all this time, I know how important that is for both of us.
I hear the clink of silver, smell the aromas of bacon, toast and eggs before we reach the dining room. Some residents arrive in wheelchairs, others on walkers, but the majority, like Bernice get there under their own steam. Willow Tree encourages exercise and the staff does their best to keep everyone physically strong as long as possible, which I appreciate. The mental deterioration is hard enough to accept.
Turning into the dining room, I see our usual table for six in the corner. Greta is already there, getting help from a nurse, as well as Robert who still copes fairly well on his own and Anna who is feeding her husband Rick. Anna and the nurse wish us a good morning as Bernice and I approach. My wife’s apple juice is waiting and a plate of eggs and toast arrives before we’re settled.
Anna passes me a napkin. “I think you’ll need this,” she says.
I nod and unwrap it slowly. A silver door key winks at me.
“For later,” she says, and I can’t help but smile.
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