I visit Mom on a Sunday night after supper. She’s not in her room, and for a moment I panic. I walk to the TV area and ask the CNA on duty for my mom in room number four. I’m not sure she knows Mom’s name yet. This CNA has many tattoos sticking out of her socks and plastic Crocs. “Getting cleaned up,” she says. “She’ll be out in a minute.” I notice the door to one of the communal bathrooms is closed.
I wait in Mom’s room. She’s got a television, three chairs from home, the start of a family photo collection on her wall, and a CD player always tuned to her “radio”—all Glenn Miller all the time. There’s a telephone jack on one wall, but she has no need for a phone. I listen to “Sentimental Journey” while I wait.
Another CNA wheels in my mom. I fixate on the three star-shaped tattoos behind her ear and down her neck. It would be much easier to learn the staff members’ names if they all wore nametags. After just a few days, I still call them by their descriptions, the way I would if they’d gone missing. Star Tattoo, Blue Crocs, Eyebrow Ring, Crooked Teeth. In time, I’ll learn all of their names, but this week I’m just too freaked out to think about anything but my mom and dad.
“How is she today?” I ask Star Tattoo.
“Really good,” she says. “She even stood up on her own.” I realize she means off the toilet. This stranger is doing intimate tasks for my mom, and she’s making just above minimum wage. I ask her name, and I focus on remembering: Katie = Star Tattoo.
I put lotion on Mom’s face and hands and arms and legs. We look at each other a long while. She doesn’t know me, but she knows this feels good and I’m the one doing it to her. “You love this song,” I say. She nods.
Finally I say, “Want to go for a ride?” She nods again.
I push her out to the hallway and walk slowly. I read the names on each door: Sandy, Inez, Delores, Bernie, Eleanor, Mary. I linger in front of each resident’s door and sometimes peer in. I can deduce much from each room: who has loved ones to bring fresh flowers or to make the room look homey. I can’t tell who can still communicate, so I stop in a few doorways and say, “Hello there.” If I don’t get a response, I keep moving.
By the looks of Stephanie’s tidy room with its double bed and neatly arranged family photos, someone loves her very much.
“Are you Stephanie?” I ask her. I know she is. It says as much on her door.
“Ya,” she says. “How are you?” She’s got an accent, maybe German.
“Can we come in?” I ask.
I wheel my mom in and stand behind her, leaning a little forward on the wheelchair handles.
“This is my mom, Virgie,” I say to her. “It’s her first week here.”
“It’s hard at first,” she says. I tear up. Finally someone to talk to.
Her silver lace-up sneakers have surely never seen pavement. I’d guess her white hair was recently washed and set in perfect curls.
“Your room looks great,” I say.
“I couldn’t bring everything, so Joanne kept some of my stuff. She lives in my dad’s old house.”
“Who is Joanne?” I ask.
“My sister. Here’s a picture of her.” She hands me a black and white photo of two girls, maybe 13 or 14 years old, standing in front of a farmhouse in the 1920’s.
“Is this you next to her? Beautiful. You could be twins.”
Stephanie beams. I say, “You’re still beautiful.” I remember my mom’s emotional buttons: tell her she’s pretty or skinny, and she’s putty in your hands.
Stephanie touches her hair. “Oh,” she says, “not so much.” She’s smiling.
I say, “It’s nice that you have a refrigerator.” I point at her dorm-sized fridge.
“No,” she says, “that’s a warmer. You put food in it when you want to keep it. Leftovers and things.”
“Good idea,” I say, playing along.
“They won’t let me cook here. No room for a stove.” I recognize this as Alzheimer’s logic.
“Can I ask how old you are?”
“94,” she says quickly.
“No,” I say dramatically.
Stephanie has all of her own teeth—saying something given her age—although they are held in place with silver bridges. Red Jello for supper has turned her teeth pink. In her black yoga pants with a fitted sweater over her blouse, she’s so cute it’s all I can do not to touch her.
She tells me about Joanne, whose job takes her all over the state delivering medicine for a doctor. She is on her way here to visit right now, and Stephanie’s brother, Jack, is coming from Chicago today. She hopes he hurries.
In the midst of our conversation, it occurs to me that no one’s coming to visit Stephanie tonight unless they time travel.
“I’m taking my mom for a walk,” I say. “Want to come with us?”
“Joanne says I have to use my walker. I broke my ankle and now I have to use my walker.”
“Let’s get it and you can walk with us.”
Stephanie says, “I should wait for Joanne.”
I back my mom’s wheelchair out of the room. “Nice talking to you,” I say.
“Thank you so much for coming. What’s your name again?”
I tell her.
She stands up and reaches for her walker. She stays there watching us.
I wheel my mom over to the large fish tank in the lobby. I talk about the gold fish and point out their puffy cheeks.
Stephanie yells to me, “Old people can spend hours looking at those fish.”
“When will you come back and see me?”
“Not tomorrow but the next day,” I say.
I turn my back to her, so she can’t see me crying. Mom and I stare at the fish, and Stephanie stares at us. I can feel her eyes on me.
I say, “We’re going to walk around the halls. Come with us. Joanne can find you when she gets here.” Brilliant, I think: distract her.
“Okay,” she says. I hear the scrape and shuffle of her sneakered feet and her walker. She follows Mom and me. I feel like the Pied Piper of grannies. We walk down the entire hallway; we pass eight doors without looking inside any of them. We’re about to turn around for another loop when I hear voices behind us.
“There she is,” a woman says. She’s in her mid-sixties, a little taller than Stephanie. Standing next to her is Eunice, a woman I recognize as the sister of my dad’s old neighbor. It’s a small town, after all.
I say to Stephanie, “Your visitors are here.” No one is more surprised than I am.
I turn around and follow Stephanie back to her room.
Eunice takes Mom’s hand and shakes it and shakes it. Mom stares off into space. Eunice and her husband used to play cards with my mom and dad—along with a whole crew of Southside folks who were connected by church or the neighborhood taverns. She peers into my mom’s face and says, “How’s Virgie today?”
She looks at me. “You’re the baby, aren’t you?” I’m forty-three but still the baby to some of my parent’s friends and relatives who remember when I was this little girl tag along. If my mom was healthy, she likely would have introduced me to Eunice as the baby.
“Yep,” I say, “Patti.” Eunice keeps Mom’s hand in hers and reaches for mine with her other one. She stands there, holding on to both of us.
Stephanie sits down and looks lovingly at the younger woman.
“Are you Joanne?” I say to her. She nods.
“Stephanie and I had a good talk. She said you were coming. But you’re not her sister, are you?”
“Daughter,” Joanne says. “She gets confused.”
“My mom did, too,” I say. “She can’t really talk anymore.”
Stephanie says, “When’s the rest of the company gonna show up?”
“No one but us, Ma,” Joanne says.
Stephanie’s face falls in disappointment. She won’t see her brother tonight, if Jack is her brother. If Jack is still alive.