Even standing up straight, Pearl can’t be more than four and a half feet tall. She walks hunched over her walker. Tied to its front bar is an Easter gift bag covered in bright yellow bunnies, no matter it’s mid-summer now. I can’t see what’s inside and after a few days I’m so curious I can’t stand it. Her copper-colored wig is always a little askew but surely won’t fall off given her large ears and her huge glasses. Her hair reminds me of Andy Warhol, but her face makes me believe she could be a distant relative to Snow White’s Dopey. She flashes me a big grin each time I wave at her.
Today I say, “I love your bunny basket. What’s in there?”
“Kleenex,” she says.
“Oh, so you always have one handy?”
“No,” she says. I watch her during the meal. After nearly every bite she takes a new Kleenex and wipes her face then discards the used one into her basket. When it’s dessert time she gets two cookies and wraps both carefully in Kleenex.
So far there are two mysteries at Golden Age: What exactly under Pearl’s wig and who is behind door number seven. The name on the door says “Marjorie,” but I’ve only gotten a glimpse of a slight woman in a nightgown.
I didn’t see Eugene for the first week of my visits, but I heard him screaming for help over and over from behind his closed door. He’s finally at lunch one day and I see him, a person as close to death as I’ve ever experienced firsthand: bone thin, bald head covered in scabs and age spots, his paper-thin skin blotchy and bruised where anyone has touched him. Today Carmel, the CNA I’ve gotten to know the most, feeds him small spoons full of potato salad. “One more,” she coaxes, while I silently feed my mom.
Eugene grunts and mumbles.
“No, you can’t go to your room now,” Carmel says.
He mumbles some more.
“Yah, you’re done eating, but I’m not. Sit here and wait for me.”
More sort-of words from Eugene, like German spit up, juicy and harsh.
Carmel says, “Dessert is in a few minutes.”
“You’re amazing,” I say to Carmel. “You speak ‘Eugene.’ How can you understand him?”
“We’ve been together a long time,” she says. She tells me that Eugene’s wife was a resident here until she experienced congestive heart failure a few weeks ago. Now she’s at a nursing home across town. On her day off, Carmel took Eugene to visit his wife. “They couldn’t talk, but they held hands for a long time.”
I tear up. I put another spoonful of potato salad to my mom’s mouth.
My dad gets into a car accident a week after my mom goes to live at Golden Age. A carload of teenage girls rear-ends him as he merged onto a busy street.
“I think they were twixing,” he tells me.
“Texting?” I say.
His car is totaled, he is beyond shook up, but fortunately he has just a few bumps and bruises. When I see him an hour after the accident, he says, “What if I lose my license?” I remind him that his last accident was in 1950-something, and he can’t lose his license just for being 85. He tells me that he’s still dealing with his insurance company from when a girl hit him in the grocery store parking lot. That complicates matters. His agent will merely see that a guy pushing 90 years old was in two accidents in one month. The final score—teen drivers: 2; Joe See: 0.
A day later he goes to visit my mom, and Carmel asks about his car and calls him Crash See.
When I see him, he says to me, “How does she know about my accident?”
“Everyone asked where you were. I had to tell them.”
“No problem,” he says. “I call her Camel now.” Maybe his whole life he’s had a knack for reducing everyone to a nickname.
“Oh no,” I say. “You didn’t.” I instantly imagine the teasing she may have taken on the grade school playground for a unique name like Carmel.
“She started it,” he says. “She called me Crash.”