The residents are here because it’s the end of the line for them. Still, I’m surprised when Stephanie is taken to the hospital by ambulance in mid-October and dies a few days later.
“Better to die than linger,” I say to a CNA at lunch this Saturday. I know from Stephanie’s obituary that her funeral is Monday.
“Will you go?” I ask this morning’s CNA. She can’t get off work, she tells me.
The staff here may be used to the dying, and a funeral certainly doesn’t warrant lost pay for these women. Still, Stephanie is the first resident to die since my mom came to Golden Age over three months ago. My first.
Today I feed my mom and glance at Stephanie’s empty place at the diningroom table. She was the only resident who drank chocolate milk, which the staff made with Hershey’s syrup and she stirred and stirred for many minutes before the meal started. Once she told me about a recipe for stuffed cabbage, what she called “a Bohemian treat.” She said to me, “Start with a cabbage about this big,” and she raised her hands in front of her face to make a gesture in the size of a basketball. “Then add meat and other stuff.” I went home and researched “Bohemia” and discovered her hint of accent is Czech.
Stephanie was hard of hearing, but each Saturday and Sunday at lunchtime she gave me a big smile and wave when I sat down to feed my mom. I was rarely there in the evening, but I heard from my dad that her daughter visited every night.
One Saturday afternoon I watched as Stephanie stood up from the dining table to help Pearl push her chair in. Stephanie lost her balance and toppled over backwards. Once the CNA’s comforted her and helped her stand up and bandaged her bleeding hand, she sat back down at the table, looked around and said to all of the women there—Pearl, Sandy, Mary and Eleanor, the youngest maybe in her seventies—“Don’t get old.”
I burst out laughing. She was just fine.
One Saturday in late September, I take my mom out to sit in the sun. As Wisconsinites, we know Indian Summer may be our last good dose of warm-enough-shirt-sleeve-sun until at least March. After I push Mom outside, soon Mary comes through the exit door with her walker. Then Sandy. Then Stephanie and Delores and Eleanor–all six old women lined up in lawn chairs in front of the building, with Harvey smoking in his wheelchair a few feet away.
I have my Mp3 player along to record my mom today, and once all of the women are in position, I turn on my recorder.
Many months later, I will listen to this recording and realize it was exactly five weeks before Stephanie dies. But today—inexperienced about death but not dying—I simply ask a question to get us started: Isn’t it beautiful out here? And everyone but my mom has something to say, though most responses have little to do with my question.
Eleanor says, “Do you think this shirt is okay to wear to my daughter-in-law’s house today?”
“It’s perfect,” I say. I know she is still sharp enough that when she says someone’s coming to get her in an hour, it’s most likely true.
Delores says, “Is somebody comin’ to get me?”
“All of your friends are right here,” I tell her. A new trick.
She looks down the line of women and nods. She will not ask me again today.
Mary tells me she lived on a farm. Sandy says, “I could take them all.”
Eleanor and Stephanie hold out their bare arms, just like my mom used to do when she was still aware enough to complain about her age spots. Mom wondered aloud many times a day, Where did these come from? In her mind, she was still a young woman.
“Look at these,” Stephanie says. I hold her arm by the wrist. “Yep,” I say. “From the sun.”
“Yours aren’t so bad. Look at mine,” Eleanor says. She holds her arms out for Stephanie and me to see.
I tell them, “You both did a lot of farm work in the sun. You earned those spots.”
Stephanie tells me, “My grandfather that’s here now? He’s 85.”
“Oh really,” I say. I play along.
“Ya, he’s kind of retired, sittin’ in a rocker. Grandma was right beside him. I don’t know if you noticed?”
Eleanor laughs as she probably did a thousand times at a child or grandchild who said something cute. She realizes that Stephanie’s grandparents haven’t been sittin’ in a rocker for maybe 30 years, unless they’re doing it underground.
“I didn’t see them when I came in,” I say.
Stephanie goes on, “He’s 85 years old now, and he can barely walk. He was so glad to see me. He drove a car, by golly. He drove a car himself up here.” She is so excited that I have to laugh.
“That’s great!” I say. She smiles at me.
I say, “If he’s 85, how old are you?” I know she’s 95.
“ ’shamed to tell you,” she says.
“Oh, I won’t tell anyone,” I say. Eleanor giggles some more.
Stephanie says, “I’m 41.”
Eleanor laughs hard and says under her breath. “Wish I was.”
“Wow,” I say. “That’s about my age.”
“Grandpa told me he remembers he worked here. Cutting brush.” Stephanie points at the space across the road: a few birch trees and tall oaks. Sometimes when I’m here at dusk I might spot a doe and a her fawns. Today we can see the river through the trees. “He worked in the woods his whole life. When he came home he brought me a great big cookie. Ooh that was a treat.”
“I bet,” I say.
“So at least he got to see this part.” She looks across the street. She really thinks he’s here right now, inside in a rocker. She says, “He can’t do much. Grandma has to dress him most of the time.”
“He came from Czechoslovakia, right?” I ask
“Your grandpa was Bohemian?”
“Ya,” she says, “he called me SCH-steffi.” She uses a stronger accent than her own. “He called me SCH-steffi.” She giggles and giggles.
I’m sure it’s just the way her grandpa called for her this morning, out the window of his car as he pulled into the parking lot of Golden Age. Steffi.