Wilma is the newest resident at Golden Age. She’s a tall and skinny 70-something with permed gray hair, still mobile enough that she’s wearing an ankle monitor around her right sock, like a house-arrest prisoner. She has only just arrived last week, but I know the sentence she is serving here is worse than any a judge could hand down.
Each time she enters or exits one of the two exterior doors, a loud buzzer goes off, more shrill than the door alarm which sounds each time these doors open. It was unnerving to me when I first visited, but now I barely notice.
Today I’m outside with my mom, who hasn’t spoken more than a few words in months. Sometimes it’s enough to just sit beside her and let the sun hit her face. Everything I thought to say to her today I’ve already said.
Wilma comes to the door and opens it slowly. The weekend aide, Konnie, follows her.
“I want my boys,” Wilma says to me over the buzzing. She starts to cry.
“Your kids are coming later,” Konnie tells her. She presses the keypad inside the front door so the buzzer stops.
I say, “She can stay out here with us. Everything is better in the sun, right Wilma?”
“Thank you,” Wilma says. “Thank you very much for helping me. I’m waiting for my boys.”
“They just called,” I lie. Brightly, smoothly. Konnie shoots me a look. “They said to sit outside and wait for them.” I pull a lawn chair close to mine and motion for Wilma to sit down.
“You betchya,” Wilma says to me. “Thank you very much for helping me.” Konnie mouths thank you in my direction and goes back inside to the other residents.
Wilma seems content as I point out a woodpecker in a tree, then a squirrel darting towards the river. “Do you like to go fishing?” I ask. I’m searching for anything to take her mind off “her boys,” whoever they may be.
She says, “No. I like to play with the boys.”
“What do you play?”
She stares at me. I say, “Do you play games?”
“Do you play hide n’ seek or board games?”
“You betchya.” This her phrase, a quick response that most likely became her safety net for fitting in. For years, my mom’s answer to anything was “Oh, yeah.” I recorded her over a year ago so I could capture her exact intonation and remember it forever: a sweet, sing-song “Oh, yeah.”
I imagine Wilma’s children cared for her at home till they no longer could. Each family has a breaking point. Mine held on nearly past ours. It’s a blessing my mom’s Alzheimer’s didn’t kill my dad.
Soon Wilma is crying again, quiet little girl sobs which she tries to hide behind her hands.
I say, “You can be with my mom and me till your boys come. Keep watching for them.”
We’re sitting beneath a covered porch, and we can see straight ahead to the river’s boat landing or to the right and the left down this service road to another nursing home.
She says, “Thank you for helping me. I’m so lost. Do you know my ma?”
“Sure I do. She said to wait here for the boys.” I could loop back to these unknown boys forever.
I hated this stage with my mom. She often felt lost and afraid and could not be comforted. Back then she was still at home with my dad, the only one of us she knew, but she kept trying to get “home”—wherever that might have been in her mind. We were helpless.
I say to Wilma, “What’s your ma’s name?”
She stares back at me. I say, “You only called her ‘ma,’ so I bet you don’t know her first name.” She nods. Maybe just talking about her mother makes Wilma feel better.
She says, “My ma wants me home, and I’d sure like to play with those boys. Did they forget to come?” She cries some more. I get up and put my hands on her shoulders. This poor stranger, I think, being comforted by another stranger. Not much makes me cry here anymore. I tear up.
My mom starts to nod and doze in the sun. I know I have to take her in before she’s completely asleep or it’s too difficult to move her from wheelchair to bed, like picking up a 90-pound sack of potatoes. “Why don’t you come inside with me, Wilma,” I say. “My ma’s gotta take a nap. You can wait for the boys inside.”
“Thank you very much,” she says again. She holds the door open for me to push my mom’s wheelchair through. Konnie appears and punches in the code to silence the buzzer.
I say, “You sit here and look out the window for your boys, okay?” I hand Wilma a pink stuffed bear, and I put another one beside her on the couch.
“Okay,” she says. Tears well in her eyes again. She says quietly, “You betchya.”
I take my mom to her room and transfer her from wheelchair to bed. She’s asleep before I gather my things to leave.
As I pull out of the parking lot, I know Wilma is sitting on the couch, watching out the window for a glimpse of her boys walking down the road. She still thinks they are coming to take her home.