MARY MCLAUGHLIN SLECHTA
I ought to read to Mother. Truth is neither of us is what you’d call a reader. Too impatient. At home I’m impatient to have the garden planted by Memorial Day. At the clinic, where I volunteer, I’m impatient for sniffling children to move as far from my counter as possible. Right now I’d like to fast forward past the part when she holds up her arms. At eighty, my mother is a baby again, wetting her pants, needing to be coaxed with every forkful of mashed potatoes.
I try not to make her nervous. If she’s the least upset, she jiggles her left leg and the nurse comes over. Nurse-of-the-Moment gives me the kind of sympathetic smile reserved for the addle-brained. She talks in slow syllables and strokes Mother’s shoulder like she’s rubbing the words into her skin.
“Irene, you need to relax, dear.”
How low the mighty have fallen. Poor Mother, who hated to touch or be touched, always Mrs. Roberts to neighbors and doctors and certainly nurses, practically purrs. Two months ago, outside my presence, she indicated Irene as her preferred name. Before I could correct the error, she had a stroke, leaving me the lone bearer of the family name. I’m more accurately a Miss but Mrs. seems to have struck a chord with these people. Mrs. Roberts.
Aren’t nurses supposed to be curt, hurrying to triage someone or another? This one, squeezing into a captain’s chair like a trained elephant, takes over Mother’s feeding.
“Your daughter is here,” she coos. “Isn’t that wonderful?”
I’m about to answer for her, preserve the little dignity she has left, but Mother surprises me. Lifting the wrinkles around her mouth like the hem of a skirt, she gives a satisfied croak and settles the pleats neatly around the fork. It’s painful to watch her move her slack jaw, so I inspect the dining room. A few visitors, young, distracted on cell phones, have smaller versions tugging at their sleeves. Others, probably spouses, sag between sips of coffee, one fall away from admission themselves. I’m gratified to see the majority, middle-aged sons and daughters like myself, stifle yawns and check their watches. It’s well past noon on the first glorious day of spring.
Interspersed among visitors are the ubiquitous aides in blue smocks, most of them West Indian, while an increasing number of the nurses are Filipino and Indian. I have no particular prejudice but prefer the Americans, even this one with her cheap, false nails. As Mother used to say, “They have their world and we have ours.”
To our left, one of the black girls stares down and moves her lips. At first I think she’s praying, but after she speaks to the gentleman beside her and repeats the entire sequence, I stretch my neck. She has a book in her lap. The man’s bloodless features reveal nothing, but the girl, her hair spun into fantastic braids, bursts into laughter. She covers her mouth quickly, but everyone notices, everyone lucid that is. Some laugh along as people do without even hearing the joke, others glancing over with curiosity. The girl smiles to show no harm was meant and moves closer to her patient, makes her body a sort of shield between him and the rest of the room. Believing she’s unobserved, she picks a piece of chicken from his lunch and pops it into her mouth.
The nurse looks up when I gasp. I tilt my head discreetly.
“Would you like a tray too?” she says, smiling at the girl’s furtive nibble at a roll. “Families are welcome.”
“No, no. I’ve already eaten,” I tell her, when the truth is I’ve rushed straight from church. As for aides eating the patients’ food, I’ll complain at the next care conference. It speaks to a lack of supervision by the nursing staff and complicity, the motive of which is observable by the layers of dimpled flesh above the nurse’s wrists.
“So, Mrs. Roberts,” Nurse-Bubbly wonders. “What do you think of us?”
I’m tempted to speak my mind, except Mother, showing some vigor with her left leg, unsettles the water glass. To her credit, the girl hurries over with extra napkins to help with the cleanup.
“Excuse me,” she says, indicating my sunglasses in the path of her housekeeping, and I save them from the machine-like blade of her arm. Casting a careful eye back at the old man, she bends seriously to the task, her strokes brisk and efficient as though making up for her previous deficiencies. She even engages in some parting pleasantry with Mother, who makes a small attempt of her own.
“I like that girl,” I whisper as the nurse entreats Mother to try jello.
‘We all do,” she replies.
“Has she been here long?”
She thinks before she guesses. “She’s been coming at least eight years. You don’t often see that kind of loyalty.”
Judging by her accent, I thought she might be West Indian and the nurse’s description confirms this: hardworking people, eager to please, like our Vera. Her braids remind me of Vera’s daughter, my little playmate, and our private picnics in the backyard. I realize she’s not wearing the standard uniform.
“Is she private duty?”
Because Nurse-Idiot gapes like I have two heads, I explain, “I’m thinking she might be a capable companion for Mother. Take her for walks around the grounds…read.”
Mother shakes that confounded leg again, so instead of an answer I get more clucking.
“Enough, Irene? Ready for a nap?” She picks off mashed potato that’s somehow landed in Mother’s hair, then gently dabs her lips.
I look away when Irene closes her eyes and actually leans into the touch. It’s a heartbreaking scene, one which Mrs. Roberts would never approve of, so I check the other table. The girl is gathering their things, and, perhaps agitated by her movement, the old man clears his throat like a former smoker. For just an instant, his animation and flushed skin make his wizened face almost normal. As the girl straightens the knitted blanket on his lap, tucking it around his hips, I can’t help but shudder at the spectacle of a once proud man reliant on the touch of dark fingers whose allure I long ago recanted.
Vera’s girl and I were caught on the bed together, our hands braided in childish innocence.
“Promise me, Clara-bella,” Mother admonished, using my pet name to make up for the slap and now the burn. She squeezed my wrist so my palm couldn’t escape the growing heat of the tap water. “Promise!”
Not for a second did she believe my lie about teaching Rhoda the white and black keys of the piano. And I, certain my skin, already raw with scrubbing, would peel like a blanched peach, promised with all my heart.
Slipping the book into her purse, the girl wheels the chair expertly in our direction. As I lift my chin to speak, the nurse nearly topples the table in her haste to rise. She has a line of sweat above her lip as though standing is the hardest work she’s done all day.
“Grace,” she says, her fingers gripping the girl’s arm. “You’ve got a long drive ahead, don’t you?”
Grace. I like that. Except her eyes water. It appears she’s had a family calamity right when Mother needs her.
“Mr. Chambers,” the nurse shouts, bending to a face that’s lost its small flicker of life. As cruel as it sounds, one wonders how insurance companies afford this sort of vegetation, what it means to the cost of premiums for the rest of us. When Mother offers a small jiggle, I’m quite proud.
The girl stares down, ashamed, it would appear, of abandoning the old man. “It’s a five-hour drive,” she whispers, and the nurse, her wide frame wedged between them, lifts one hand to the girl’s thin shoulder and lays the other on the man’s, rubbing and stroking the two of them like poodles.
“Mr. Chambers,” she persists. “We’ll miss her, won’t we?”
Ignoring Mother, jiggling furiously now, we watch his eyes squeeze shut and his face turn purple, as he lifts a bushy eyebrow as though it were a dumbbell. Truly astonishing. When he finally shows us a pair of filmy eyeballs brimming with tears, his affection speaks well of the girl’s commitment. Her departure must be an anomaly and not a pattern.
If by her next words the nurse intends to sting me, to tease out someone to pillory, she’ll be disappointed. I’ve been trained by the best to give no such satisfaction.
It could have been yesterday.
Clenching hands, Rhoda and I peeked from behind the couch at her mother’s shimmering face as my mother, a placid mask of pressed powder, extended a long white envelope.
“Let go is what I said, Vera. And you’ll see that Mr. Roberts included a generous bonus.”
When Vera still refused the envelope, my mother quietly laid it on the well polished table and left the room. For days afterward, abandoned by my best friend, I traced my face in the table’s black surface.
Nurse-Ever-Cheerful clears her throat. “Mr. Chambers,” she announces, loud enough to draw stares. “You have a wonderful daughter.” Then after a pause, “You too, Irene. Wonderful daughters.”
The girl blinks like she’s seeing me for the first time and expects a formal introduction, but I have my glasses to retrieve and a purse under the table.
Not daughter, I think, when I dare to look again and see all four lean in like flowers staked together after a storm. Orphan, for even Mother’s leg has stopped jiggling.
Mary McLaughlin Slechta is the author of the poetry collection Wreckage on a Watery Moon. Her fiction was recently published in Workers Write! and Midway Journal, and she was guest prose editor for the anthology I Let Go of the Stars in My Hand (great weather for Media). A story previously appeared in Red Savina Review. A gamebook-style novel for ESL readers is coming out this fall from Night Owls Press.