From the website: Edgehill Arms is a lovely setting for your elder when he or she is no longer able to live safely in their own home. That’s where we step in with our well-trained – and well-paid – staff who treat all 44 of our guests as if they were members of our own family.
“I could not be more pleased with the care of my husband Sherwood W. after a series of strokes left him unable to care for himself. Edgehill Arms was the answer to our prayers. – Mrs. Sherwood W.
Balderdash. Same as when they take the oath of President and promise fair taxes, an end to wars, and radical solutions for global warming.
I’m not Mrs. Sherwood W., you can bet on that. It’s only on good days, maybe two out of three, that I do know who I am. Today is our lucky day. Stay with me, brain, stay. When I look in the mirror, I see an unrecognizable hag – huge face, frizzy white hair, tufts of white hair on her chinny-chin-chin and unfocused eyes, one sleepier looking than the other.
“Thar’ she blows,” I whisper into the mirror. “You are none other than Margaret McSweeney.” And, you know what? At my August age – I have no idea how old I am, but a chart hanging on the door next to my room, says I was born in 1920 – it hardly matters if I know who I am. Once you enter the palatial arms of the Edgewater nursing home, the glorious Buckingham Palace of Nowhere, you’re finished. Fini. Sunk. Your day is done. When newcomers arrive, they should be greeted by Montgomery Clift playing “Taps” on his bugle. And a sign reading “Abandon All Hope, Ye who Enter Here.”
I’ll say one thing about the Home. Someone brings in fresh flowers to our room every single morning. Where do they get them? From just outside on the patio. Whatever bush grows out there eventually finds its way inside. This morning, the aide has brought Alicia and me big purple flowers with tiny purple tendrils arching toward the ceiling.
A sliding blue curtain separates me from the woman who shares my room. Separates me from She who snores in her sleep, the hee-haw kind that wakes the dead; She who takes her teeth out at night and puts them in a little plastic glass on the table, which, when I look its way is so magnified I think I’m looking at a white rat come to eat me alive. She who speaks such drivel — I should talk! – nothing about books or gourmet cooking — but we like each other just the same. Our drivel consists mostly of complaints.
You know, the usual. “What happened to my warm alpaca sweater? Which aide stole it this time. Valentina, the Russian blond? And how long do I have to lay in my sopping wet diapers? Maybe it’s a new Guinness World Record.”
Sometimes Alicia and I get the giggles like two schoolgirls. Oh, they don’t like that. Sister Kathy will come running in to shut us up. Believe you me, she’d love to slap us if she could get away with it.
“Ladies! How undignified. What would the Lord Jesus Christ think of two embittered old women lying in bed laughing so hard they’re likely to pee themselves.”
We’d make faces after she’d leave and giggle some more.
“I’m pissing myself,” we’d scream with laughter.
There was what they call a “reorganization” here and this Sister Kathy Malloy with her huge yellow buck teeth was brought in to clean up the place. Failure, thy name is Sister Kathy Malloy.
Morale stinks. I’m going to relay to you something that happened that could have been quite a catastrophe, but thankfully a few of us old biddies kept our heads and saved the day. Just your old soldiers fading away.
I distinctly remember the pink flowers the colored aide brought into our room that day.
“Thank you Keisha,” Alicia and I said in unison, like Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.
Keisha, wearing one of those flowery tops I used to see these colored women wearing at bus stops, waved goodbye. “Jesus loves you,” she said as she left.
What were we to do the rest of the day? Eat breakfast, get help with our bath, if they remembered, play bingo (for dummies and the demented like us), and if the physical therapist remembered to come to Edgehill Arms we would do exercises right in the “living room” in our chairs and wheelchairs. Each day was as alike and forgettable as two copper pennies.
Alicia and I get the news of the day in the living room with the cheerful pink flowery chairs. We eavesdrop as the aides speak among themselves. A white board hanging like a picture on the wall spits out the schedule in blue Magic Marker. Plus which aides will be coming in today.
“Helene Packman” was written out in blue print. She was a great favorite of all of us. You get to know people as well as soldiers in trenches know one another. No one would want to trade places with Miss Helene. A short, well-figured woman, her husband left her years ago after the birth of their son with Down Syndrome, Bruce. The older boy, Alex, was a brilliant young pianist. He had made recordings with Yo-Yo Ma and had a wonderful future ahead of him. When a woman he loved broke up with him, Alex went into a shocking depression that would not abate. They tried everything, including that barbaric electroshock therapy. Many a time, Miss Helene would go home to her apartment and find Alex in bed or on the floor. With an overdose.
“Oh, it’ll happen one day,” she told us. “No doubt about it. Hope it’s not painful for my son.”
On this day, a mild day in April with the sun getting used to beaming its warm rays on our rapidly dissipating planet – yes, my literate brain works much better than the speaking one – I was pushing my silver walker down the hallway. I felt myself begin to slide. You see, the hallway is on a slant. I was wearing my pink booties which were smooth on the bottom. Lurching forward and backward and clinging for dear life onto the handlebars, I heard someone following me and calling, “You can do it, Margaret!”
Like a base runner sliding into home, Miss Helene came from behind and encircled my arms with her own arms.
“The dining room?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said with a shaky voice, and we walked slowly down the hill, me feeling my face turning red.
The dining room was crowded. What’s there to do but eat? Their talk was slow and easy. Of all the forty-four or so people there, only two are men. Men such as you have never seen before. One is a young man, Steven. Tall and handsome. Still in his sixties. Never speaks. Rumor has it he’s got alcoholic dementia. The other is a very old man, age spots and all, not only on his hands but big blotches on his face and scalp where he’s gone bald. The man is a nonentity. As used up as a mildewy old rag.
These too are God’s creatures. When I was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, I once interviewed an esteemed psychiatrist who said about pedophiles, “They should all be shot and buried in a mass grave.”
I often think Edgehill Arms should follow suit. We’re useless individuals, living well past our prime. Did you know early Homo Sapiens only lived until their thirties? It’s the boredom that gets me, more than the loss of my mind.
I headed over to my usual table. No one was there yet. And then I saw the son with Down Syndrome, Bruce, sitting at a table playing cards: Solitaire. Helene would bring him in when his sheltered workshop was closed for the day. There was a strange lack of caregivers in the room. What I hadn’t reckoned on was that they were all boycotting Edgehill Arms because they didn’t like Sister Kathy. Her teeth alone were enough to send people scurrying for their lives.
With a chill of horror, I knew that you can’t leave old people to fend for themselves. We’re little more than lactating babes.
The cook came into the dining room.
“Who’s up for a good hot lunch?” she asked.
Mumbles were heard across the room as more residents entered through the arched doorway. Not a one of them walked unaided.
Dora, one of our guests, was an odd-looking woman of eighty-six who insisted on getting her hair dyed black. Permanently vain from her days as a Rockette – yes, a Rockette in New York City — she was the only resident who had absolutely no physical or mental problems. Outside each of our rooms is a small glass shelf, a little shrine of who we used to be. And there was Dora, the long-legged Rockette, laid out in a red Santa Claus uniform, with shining white antlers on her head. You could barely recognize her. Had dancing kept her mind strong? How Alicia and I envied her working brain.
Since I wouldn’t be buried in a mass grave, I often fantasized how to end my life. When push came to shove – I knew all the possible ways – you know, plastic bag over the head (my friend Florence Straus had done that, she suffered intractable pain from diabetes and was a manic-depressive, besides) only one thing stopped me. My roommate Alicia.
Cook began rolling out carts filled with our hot lunches. Where were the aides to help her? What good-natured people they were, the crooks!
I thought of sitting with Bruce, Miss Helene’s son, but he was so engrossed in Solitaire I didn’t want to disturb him. I went to my usual table, which had one seat left. It felt nice to be wanted, even if you were born in 1920.
“Alicia,” I said, turning to her across the table. “We should really help Cook bring out the meal.”
“If only,” she said, shaking her head.
The Italian wedding soup was almost worth staying alive for.
“What are these flowers anyway?” I asked.
Dora, the Rockette sitting next to me, said, “Rhododendrons.”
I nodded my head as I spooned some tiny sausages and noodles into my mouth.
If there were a heaven, which I don’t believe in, it would be eating this soup and looking at that flower with the long-winded name.
Miss Helene magically materialized to help Cook serve the meal.
“Chicken Cordon-Bleu coming up,” she said in that most positive of voices we all loved. “And then stewed apricots and prunes for dessert,” she announced, while placing the soup in front of the residents.
Always the bowels to think about. Prunes. Apricots. Bran Flakes. All-Bran. Raisin-Bran.
When I looked up from my soup, Miss Helene was at the far end of the room, looking down at her small rectangular phone. Her face froze. “Noooo!” she screamed. “Nooooo!”
She went over to Bruce.
“Stay here, son. I’ll be back.”
“Her son’s finally done it,” I said to the table.
Dora stood up and went to watch her through the glass patio door. I followed her gaze and then saw Dora crumple up and fall to the floor. I pushed back my chair and unaided walked over to her. She lay on the white-tiled floor in that ludicrous dyed black hair of hers, eyes staring at the ceiling, her tiny waist cinched halfway up to her unchained breasts. How dare she die? How dare she leave us?
There was nothing to do but let her lie there.
Cook was the only sentient one among us.
A long sibilant sound emerged from the kitchen. Impossible to describe. Was it a pressure cooker going off when you removed the gasket? Everyone looked up and turned their ancient faces toward the kitchen.
Nothing seemed to be amiss until we saw smoke billowing through the closed swinging doors of the kitchen. Shutters, they were, that swung back and forth and now dark curly smoke was coming toward us. We sat, paralyzed with fear.
“Bruce!” I yelled over to him. He was still immersed in Solitaire and had no idea what was going on.
“Get that thing on the wall.” I pointed toward the red fire extinguisher. Laboriously, he lumbered over to it, fiddled with it a moment and took it down.
“Here,” I shouted. “Bring it over here.”
Dora, the most “with-it” at our table, was too dead to operate it. It would be a struggle, I knew.
Grabbing it from Bruce, I stumbled around the table, and went up to the swinging doors.
“Think, brain, think!” I thought and looking down upon the red instrument began to spray a steady stream of hissing white chemicals toward the kitchen. My arms were so tired I couldn’t keep it up.
“Alicia,” I yelled, not turning around.
“Take over for me.”
Alicia and Dotty and Evelyn all came over from the table.
Dotty arrived first and took it from my arms.
“Never done this before,” she said, as she took over the little silver handle and sent out a steady spray. The smoke retreated and we went inside the kitchen.
Cook lay on the floor. Not another death! She lay on her belly with her pink smock in disarray and her black seersucker pants hugging her legs as if to protect her from the smoke.
Dotty got down next to her and turned her over.
“Still breathing,” she said. “Her chest is going up and down.”
An old-fashioned wall phone with buttons on it hung on the wall. I knew I couldn’t make the call. I had no idea where we were.
“Who can call 911?” I asked.
Moments went by.
“We’ll all do it together,” said Alicia.
Somehow we spit out the information and waited for the wail of the siren.
One dead, one injured, and Miss Helene’s son Dan probably dead from his latest suicide attempt.
I’ll tell you one thing. Heroes that we were, Action News came out in their shiny white van, but it didn’t bring back our memories or return us to our glory days.
Edgehill Arms went through yet another reorganization. We never saw the buck-toothed Sister Kathy again. And, as if to emphasize the total reorganization of the place, we got a new name.
I’ll be dead by the time I remember it.
Cook has returned in fine fettle or is it “in fine mettle”? As long as the food stays as delicious as it’s always been, I promise never to look in the mirror again or do myself in.
Ruth Z. Deming, a psychotherapist, has had her work published in lit mags including The Legendary, Literary Yard, Mad Swirl and Writing Disorder. She lives in Willow Grove, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. She runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder and their loved ones. Her blog is http://www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com/