THE ACTIVIST IN THE NURSING HOME
It was Monday morning, a few minutes shy of noon, when I entered the Visitors’ Room of the extended care facility where I was embedded. The room is square and high-ceilinged, with a round table in the center for magazines. Beyond the table is the outside door, which is unlocked from noon to four p.m. The door handle beckons seductively, and yet I know that no one can enter or exit discreetly. The door’s unoiled mechanisms, no matter how gently manipulated, shudder when opened and crash when closed.
The one window in the room faces east onto a landscape where a pine-covered hillside is scored with trails that lead north into the Berkshires. On the outside, hikers, campers, birdwatchers, photographers, and artists flock to admire the view. From the inside, when sunbeams hit the glass, we (inhabitants, employees, and visitors) see this landscape through greasy smudges. In the bottom left corner, there is a child’s handprint. Perhaps the child had been trying to open the window and climb out. If I had observed this escape attempt, I could have explained that the window was permanently and securely locked.
My own escape happened by chance that morning. I was alone in the room, slumped in a chair, weighted down by world-pity and helplessness. Suddenly, a fire alarm went off in a far hallway. The room was empty. The reception desk was unattended. I shed my melancholy and rose up, filled with a primal desire for freedom and for fresh, hot coffee.
The door banged behind me as I walked out with a $10 bill in my pocket to buy the strongest cup I could find, one brain-shaking jolt of caffeine. I didn’t see the harm in it. It’s not as if I were going to zigzag down the road in my flannel nightgown and furry slippers.
I had one gulp of espresso at the café before the facility’s body snatchers found me, escorted me out and scooped me into their van. I didn’t protest. Through it all, I held the cardboard coffee cup upright—not a drop spilled.
That was my first escape. The second time, I cashed my Social Security check at the ATM and walked all the way to the Big Guy grocery store. That was when I had the run-in with Mr. Golfer.
I was in the fast-checkout line with six bags of hot tamale chips, six jars of peanut butter, a box of crackers, a package of fudgsicles, and a bouquet of tulips.
A man pulled up behind me. “This is the express line,” he said. “Ten items max.”
“I have five items,” I said.
“You have fifteen items.”
He pushed my cart aside. I pushed it back.
“Move out of the way, lady,” he said.
“Who do you think you are?” I countered.
“I’m a golfer,” he said. “We play by the rules.”
I threw the tulips at his face, grabbed the fudgsicles, and was heading for the exit when the body snatchers arrived.
That escapade landed me on the watch list.
“We could be sued,” the director said to me. She had learned this in a phone call from the lawyer who represented the management company that operated the nursing home corporation that owned the facility.
My name is Val. I have survived breast cancer (chemo and radiation), a heart attack, three falls, and one hip replacement. Now facing debilitation, I am a resident of the Mountainview Extended Care Facility.
In the early days, I tried to make the best of it. I tried to converse with the other inmates by making polite conversation about current events. I asked if they were aware that women’s rights were being chipped away.
“We don’t talk politics here,” one woman said, swinging her arm to encompass the Aquarium Parlor. She added, “Don’t start trouble.” She didn’t introduce herself; I call her Mrs. Trouble.
How did I, a lifelong nonconformist, end up in this place full of old immovable objects? Was it a devil’s joke or a deity’s punishment to throw me into my special hell? Maybe I’d stepped on some godling’s toes during a Save Our Planet protest.
So I stopped talking. Cloistered in my room, I wear big black headphones and listen to NPR on my radio.
Today is the summer solstice. During the winter months, escape was on hold because I lacked protective clothing. The winter had been bleaker than ever before. It seemed longer too, reluctant to leave; its bone-chilling damp remained far into the springtime.
I had waited it out. I had been patient. For my reward, a silver lining appeared in the cloud of gloom. I now have a friend, a short but sturdy woman named Esther. Her skin is the color of parchment, her hair is metallic silver, and her eyes are black-brown. I can’t discern her ethnicity. Then again, who knows what anyone’s ethnicity is? We’re all hybrids, and it matters not.
Though my friend Esther doesn’t say much, she’s a good listener. She nods in agreement when I pause. I conclude that she will take her time before revealing secret thoughts.
“Today is the solstice,” I tell her, proud that I remembered the word. Yesterday it took me until noon to retrieve the lyrics “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.” I might as well sing about herbs and spices because they are never used in the meals here. No taste bud is ever tickled. I fantasize about the restaurants where Esther and I will dine after we escape.
In the dining room at dinnertime, I turned to the woman next to me and took a chance. “Did you know,” I said, “that the Fourteenth Amendment is under attack, and Roe v. Wade is in grave danger of being repealed?”
“I’m sick and tired of worrying about that Roe v. Wade,” she responded. She pursed her lips and simulated a gulping codfish while repeating “that Roe v. Wade.”
Across the table, Mrs. Trouble revved up her chewing and swallowing. “About time,” she said. “It’s unconstitutional. The braless feminists got it passed during their so-called sexual revolution.”
The first woman crossed herself while also managing to take the last roll in the bread basket.
Mrs. Trouble summed up her case: “My brother-in-law, who is an insurance commissioner, says it’s immoral, no matter what, and I agree.” She beckoned to the food attendant, held up the empty basket, and asked for a refill.
The roll delivery roused the man next to her. “Too much female clabber in this country,” he said, his face reddening under multiple liver spots.
“Too much bullshit in this room,” I said.
So I stopped going to the dining room. I also stopped eating the bland food. The dietitian has reported me to the doctor.
The doctor who is assigned to us visits on an irregular basis, always early in the morning while we’re in bed. He asked me if I struggle to remember words and dates, if I forget names and appointments, if I become easily upset or anxious. He named 10 objects and then asked me to repeat the names. I answered him in American Sign Language.
The doctor made a note on my chart. He wants to put me on the latest drugs for dementia. He told the nurse to order cholinesterase inhibitors.
As soon as the doctor and nurse left, I went to the Tranquility Chapel, hoping for a peaceful hour undisturbed. Eased into a back-straightening chair in a corner of the empty chapel, I breathed deeply, listening to the rhythm of blood flowing through my heart.
I’ve been giving myself memory tests. I try to recall verses I learned in grade school. I was reciting the Benéts’ poem “Indian” out loud and had just reached “They may be gods—they may be fiends,” when I was interrupted by the arrival of the spirituality chaplain.
This was the very person I had been avoiding (or one of them). My sister had asked him to perform a belief assessment on me. She had explained that it would relieve my depression.
“Face it, Val, you’re no longer an activist in an anti-war crusade,” she had said. “You need something to believe in, or else …”
“Or else, what?” I’d asked.
“Or else you’ll be a fossilized rebel without a cause.”
I still had causes, of course, but I missed my fellow rebels. I missed the talk. I longed for the plans—and the love—we shared.
Instead, here I was with this chaplain, sent by my sister to spiritualize me. He had seen my lips moving. “I’ll join you in saying your prayers aloud,” he said.
“Balls,” I replied.
So no more Tranquility Chapel. I moved to the library to study the newspapers, to fact-check the aberrations and lies of the powers that be.
I decided to arrange the books in this tiny library. I started with health and medicine, and discovered a copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” I sat and read the front pages, concentrating on every word. Yes, I remembered: In the 1970s, I was part of the sexual-health workshop in Boston where that book was written.
“You’d have thought it was pornography we were selling,” I said to no one in particular. “We had a folding table in front of the library. An angry man walked up and threw an apple pie at me—missed by a mile.” I continued talking to nobody. “I’ve often thought of him. I still wonder who made the pie.”
That afternoon in exercise class I derailed the warm-up by asking the group if they knew that the Doomsday Clock had moved thirty seconds closer to midnight.
I tapped my cane. “Tick, tick, tick, down to the final curtain,” I said. “Thanks to nukes and missiles, climate change, and the dickheads.”
I got in trouble for that. “Rules of politeness must be followed,” the Mountainview director said. Reading upside down, I could make out the words on my file report: “impulsive, impaired judgment.”
“What about my right to freedom of expression?” I asked.
“There are boundaries,” she said.
“What about the First Amendment, civil rights, civil liberties, and the ACLU?”
“Fine,” she said. “I’ll call them when I lose my job.” She opened her office door. “The aide will accompany you back to your room now.”
The young aide and I walked slowly down the hall. “Be careful,” she whispered. “They’ll move you to the third floor, the Alzheimer’s Ward.”
“I don’t have the big A.,” I said.
“You shouldn’t have run into the kitchen screaming ‘Balsamic!’” she said.
“Esther has never had a salad with balsamic vinaigrette dressing,” I said.
“In the future, let me know what you’d like,” she said. “I could sneak something in.”
Depression overwhelmed me. Was this what’s meant by second childhood—not how you act but how you’re treated? Screw that. Even in my first childhood I fought to have a say in how I was treated. “That girl sure can assert herself,” my father said.
My first civil disobedience was in seventh grade. Our yearly school movie, on the day before summer vacation, was announced as “Pollyanna,” with Hayley Mills. In the hallways between classes, I circulated a petition demanding a switch to “G.I. Blues,” starring Elvis Presley.
Before I was through canvassing my classmates, our homeroom teacher snatched the petition from my hands, declaring that I was “a big disappointment.”
As a result, (1) the movie assembly was canceled that year, and (2) I lost friends in my peer group but gained one or two livelier ones in the eighth grade.
I know what I want to say, but I’m having trouble writing it. My Letter to the Editor is stalled. My sister’s words haunt me. The Alzheimer’s Ward does too.
Routines have taken hold. By foot, walker, and wheelchair, my dormmates and I circle about after lunch to claim the prime afternoon rest stops. I’ve noticed that the “female clabber” guy reeks of Mrs. Trouble’s patchouli scent; they must maintain close contact in a private nook somewhere. Esther and I are usually in the Aquarium Parlor.
Esther asks me about the scar on my right cheek. Without answering immediately, I slide one finger along the scar. As if it’s a fairy tale, I say, “This is what happened to me one day.”
I had been an abortion clinic escort, one of those volunteers in pink greeter vests who hurry women past rows of shouting people. I remember the posters of fetuses, the anti-abortion protesters swaying their hands back and forth over their heads to the Christian music, an old man who shouted “murderer” through a bull horn, a teenager walking a Rottweiler in front of a pro-choice group. I remember that women brought their children, especially their tiny girls, and the tiny girls brought their baby dolls. They had a box filled with dismembered dolls splattered with blood-red paint. They threw the doll parts at the women and girls who walked past them to the clinic. The mothers were excellent shots. They hit the women on the legs, chests, and heads.
Outside the abortion rights clinic one day, a woman handed me an umbrella and asked if I would shield her face to cut off the photos as we walked to the door. I had stopped for a second to click open the umbrella when a broken doll body winged the side of my face, and my blood began to gush. I had to bend over to catch my breath. I went to the emergency room and was stitched up, but it never healed smoothly.
Esther didn’t like that story, but I assured her that it’s my scar of honor, and I’d do it again.
She closed her eyes. I began trying to recite the alphabet backward when I closed my eyes too and fell into a nightmare.
There’s a gigantic clock; the ticking is deafening. Hordes of people are dancing frantically past me, elbowing me aside. I’m left alone in a swamp. My feet are mired in quicksand. I’m lost, immobile and speechless, while the slobbering Hound of the Baskervilles bounds toward me.
Someone was shaking me gently. “Val, are you all right?” a man’s voice asked.
Seems I have survived, once again.
“Tell me how you’ve been feeling,” he said, calm and understanding (not a golfer).
The pain is getting worse, I told him. I explained that it begins in my lower back and goes sizzling down my legs.
On his next visit, he brought painkillers. It turned out that he was not a product of my scattered brain but rather Esther’s grandson, a physical therapist who lives in New Zealand.
The three of us sat in the Visitors’ Room every afternoon. While he and I talked, Esther listened and nodded. On the day he was leaving to return home to Auckland, he brought a basket of sandwiches, strawberries, fancy crackers, and different kinds of cheese, including a sweet, soft brie.
We took a ride in his car—it was not an escape because he signed us out—and stopped at a roadside picnic bench. We spilled cracker crumbs on our laps, sucked our cheesy fingertips, and lifted our plastic glasses filled with wine from a bottle with a kangaroo on the label. We toasted the future and the pursuit of happiness. We laughed a lot.
At four p.m. exactly, he walked us to the Mountainview door, hugged me, and kissed Esther on both cheeks. “Behave yourself,” he said to her.
I stare into the darkness surrounding my bed, wondering why I awoke. I hear a tapping on the window. Esther is outside, shining a flashlight at my face and motioning me to come closer. I command my legs to move. I roll my body off the bed, swing my butt and keep the motion going into a shuffle step to propel me over to the window. It’s open a crack, and I lean on the sill.
“Come outside,” Esther whispers.
I look at my digital clock. It’s 11:58, almost midnight. When I sneak out—not through the banging door with its night alarm but the kitchen deliveries one with an easy lock—Esther is seated on a low stone wall in the moonlight. I see a spark and realize she’s striking a match.
“Holy shit,” I say (too loud). “Is that weed I smell? Am I dreaming, or are you holding a marijuana joint?” Esther doesn’t approve of profanity, so I apologize. This is not the moment to offend her.
“Esther, my friend, my dear friend,” I whisper as we sit next to each other, sharing the smoke and holding the butt tight. What was I going to say? I hum a bit of “Scarborough Fair.” I pause to admire the way my breath floats upward.
The cool air feels fine. I’m alive once more, lively, active. I remember my thought. “Esther, I know I talk too much. Please tell me what you’d like to do when we escape. Tell me what you wish for.” I don’t actually expect her to answer, but she does.
“I would like to go to a séance,” she says.
There’s more to this woman than I imagined.
“I went to one once,” she says. “But I was frightened.”
For the next half-hour, she talks without pause. Once upon a time, she went to a séance, accompanying a friend who wanted to speak to his recently departed mother. They joined a group sitting in a darkened room around a table. A woman said she was the Spirit Control and told them to hold hands. After a short silence, they heard a rhythmic humming, then a voice proclaimed, “I am Yo-Tania-Z. I have come to communicate with someone in this room.”
Esther takes a last puff and finishes her story. She had no idea what was going to happen, she says, and could feel goose pimples run up her arms. All of a sudden, the air was filled with barks and growls. Next to her, a bald-headed man shouted with joy. The Spirit Control said the man’s beloved Chihuahua-Poodle had arrived from “the other side.” The man squeezed Esther’s hand, which frightened her even more. Above the barking, she heard her friend yell, “Where’s my mama, where’s my mama?” Before he could continue, the Spirit Control, in one smooth move, swept him and Esther away from the table, and they found themselves standing outside the house, slightly dazed.
“My friend was very sad that his mother had not appeared,” Esther says.
From somewhere beyond the parking lot, deep in the pine grove, a kindred night owl hoots his sympathetic notes.
“That’s quite a tale,” I say. “How did you feel?”
“I was so scared I forgot to ask the dog’s name,” Esther says. “I’d like to know it.”
“It’s never too late,” I say.
“It’s something to look forward to,” Esther says. “With you, I wouldn’t be frightened.”
We listen to the sounds of tree frogs and spring peepers.
“I wish I had a real dog,” Esther says.
“We should have pets here,” I say. “We need a Pet Petition.”
“That would be a good thing,” she says.
I stand up. No backbones creaked. “I’m on it.”
Pat Ryan’s short stories have been published in the literary journals Chautauqua, American Writers Review, The Ghost Story, and The Hopper. Her reviews and articles on movies, music and literature have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, where she was an editor in the Culture Department. She is a member of the Massachusetts Cultural Council of Deerfield and president of Deerfield for Responsible Development.
Cover Design by Karen Rile