Today I woke up at 6 am to serve breakfast, wash the dishes, clean the dining room, and repeat the process — cook, serve, clean up — for lunch and dinner. After dinner dishes, I stayed late to dispense
medication, pass out snacks, help one resident repair her TV, and sit with another whose dying seemed to be moving faster and faster. All in all, a seventeen-hour-shift of non-stop movement. My co-workers Emily, Clarissa, and I were the only people in charge of a building of fifty-two elderly residents that Christmas, the ones who drew the short straws. Or, in my case, the one who volunteered for a Christmas spent taking care of the elderly instead of my family. I didn’t mind, I’d told my boss. I was only a kid, why did I need to be with loved ones? After all, I spent more time at work than I did in my own home. My family had come to expect my absence. And all the hours were for them.
The summer before, when my mother lost the most recent of a string of jobs — and thus, the only source of support for all eight of us children
— I went to sleep crying and woke up determined. I was going to get a job. It turned out to be easier than I had expected,
given her inability to find employment: although my age (seventeen) made me almost impossible to hire, nursing homes turned out not to care too much about who staffed the facility as long as the meds were dispensed on time and no one suffered any catastrophic injuries. At The Abbington, I technically worked only in the kitchen in order to avoid legal repercussions
for hiring an underage girl to take care of the elderly. My shifts, which ran 7 AM to 7 PM three days a week and 7 AM to 3 PM three days more, actually encompassed
everything from toasting English muffins to crushing pills into applesauce to cleaning up vomit. I learned how to deal with falls, with flu quarantines, with Sundowner’s Syndrome. Convinced that I needed to be the perfect employee, the perfect daughter, I agreed to longer and longer shifts, to more and more hours, until I slept in the break room more than in my bedroom. “God, girl,” Clarissa said, on finding me asleep by the call-board. “Don’t you ever go home?”
To be honest, I didn’t want to go home. I loved signing over checks to my mother, quietly showing how much I could give. And throwing myself into work meant I didn’t have to deal with the perils of her job search, or the way my father kept trying
to persuade her that returning to him would solve all her problems, or even the way my brothers and sisters leaped up delightedly when I shuffled in from work, exhausted. “Play Labyrinth with us,” they would beg. “Watch Star Wars.” But I had to go to bed, had to clean the house, had to go back to work.
There, even the most difficult residents loved me. I was young and charming, they told me, like their daughters or their wives when they were younger, or (for the ones with advanced dementia) their mothers or sisters. Even Louise Calhoun, the sweet-faced and diminutive 94-year-old woman everyone called the Devil, loved me. “Oh honey, it’s my pleasure,” she’d say when I would ask her if she would please take her medication, just for me. The other aides laughed that I’d for sure made a deal with the Devil, since if one of them asked her to take her meds, she was more likely to throw her telephone at the aide’s head or try to claw out an eye.
Marilyn Ayers, another “difficult”
resident, never tried to claw out anyone’s eyes, but most of the aides feared her anyway for her sharp tongue and unwillingness to forgive slight trespasses. Even the manager,
Sherry White, feared her (probably because Marilyn always referred to Sherry sardonically as “the Great White Whale” and refused to speak to her). Marilyn, who arrived the fall after I began work, was a Brown graduate who maintained a stark glamour even in her sixties. She was bowed by the pressure of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an illness that was slowly suffocating her to death, a consequence of her years of smoking. Yet she read the New York Times andWashington
Post every day, along with her dose of Dickens or a mystery novel. The first day I met Marilyn, Emily pushed me into her room, saying that maybe I could bring her down from her panic attack after the others
had failed. I sat in her room with my hand in the center of her back, repeating aloud the only poem I could remember in full: William Blake’s “Tyger.” After the thirty-seventh repetition of Tyger, tyger, burning bright, she drew a deep breath and whispered, “If you don’t have another poem, you’d damn well better shut up.” And then she laughed, a raspy wheeze, yet still a laugh. Panic attack averted.
Marilyn quickly became my favorite resident, the one I rushed off to say goodbye
to when my official shifts ended. I told her all about my home, and my plans for the future — how I was going to go to Harvard or Yale (she always pushed for Brown). She never asked why I wasn’t home, why I didn’t want to leave her, either not considering or perhaps simply understanding. I made her Brussels sprouts cooked to fork-tenderness. I brought her chrysanthemums and gladioli to color her room, stains of red and deep purple against institutional white walls. It was a standard way to combat illness, tending the dying with the rituals of living. And these gestures brought me more comfort than they brought her, offering me a way to break out of the patterns of the place. She still preferred the books — she had moved on to Virginia Woolf — though as she weakened, losing her breath more easily, I had to read to her all the things she used to read to herself.
I still woke up 6 days a week as the sun rose, already tired before I even started the daily routines of The Abbington. By Christmastime, I was the fastest aide in the building, the one everyone else told to slow down. “You make us all look bad,” Emily told me, when I cleaned up from breakfast and put out the settings for lunch in only an hour. “You walk too fast.” I did walk too fast, anxious
and brittle from the stress of working constantly. I came home only to sleep and change before going to work and then to class. After class, I either went back to work to see Marilyn or I went to sleep before waking up to work again.
I had volunteered for a twelve-hour shift — placating my mother’s complaints
with tales of the time-and-a-half pay we would get — and ended up working seventeen. Marilyn had worsened considerably, so after I finished repairing Louise’s TV, I went to Marilyn’s room and sat with her. She barely spoke, breathing in shuddered gasps that shifted her entire ribcage up and down with the force of an antique bellows. Her thin body shook with tension. I sat with my hand in the center of her back until her sister came in to tell me to go home. When I finally left, it wasn’t Christmas anymore.
The next day, my first day off in twenty-
one days, passed with languid slowness.
I slept for hours, then slept more. I played Monopoly with my siblings and stamped around in the snow until my face stung. The day after that, I went back to work for my normal week to discover that Marilyn had died. No one had called me. I used my set of keys to unlock the door to her room, my fingers shaking so badly I almost couldn’t fit the key in the lock. I found the room dark and empty, covered in shadows and sheets over all the furniture.
Her room was already cleared: her family had taken the flowers, the books, the pillows and paintings, as they should have. I stood in the dark for a long time. I worked the rest of my shift as silent as I could be.
Two days later, Louise fluttered down the hall toward me, waving
her hands for my attention. She needed me to defend her against the hostility of another aide. “She’s just being so mean,” she stamped, the picture of a haughty child. “She wants me to get changed in front of her,” she whispered, significantly.
“Louise,” I said. “You need to listen to her.” I opened my mouth to go on, to soothe and cajole her into submission. Then I closed it. She waited. Her black eyes narrowed.
“Louise, let’s go back to your room. You need to get changed.” I reached for her hand.
She jerked back. “Don’t you touch me,” she hissed. “I hate you.”
Later Clarissa told me, “That’s why she’s the Devil herself. She’s like a snake, but longer-lived.” I said I didn’t believe it. She just made that up to make the name sound good.
“You’re right,” she admitted.
“But I still say she’ll outlive us all. Evil always does.” We laughed; I pictured Louise’s sweet wrinkled face framed by red horns.
At the end of my shift, I left a note in Sherry White’s office that said I wasn’t coming
back due to “personal reasons.” As I left the building,
I said hello and goodbye to Louise, who was walking by with one of the aides from the next shift. It came out in a rush, my hello arriving already lapped by my goodbye.
I never heard her response, I was out of the door so fast. When I arrived home, I kept walking quickly, half-jogging up the driveway and inside the front door. My youngest sister ran up to me, begging me to play a game. I went around the house hugging everyone until my mother demanded to know what had happened, if someone else had died.
“I quit.” Saying it felt as if someone had taken a weight off my chest, as if I could move my whole body to breathe again. My mother also took a deep breath. “Good. I’m glad you aren’t doing that anymore.” I wanted to say that I had always done it for them, that I hadn’t realized how much it had hurt me in the meantime. I wanted to make a grand proclamation about how I was back — for them, of course, but for me as well — and would stay that way. Before I could continue, my sister grabbed my hand and dragged me off to play ballerina.
“Wait, wait,” I protested. “I need to change out of my uniform.”
“Let’s burn it,” my mother offered.
“Later,” I answered, laughing. “I guess I have to dance first.”