A Valentine’s Day visit home brings back memories for Roberta and her husband.
“Roberta where are you today?”
Roberta peered up at Charles, the hair stylist, with her one good eye. His blonde hair stood straight up in spikes and a little heart-shaped diamond glistened in his right ear. She tried to think of a funny quip, but nothing came to her unruly mind.
She looked back at the mirror as Charles snipped at her hair, the silver scissors clicking away. If she couldn’t sound smart and funny, at least she could look good.
Usually she chatted with Charles, interjecting as he prattled on about this new love or that old boyfriend. At All Saints Nursing Home, there weren’t many people with whom Charles could share such sordid details, but Roberta loved it. He was always trying to shock her, and sometimes he even succeeded.
The stroke, of course, had stolen any audible emotion in her voice; Charles’s sing-songy lilt contrasted Roberta’s flat monotone, but at least now her voice couldn’t give her away.
She didn’t chatter on with Charles today, though. Today she missed Bob. At 87, there were plenty of people Roberta missed. Jack, her brother. Her best friend, Connie. Her mother. They were all dead, and she couldn’t even say they were taken too early. Just earlier than her.
Bob was still alive. Still rattling around their big white house with the red door, just five blocks away. Still tinkering, and watching westerns, and telling stories.
She studied the wrinkled woman in the mirror… the drooping left side of her face, the way she slouched down in the wheelchair. The only reminder of her old self was her hair, burgundy red, a monthly courtesy of Chuck.
Her daughter Marcy would come this afternoon, and dress her in a baggy pink sweater and black sweatpants and thick wool socks.
She hated how they dressed her.
She longed for her spacious, meticulously organized walk-in closet. She could practically feel the silk blouses and cashmere sweaters, could smell the leather of her good Coach pumps. And her dresses! Her beautiful dresses, most from Penny’s or Macy’s, but a few designer, hung on dark wood hangers, ready for an evening out on the town.
But they would never be out again. She would never be out again. Hell, she would never even see the upstairs of her own home again. Nine years, and she wasn’t getting better. She could barely feel the left side of her body, much less move it.
Bob hated to see her like this, a fact that their daughter railed against. “I’m just so mad at him!” Marcy would say as she painted her mother’s fingernails, or plucked her eyebrows. “It’s five blocks! Why doesn’t he visit! How can he just leave you here alone!” Everything Marcy said ended in an exclamation point.
But Roberta just nodded or shrugged. She was rarely, if ever, alone. Over the years, she’d had a string of roommates, all dead now. And there were orderlies, nurses, aides in and out of her room at all hours of the night. She couldn’t even go to the bathroom by herself. She would actually be delighted to be left alone.
And anyway, the secret was she didn’t want to see Bob either. She felt fat and ugly. Before the stroke, Bob had never once seen a grey hair on her head, and she wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing sweatpants and wool socks around her husband. She even kept a tube of lipstick in the kitchen drawer so she could doll up a little in the morning while she made breakfast.
When they were young, Bob always tried to surprise her on Valentine’s Day. Every year, he’d come home from work with flowers. She’d react with astonishment, and then squeal when he said, “You ain’t seen nothin yet, Bird,” using his pet name for her. Then he’d tell her to hurry up and put on a dress, or they’d be late for their dinner reservation.
She’d race up the stairs, thrilled, and put on an outfit she picked out hours beforehand. Her favorite was a black shift that hugged her tiny waist. It was lacy on top, with tiny pink flowers on the bodice and a full skirt that swished against her strong dancer’s legs. She’d pair it with strappy heels, even though it was February, and Bob would behold her, dazzled, as she came down the stairs. She loved when he looked at her that way.
He’d take her hand, and twirl her around and say, “My gosh, you are stunning.” He would hold out her mink coat, a gift from her mother for special occasions, and she’d slip into it, the silk a dream against her bare arms.
Then off they’d go, in their blue Cadillac. She’d sit close to him on the bench seat, breathing in his aftershave. He wouldn’t tell her where they were headed, but she knew it would be someplace wonderful like the Statler or the Buffalo Chophouse, and they would order Manhattans, and steak, and dessert. Always dessert.
Tonight, Marcy would wheel her down the hall in her tacky clothes, and into the handicap van and drive her to their house on West Girard. Bob would be in his chair, watching a movie or maybe a car race if one was on. Marcy would line the wheelchairs up so they could sit next to one another, and then join her own husband in the kitchen to finish making their dinner. Her sweet, funny, cheerful daughter always sacrificed her own holidays to make sure that Roberta and Bob could be together, and Roberta knew she should be grateful.
But she wasn’t. She was sad. The thing about spending nine years in a nursing home, she thought, or anywhere for that matter, is you sort of forget what it was like before you were in that place. You don’t think about what a regular Wednesday is like, because for nine years, pancakes are for breakfast, you attend mass in the afternoon, and the orderlies play a movie in the evening…. But then a holiday rolls around, the schedule changes, and suddenly you’re staring old memories dead in the face. Until then, pancakes-mass-movie is your regular Wednesday, and you don’t have to think about the past. It’s how people survive prison.
Roberta laughed at the thought.
“There’s that million dollar smile!” Charles said now, fluffing her hair one more time. He bent down and put his face close to hers. “What a beauty,” he said, and she felt a little like he meant it. “Happy Valentine’s Day. Don’t get into any trouble tonight!” He kissed her lightly on the cheek.
“Thank you, Charles,” she replied. “Happy Valentine’s Day. Get into trouble for me.”
He laughed and left with his little kit, just as her daughter came bounding in. Marcy did nothing quietly. She had been excited, for everything, since the day she was born.
“Hi, Mama! Happy Valentine’s Day!” her daughter sang. “Your hair looks great! Let’s get you dressed!”
Roberta complied, and before she knew it, Marcy and an aide were wheeling her into the nursing home foyer. Getting into the wheelchair van was a rather embarrassing production, but once she was strapped in, she quietly loved being driven around in her wheelchair. She sat up higher than anyone else on the road, and felt vaguely like a queen. Or the Pope.
She could hear the movie Bob was watching the moment her wheels touched the ramp outside the house. She rolled her eyes, but she couldn’t help but smile.
Marcy always struggled a bit with the final turn into the entryway, bouncing Roberta this way and that, but finally she was inside.
She took in every detail as Marcy rolled her into the living room. She was happy that the mirror on the wall was free of fingerprints, and the carpet looked okay, too. She breathed in. The smell was different now, thanks to a cleaning lady Marcy hired, but she could still smell hints of Windex and fabric softener. She spied a dust bunny under the couch, and let out a sigh…. Roberta would never understand why in the world a person would go to the trouble of vacuuming around, but not under the furniture.
Bob reached for her hand, not really looking at her. “Missed you, Bird,” he said and kissed her knuckles.
“Missed you, too,” she replied. Her voice sounded dreary no matter how she felt on the inside.
And she knew neither of them really meant it. Yes, they missed each other, but not this version of each other. She missed his strong hands and the way his arms looked when he swam laps in the pool. She missed the little dance he did when he was trying to make her laugh, and the wildly exaggerated stories he told their grandchildren.
He probably missed holding her tiny waist while they danced, and the way she cleaned this house (no dust bunnies under the couch when she vacuumed, thank you very much). He probably missed her cooking.
“I’d like to go back to Mexico,” she heard herself say. She hadn’t even really been thinking about Mexico, but, then again, her brain wasn’t always her own. Her good eye landed on an old photo, displayed on the bookshelf. The photo must have triggered a memory she had already forgotten. She took in her old self, smiling sweetly with two bikini-clad granddaughters, under a palm tree.
She expected him to tell her no, but instead he looked at her, his clear blue eyes considering. She wanted to look away, embarrassed by the sick, old woman she had become, but she didn’t. She looked her love in the eye as he said, “Me, too, Birdie, when?”
She laughed flatly. “How about today?”
“Not today,” he replied, smiling at her — a million memories dancing across his lips.
“How about next Valentine’s Day?”
She squeezed his hand. “This is my last one,” she said quietly.
In nine years since a massive stroke that had taken away her body and her freedom, the family had celebrated a lot of “lasts.” Marcy made extravagant Christmas dinners, old friends flew in from Australia for her birthday, grandchildren were forced to come show off their Halloween costumes far past the age where they wanted to do such a thing — all in the name of making the most of her last whatever. Roberta found it all a bit ridiculous, but she was a good sport.
She expected Bob to brush off the comment. Or to balk and say that she couldn’t leave him alone with Marcy. But he didn’t do any of that. And he didn’t look away.
“Okay, Birdie,” he said. “How about if I surprise you?”
“You’re no good at surprises.” She hoped he could tell she was teasing.
He feigned shock. “I don’t know about that. What about the Statler?”
“We went to the Statler every third year,” she replied, laughing. “But I loved it every time. Remember the tiramisu?”
“I remember the Tanqueray. And all those little black dresses.” He winked at her.
She looked down at the sloppy pink sweater and sweatpants.
“You’re still stunning to me, Birdie,” he said, reading her mind.
Marcy came in then. “Dinner’s ready!” she sang as she began wheeling Roberta into the dining room. She had noticed people did that a lot — moved her before she was ready. Why did everyone think they knew where she wanted to go?
“Now Dad, I put your plate next to Mom…” Marcy began. For years she had been trying to get him to sit next to her at dinner. But Marcy could not understand that for sixty-three years before, they were the heads of this table. Surrounded by children, then grandchildren, extended family, longtime friends… they were the heads of this household, this table. They were the constant. The anchors.
“He’ll sit in his seat,” Roberta replied. Bob squeezed her limp hand and took his place.
Marcy and her husband tried desperately to keep the conversation going. People did that a lot, too. They didn’t understand that sixty-three years of marriage allowed for a comfortable quiet. And Roberta wondered what exactly people expected her to talk about? Taco night in the nursing home? Watching Casablanca for the ninetieth time? Her recently deceased roommate?
The last thought made her laugh.
Something caught in her throat. She coughed, except… she couldn’t. She tried to clear her throat, but no air moved. She dropped her fork, and instantly hoped she hadn’t chipped the good china.
“Mom?” Marcy stood up, alarmed. “Mom! Mom? She’s choking, Chris, she’s choking!”
Roberta wanted to laugh again. Wouldn’t it be a trip if she died at her Special Last Valentine’s Day Dinner?
“Birdie? Bobbie!” she heard Bob call, but she couldn’t see him now.
She felt her daughter’s strong arms wrap around her then, trying to force the juicy, red piece of steak out of her. Did the Heimlich work on people who were half paralyzed, she wondered? She felt herself heavy and limp in her daughter’s struggling arms. The air around her crackled and went black.
She breathed in and listened to the waves, crashing on the sand under her feet. It was dark. The air smelled of salt and coconut sunscreen; the sky sparkled above her. She could taste red wine on her lips. A white sarong fluttered against her legs as she walked, her bare feet sinking into the powder soft sand. She breathed in as Bob took her pinky in his, like he always did. “Not yet,” he said. “Not yet.”
When she opened her eyes, she was on the floor, her daughter underneath her. Her son-in-law knelt over her, breathless, and holding the offensive piece of steak.
“I was eating that,” she said.
The room was silent. She tried to pull herself up, but of course, nothing happened. She furrowed her brow, and then, like a mental flash flood, she remembered. The stroke, the nursing home, her hideous outfit, her disfigured body…. She wanted to scream. She wanted to rail against the unfairness, the injustice of illness, and of death; the cruelty of being alive.
“And the chandelier needs dusting,” she heard herself say.
At that, Bob began to laugh, then her husband, and finally Marcy.
“She’s okay,” Bob said. “If she’s criticizing the housekeeping, she’s okay.” He leaned down and kissed her on the lips. “I love you.”
She looked up at him. “I love you, Bob. We’ve had such a good time.”
He took her pinky in his, smiling, and winked. “You ain’t seen nothin yet, Bird.”