sufficient sunlightApril 11, 2007
She’d now lost complete control of her mouth. Every bite of food over the four months had worked its way, eventually, to her throat, but now, she couldn’t even manipulate her jaw enough to keep it inside. As spoonful after spoonful of adult-style baby food dribbled onto frayed lace of her pale pink night gown, Evelyn’s gray eyes drooped down in surprise, then up in self-nagging. Had she been able to speak, or even mutter, she might have cursed, or at least moaned a disapproval of this whole part of aging.
She’d not been able to control any bodily functions for months now, but this was the last great frontier between simple aging and complete vegetation. Her attention was brief, her naps longer and longer every day, and her ability to perform basic motor skills completely eroded. She would now be fed by tube.
Lucy had come from the Hospice service provided though insurance and she came highly recommended by the service director. “Lucy has a gentle touch, a nice smile, and she’s easy on the dying eye,” he told many families, tactlessly. But Lucy was easy on the eyes. Her hair was a mousy brown, her eyes a pale blue. The thin line that was drawn under her nose broke often to disclose a secret smile that was both warm and plain, yet pretty, and she never wore jewelry. Her words were slow to come, but were never misplaced, as far as Evelyn’s daughter could tell, and Lucy seemed to be more polite every day.
“Ms. Evelyn is doing well,” she reassured in a country song of a voice. “She seems to be in good spirits. And she really brightens up with Wheel of Fortune comes on.”
Lucy enjoyed her time with Evelyn. Evelyn managed to smile more often with Lucy in the house, and she ate more, and more regularly. Her daughter agreed with the rest of her family that her mother was happier, or at least more at ease with the dying process, because of Lucy’s constant company. Lucy was now living with them, working all-day and night to take care of Evelyn. Somehow, Evelyn rested longer and had fewer accidents at night.
But now, with tube-feeding, Evelyn seemed to get sad. Lucy had explained to her what was about to happen. She said that she would need to eat out of a tube that would run through her nose, which would let her eat more since it wouldn’t require work from the old woman. Evelyn squeezed out a nod, blinked a tear, and hung her head in shame. Lucy gave her a kiss on the forehead.
“It’s okay, Evelyn, dear,” she consoled in flat, easy tones, then wiped the tear, and some spittle from the gentle woman’s mouth.
Every day was getting harder and harder for Evelyn. She’d been fine with growing slower, less mobile, and had even grown to accept having to be cleaned when she soiled herself. She’d never been too active when she was able to be, and had preferred a simple life of quilting and game shows in her retired years. Lucy had given great effort to finish the quilt Evelyn had started years before, but hadn’t made much progress. It bothered the nurse to leave it undone, but it was far more difficult for her than she had expected.
The old woman developed a cold on top of everything, which looked to develop into pneumonia. Lucy knew this would be the end. The coughing fits were more than Evelyn could handle, and the doctor reported three cracked ribs after a couple days. She routinely would pass out after an episode, and Lucy had to suction some of the mucus from her mouth to keep her from drowning.
Nighttime was by far the most dangerous. Lucy resigned sleep for now, silently hoping that this wouldn’t last long. She would sit long hours by Evelyn’s bedside, caressing her hand, and telling her stories from times long gone. The family had let Lucy in on how much Evelyn used to love fairy tales. Tales of dashing men and beautiful ladies waiting to be rescued littered the small bookshelf that remained in her room, which was now so full of medical equipment and handicap modifications that it scarcely resembled the quaint walnut wood-filled boudoir it had been years ago.
“So the princess let her long golden braid down against the tower wall, its waves shining in the sunlight, and the prince reached up to catch it, pulling it quickly against his nose. It smelt of roses, fresh pine, clean air.” These were things that you never smelt in the house of the dying, Lucy told herself, full of morose. You only smell medicine, dirty skin and dust. “The scent was so lovely and the braid so soft and beautiful, he called out to her. ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel! Your hair is the most wonderful hair, spun of the gold of the sun. I will rescue you from the clutches of the—” Sometimes, stories would ease Evelyn’s pain, but others, it only agitated her from sleep. Lucy did her best to keep her at peace in her body, but nobody’s perfect.
“Evelyn, love, oh dear!” She quickly rushed to fetch a clean damp cloth and a bedpan. Indigestion was not uncommon either. Nights were also the most troublesome. Sleep, once the safe haven of woman’s fading form, was now betraying her as well.
Lucy scanned the portraits atop the bookcase on a regular basis, trying to decode the significances between the man and the woman who lived in the sepia tones, holding each other in loving reverence. Pictures of children were carefully positioned amongst the union of frames. Lucy admired each of them and could make out just which photo was which family member of the few she’d met so far. And she thought the family lucky to be so picturesque.
It was a strong human urge that wanted to take the pictures to Evelyn, one by one to arouse a response from the woman as to their familiarity. Lucy had noticed how Evelyn tracked her around the room, and how hard that gaze was when she was at the bookcase. Because of this she knew that she didn’t want to see the woman cry any more than she had already, and eventually she ignored the photos altogether, for Evelyn’s sake.
“Evelyn, love, this place is a mess anymore,” Lucy reported, loud enough to wake Evelyn from her light, post-lunch doze. “I think we should rearrange some things.” Lucy proceeded to move tables and lamps away from the rounded bay window, giving her room to move around the room a bit more. Evelyn, now nearly always in her bed, was laboriously wheeled around to face the window, which until this event was nearly hidden from view. On the wooden seat under the window, which matched the fine dark furniture remaining, Lucy placed a small ivy plant she’d bought, its leaves speckled with white at the tips. Then she opened the window. Lucy often opened the window, but now it was for more than just light and a little fresh air. The window looked over the expanse of a pretty little yard full of flowers and hedges that Evelyn’s neighbors and church friends had gladly kept up for her, though, Lucy noticed, visited rarely. Evelyn sighed, which whistled through her oxygen tube, and sounded like relief.
Lucy, in the time that she’d spend here, she’d had tried her best to forget her own life that she’d all but abandoned. She had no children, no husband, and only a couple family members left. However, Lucy was an only child of the youngest of several spinster sisters.
“My mother used to tell me that no house was ever a home without sufficient sunlight and plenty of green.” She cocked her head to the side, admiring the view. “Don’t you agree, Evelyn?”
The old woman was slowly drowsing, but the matted lips that spread wide over her fleshy face seemed perkier than usual now. Her head wasn’t slumped forward, but instead, reclined against the tilt of her bed, her face fully caressed by the reflections of mid-day light into the window. She snored gently.
“I thought you would.” Then she set about dusting the place.
Dying isn’t easy, she kept reminding herself, which took some effort. She thought it ironic that she had to keep telling herself that this was no simple process. Even all the medicating and cleaning and changing and aiding was not sufficiently comparative to the actual body that was wasting, and Lucy forgot this on occasions. She could get just as frustrated with the elderly as anyone else, though she’d learned to keep it to herself after a being fired from a nursing home where an elderly, yet lascivious gentleman who suffered from dementia had taken to groping her on occasion. She’d been offended, and snapped at the old man, who recoiled in fear. This was frowned upon.
The dirty part, the gross part, the part that most people shy away from so much they put their family in nursing homes, was never the problem. That was all so clinical, so easy to understand. It was the nagging, the whining, or the crying for a dolly or a cup of coffee that was so unbearable. Evelyn had been declared “invalid” by her church before Lucy had moved in, so most of everything was maintenance now.
However, she was often wanton of company.
“That is much better. All that dust, gone. I don’t know why your housekeeper hasn’t been around this week. She’s so regular.” She started to run a brush through Evelyn’s hair and prepare the cream to treat the bedsores. “I suppose I can do it. You really are a low-maintenance gal, darling,” she muttered, a bit tongue-in-cheek.
The barely unkempt domain grew lonelier as days drew by without any word from family. Bills had been redirected; all payments were being made. Lucy had gone so far as to forward her mail to Evelyn’s address so that she could remain completely attentive to her duties. It was like being supplanted into someone else’s life. She was now the daughter and mother and general caretaker of this wonderful soul. And it made her sad. Occasionally, at night, when Evelyn was able to rest, she’d sit and mourn silently in her mind her own mother’s death, even though it was years gone. Years that had been full of waves of regret and forgetting. There were times when would think about her mother’s chemotherapies and how hard they’d been on the whole family. Endless hours of retching, heaving, dry gasping gags that visited at any hour. Her ghastly face visited Lucy often, drawn thin and pale, wearing the very veil of death. The face was burned deep into Lucy’s mind and it no longer haunted her like it once would. She’d lose days of sleep when working with the truly dying, unable to shake the image and afraid to confront it in slumber. But occasional therapy of her own and constantly surrounding herself with the short-of-life was her way of coping with the pain.
As she brushed the thin, spider-silk mane, she wondered if her work in healthcare was a way of paying penance for what she’d not done or been able to do for her mother. Evelyn seemed to crinkle her lips up into a slightly less flopped shape ushered this idea out of her mind, as though to say, “Don’t worry dear. You’re doing a fine job.” One bony finger twitched delicately, and Lucy thought she wanted to reach up and touch the fine strands of outer beauty that remained of her life. Lucy set down the brush, primping the matron’s hair to give it that sense of bounce, of vitality. Evelyn breathed suddenly in, and exhaled pleasure.
She looked hard into Evelyn’s velvet eyes, which had begun to stop focusing so strongly, and choked out a single, “Thanks.”