She doesn’t remember me when I come to visit after she arrived home from the hospital. She calls me to fix her computer. Interestingly, I follow another woman into her building and we both get on the elevator. We both go up to the eighth floor and turn the same direction down the hall. We walk to the same door and I realize my 96-year old friend has probably made SOS calls to all of her contacts. We enter her apartment at the same time and she can’t tell who either of us are. I am not at work, I am concerned that she doesn’t recognize me, and I am not her social worker. I promise to let her family know I was there and I promise to not do anything to worry them. When I call her niece later, I feign fine-ness with a healthy dose of objective observation. Hours later she is back in the hospital.
Nor does she recognize me when I come to visit her in the skilled nursing facility. She’s in and out of her thoughts as the CNA is in and out of her room. I tell her who I am and she mentions that she’s not finished with the story. There are people who are part of the plot. She tells me that she has been seduced by a young woman who locked her up and thought she was absolutely beautiful, “quite attracted to me, I’m certain…she told me I was beautiful”. Perhaps she was apologizing to the CNA who was giving her a bed-bath and said not to worry, she was a beautiful human. She is. She tells me that she found the keys to get out of the prison where she was being held against her will. The next time I visit she tells me that she can’t talk — she has things she has not figured out.
There’s a matt in her hair the size of a hotel bar of soap. She wants me to give her a haircut and take it out. She also doesn’t want her hair to be short. She’s okay with a place on the back of her head where I will need to cut the hair close to her skin. I borrow a razor comb from a neighbor, take the scissors I once used with my sister to save a chicken who’d been attacked by a raccoon and head to her room over my lunch break.
The room is dark and she’s severely bent into an L-shape but also soaked in sweat and sinking into the mattress. I am her friend but when I find out that someone unplugged her mattress so that she’s lying directly on the bed rack, I insist the nurse come immediately. She tells me she is in pain. The fan is unplugged too. I am already considering where to report this, walking the line of my “mandatory reporter” status and our friendship. Mandatory reporter is winning. Once her bed has re-inflated, once I give the nurse a nasty look for moving her bed up inch by inch as she asked but in a way as to bounce her and tease her, once I make sure the fan is on and she’s been changed, only then is she comfortable enough for me to cut her hair. I cut her the perfectly fine strands just down to her ears. I send an email to her niece to tell them what I observed. You won’t get away with this, I think.
The next time I visit, a sweet, lithe hospice volunteer originally from Iran is trying to speak loud enough for my friend to hear her.
“Do you want me to come visit you?” she asks.
“WHAT?” says my friend. I cut between them and sit on the bed.
“SHE’S A VOLUNTEER. DO YOU WANT HER TO COME VISIT YOU TO TALK OR DO THINGS WITH?” I ask, louder than the volunteer.
She replies matter-of-factly, “I don’t know why these people I don’t know always want to come talk with me!”
“DO YOU WANT HER TO COME?” I ask.
In typical fashion, my friend says, “NO”.
I smile at the hospice volunteer, “I think you’ve just been fired”. We talk in the hallway and I explain, Really, you’ve been fired. My friend knows what she wants.
The hospice CNA is a middle-aged man who is trying to make a connection with her. He goes too far with being friendly and she decides he’s part of the plot. This was the day when she looked at me sadly and told me that I was part of the plot too – she can’t explain why. She’s sure she didn’t order chicken noodle soup for lunch either.
She recognizes me but insists that I haven’t visited her recently. I was there the day before last. Against my better judgment, I argue with her. After all, I am her friend, not her social worker and am working my tail off to make sure someone visits (me). She changes the subject to talk about the call button: “It’s the only weapon I have since they took away the phone”. I find out that the resident phone is kept at the nurses’ station and cannot call long distance. Essentially, she is isolated on the third floor of this skilled (skilled?) nursing facility.
She mentions a phone and tells me that her niece sent her one that was encrusted in diamonds but the help (whom she doesn’t trust) ripped it out of her hands because they don’t want her to leave the place. As I go to leave, her roommate asks if she can have my name and number. I’ve already left my number at the nurses’ station – I ask the roommate why. (Last thing I (selfishly) need is someone calling me all the time from a skilled nursing facility. Again, it was selfish.)
The roommate says that sometimes she lets my friend borrow her phone. I ask if her phone is covered in rhinestones. The roommate nods and tells me there was a night recently when the CNA had to take the phone away because my friend wouldn’t give it back. Ding, it registers. I ask if I can see the phone. I hold it up to my friend and she confirms, yes, that’s the phone from my niece that they took away from me. That’s why the call button is her only weapon.
She tells me she needs something – a string of some kind – to hold her glasses around her neck. How she will keep this from tangling with her oxygen, I don’t know. So on a Saturday morning, I go to Walgreens and purchase overly expensive eyeglass cords – one black, one white. She decides she wants the black ones. I remember that I was looking for a cord and walked into the room of a woman who likely had a stroke. I asked if she had some cording that could be used to someone’s glasses. She said she didn’t have anything but hey, I could use one of those too if you get some. I take the white cord down to her.
“Hey, you said you could use one of these” and I attach it to her glasses.
“I sure could,” she says. “I sure could.” I tell her it’s a gift. A CNA is changing her roommate on the other side of the curtain. I tell her to have a good day and tells me to do the same.
I go on vacation for two weeks which my friend forgets.
“When are you going to come see me?” she asks. “I’ve just been so worried about you!”
I speak loudly into the phone, “I got back into town on Wednesday. I will come see you this weekend. It’s Thursday today.”
“Well, I know that,” she says as a reminder that she is very with it.
When I visit, I remember that she turned 97 while I was gone. She’s gonna live to be one hundred, the roommate says. Someone sent her a bouquet and a heart-shaped balloon that says Happy Birthday in frilly letters. A nurse convinced her that it was her life and she could decide if she wanted to get stronger or not. Now she is excited to show me all of her leg exercises and how she can now sit up independently on the side of the bed. She’s friends with her roommate again and still sure that they never bring her what she asks for for dinner. The roommate tells me that they both ordered turkey dumplings tonight. My friend overhears as she’s kicking her legs on the side of the bed and tells me that the dumpling will be unrecognizable. She tells me to watch her favorite exercise where she leans back and kicks the underside of her bedside table hard, making the Kleenex boxes jump. A CNA even helps her stand for few moments and, after this, she is tired but really feeling pretty proud of herself. I tell her good job, I will visit soon with books per her request.
“Hey,” she says. “Can you take those flowers and that balloon too? I hate cut flowers.”
I pick them up and ask if she’s sure.
“Yeah, get them out of here. And come back soon. It’s good to see you and I’m glad things are good in your life.”
I give her a kiss and promise. The woman down the hall who had the stroke decides she and her roommate would like the flowers. I can’t get the man sitting in his wheelchair the lobby to take the Happy Birthday balloon but he bows very much, laughing. The receptionist tells me not to let it go outside because that’s for when people die. Lord knows that’s never going to happen.