“He even has his own thermostat,” said the nurse pointing to the small grey box next to the light-switch. She stopped for a second, putting Fred’s wheelchair brakes on. “So if it gets too hot or too cold all he has to do is push his alert button and I’ll be right up to change it. Or if its night-time it’ll be Nurse Judy.” Kirsten nodded sadly looking at her father who stared absentmindedly at the floor in front of him. She didn’t care what the nurse was saying because her mind was filled with guilt-laden thoughts of taking her father out of the home that he had raised her in. Her hands found the shoulders of her seven year-old daughter Julia and pulled her closer to her; somehow that made her feel a little bit better. At least the room was nice, she thought. It provided just enough space for her father to move around and even have company with two rooms, a living area and the bedroom in the back.
“Does he prefer a different temperature while he’s sleeping?” asked the nurse.
“We usually drop it to about sixty-five at night and he seems to sleep just fine,” said Kirsten. “He tends to roam every now and then though. I used to think he was just going to the bathroom but one night I found him in the kitchen talking to my mom.”
“Ah, that’s probably the Alzheimer’s’ kicking in a bit there,” the nurse said quietly, gently patting Fred’s shoulder. “Well, shall we see the bedroom then? If you haven’t noticed there’s a little television over there in front of the couch and in the bedroom there’s a radio. Most of our residents tend to move the radio to their bedrooms by themselves so we just put them there now, just in case.” She released the brakes on the wheelchair and began to push Fred back towards the bedroom. Julia looked up at her mother, she was uncomfortable here and it was obviously mostly because of the smell of urine and sick that usually comes with the territory. Kirsten gave her a little nudge, urging her to follow after the nurse.
The bedroom was a fair size, there was a dresser already there that Kirsten instantly decided that she would replace with the one that her father has in his room back at the house. The small AM/FM radio and alarm clock sat on the night-stand next to the bed and a small window had its blinds cracked with a view over-looking the rest of what Kirsten could only describe as a compound. The nurse continued to talk but Kirsten didn’t listen really. Her mind found the points that she was meant to respond to and instantly told her to nod when her reaction was needed. Underneath her auto-pilot mind she mentally beat herself. You stupid, selfish, brat. Look at that man sitting there in the wheel-chair. He raised you, he fed you, he clothed you and he taught you everything that you know! This is how you repay him?
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” said Kirsten. “But the bathroom is through that door right?” She pointed to a door left of the dresser. The nurse looked at her with a knowing look and nodded. Kirsten went into the bathroom, ran the water and sobbed as quickly and quietly as she could. Let it out, just let it out. Get a grip. He’ll be okay. When she finished she wiped her eyes with a tissue and washed her face. She joked to herself thinking that it was definitely a good idea to decide against make-up today.
As she came out of the bathroom she found the nurse sitting on the bed waiting for her. At the sight of Kirsten’s questioning glance around the room she said, “I wheeled your father into the living space. He’s watching cartoons with your daughter. I figured there were things you wanted to talk about that you wouldn’t want to in front of your daughter.” Kirsten felt relief realizing just how much this nurse seemed to understand.
“There’s just one thing really,” said Kirsten. “Honestly, and not speaking as an employee here?”
“Sure,” said the nurse with a soft smile. She patted a spot on the bed next to her for Kirsten to join her. When Kirsten put her purse on the floor and sat on the bed she was caught off-guard when the nurse took her hand and looked her straight in the eye with that look that only mothers can give. Kirsten felt safe, so she opened up.
“He’ll be okay here, right? I mean, it’s not that I don’t trust you guys here because everyone’s been so nice. I just want to make sure he’ll be comfortable. I tried to talk to him about this and make sure he was okay with it but he just… He just stares, you know? I wouldn’t be doing this but I… I’m a single mother and I’m fighting my way through school and work. I can barely afford to pay Julia’s day-care. I’ve been using the money from his retirement to pay for his food and everything and that’s what’s paying for this now. I just can’t take care of him anymore. God knows I want to. I don’t have the time nor do I have the strength. Am I wrong?” That was the big question, ‘Am I wrong?’ The moment those three words left her lips the matronly nurse shook her head.
“No you’re not wrong,” she said. “You’re not wrong at all. I’ve been there too. I brought my mother here while I was working at the University Hospital. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t trust them and you can trust me. I’ll make your father my special resident; I’ll take extra good care of him. Don’t worry, Miss Keller. I understand and I’m sure that your father understands. He’s safe here and you’re okay.” With that Kirsten broke down in sobs and the nurse hugged her. “You’re alright. I promise you that he’s alright too. And you…” She pulled away from Kirsten and looked her in her now red and swollen eyes. Kirsten could see that the nurse was beginning to tear as well. “You are not wrong,” she said as she cleared her throat. “Let me go get you some tissues.”
As the nurse got up from the bed and went into the bathroom Kirsten took a few deep breaths to calm herself. The nurse returned with tissues for Kirsten and tissues for herself. Kirsten thanked her and wiped her eyes as the nurse dabbed gently at her own. “You know you never do get used to this moment with your resident’s children. But like I said, don’t worry. I was in your shoes once and everything was fine. See?” She pulled a picture out of her breast pocket, the edges all folded and worn from being stuffed in the pocket and probably produced dozens of times daily. It was the nurse, a young woman, a young man who must’ve been the woman’s husband and their child, the nurses’ grand-child. “That’s my son there with his wife and my grand-baby. See? It takes time and strength but everything turns out in the end.” Kirsten smiled and deep-down felt sure of herself that this nurse was right. Though the guilt was still there she had to show her daughter how to be strong. She handed the picture back to the nurse who returned it to its home.
“Oh, before I forget,” said Kirsten. She reached down to her purse and brought it up to her lap. She dug through it and found a small, red, digital camera. “Is it okay if I leave this? There are a lot of family photos in here and I figure that if he ever gets lonely, you know.” The nurse took it from her and set it on the night-stand, “We’ll leave it right here for him.”
Leaving was as tough as Kirsten thought that it would be. Saying the words, “Good-bye, Daddy,” felt absolutely gut-wrenching as they left her lips. She kissed him on the cheek and told Julia to say good-bye. She did so awkwardly, she always had a strange phobia of the wheel-chair even though she knew it was just grandpa. Somehow the wheel-chair just made things different between the two of them and Kirsten wondered if he realized that his grand-daughter was apprehensive to hug him. But there was just one thing that Kirsten felt that she had to do before she left. She knelt down to Julia and said, “Go outside with the nurse for a bit and I’ll be right there, okay?” The nurse took Julia’s hand and led her outside, closing the door behind them. Kirsten crawled over to face her father, staying on her knees so she could be at his level.
“Daddy, I don’t know if you can hear me,” he looked up at her and a knot began to form in her throat. “This isn’t good-bye for good, okay? I’ll be here to see you twice a week at the least and I’ll bring Julia with me. We can have dinner and watch TV. It’ll be just like home only… it’s not going to be the same without you, Dad.” Tears again began to run down her face. And then she noticed the small sad smile beginning to curl on the sides of her fathers’ lips. Just say it, she told herself. “Thank you. Thank you for everything that you’ve ever, ever given me. My life, my child-hood, everything I have I owe to you. I hate that I’m bringing you here, Daddy, but they’re going to take good care of you because it kills me to say that I can’t. You and Julia are all I’ve got, Daddy. I don’t know what else to say other than I’m sorry. I don’t know if you really know what’s going on but if you do I hope you understand. I love you, Daddy.” She kissed him again on the forehead and stood. She put her purse over her shoulder and, without looking back, opened the door and left. Fred sat alone in his wheel-chair and watched his grand-daughters favorite cartoons with that sad smile still on his face and a tear ran down his cheek.
Turns out that leaving was worse than Kirsten thought it would be.
It was eleven o’clock at night and Kirsten was at work on her fifth glass of wine, the bottle on the night-stand nearly completely empty. She sat cross-legged on her bed surrounded by photo albums that chronicled the time between the late 50’s when her parents had first gotten engaged to Julia’s birth. Kirsten’s mother, Susanne had passed away from lung cancer shortly after Julia was born in 2004. Her favorite picture of her mother was the one that she now held in her hand. If her math was right then her mother was about 31 at the time the picture was taken. It was on her parent’s tenth anniversary and because Susanne was a May-baby and her favorite color also happened to be emerald green, Fred had bought her a beautiful emerald green cocktail dress that she absolutely fell in love with. Kirsten even remembered her mother wearing that dress to her graduation. “It’s only for the best occasions,” her mother would say. When she wore that dress Fred would only address her as, “my lady”.
Kirsten put down her wine-glass and took a deep breath. She looked out her bedroom door, down the hall and into the living room. Why did I just do that, she asked herself. She felt nervous in the house now. It just felt so empty. Of course her father wasn’t there but there was something more to it, something she just couldn’t quite put her finger on. Ever since she had moved back into her child-hood home she had always felt comforted as though nothing could ever go wrong here. Come to think of it, Julia had always had horrible nightmares prior to moving into the house, but ever since they had moved in not-a-one. Kirsten smiled to herself; my home is your home kiddo. She had another sip of wine and another deep breath. Mom, she thought.
She glanced down at the picture of her mother, all dolled up and glamorous in her green dress. She always resembled Elizabeth Taylor and everyone thought so, her mother was beautiful! Kirsten remembered one day walking up to her mother and saying that one day she wanted to look just like her. “You already do, silly,” said her mom taking her by the hand and leading her to the bathroom mirror. “Look at those cheekbones, you got those from me. And those beautiful deep-brown eyes, you got from your father. But look at your face. Now look at mine.”
“We look the same,” Kirsten remembered exclaiming ecstatically.
“See? You don’t need to wait until you’re all grown up,” said Susanne beaming at her child. Things were so much easier then, thought Kirsten. She put the picture back in its place and finished her wine. Her hand reached for the bottle again but something in the back of her head said, “No, Kirsten. You’ve had enough.” She put the albums away back on the book-shelf in the den and walked around the one-story home one last time. Something was different but she just couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t the absence of her father, it was something more. The house just felt different. Cold but not in any temperature-related sense, the air just felt empty. Kirsten gave up trying to figure it out and went to bed, crying herself to sleep while keeping the words of the nurse at heart. “You’re alright. I promise you that he’s alright too. You are not wrong.”
Kirsten would be awoken at two-thirty in the morning because Julia had a nightmare.
Fred’s day was peaceful. The nurse had come back after his family left and put on some old sit-coms from back-in-the-day. Then she showed him the camera that Kirsten had left him, his eyes never left the screen and the nurse would swear that she saw a smile. At about three in the afternoon she wheeled him around the facility and introduced him to new people even though Fred was hardly responsive to anything she or anyone said. For dinner he was given a healthy helping of meat-loaf, some green-beans and nice buttery mashed-potatoes. When it came to bedtime at eight-thirty Nurse Judy was the one who came and tucked him in after the day-nurse had bathed him. By nine he was out like a light in his new, warm, soft bed.
At about one-thirty in the morning he awoke and sat up in bed. He looked at the camera that the nurse had left on the nightstand and picked it up, dropping it in his pocket. He saw the radio and unplugged it. Slowly he stood up from the bed and inched his way from the bedroom to the living room, never bothering to turn on a light. He unplugged the television and plugged in the radio instead. He turned on the radio and began to go through the channels slowly, listening carefully for what he wanted. Suddenly he found what he was looking for; the jazzy, swing tunes from a 1930’s era big brass band filled the dark room.
He stood back and took the camera out of his pocket. He turned it on, held it up and pointed it towards the living room and said, “Dance for me, my lady.” With every single flash from the camera, a smile began to grow on the old man’s face.
Had someone checked the camera, they would’ve seen a green mist floating back and forth around the living room.