May inches forward in her wheelchair, propelled by restless fingers that constantly fiddle, push, fiddle, push with the wheels. She doesn’t move fast or far but she never really stops, and so a conversation with her becomes a matter of matching her slow creep forward.
If you fall behind, May will rotate her head to face you, assuming almost impossible positions until her eyes can no longer capture yours. Then she’ll snap her head back, eyes front, and continue her conversation with the air, pushing relentlessly forward to freedom.
May expects you to keep up. And so you do.
Her voice is so softly monotone that a conversation with May is half-heard, half-lip-read. She watches your face for the right reaction; if you didn’t get it, she’ll repeat what she just said, a little more urgently each time, until you register comprehension.
Comprehension can be a long time coming. I often have no idea what May is talking about, and in a way I don’t have to; May’s bitterness swamps the content. May is very angry at what’s been done to her–whatever it was–and from the quietness of her distress I gather she’s not the sort of woman to speak out when she feels cheated. Not many in her generation are, I suppose.
This is a good nursing home–everyone says it’s probably the best in the state–and it’s obvious that the staff really cares about its patients. It’s also obvious that they’re overworked, and there’s not much time to just sit and listen to the folks they serve.
Consequently, the patients are pretty hard up for listeners. It’s rude to take someone’s visitor, but if I’m standing in the hall by myself, I’m fair game and someone usually wheels up, or invites me in for a chat.
I’ve seen May before, model-thin and strangely elegant, rolling up and down the nursing home halls. Her face is so angry I haven’t done more than smile and nod. But tonight, when Mom headed to Dad’s room and I trekked up to the front desk to sign us in, May and her chair blocked my path.
I suspect she was beautiful when younger; the bones are there, certainly. I once told her I liked her hair and she merely accepted it as her due, the way truly gorgeous women will. Her fair coloring is now age-spotted against watery blue eyes, but from the lines carved into her face I think she smiled often, and richly. Her stick-straight hair is orderly, cut into a smooth chin-length bob. It’s not really grey, more lavenders and blues, but there’s no sheen to it. There could be, if someone cared to try. May doesn’t.
“That woman was evil,” she hisses, ” She asked to see my keys and then she took them. Just took them. They weren’t hers and she said she will never give them back.”
“Who took your keys?” I ask.
“That woman. That terrible, terrible woman,” and she looks at me with urgency. “She and that man, that man with the hard, hard eyes, they took my money, all of it. They took my money and my house and then they stole my keys. All I could do was live here. You stay away from her, or she’ll make you a prisoner, too. How can I drive without my keys?”
I allow as to how that would be very difficult.
“My son,” she confides, “is a good son but he did naughty things and he’s in a place like this too. He can’t come to see me.”
“My other son, he comes, and I love him of course. He wants to talk about the weather and the food, as if that’s anything to talk about. That boy has no imagination,” she sighs as we creep down the hall to the exit, “But my other boy, he’s fun. He’s been very naughty but he’s so much fun. He would make you laugh.”
“But he can’t come,” she concluded sadly, “That evil woman took his keys, too.”
We reach the exit; May touches it but makes no attempt to open the door. Instead, she wheels the chair around and starts the slow trek to the next exit. We discuss the great evils of the world, in which Iraq, Irish whiskey, faceless wardens who imprison people and a beautiful home kept very, very clean figure prominently. As we talk, a brisk, smiling staffer hurries over and grabs my hand to shake it.
“You must be May’s daughter! We’ve all heard so much about you and have been so anxious to meet you! We thought you’d canceled the appointment again so I’m so glad you could make it.”
May straightens suddenly, and for the first time her voice is strident, urgent, loud. “My daughter? My daughter’s here? Where?”
“I’m sorry,” I hasten to explain, gesturing helplessly, “I’m Dr. Morgan’s daughter. I just met May in the hall and we’ve been talking…”
May peers up at me. “No, that’s not her,” she says softly, sagging back. “Isn’t she coming?” and her eyes begin to fill.
I open my arms but the attendant beats me to it. “No, May, and I’m so sorry,” she says, wrapping her arms tight around the old lady. “But your son will be here tomorrow morning…” She nods at me, moving me down the hall, and I head back to Mom and Dad while May weeps.
Later, I’m in Dad’s room. He made it into the pool today for physical therapy but pelvic fractures take a long, long time to heal. As we talk about his progress, May wheels past the open doorway and for the first time, stops cold. She doesn’t say anything, just stares in at me and raises her eyebrows expectantly.
I excuse myself and go out to her. “Are you alright?” she asks.
“Yes, May, I’m fine. How are you?” I say inanely. I want to apologize for being someone else’s daughter, stupid as that sounds, but I don’t know how and, anyway, May’s not interested. She smiles, a wide, sunny smile, and I see I was right: May is a beautiful woman.
“Is that your father?” I nod. “Why is he here?”
I explain about the garage door opener, the ladder, and my father’s fall.
“A fall?” she shakes her head, “Me too. I had three wooden steps from my back door and I took out the garbage and there was ice…I fell all the way down the steps. I broke my butt. The doctor said I broke my butt and it will never heal. My bones are too old.”
Her eyes narrow. “You tell your father to sell that ladder and to stay away from the stairs. He got away with it this time, but next time he could break his butt. You could, too,” she says, and it occurs to me that, of all the patients I’ve talked with in this place, May is the first besides my father to look out instead of in. For a moment she’s broken through the circling trap of fading self and honored me with a glimpse of the May that was.
“You stay away from icy stairs, too,” she warns, “Do not break your butt because you will never go home. The stairs on my beautiful, beautiful house. That evil woman took away my beautiful house…”
Her fingers clamp the wheels of her chair and she once again begins the nervous fiddle, push to slowly roll away. “Please find my room. It must be time for dinner and I’m very hungry.”
She won’t let me push the wheelchair, but we move slowly down the hall to her room.
P.S. BTW…I’m sculpting a portrait of May in pate de verre and documenting its progress in several posts. If you’d like to see the whole series, click on these links:
- The inspiration for the sculpture “May” (this post)
- The constructing of May’s clay model
- The making of a silicone mold of May (this post)
- Planning May’s mold
- Making May’s mold
- Packing May’s mold
- Decanting May’s test run
- May the second (final version)
- Taking the girls for a stroll