I dreamed that while crying in the night, an angel came and held me until morning, just to let me know that God hadn't forgotten about me. But when I woke, my pillow was wet and I was alone. There were days when I didn't want to get out of bed. There were days when I just didn't want to wake up. Maybe I should have married that pimple-faced boy my father brought home, hoping I'd fall in love with. Maybe.
The divorce papers lay on the kitchen table. I wished that I loved him. I wished that I hated him. Maybe I just wished I cared, because I didn't. I knew that I used to care about something, before I got married. I was sure of it. You couldn't have asked me what it was, because I didn't know, and I couldn't have told you. Nothing inspired me. I was lost. I dragged myself into the bathroom and peeled the uniform I'd worn to work the previous day off and threw it in the hamper. I didn't even bother to change into pajamas anymore. Who saw me? Who cared?
I took a quick shower. The walls of the tub were whitish-blue from soap scum and the bottom was slick. I figured that I'd probably slip and hurt myself one day. I ought to switch to baths so that when it happens, I'll drown and that will be the end of my problems. I stumbled out of the shower and just barely caught my balance on the edge of the grimy sink. It needed to be cleaned, too. I reached for my toothbrush, but was gone. I didn't know why it wasn't in my medicine cabinet, but I didn't have the energy to look for it. Instead, I just used mouthwash twice and called my teeth clean.
Back in the bedroom, I pulled out another uniform. I was a nurse's aid at a nursing home called Golden Fields. I hated it there. My clothes only matched because they were all the same color. Blue. It used to be my favorite color. My hair was a mess, so I combed it and pulled it into a ponytail. My make-up was dumped in a drawer in a disheveled mess that would have taken hours to sort. I didn't have the energy to try to put any on that day, so I pushed the drawer shut with my hip and stepped over a pile of dirty clothes as I head for the door.
I hated my job. The nursing home was not like the retirement homes you see on television. On TV, the people are happy and healthy although they need a little help to get along. A nursing home is where they send people when they can't take care of themselves. We had it all there, Alzheimer's, dementia, cancer, even a couple AIDS patients. When I first started working here, I was sure that I could change their lives, but I never made a difference. Life has a way of teaching you what you can actually accomplish.
I swiped my timecard through the slot (They work like a credit card. I have to swipe back out when I leave to go home. It makes it easier for them to track how much time you work.) and make my way down the hall. No doubt I'd have to clean bedpans first. There was nothing I hated more than cleaning those bedpans. It's a disgusting job. No one likes their job. That's not the point of a job. They should make the volunteers do it.
Someone was calling my name and I stopped. I clenched my teeth at my boss's familiar voice. She was young, probably twenty-five, with bright smiles and warm words for everyone. I couldn't stand her, all that joy and pleasantness. I answered her shortly, not even trying to pretend that I cared about what she wanted me to do. I hated everything about this job and I didn't care if I lost it. "Dorothy Hamilton has had another episode down in the "C" corridor. Everyone else is down trying to calm down the residents."
Dorothy Hamilton was a tiny woman with a temper like the wrath of the Old Testament God, hurling dishes and books like fireballs. The other residents, many of whom had become much like children were frightened. Luckily, I do not have to go help calm down some confused, screaming eighty year old woman who thinks she's five and can't find her mother. "A new resident is coming in today, go down and get him accommodated. D103. I would do it myself, but, I just can't right now. Thanks so much Helen."
My boss is upset, I can tell because she keeps pushing her feathery blond hair behind her ears, even though none has escaped. It is strange the things we notice about people.
Anything was better than bedpans. Right after bedpans, however was new residents. They always cry when they arrive. I didn't blame them, I would have cried too. The nursing home was arranged into four halls (A, B, C, and D) with special units for the Alzheimer's patients (Garden Hall) and the terminally ill patients (Arcadia). I drew a calming breath in as I stood outside the door. I was stalling for time before I needed to enter the room. I stood up straight and put a sweet smile on my face.
I expected to see a pitiful, shriveled old wreck crying in the corner. Instead, I walk in on a surprisingly robust man singing softly to himself. "Swing low, sweet chariot, comin' for to carry me home!" He was carefully arranging a large number of framed pictures on his nightstand with shaking, gnarled fingers. Already, I could see that the walls are covered with a collection of faded and yellow newspaper clippings. Some were obituaries, some were honor roll announcements, graduations, and one showed a cherub-faced little boy holding an immense potato with a ribbon stuck to it.
I knocked hesitantly, not sure how he would react to having someone walk in on him and startle him. He turned in his wheelchair to see who had come in. A bright smile light up his wrinkled face and he skillfully maneuvers his wheelchair around. He came to the door and stopped as he held out a hand to me. He greeted me cheerfully with a bright smile. "Good morning, beautiful! You smile like my daughter. Wonderful smile!"
His name was Michael Daniels and he had had a stroke six months before. As a result he occasionally had seizures. His family lived a long distance from his house and could not guarantee that they would be there when he needed them. It was better for everyone's peace of mind, and his health, that he go to live at Golden Fields. It must have been a hard thing for a man who seems so independent and bright to have to live where people don't even know who they are. He turned to the corner of the room and laughed. "Maybe it won't be so bad living here after all."
To my surprise, there was a silent, dark-haired man standing in the corner. I hadn't even noticed him when I'd come in. He wasn't a handsome man, but neither was he homely. His mouth was shaped like a child's only larger and wider. I glance over at the picture of the child on the wall, seeing a clear resemblance. He was striking, I decided. He laid his hands on the old man's shoulders and kissed his forehead. He told him that he had to go to work, but he'd stop back after his shift was over. Mr. Daniels smiled and patted his cheek affectionately. The man let go and they bid each other farewell quickly. The dark man promised that he would come and take Mr. Daniels out on Saturday. As he left, I could see that his brow was a heavy line across his face.
"That's my son. I may not be as pretty, but my disposition's much sweeter." I laughed when the old man winked at me and shook my head.
"Do most women fall for your charms?" I asked.
"My wife is so proud of him." Mr. Daniels said, his eyes lingered on the door. "My son, a pediatrician!"
"Yeah, don't let the grouchy face fool you, he's like butter inside."
"Where is your wife?"
"She's with the good Lord." He told me with a smile and wheeled himself back to the little dresser, his gnarled fingers shaking as he reached through the forest of picture frames. He picked the largest out of the group and laid it in his lap, adeptly wheeling around his bed and coming back to me. His fingers lovingly traced the face beneath the glass and he sighed as he hands it to me. "Isn't she beautiful?"
"Yes she is." There was a slender woman with bright green eyes and the golden skin from a land full of sunshine smiling out at me.
"My kids, they worry about me. They seem to think I'll just curl up and die. But if I did that, let me tell you Claire would have my hide before Judgment Day ever got here!"
I laughed. Mr. Daniels told me that I didn't have to spend the day with him, and that he knew I must have had more important things to do. I lingered for a few minutes to make sure that he was settled and because something about his presence was so calming and comforting that I regretted to leave.
I did not think about the gentle old man until that night as I was crawling into bed. That night, I'd actually taken the time to change out my clothes and into an old t-shirt and shorts. I lay on my back, one hand on my stomach and the other drooped off the edge of the bed. The moon was like a slice of pale yellow butter and it poured dim, grayish light through my window, making bars across my face and chest. I felt the weight of those shadows pushing me down into the bed so heavily that my breathing felt labored. After several minutes, I yelped faintly and rolled away, completely in the shadows, watching the squares of moonlight shift as misty clouds drew across the face of the moon.
I drew my knees up as closely to my chest as I could and closed my eyes, pulling the comforter as tightly around me. I was shaking with the force of my emotions and from the effort of not allowing them to escape. Big girls don't cry. Stop being a baby and grow up.
He said that his wife was with God. I used to believe in God. I grew up in the church, led the youth group and arranged charity drives to help starving children in Bolivia. My dad was a reverend. He used to talk about hellfire and brimstone, and I used to fall to my knees from the force of . . . what? Was it really God? Was it just me wanting to believe that it was God? He said his wife was with God . . . I wished I still believed. I wished I still had something. I had been happy. I wonder what my dad would have said if he could have seen me? He would have cried. I know he would have. But he would have pulled me close and rocked me back and forth, and then I would have cried, too.
But Dad had died seven years before. I'm glad he never saw me fall to pieces. Mom had a hard enough time with it. She didn't call me anymore. I figured that I'd call her again, someday. Either that or I'd go to her funeral and regret my choices for the rest of my life. I used to be strong. I never hid from the moonlight. I looked up at the moon, my grip loosening on the comforter and slowly relaxed, as I stretched out in the bed. If you don't believe in God, does He still believe in you?
A week later when I was leaving to go home from work, I heard a surprisingly familiar voice call out to me as I walked through the D corridor. I stopped hesitantly and paused before I entered the room. "Mr. Daniels?"
"Hello, Beautiful. Could you do me a favor? One of my pictures fell behind the dresser and I can't get it." He said flashing that bright smile at me again.
I quickly retrieved the picture from where it had fallen, surprised to see that it was a photograph of him and his wife, much younger with a swarm of kids around them. "We used to have kids out from the city. Most of them had never even seen a cow before. Can you imagine, being thirteen and never having seen a live cow?"
I laughed and handed the picture to him. "Miss, what's your name. I know it's not Beautiful, though it could be."
I shook my head, "Helen."
"Helen." He nodded as if agreeing with me.
"I have to go home, now but I'll see you tomorrow, Mr. Daniels." I said, and started to leave.
"What makes you so sad, Helen?" He asked me.
I froze, mid-step. I turned back to him, my mouth open slightly, "I'm not sad."
"Anyone can see the burden you're under. What makes one so young so sad?"
I was torn between wanting to scream that there was nothing wrong and bursting into tears. "I . . . my life isn't what I wanted it to be."
He smiled sweetly, his brown eyes shrinking in his wrinkled face. "It never is."
"My husband left me. He . . . his secretary was twenty-three and he left me because of her." I said, staring at him. No one at work had ever noticed that anything was wrong with me. I did well at ignoring them. I didn't really care what they thought about me. But it was to be expected. I never really made friends with the people I worked with. At least, I never made any effort to.
"You're still young." He commented with a smile, "You get to start over."
"I'm eighty-four. You're not even halfway through, Beautiful."
"Why do you call me Beautiful, Mr. Daniels? We both know that it's not true." I said. I'd never been called beautiful, not even by my husband. It wasn't that I was homely, I was ordinary. Nondescript gray eyes and baby-fine brown-blond hair with a round face and a body that was slightly overweight. My face was too soft, difficult to define why it wasn't particularly appealing. I had the sort of face that was easily forgotten and difficult to place upon reunion.
"You remind me of my daughter, and like her, your beauty runs deeper than the skin."
"I'm not a good person, either. Just because I look like your daughter doesn't mean that I am." I said angrily, not raising my voice.
"You are so sad, but know that God loves you. I can see your pain, and so can He." He said.
"God wasn't there when I needed him. He's not real . . . just a fantasy that I clung to when I was a child!" I ground out.
"Do you really believe that?"
"It's easier than trying to make sense out of God. He's just a joke."
"You're so angry."
"Goodbye, Mr. Daniels."
"Helen!" He called, and against my will I turned back again. "Come visit me later this week." I wanted to refuse, to ask him exactly what made him think that I would come visit him again after he'd made me so angry. Yet, I couldn't refuse. I nodded my assent and turned, leaving the room quickly with out another word of farewell.
I got in my car and sat behind the wheel, staring out the window into the black. There was a streetlamp down the street, and it drew a perfect round circle on the sidewalk. Mr. Daniels spoke to me with a frank familiarity that unnerved me. I could hear my father's voice when he talked, and I imagine that my father would have said the same things that he'd said to me tonight. "Crazy old man."
When I got home, I stood in the center of the living room and looked around me, doing my best to ignore the hovel of an apartment that used to be my home, but the dirty dishes on the television set refuse to be overlooked. I got a black garbage bag from the kitchen and started shoving things inside. The pretty cream and gold plates that were a wedding gift, the stack of fishing magazines in the corner, the eternally dry potted plant he gave me for our anniversary last year, the black sweater he'd left laying over the arm of the chair, the pictures of our wedding sitting on the mantle, the alpaca fur rug we got on our honeymoon in Chile . . . I shoved them all into the garbage bag, taking supreme delight in every one. The bag was soon full, but as I began to tie it closed, I stopped, the overhead light causing my wedding band to glint sharply. How could it still be so shiny when all that it stood for was gone? I grit my teeth together and slowly pulled it from my finger, twisting it around and around, before letting it drop into the bag with the rest of my marriage.
I knew that the next day I would regret throwing these things out. Those plates were expensive, and the detailing was actual gold. He'd want that black sweater after the divorce papers were signed. Those wedding pictures could never be duplicated. That rug was terribly soft, and I loved the way it felt on my bare feet in the winter. But most of all, the ring, the thing that had represented so much, forever lost.
For a moment, I contemplated putting everything back, forgetting about how good it felt to shove them all in the garbage bag. I smiled then, tying the top shut with a neat and surprisingly perky bow and then dragged the heavy, clanking black mass out of the apartment, down the hall, and with a great deal of effort, shoved it into the garbage shoot. I laughed out loud when I heard the dishes shatter as they fell into the garbage bin below.
I couldn't stop then. The entire apartment had to be cleaned, and every bit of evidence that I hadn't always been single was in the living room, packed neatly in cardboard boxes. I scrubbed the floors, swept the ceiling, dusted and shined every piece of wood in sight, cleaned the tub, scrubbed the walls of the tub until I could see my reflection although it was dim and barely noticeable. When my activity stopped, I was stunned to find that it was three o'clock in the morning. I hadn't stayed up past eight o'clock in four weeks. Sleep had been so easy to fall into, perfect oblivion. That night, I didn't want to sleep, but I knew that I had to, so I climbed into bed with a strangely light feeling and slept more peacefully than I can remember.
The next day, I didn't have to work, but I went to visit Mr. Daniels anyway. When I walked into the room, I expected to see him rolling around perky and cheerful as ever, but instead, he was still and pale, lying in his bed with an array of plastic tubes running in and out of his body. He looked at me when I entered, a weak imitation of a smile flickering across his face. "Mr. Daniels! What happened?"
"He had another stroke."
Once again I had overlooked the dark man, his son. He was quietly sitting by the window, his brown eyes made darker by the torment I could see in them.
"Stroke? But he was fine yesterday!" I argued, although I knew what strokes worked like, how sudden they were.
For several minutes, we stood in silence. He took his seat by the window, staring out, but still watching his father. I didn't move for several minutes longer, only gazed at the man lying in the hospital-style bed. And then let my gaze wander to his tiny forest of frames. One was missing, the picture of his wife. Behind the dresser, I saw the corner protruding. It had fallen and no one had known. Carefully, I picked it up and stood it on the edge of the stand. I could see the gratitude in Mr. Daniels's eyes. I gently patted his hand and nodded farewell to his son and left, knowing that I would never see Mr. Daniels again.
Instead, I drove home in a daze, standing in the middle of the kitchen like a statue. I fell to my knees, pushed down by some weight that I couldn't see. My car keys clattered from my fingers and I skidded across the hardwood floor loudly. The strap of my purse slipped off my shoulder it fell to the floor, flopping onto its side. A pen tumbled out, followed by a tube of lipstick that rolled across the kitchen.
It was so still that my breath seemed to roar in my ears. "God?"
My voice startled me and I licked my lips, staying silent for several minutes as the pressure of the quiet pummeled me. "God? Can you hear me? I . . . I know I haven't been very good recently, but . . . I'm scared. God? Are you there? It's me, Helen and I know it's been a long time since I've talked to you . . ."