Following a stroke, an elderly woman was admitted to the intensive care unit of a hospital. From that moment on she insisted that she be released, not because she was well, but because she was sick. She was sick because she was in the hospital. She felt quite certain that if she stayed there she would die. Her blood ran as from a terrible fright round and round her body. She was afraid of bedsores and the man behind the curtain across from her, who kept exploding. The nurses came day and night—though day and night were only different nurses here—to change his bed right under him. Was he manacled to the bed? The woman wondered. Now Robert, the night nurse said, you stop that now. They wanted Robert to stop fouling his bed.
The day nurse who applied the pink cream to prevent bedsores was called Romaine—the name of a lettuce, the old woman took pains to inform her. To Romaine, she said: I have to get out of here. But nurses were immune to such agitation. It was the shoes they wore, the old woman thought, that left them so unmoved. Again and again she called for the doctor. Finally, the doctor appeared: a kindly man with a stethoscope, of the sort that had treated her as a child, had treated her own children. Now, now, the doctor said. It will do you no good to carry on like this. What was her complaint exactly? Of what was she so afraid? She told him it was the man in the bed across from her—if she was here, she was as sick as that man. Oh no, the doctor assured her. You are much sicker than him. Indeed, the next day Robert was gone.
In her heart, she knew that she had killed her mother by replacing her playing cards. Replacing the cards had been a kindness, but of the wrong kind—like a compliment you pay to something you dislike. The old packs were a disgrace: blackened and gummy round the once-gilt edges. Their soft thwack on the table in the other room, while she unloaded groceries in the kitchen each week, was like the noises her mother made but did not hear, or the pallet of cold bits under the lid of the small pan on the stovetop.
She had bought the cards for her mother on her first trip abroad, to Paris when she was twenty: a double deck depicting two kinds of Monet’s water lilies. For many years the cards were brought out for parlor games, but since her retirement to the small flat, her mother had been playing Patience with increasing frequency, and more frequently still since a minor stroke and a mugging had left her housebound. She played games of Patience back to back, shuffling and dealing, re-sorting the deck from accident to order and back again. There was something about the loop, the lilies, her mother’s own unending patience with the game, that made her feel as if the old woman was singularly responsible for the awful action of the universe.
The new cards were slippery and hard and would not shuffle; her mother stirred them in a puddle on the table like a child. There would be no time to wear them down. In her heart, she knew it was no accident that not two weeks after their arrival, the old woman slipped and fell, as one does, on the bathroom floor.
A picnic was planned with a group of residents from the dementia ward of a senior facility. It would take place on the bank of the narrow river that edged the surrounding town, running water being considered amenable to unquiet minds. Despite the nearness of the river, it was necessary to load the residents into a white van and drive briefly on a highway of screaming cars. Indeed, the highway could not be avoided by anyone who wished to enter or exit the home for any purpose, a fact that went some way to dissuading visitors. The surrounding buildings had been bought up and demolished, so the highway could pass through, cutting the elder home clean off from the rest of town. It was not clear if the home had merely been forgotten by the planners, or if this had in fact been part of the plan.
On the appointed day, the residents were counted and packed into a ten-seat van, three lanes of traffic on the screaming highway speedily crossed, and the first exit taken. The river, where many of the residents had fished and played as children, was by now only a muddy stream. For years, nothing had been as they remembered it. It was, in the end, a disconsolate afternoon, the sun bearing down, ants perforating the picnic tables. When it was time to return to the facility, the appointed carer counted his residents and realized with horror that there were only nine. He packed them into the van and searched frantically up and down the banks of the river for the tenth resident, calling different names. Finally, there was nothing to do but return to the facility and explain what had happened; a more effective search party could be assembled from there. It was only when he took his seat in the van that he realized, with a mixture of horror and relief, that he had forgotten to count himself.
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