I went to sit with Fran for a while, because she’s been unhappy lately. I don’t use words like “declining” around her, but anyone can see she’s going downhill. She knows something is wrong, but can’t put her finger on it. She’s gotten more confused the past few months, a lot weaker, and she didn’t had much self-confidence when I started here; this new development has her putting the brakes on trying at anything, even putting on a shirt. She’ll just fumble with it, groping both arms through the head hole or let it sit on top of her and look pitiful, not making any attempt until you put your foot down.
Fran’s little apartment is divided into a cozy living room/kitchen, a slightly bigger bedroom and a tiny bathroom that barely fits us and her walker. No stove, but there’s a counter and cupboards and drawers with silverware and cups, and a little fridge like you’d see in a dorm room. Coming in through the front door—always unlocked and ajar, because she fears she’ll lose her key—the kitchen is to the right, next to Fran’s electric recliner, a nightstand with a lamp and across from there are two tiny rocking chairs that somehow support my weight, though the arms pinch my girth. A subtle reminder I need to get back on a diet. Or “change my lifestyle” as chronic fat people like me tend to put it. I knocked on the door as I came in, she said she was happy to see me, which I took to mean I could have a seat. I took the chair looking directly at her.
“How you doing, Fran?” I said loudly. She isn’t hard of hearing, but speaking loudly and slowly helps her understand what you’re saying. She talks lower and slower than she used to. Takes time to ruminate on her words. I try hard not to check my watch when I’m around her. She doesn’t get a lot of talking done because we’re all rushed, almost all the time.
“I’m lonely, but I don’t know why,” Fran said finally. “People come in and out, but it’s not the same.”
“Nobody talks to you?”
“Yeah, people talk, but it’s all the same thing. They all their own way of doing things. And they creep up on me with things to do. PT. What you do—not you, but you know. The others. They want me to go watch old movies.” Fran has a perpetually sour look on her face like she was sucking on lemons before you walked in. Her skin is dry all over, no matter how much moisturizer I put on it. The flaking whiteness all over her scalp, her cheeks, and on her chin only adds to the gruesome texture of her face with her mouthed pulled back dryly in a near permanent grimace that forcibly reminds me of a skull.
“You don’t like the old movies?” I ask loudly.
“I saw them all years ago and don’t want to look at them again. That’s us. Old people. Old movies. Old things. Remembering. The sum of our parts; old, old, old; us in a nutshell.”
“Oh,” I said lamely. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Before I could offer up an alternative, Fran verbally reached into my guts and squeezed them, twisted them. “I’m not used to being dirty,” she moaned. “I’m used to being clean all the time, but they’re not cleaning me as much as I’d like. You’re one of the only ones who does.”
I didn’t know what to say. I started to speak, to tell her she needs to tell someone about this, but she rambled on. I’ve learned sometimes it’s best to just let people talk; they don’t necessarily want advice or solutions as much as someone to grieve to.
“I don’t know what to think or where to go or how to solve anything. I used to know. This is my walker,” she said, rattling its aluminum frame. “My pouch is on it, and those are my pads. But it doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t look like my walker. I wouldn’t know it was if you didn’t give it to me. And you have to take me all the way to the bathroom if I have to go. Nothing is normal anymore. And I don’t know how to get it back to normal.
“My bottom is sore. I shouldn’t say that in front of gentlemen.”
“I know I’m gonna fall. I don’t want to fall again. It’s really bad. It’s bad when that happens. No hospitals. That’s the worst. You don’t get to live in your apartment if you go there too much. All my friends are in Independent Living and I need help with everything. That’s not normal. None of this is normal.”
If I could find words, I don’t know what they’d be. All I could think to do was validate that it’s “normal” at this stage of her life, and some people are at different levels, or some crap I was taught in orientation or class. But I’m twenty-nine. What do I know about any of that? Anything I said would come off as hollow and unhelpful as telling a dying man to cheer up, it gets better. I let the silence stretch on painfully.
Fran croaked that she was thirsty. “There’s a can of ginger ale in the fridge. Take half and we can share it,” she said.
Her fridge was barren but for a few bottles of V8. “There’s only V8 in here, Fran. I’ll have to go and get you one from the kitchen.”
“Please make sure you come back,” she whined. She had turned around in her chair to look at me, fingering the big button on her pendant, not quite pressing it. “I don’t want to be lonely.”
“I’ll be back soon,” I said, stepping out. I had a feeling it was a bad thing to say, and was rewarded for it moments later when someone else hit their pendant. Duty called, and “soon” was almost twenty minutes. I got her ginger ale in the end even though she only vaguely remembered asking for it, and she gulped it down, burping, which she remarked was very unladylike with a little laugh.
Update: Fran moved out of her apartment in assisted living to skilled about two weeks later, skipping right past personal care. Did not pass Go, did not collect her $200. This place would have taken it anyway. She died less than a week after that. I hope she was surrounded by family when it happened. I hope she wasn’t alone. No one told me or I would have been there. She was a huge pain in the final months I knew her, a physical and emotional tax more than a person, but the last few days in her company humanized her again. I’m thankful for that.
I’m sure someone would remark at how wrong it was for losing sight of her humanity. I can only shrug at it, look away. I feel exactly what you’re feeling for me, but it was never a conscious choice… No, I can’t honestly say that. I saw it coming like I’ve seen it so many times before, the moment where acquaintanceship either becomes friendship or sours slowly while you watch in a mix of anxiety and anger. Anxiety because it means a dark spot on your day, anger that swallows you up, pulls you down. Anger at the resident for being such a fuss, so much a dependent pain in the most tender part of the gluteus. The tailbone area for me, that’s the most tender area. She was a pain in my tailbone.
It’s a blind corner that you take with faith or your eyes closed tight. Every time I meet a resident like her I shut my eyes and hope for the best. Sometimes I take a hit. Sometimes I meet residents who are demanding, heavy, angry or mean. And I’d fight against it. I can’t say I did my best because I know I could’ve done a lot better. I could have smiled, forgiven them, rather than taking their meanness into me and holding onto it, hurting myself with it. I guess the more often it happened, the less I fought it, until Fran the human being with wants and needs and a personality was shrunk down to Fran the confused, shrieking harpy who depended on me for everything. Fran, My Future Back Problem. It’s hard to shake off bitterness like that after it has seeped into your skin. I still had some love for her, though, for whatever insane reason I couldn’t put my finger. Maybe because she reminded me so much of myself. A hypochondriac, dependent, whiny, pitifully scared person facing what she’d feared she would face her whole life. Trying to save her from the fear that came on at night when she was all alone—the same kind that creeps up on me when all my distractions are gone—was like saving myself. Working with her put that fear, and all the dependence, the whininess that came with it front and center. It made me take a long hard look at myself. I didn’t like what I saw.
Fran was my zen teacher, in a way, and I hated her like one, for showing me all the ways I was coming up short. I’m only realizing it now as all the confused emotion and mixed up thoughts unwind, smooth out. She was probably one of my very best teachers.