Mrs. Q grimaces. “Can’t you shut her up?” she asks me, exasperation written all over her face. And I get it…oh, how I get it. Just across the hall, Mrs. W has been screaming variations of “Mother!” and “Help!”–in what seem to be increasing decibels–for a long time. Both my patience and my nerves are shot to hell. It doesn’t help that everyone else, including the other residents, are in the same state as me. Everyone is riled up, frustrated and exasperated. I just want to march in that room and…
Instead I unload my own exasperation on Mrs. Q.
“No, I can’t ‘shut her up,'” I say frostily. “She won’t calm down and you know I can’t make her.”
“Go get her mother–that’s who she’s yelling for.”
“Mrs. W is older than you are,” I tell her. “For obvious reasons, I can’t fetch her mother.”
“Oh. Well, do something,” she snaps in reply. “Why should I have to sit here and listen to that?”
Ordinarily, Mrs. Q is a wonderfully sympathetic neighbor. Ordinarily, I am an empathic caregiver. Deep down, under the frayed nerves, I wonder if this is some kind of test we’ve both failed. I sigh, then turn on my heel and march into Mrs. W’s room. They say third time’s the charm, right?
Mrs. W’s eyes are wide-open, darting all over the room. Her breath is shallow, panting; she’s clearly frightened and, if I had to guess, doesn’t know where she is, when she is…maybe even who she is. Her terrified gaze catches me and locks on. “Mother!” she cries again, her hands grasping at mine. “Oh, mother I’m so scared.”
I don’t disabuse her of my mistaken identity. I just sit down on the edge of the bed and let her cradle my hands to her sweating face.
“Oh, mother I’m so glad you’re here,” she sobs.
It’s hard to stay hard-hearted around such naked fear; it’s hard to feel frustrated with someone when your presence brings them such profound relief. Even though I’m not who she thinks I am…
“Don’t leave me, mother,” she begs, squeezing my hands.
“Hey, it’s okay,” I tell her. “I’m here, I’ve got you. You’re okay. I’m gonna stay right here until you calm down, okay?” It’s a fine line I’m not crossing, neither confirming nor denying that I’m her mother. Truthfully, I honestly don’t care: let her see whatever face brings her the most comfort. I’m in the wrong field for giving credit where it’s due anyway.
“You won’t leave me?” she sniffles, finally–it seems–beginning to calm down.”
“Not for a bit. And when I do have to leave this room, I’ll be just out in the hall. Not far away.”
“Okay,” she says. “But can’t you sit here with me for a minute?”
I smile at her and nod my head…mothers aren’t the only ones in charge of keeping the monsters away. As she grows steadily calmer and quieter, I glance across the hall to Mrs. Q’s room. She’s smiling and, when she catches my eye, she waves cheerfully at me.
Peace restored…to this section of the hall.