Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: Chris Kitowski
“We don’t have to stay long; just make an appearance.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about this before we came?”
“Don’t give me a hard time Jonathan. If I’d told you, you never would have come.” Jon’s mother looked at him pleadingly.
Beth sat at the kitchen table picking at the breakfast Agnes had made for them. She was staying out of this conversation; it wasn’t her family – well, only by marriage to Jonathan.
Agnes continued, “And it is your grandmother’s birthday. She’s ninety-seven today.”
“Does she even know what day it is?” Jon’s grandmother, who was always referred to as Oma, had suffered a series of strokes over the past year. He would get the occasional call from his mother updating him on the status of the relatives. A couple of times in the fall it didn’t seem that Oma would make it, but she had pulled through and then was placed in a nursing home. “What time do you want to go there?”
“It starts at two.”
“It starts? Wait a second. What starts? I thought we were just going to go see Oma and be off? What is this thing that needs to be started?” Jon was getting agitated. He didn’t like going back home to Windsor. He had left for university twenty years before and never had to return. Of course, he would go visit for Christmas, the odd Thanksgiving or someone’s significant birthday, but he never had to stay for any length of time. Since his father died, his visits had become less and less frequent.
“Well, your cousins will be there and of course Uncle Bob and Aunt Fan. All the kids are married now so they’ll be bringing their spouses – just like you’re bringing Beth.”
“Gee, Thanks.” Beth’s sarcasm went unnoticed.
“It will be a regular party. We’re just trying to make her feel better about being there. Show her that the whole family worries about her. There will be cake.” The idea of cake somehow seemed to justify the entire endeavour. Jon didn’t want to go, but he had not wanted to go to Windsor anyway. His mother had tricked them into coming by saying a combination of how it was too difficult to get to Toronto and how much she wanted to see them before her month-long trip to Florida. It was all a ruse, just to have him appear at the Oma-fete.
“So, what-do-ya-say? Do you feel up to it? Are you game?” Agnes was beginning to sound like a geriatric used car huckster.
“Well, you don’t have to try to convince me. It seems that this was decided even before we arrived. So, it doesn’t matter if I’m up for it or not. Let’s just get this over with.”
Jon drove his mother and his wife to the nursing home. It was on the other side of town off Lesperance. As he drove through the old neighbourhood, Agnes kept a running commentary of the neighbours as they passed the different homes, “The Joneses moved away two years ago. You remember the Joneses; you went to grade school with their son. I think he’s living out in Tecumseh now. Mr. Steadman passed – oh, that would be about seven years now. Mrs. Marion also passed away. You remember the Marion boys; you went to high school with them.”
“Ma, you forget. They were bullies. They used to beat me up.”
“Oh, kids will be kids. You used to make friends and then not be friends with them and it would all change a week later. Things were much simpler then.” His mother paused and then spoke in a more sombre tone, “Jonathan, you have to promise me something.”
“I promise not to be rude in front of the old people.”
“No not that,” Agnes scowled at her son. “The first time I went to the nursing home, when your grandmother was being admitted, I couldn’t believe how sad it made me feel; seeing all the people in there just sitting and looking at you. I think they were all waiting for someone to visit them. And the smell, oh I know it’s wrong to say, but it’s that old person smell. You have to promise, Jonathan. You have to promise not to put me there.”
“Don’t worry about it. You’re going to be in your house until you die.” But her statement did make him think. What was he going to do if she was unable to take care of herself? He was not going to go back to Windsor to take care of his mother. As he thought about it, he would have to put her in a home, but he definitely was not going to tell her that. “Don’t worry about it now. Think about your trip to Florida. You’ll get to party with a bunch of senior citizens; hit the buffet at three in the afternoon; and rub off that old person smell with some coconut oil. Hey, maybe you’ll meet a nice retired doctor and hook up. You are single and seeking same.”
“Oh Jonathan, stop it. You are so bad.”
Beth chuckled to herself in the backseat and mentally selected the appropriate game face for the afternoon.
The security guard let them into the facility. He explained that he was there not so much for keeping people out but for keeping the residents in. They walked down the long hall. Each side was populated with the inmates sitting in wheelchairs outside their rooms silently staring at the new visitors. As they walked down the hallway trying to maintain forced pleasant smiles, the occasional frail hand would reach out and try to touch them. They would look towards the person and presenting the absurd grimace say “How are you today?” or “Well, hello there.”
As they slowly shuffled down the hall, a cat came to greet them, “Mwarr.”
“Hello Oscar. Are you having a good day today; keeping an eye on everyone?” Agnes was trying to make a joke as Oscar did indeed have only one eye. The right had been lost in a duel years before. He was a largish cat, completely black except for his white feet that made him look like he was wearing little spats.
“Isn’t it unsanitary to have a cat walking around this place?” Beth had thought the cat had wandered in accidentally and was now trapped, unable to leave, just as all the other residents.
“Cats are very clean.” Agnes was rubbing Oscar under his chin. “And Oscar keeps all of the people company. Don’t you boy?”
They made their way to Oma’s room with the cat trotting behind to make sure they didn’t get lost. Once they got there, there was only one thing missing – the grandmother. A nurse stood at the bathroom door, “Do you need any help in there? Press the button if you need my help.” She turned to face the new guests, “She made a little mess in her pants. I’m sure she’ll be out in a minute.” The nurse left to attend to someone else in need.
They stood in the room in silence waiting for something to happen. Agnes had wanted to leave the moment they came in. She was serious about the conversation she had with her son. She did not want to ever have to live in a place like this. Beth thought about how difficult it was to keep smiling for so long. She needed a break and replaced her pleasant smile with a brief look of horror and dismay. Jonathan thought about how this was a hospice. No one here got better and left once pronounced healed. This was the terminus; the final stop; the waiting ground for death; patrolled by the black cat that was rubbing against his leg. Oscar thought – mouse.
“Is that my favourite nephew?” A shrill piercing voice cut through the silence. It was the aunt making a grand entrance reminiscent of Mame or Sunset Boulevard with high-heels clacking against the institutional tiles. “I thought it was you. Let me look at you.” Aunt Fan grabbed Jonathan and shook him a bit. “Why didn’t you tell me he was coming?” she directed to Agnes. “We didn’t know you were coming.” She looked at Beth, “And this must be Beth. I’ve heard so much about you.” She then hugged Beth. “What’s taking Mumma so long? Mumma? Mumma? Are you in the bathroom? You’re going to miss your own birthday party.”
“She made a little mess in her pants.” Agnes stage whispered to Aunt Fan.
“Don’t worry about a little mess in your pants. We’ve all made messes in our pants. They usually have them in diapers during the day anyway.” Aunt Fan explained to the group. “Circle of life isn’t it? Start in diapers; end in diapers. Well, if she’s going to be a while, why don’t the three of you go down to the lounge? All your cousins are there Jonny. I’ll have Mumma along in a minute.” And she struck a pose of the suffering daughter.
The three of them shuffled back down the hallway they came. Oscar knew where the lounge was and ran ahead. In the room were several people standing and looking rather uncomfortable and the others were seated on wheelchairs.
There were a lot of people for Oma’s party, Jonathan thought and walked up to his cousins; shaking hands and introducing Beth to them all. It turned out most of the people in the room weren’t there for the party, they just came to the lounge everyday instead of sitting outside their rooms.
“Here’s the birthday girl.” Aunt Fan wheeled Oma into the lounge. The grandmother didn’t look too pleased to be there. She looked frail and old; the once bright mischievous eyes had dulled; the robust, nothing will get me down, countenance had abated; the hope she had held so close and tight had left. She was pushed up to the table covered with gifts.
“Do you want to open gifts or have some cake Mumma.” Aunt Fan asked her like a child.
“I’ll open gifts.” One by one the colourfully wrapped presents were opened by whoever was standing closest as she could not rip open the paper herself. “Save the bows. Who’s savings the bows?” Oscar was doing his part by chasing scraps of shiny paper under the table. The gifts were pictures of family members to hang in her room and remind her that there were people on the outside. White chocolate bark that no one really ever likes but Oma loved out of a fascination that it was white AND chocolate. And a wind up music box that played ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’. It happened to be her favourite song and reminded her of her youth. Unfortunately the little key to wind up the music box was far too small for arthritic hands to manage.
“Now it’s time for cake.” Field marshal Fan was directing the troops to place the slab cake on the table and begin dissecting it into manageable portions. Both Agnes and Beth were commissioned for the slicing and plating detail. “Have some cake.” One by one the cousins went to the table and got some cake. “Have some cake.” Spouses and children approached the altar and received their piece. “Have some cake.” Soon the residents of the home approached and were also accommodated. “Have some cake.” Those that could not walk were wheeled up to receive their fellowship. “Have some cake.” No matter how much cake was served there was always more to give. It was the never ending flan. Take and eat cake; this is my body and this grape drink is my blood. Aunt Fan flanked by Agnes and Beth, arms upraised, delivering benediction and cakey communion presented a last supper tableau vivant. Jonathan would not, could not, have some cake. During a break in the dispersing Beth wrapped two pieces in a napkin for their drive home without Jonathan noticing.
Jonathan’s mother came up close to him and whispered, “I’m going to try to get us out of here now.” She then announced to the crowd, “Jonathan really has to get going now. It’s a long drive back to Toronto and he wants to get there before dark. Since he’s going, I’ll be going too.”
Jonathan knelt down in front of his grandmother and took her hands. “Happy birthday Oma, You try to make the best of it here. I’ll be thinking about you.”
She grabbed his hand and squeezed it then speaking very clearly and coherently she said, “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be here anymore.” She stared into his eyes and tried to make him understand. She had lived too long. She had buried her eldest son. She could no longer take care of herself. There was nothing left for her in this life. As she was staring into his eyes, he could see the sharpness dim and her attention go distant. It had been a momentary lapse into clarity.
“I know Oma. I know.”
They dropped Agnes off at her house, said the usual goodbyes and thanks for coming, made promises of calling at least once a month, and then got on the highway. The drive back home was mostly silent. Both were consumed with their own thoughts from the day. Neither of them ate the cake that Beth had wrapped for them to take.