The Long Goodbye
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Guest Post by Ann Putnam
How my mother and father said goodbye I do not know. All I know is that here they were being wrenched apart after all those years, and I couldn’t do a thing to stop it. He would go to the nursing home where he would get the 24 hour care he needed and my mother would stay behind in the apartment. But then as these things go, he finally gets all checked in to his little room, his pajamas in the drawer, his room fixed up to look like home. I rush to the nursing home from work to be with him on his first night at Ida Culver. I take the elevator up to the second floor where the lifers live, people who will not be going home. The elevator has a funny smell I can’t at first identify. But I learned soon enough what that smell is. Nothing mysterious, just the smells of the body saying goodbye and food gone bad and Lysol and floral deodorizer, the death-sweet cover up, the odor of chrysanthemums a short way down the road. Now it begins, I say to myself.
The elevator doors open onto the nurses’ station, but there is no one behind the desk, no one in the hall. Everything is cast in an eerie, yellowy light. A rush of fear washes over me. When I’d looked this place over weeks ago there were plenty of people around. I make my way to my father’s assigned room. And there he is, in his wheelchair, hunched over a little inspirational magazine he’s trying to read by the pale bed light. “How God gave Me Power to Walk Again,” is the article he’s reading. For months now he has dreamed he can walk. I dream it too, only when he throws his walker aside and steps back into his life, he takes a shaky step or two into the street and slips and hits his head on the concrete just outside my catching arms.
“Hi, Dad,” I say.
“Hi, Pill,” he says and his face lights up like he hasn’t seen me for years, like I’m not the one who put him here. Soon, our conversation is interrupted by a screaming from next door. A man in the next room is shouting from his bed, waving his hands in the air. His gown has slipped off his thin white shoulder. “Help! Help!” he shouts when he sees me standing in the doorway. I walk into his room, over to his bed.
“What do you need?” I say. My heart is racing. Not a nurse or aide in sight. I’d only seen this place by day, and I start to imagine the horrors of what happens here after dark. I’m ready to scoop my father up and get him out of here.
“Help!” the old guy shouts again, looks at me standing at the foot of the bed.
“What do you need?” I say again.
“I want meat! Hamburger! Sausage! Pork! Bologna! Bacon!”
“I’m sorry,” I say, “I can’t help you.” I back away and make my exit. Now I’ve met my father’s next door neighbor.
“The Loony Bin,” my father says when I come back into the room. He’s trying to make a joke, but he’s frightened behind the smile. We’re in for it now, I think to myself.
The other bed in the room is empty. “Have you met your roommate yet?” I ask. He doesn’t quite know how to answer. Such great hopes for the roommate, whoever he is: a new friend, a chess partner, a buddy, a soul mate, a brother. At the very least, someone who could help take my mother’s place in decent conversation, discuss the economy or politics or history. As I turn to leave, I see my father’s roommate trying to get his wheelchair back into the room but it catches in the doorway. “Can I help you?”
He grabs my arm and whispers hoarsely in a long drawn out voice: “Get me out of here!” Out of this chair? Out of this room? Out of this place? Out of this life? Marlon, the nearly silent roommate who never kept any personal belongings in that room, who lay on his right side on the top of his bed in his clothes waiting to die. Marlon sank our spirits. But it was all right. By then my friendly, garrulous father had run out of things to say.
We decorated my father’s side of the room to show that this man was loved. This man’s family was paying attention and would permit no mistakes. My daughter has fen shui-ed the room and determined that the window is the water side of the room, and hung a blue and green fish mobile with satin ribbons like seaweed flickering in the breeze from the heating vent across the room. We have put great hopes in this room with a view. We haven’t tucked him into a dark, forgotten corner after all. How it comforted us to walk into the room and see that light. It would carry us through this long goodbye.
Ann Putnam holds a PhD in literature from the University of Washington. She teaches creative writing and gender studies at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. She has published short fiction, personal essays, literary criticism and book reviews in various anthologies including Hemingway and Women: Female Critics and the Female Voice, and in journals, including the Hemingway Review, Western American Literature, and the South Dakota Review. Her latest work is a memoir, Full Moon at Noontide: A Daughter’s Last Goodbye. Information about her book and how to order it can be found on her website: www.annputnam.com which includes reviews and radio interviews and bio. Her book can be ordered at any bookstore, through Amazon, and directly from the distributor at www.tamupress.com or by phone: 1-800-826-8911. She has a Facebook page also, as well as a website through her University: www.ups.edu/faculty/aputnam.html
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