By Amanda Cleary Eastep
I break the chocolate wafer into pieces while it’s still in its holiday foil wrapper. Caramel oozes from the cracks as I carefully unwrap it and offer it up to my great aunt.
“It’s like communion,” I tell her.
She chuckles and says it’s sticky.
We are visiting her in the nursing home. This time my mother has wheeled Aunt Mil to the lobby where there is a sparkling red and gold Christmas tree and you can’t smell the urine and cafeteria food like you can in the labyrinth of hallways.
You can breathe here. The double doors swing open intermittently to admit blasts of December air and paramedics with stretchers.
She takes a broken corner of chocolate between two fingers. Her nails are yellowed from years of red polish and red spaghetti sauce. Beneath them I see residue, maybe of lunchtime peas and carrots–which she hates–or of the skin she picks at on the back of her forearm.
The habit leaves bright red splotches, like drops of cranberry juice.
“The doctor says I worry too much,” she says.
I wonder what she worries about. At 89, what is there to worry about? Or maybe (except for Bingo on Wednesday mornings) worrying is the best way to pass the time.
“But you know what a priest told me? He said to buy a good bottle of whiskey.” She laughs.
I know she worries about her family. There are many of us, especially on her side. She and my uncle couldn’t have children, so instead, she embraced all of us as her own…my mother, my brother and me, scores of nieces and nephews and great nieces and nephews and great greats.
I know she doesn’t worry about dying. She wants to go to heaven. She wants to see my uncle and her mother and sisters and Jesus and Mary. But a nurse scolded her for saying so.
My aunt raises her finger at me and acts out the scenario, “The nurse told me, ‘Don’t you dare say that! You are here for a reason.'”
Some of the many reasons pass me in those urine-soaked hallways.
Patients and nurses and the beautician who does her hair each week and the physical therapists who give us covert looks of understanding when my aunt insists she can walk the length of the room although they don’t even bother putting shoes on her anymore.
They all comment on how kind and funny she is.
“Why can’t Santa have children?” she asks my daughter.
Here comes the same kind of joke she’s been telling since I was a child, and my father would shake his head to signal he didn’t approve even while he was trying not to laugh.
“Because he has two popcorn balls and only comes once a year.”
We all laugh with her. Really laugh, because it’s funny, not because we are placating her while sharing those secret looks people give each other over the heads of old people and their old jokes and old stories and old failing bodies.
The lady behind the reception desk did that earlier in the visit.
When Aunt Mil said the nursing home Christmas party was “small” and the food was “caca,” the receptionist rolled her chair backwards, gave me the “look”, and behind my aunt’s back, silently mouthed to me, “it was big…we had enter-tainers.”
I smiled and wanted to hit her.
It’s not a bad place as nursing homes go. But they have moved my aunt from the rehab wing to the Medicaid wing. She had to sell her house, and now the money is gone. It was a bungalow on the East Side of Chicago. It was small, but it was bursting with people and pasta and the smell of meatballs on hundreds of Sundays.
Now she is in a room with two other people. There is no place for us to sit when we wheel her back to her room. It feels strange to park her beside the bed and walk away, leaving her in silence and the smells of dying and 5 o’clock peas and carrots cooking.
These moments with my elders are the times when I feel change most acutely…when I see the pillars in my life begin to sag and crumble.