We pull up to the door of Happy Haven Nursing Home, and Phil pulls up behind us. I don’t like going inside these places, and Shel knows it, so he stops the engine and runs inside to the reception desk.
Such places always depress me–-Way Stations to Death. You have to wonder how death can survive in such clinical, antiseptic environments–-nurses in their bright whites, ammonia and cleansers in the air, gleaming floors, bland food, and boring activities. Death is here, sanitized, disguised as happy face posters and Bingo games.
Shel leads a young nurse, no more than 21 or 22, as she wheels Nana out to the car. I get out of the car and arrange the passenger seat so that Nana has enough room to stretch and put her seat back if she gets sleepy. I’ll sit behind Shel.
“I thought you forgot me,” she says, yanking the plaid blanket off her lap. “Don’t know why I need this. It’s at least a 100 degrees out here.” She tosses the blanket over her shoulder, hitting the nurse in the face.
The nurse jumps back, obviously taken by surprise by the flying blanket. “Okay, Mrs. Mallory,” she says, peeling the blanket off her face.
“You okay?” I ask the nurse.
“Fine,” she says, folding the blanket.
“Sorry about that.”
“It’s okay,” she whispers. “It’s part of the job.”
“Look, I’ll take that with us,” I say, taking the blanket. “It might cool off at Winnehaha.”
Nana starts to climb out of her chair.
“Wait, Mrs. Mallory,” the nurse says, taking Nana’s arm. She guides Nana into the front seat, and snaps on the shoulder/seat belt. “There. Comfortable?”
“It’s too hot.” Nana scrunches around in her seat and bunches up her sleeves.
“The air’ll be on soon,” the nurse says. “Have fun, Mrs. Mallory. See you later!” She waves goodbye to Nana and disappears inside the building.
“I’ll start the engine,” Shel says, turning the key.
“I want my wheelchair with me.”
“There’s no room in the car,” I say. “Sal’s taking it in the van.”
“But I want it here!”
Sal jumps out the van and pokes her head inside Nana’s window. “What’s the major malfunction here?”
“I want my chair!”
“Ma, we’re going to be right behind you.”
“What if there’s an accident?”
“We’ll all drive carefully, won’t we?” Sal says, looking right at Shel.
“You bet,” he says.
“I hate being old and sick,” Nana says to no one in particular.
“But you’re looking real good today,” Sal says.
“I’m dying, and everyone knows it.”
“Let’s get this show on the road,” Nana says, wagging a finger at Sal. “Time grows short.”
As we head for I-29, Nana folds her arms and scowls. “Heard you got in last night.”
“That’s right. About seven,” Shel says.
I brace myself for what’s coming next.
“Well, you’d think you’d find some time to visit an old woman instead of cattin’ around town all night.”
Nana turns around and looks right at me. “Mark my words, little missus. When I’m buried up in Calvary, you’ll be sorry you weren’t nicer to me.”
“Sal said you were tired,” Shel says, merging south on I-29.
“So, what? I was waiting for you.”
“Sorry. We thought you were asleep. Besides, we were tired, too,” I say. “We had to make the trip here in two days.”
“I had some last minute clients I had to see,” Shel says.
“I don’t understand all that old shrink stuff.”
“Well, I don’t. In my day, you were expected to get your head on straight yourself. None of this spillin’ your guts to an outsider. Family business stayed in the family.”
“The world is different now,” Shel says. “The pressures are worse.”
“I’m glad I’m dying.”
Shel and I don’t say anything. I, for one, don’t know how to respond to such statements, especially when I know they’re true. It’s no use sugar coating things for Nana.
“You all went out last night, didn’t you?”
I sigh. “Just to North Sioux for a few beers and to play a few slots. We didn’t stay long. Shel and I went to bed early.”
“I still think you could’ve visited an old woman first....”
I can see that this conversation is stuck in a loop, and so I search my brain for the “Ctrl-Alt-Delete” button that will shut this subject off. I decide to introduce another hot topic, one that I have been rehearsing for weeks.
“By the way, Nicole sends her love.”