Heavily medicated, Pat began a new chapter at The Gardens. We had to secure her stay by paying for a night nurse, often a young Ukranian woman, who arrived after Arlene left for the night, at about 10 PM. The nurse would sit in the lumpy chair, locked in Pat’s room, crocheting, studying for an exam, or listening to Fox News until Pat stopped weeping or moving. I don’t know if they conversed, or if there were routines. I don’t know if Pat felt relieved to have someone there, or if Pat ever knew if it was night or day.
Questions only lead me to more questions.
Meals were served in the holiday-themed dining room. I remember it was Halloween for weeks and then Thanksgiving for most of November. The Gardens brought Pat a new set of table mates: Bunny, who had been a clinical nurse and seemed to have found the answer to her suffering in a daylong valium high; Bea, a seemingly kind but uncommunicative woman in her 70s, whose lips were always parted, awaiting whatever food was put in front of her, and later, Ed, a former sales manager for home security systems.
One afternoon while I was at work, Mona called to say that my mother had “settled down.” But the second part of the call was about the fact that my mother had become quite “close” with Ed, whom I had not officially met.
“They’re a couple, trust me,” Mona said, as if I were the only one missing the news flash on TMZ.
“Okay, well, that’s great, I guess. Right?”
“I want to make sure you’re okay with it. Some people don’t like their parents to…”
“If she’s happy, I’m happy.”
I heard about Ed on the phone from the tech ladies and from the activities coordinator, which only helped to grow his legend. “They walk around holding hands,” one said. “He makes sure she gets her tapioca pudding during snack,” said another.
Around this time, I had become friendly with another daughter of a resident who was about my age. I think her name was Millie. She was a beachy type, who had grown up in Orange County, but seemed to have voted for Obama. She explained her job as a “greeter.” She drove to LAX or the Santa Monica airport five or six times a week from Marina Del Rey and greeted celebrities. Then she made sure they found their drivers, and said good-bye.
“They need someone to greet them when they arrive, said Millie. “I guess we all do.”
Millie helped me pass the hours during longer visits to The Gardens. It was the first time I had a friend to witness and understand the journey on a weekly basis. Having a witness became increasingly important to me, as small details of my mother’s disappearance became the notes of a dirge.
(She can no longer feed herself. She can’t cross a threshold from one room to another. She doesn’t recognize herself in the mirror. She’s losing more names of common objects: a shoe, a pencil, a dog, a napkin, the sun, a cactus, a kiss.)
Millie and I had few things in common: we were both recently separated from our husbands; we were moms to teenagers, and we were our mothers’ only daughters. Millie was great about bringing snacks and wine, and usually had one of her adult kids along with her. We’d get a little tipsy and laugh through our tears. We’d watch a Bogart-Hepburn movie with our moms in the common room, shushing the residents who snored too loudly.
Millie’s mother, Heidi, 92, a former pianist from Austria, moved about with a walker. On talent night, she sang a beautiful operatic song, accompanied on piano. Millie liked my mom, and because of her flexible schedule, was able to visit during the week at odd hours. She acted as my spy and part-time confidant, reporting on the questionable aides.
She told me about one aide who had grown impatient with the old folks and deserved to be fired, and another that always got the laundry confused. The laundry one dressed my mother in a pink blouse belonging to the fast-talking, bubble gum-pink clothing resident, which almost caused a fist fight.
Mostly, though, there were kind folks from faraway lands, doing a very thankless job for little pay. Some were downright saintly. Things ran relatively smoothly under Mona’s watchful eye, until the daughter of the owner started showing up to oversee the operation. Things became less relaxed. More rules to follow.
After a week or two of hearing about my mom’s special friend, I finally got a chance to dine at my mother’s table. One of the servers pointed to a jelly roll of a man with a prickly shaved head, and large doughboy hands. This was Ed. I wasn’t expecting Sean Connery or Denzel Washington, but after all the buildup, I thought maybe Ed would have a smidgen of pizzazz.
“The soup is a little salty tonight, Mom. What do you think?”
“This is my sister,” she announced to her table mates for the fifth time.
Bea stared blankly at me, while Bunny repeated her prompted lines about her daughter, a dental hygienist.
Then I took the leap. “And you must be the famous Ed. I’ve heard so much about.”
Ed stared at me and lifted his fork, as if to say, here, here! I could not picture Pat having a future with him.
“Mom, this must be your new friend, Ed.”
“You know, your buddy that you’ve been hanging around with.”
My mother wanted a ritual cigarette immediately following dinner, even if it meant skipping the tapioca pudding. She turned to me with frustration and said loudly: “I’m sick of hearing about this. Who the fuck is Ed?!”
Even better, was that Ed didn’t quiver or bother to identify himself. Instead, he waited until we got up from the table before plunging his spoon into my mother’s leftover pudding.