Copyright is held by the author.
A BLAST of hot, muggy August slapped Tyler in the face as he opened the car door. It was one of those days when air conditioners ran continuously, and tar oozed out of the asphalt, sticking to shoe soles if you didn’t watch where you stepped. He stood before the squat, single story building. A weather-beaten plywood sign poked out of the scrubby grass. ‘Fern Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation’ was painted on its surface. To him, it was just a fancy name for the final destination of the sick and forgotten. White scabs of paint peeled away from the building’s aging walls revealing spalled brick. He surveyed the parking lot and grounds. Are you here, harsh man? The other visitors and the nursing home staff may not be able to see you, but I can.
As he approached the front door, Tyler’s thoughts turned to the day, almost two years ago when they brought his Grandma Alice here after she fell and broke her hip. I’m sorry we had to bring you here, Grandma . . .
* * *
“Why can’t I go back home?” asked Grandma Alice, as the aides lifted her onto the bed.
“Mom, we’ve been over that,” said Lonny, “once you can move around on your own, you’ll come to our house for a bit, then we’ll see when you can go home.”
“Why can’t y’all take care of me?”
“Mother Alice,” interjected Louise, “We’ve been all over that. You know Ray took that long-haul job down in Knoxville. He’s on the road four or five days a week. Tommy and Marie are ready to start school and Irene’s got to stay there to take care of them. Lonny and I both got full time jobs, and Tyler has school.”
“But, I took care of your Daddy at home when he got sick.”
“That was different,” said Lonny, “besides, I don’t know if that was the best thing. He never did get well, and I think it took too much outta you, tending to him 24 hours a day and all that. Lookin’ back, I think maybe we should’ve done something like this with him. But, it was your decision, and we went with it.”
“Don’t worry,” she replied, “I’ll only be here but a week or so till I’m up on my feet.” She smiled and laughed softly, but her eyes betrayed a sadness that her best efforts could not hide.
“That’s the spirit,” said Lonny, looking to his wife for support, “ain’t that right, honey?”
Louise nodded in half-hearted agreement. “I ’spect so.”
“Don’t worry Grandma Alice,” Tyler said, “I’ll water your plants and collect the mail ‘til you get back.”
“Thank you, Ty. Make sure there’s some gas for the mower when the boy comes round to cut the grass.”
“If it don’t rain, you’ll be home before it’ll need cutting. Now, when you are ready, I got it all planned out. You can take my room and I’ll fix up a spot in the basement.”
* * *
Tyler opened the old wooden, double door, glass panes rattling in their channels. He stepped into an aluminum security vestibule which had been added at some point. The three-sided frame and glass structure protruded into the cramped lobby. He punched August’s passcode into the entry pad. The lock clicked, and he stepped into the stale, suffocating atmosphere of the nursing home.
“Hi, Tyler,” said the receptionist opening the visitor’s register.
“Hi, Ms. Beatty, how’re you doing today?” Tyler picked a pen from a stoneware mug emblazoned with a Spenserian ‘FM’ and signed in.
“Well, I’m doing just fine. Thanks for asking. I’m pretty sure she’s in her room. Haven’t seen her in the dining or TV room in a while.” She handed him a visitor’s badge.
“Thanks.” he said, clipping the badge to his pocket.
Tyler walked through the large, cased opening to the right of the receptionist’s desk into a main room, housing the dining and TV areas. It spanned the width of the building. Such a sad place.
The dining area on the left percolated the nauseating odour of Salisbury steak and bleach. Anyone passing would cause the residents to lift their heads in hopes of seeing the loved ones who never came. Are you here today harsh man? Tyler scanned the tables. I’ve seen you here. You come here often, don’t you. And I know who you are – what you hunger for. What do you whisper to them while they eat?
Tyler turned his attention to the TV area. A few residents slumped in the soiled and tattered sofas and chairs while aides watched talk shows. Or are you here? He looked around the room. You can’t hide. Do you eventually convince them all to leave with you?
After she first arrived, Tyler would often find Grandma Alice in the dining room or watching TV. As the months passed, however, she gradually withdrew from these activities and took to spending more time in her room. All the while, she grew weaker; in the last few months she had become bedridden.
Ahead, a wheelchair bound resident waited in the aisle while an aide readied a dining table for her. Have you seen the harsh man? I have. It was only a few months after Grandma was admitted. Ms. Beatty had fussed at me about my visitor badge . . .
* * *
“How long have you been coming here? Three months, I bet, and you still can’t remember to turn in your badge?”
“Yeah, that’s about right,” Tyler said, pulling the badge from his shirt and handing it over.
“And you still forget.”
“I guess so,” Tyler sighed. “Got a lot on my mind.”
“How’s Ms. Alice doing?”
“Not very well, I think.”
“Well, don’t give up too soon,” she said. “Sometimes they’ll surprise you.” She tapped a button on her desk and the lock clicked open.
“Thanks Ms. Beatty.”
Tyler stepped out into the fall afternoon. The air was crisp and he was thankful to breathe in some cool, fresh air. A tall, gaunt figure dressed in a black serge suit stood on the sidewalk. His white shirt was buttoned at the collar. A black fedora sat atop his thin yellow-white hair. The suit appeared to be freshly pressed, creases sharp as razors. A breeze rattled his trousers around his thin legs. Boney hands protruded from his coat sleeves, each finger punctuated with a long amber nail. His jet-black eyes were trained on Tyler. The skin of his face was harsh and blotchy, pulled taught over high cheekbones such that his lips were drawn open revealing long teeth the color of old ivory.
Tyler was so unnerved by the harsh countenance of the man, he veered off the sidewalk and ran across the lawn to avoid passing him. Safely in his car, Tyler jammed the key in the ignition and hit the gas, almost sideswiping the car parked next to his. As he shot out of the parking lot, Tyler glanced in the rearview mirror. The harsh man was gone.
* * *
Tyler walked around the woman in the wheelchair toward the narrow opening which led into the green corridor and eventually into the residents’ hall. As much as he had come to dislike walking through the main room, Tyler dreaded entering the green corridor; the long stretch that serviced the kitchen, laundry and utility rooms followed by the janitor’s closet and the aides work station. The stale odor of soiled linen and disinfectant permeated the dim hallway. The dementia sufferers were stowed in this area while the aides changed linens or sat in the breakroom eating and arguing over who would have to answer the next bell.
Are you in there harsh man? It’s one of your favourite spots. How often do you linger there, sucking the last bit of coherent thought from those helpless minds? Tyler stopped at the threshold, peering down the corridor. Steeling himself, he stepped forward, trying not to make eye contact.
At first, before he knew better, he would look at patients strapped in their wheelchairs or, even worse, say a kind word to one. The result was always the same. Once eye contact was made, or a word uttered, they would begin to shout, shake, or pound their fists. The cacophony would swell until it overwhelmed Tyler.
He had learned his lesson. So carefully, Tyler walked on; the walls and ceiling closing in on him and the air thickening in his lungs. Each footstep sounded like a clap of thunder. Do they blame me for their suffering? He started to tiptoe. If I get too close, will one grab me? He drew his arms close to his body. Will the others join, screaming, biting me with sharp teeth, suffocating me in their dark breath? Will they gnaw away my youth, leaving only frail, mottled parchment to cover my brittle bones? Then, after the aides have tied me in a wheelchair, will the harsh man come for me? Fighting his fear, he continued until he reached the doorway to the residential hall. From there, it was six doors down to Grandma Alice’s room.
Tyler stood outside her room for a few moments to compose himself. Intellectually, he knew death, even for Grandma Alice, was inevitable. In his soul, he longed to find a way to ward it off. For him, the process of death was mysterious and frightening; something from which he had always been sheltered. It was something cloaked in dark secrets whispered by his parents when they thought he was out of earshot. He could only guess about the process of death. It terrified him.
Tyler took a deep breath then entered and sat down in the chair between Grandma Alice’s bed and the window. He carefully avoided touching the exposed wood, sticky with the buildup of body oils and furniture polish.
“How are you feeling today?” he asked. She remained still, eyes seemingly focused on something beyond him in the distance.
An aide poked her head in the door. “Don’t she look pretty? We just gave her a bath and washed her hair this mornin’. Put fresh linens on her bed too.”
“Thanks,” said Tyler. “She say anything?”
“Sometimes she does. Sometimes, she talks to the angels.”
“That’s when she gets that faraway look in her eyes and she whispers things. Like she is talking to the angels. When it gets close to the end, a lot of them do it.”
“What does she say?”
“Oh, most of the time she whispers so soft you can’t understand what she’s saying. I need to roll her over.”
“Can you give me a few minutes, I won’t be long.”
“Take all the time you need. I’ll come back later.”
“Thanks.” Tyler looked at Grandma Alice. I know who it is. It’s not the angels.
* * *
A month later, Tyler returned to Fern Manor. The October sun gleamed in a cloudless blue sky and the bursts of red, yellow, and gold fall foliage were at their peak. They reminded him that his Grandma had always said fall was her favorite season. He remembered how she had loved to go for a drive to see the fall colors. He feared this would be her last.
He scanned the parking lot. Where are you, harsh man? As he walked to the entrance, he stopped to gather some of the colorful leaves just fallen from the trees. Maybe these would spark something in her; brighten her day.
Tyler checked in with Ms. Beatty, then started his journey to Grandma Alice’s room. The atmosphere in the dining and assembly areas seemed lighter. The residents were quietly watching TV or eating their lunches. He managed to navigate the patient wheelchairs without drawing the attention of their occupants.
He found Grandma Alice sleeping quietly in her bed. He took her frail hand.
“Grandma Alice, can you hear me? It’s Tyler. I brought some fall leaves for you.” He placed them on the nightstand by the bed. He leaned in close and kissed her forehead, then whispered, “Love you.”
She opened her eyes. They were fixed on the door way. Tyler looked up and gasped. The harsh man was standing in the threshold, his eyes fixed on Grandma Alice. Tyler couldn’t move, heart pounding harder than it ever had. I won’t let you in… He straightened up and faced the harsh man. …no matter what you do to me. Tyler’s feet froze in place as if cemented to the floor. His head began to spin into unconsciousness when he felt a soft touch on his arm.
“You must be Alice’s grandson,” she said in a soft, musical voice.
Immediately, he regained his equilibrium. He looked to his side. A small woman who looked to be in her seventies came into focus. Her hand had a pleasantly calming effect on Tyler, and for a moment, the terror he was experiencing left. Where did you come from? Her eyes sparkled robin’s egg blue, a deep smile filled her face. She was dressed in the fashion of the flower ladies who perform volunteer work in the hospitals.
“How do you know me?” he stammered. How did you get here?
“Oh, I’ve been visiting with Alice for some time now. We’ve had many conversations. She is such a lovely person.” The flower lady gently tugged on his arm. “Do you have a moment that we could talk?”
“I can’t,” he said, glaring at the harsh man, still lurking in the doorway. Is this one of your tricks?
“No, it isn’t,” said the flower lady. “Pay him no mind; nothing will happen until you are ready.”
“But I don’t understand . . .”
“Exactly, and that is why we need to talk. You must trust me when I say that nothing will happen until after that. See he’s gone.” Tyler looked up to see the doorway was empty. She led him out into the hallway. “Trust,” she said.
They walked through the doors at the end of the hall into the courtyard just outside. Tyler wanted to resist, but could not. In the dimming sunlight of the autumn afternoon, she led him to a wrought iron bench.
“You’ve kept a long and arduous vigil on your grandmother,” she began, “and now it’s time to let her go. As the seasons pass, so must our lives; and your grandmother’s season now comes to its end.” Her words stung Tyler; but also eased some of his fear and anxiety. He thought back to Grandma Alice’s room with the harsh man standing in the doorway.
“I won’t let her go with him. I know who he is. Death! He is death, come for Grandma. Alice. He is old and angry, resentful of the living. His only consolation is to take others into his misery. I can’t let her go. Not with him. Not like that!”
The flower lady looked right into Tyler’s soul.
“Oh, you are mistaken, Tyler. He is not death, he is life. Life that has reached its conclusion. Life that is ready to rest. Life that has lingered too long in its autumn, restless to sleep. Life ready for its rebirth.”
“Trust me Tyler, it’s true.”
“How can I be sure?” he asked.
“Your grandmother loved the fall. She reveled in the harvest of the fruits of spring and summer. She treasured the last days of autumn’s beauty before the white sleep of winter. She knew that the promise of autumn and the work of winter is the glory of new life in the spring. Now she is ready to pass on to a new life. One beyond your comprehension. A life of unbound beauty and joy. Consider. Would you make the trees hold their dead leaves so they could not rest? Would you halt the cycle of nature? I think not. Why, then, would you hold your Grandma Alice back?”
Tyler sat still for some time watching the leaves fall, letting the significance of the flower lady’s words settle into his soul. He knew she was right, not because he reasoned it; but, because he felt it in his heart. The terror of Grandma Alice’s death evaporated and with that, the weight of fear floated away like a leaf in the autumn wind. He understood he must let her go. He would miss her always and grieve for his loss, but he understood it was the way it was meant to be. He turned to thank the flower lady, but she was gone.
The ward nurse opened the door and stepped into the courtyard.
“I thought I saw you come out here,” she said in a solemn voice. Tyler knew the words before she spoke them. “Your grandmother has just expired. I’m so sorry, she was such a wonderful person.”
Tyler thanked her and walked back to Grandma Alice’s room. As he entered, he could see the harsh man standing at the head of her bed. His face softened, taking on a tranquil look, and his eyes closed as he disappeared into the shadows.
Tyler looked down at Grandma Alice. She was at peace and he knew the flower lady would take good care of her.