Nonfiction by Isabel Lickey
The car is hard to drive. The wheel heavy, the brakes stiff. My grandpa had given me his driving hat to wear, but it is too big, swinging with my head when I move it.
“You’re taking a right at the next light. It’ll take you onto I-205,” my grandpa says from the backseat. His thin body is hunched, his knees bent toward the middle of the car. He tries to lean against the door, stretching his tall frame as much as he can in a Honda Civic.
“Okay,” I say. Beside me in the passenger seat, Nana hums a song – broken and too quiet to place it. She wrings her hands, the dry skin loud as it moves. Papa places his hand on her seat, murmuring something neither of us can hear. She turns her head, and covers his hand with hers.
“Are we going back to our house?” Nana asks him. She doesn’t look at me – she hasn’t the entire ride.
“No, but I wish we were, Maryanne,” Papa says. It’s always Maryanne, no one calls her Mom or Nana – those titles confuse her. She’ll look behind herself to see who they’re talking to.
I check my blind spot and merge onto the highway. The road is slick, the windshield wipers set to the fastest setting, but the heavy rain, and the spray from cars around me, throw a sheet of water over the window. I can see the individual drops when they hit, before they move together and are swept away.
Mom had made the drive seem shorter than it was. “It’s ten minutes,” she promised, “and you don’t even get on the highway.” She was wrong on both counts.
Nana and Papa are silent beside me, their hands touching, with Papa bent forward at an awkward angle and Nana staring straight ahead.
I wish Papa would ask a question, to shatter the heavy silence settled over us so thick I don’t have the courage to break it myself. I want to get to the nursing home faster, but I drive below the speed limit. The fragility of Nana and Papa, the thinness of their limbs, makes me responsible. I’m anxious of my turns, my speed, the cars passing to the left.
“Take the exit here,” Papa says. I signal to get off. “We’re almost there,” he tells Nana.
* * *
“I don’t want him driving her, he’s already had two whiskeys,” Mom had told me. I saw him drink the whiskey. He didn’t do it like people did in the movies, with small sips in a half full crystal glass, savoring the taste. His was in my aunt’s plastic cup, and he swallowed it in three swings.
“It is getting dark out, maybe Nana should spend the night with him,” I’d said. Mom arched an eyebrow.
“So Papa can stay up all night worrying about her running away? Really?” Mom sighed then. “I’ll have to take them back.”
“I can do it,” I said, part of me guilty because I hadn’t spoken to either of them for all of Thanksgiving, the other wanting to impress my mom.
“You sure, Sweetie?”
“Yeah, I don’t mind,” I said. “Just don’t eat the pie without me.”
I left to start Papa’s car, the small Civic easier to drive than our own van. It was cold and wet, the rain just starting. Tiny flecks of water hung in the air, landing on my hair and coat.
The damp crawled inside me, digging under layers of shirts and sweaters, driving away the warmth that clung to my skin.
Papa came out of the house, leading Nana to the car. He opened the door for her, helped her in. When he tried to get into the back seat, he fell. He lay across the back seats, his legs still hanging out the open door.
“I’ve got it, Papa,” I jumped out of the driver’s seat, lifting his legs into the car. His legs were thin, even through thick fabric. I lifted them lightly and placed them on the floor of the car, his back twisted to fit them. I didn’t offer to help him sit up, and he looked grateful for that.
* * *
“You can wait inside, if you want,” Papa tells me as Nana shuffles to the door beside him. I close the doors of the car, and stand on the side.
“I’ll wait out here, it’s not that cold,” I tell him. Papa nods, already herding Nana inside the one-story building.
I roll my ankles, working stiffness out of them. I almost wish I’d gone inside, but with their hands linked together, and Nana’s reluctance to look at me, I felt like an intruder.
The trees are thick and imposing, creating a shelter of shadows around the building. They guard from the brightness of the street lights and neon signs lining the road. Dim light strains through the clouds. The rain has stopped, but the dampness hasn’t left me. My hands swell with cold. I turn on my phone, leaning from foot to foot, and scroll through texts. I turn it off, then on again because I forgot to check the time.
“You want to come inside?” A voice asks from behind me. I take a sharp breath, the man’s voice hitting away the stillness settled over me.
“Um, I’m alright.” I say.
“It’s cold out,” the man says. He’s not much taller than me. His hair is thin and I can see his pale scalp. He walks toward me and I force myself not to move, to put a smile on my face. He places a cigarette in his mouth, and struggles with his lighter, his nail scraping down the side when he tries to ignite it. He closes his eyes when he inhales, then blows the smoke out. I watch as it hangs in the air, frozen, before dispelling.
“I’m Mark,” he says. “My mom’s in there, so we’re visiting.” I nod, giving him a faint smile.
We stand alone, close, but both of us facing the parking lot. My heart is loud, or maybe it is just quiet, and Mark, with his balding hair and quick smile, makes me want to run away. “You waiting for someone?” he asks.
“My grandpa’s taking my grandma back,” I say. I don’t smile this time. I want him to walk away.
“Your grandma have a name?”
“Um,” I pause for a moment, because her name left me. Nana, I want to say, but that’s not a name, and I don’t call her that anymore. “Maryanne,” I say.
“Oh, Paul’s wife, right?”
“I swear I see him here every time I come. He seems nice.”
“I wouldn’t know,” I say. I want the statement to be funny, to relieve the tightness around my chest, but it comes out quiet and harsh, and my chest feels strained. Mark is silent, drawing in a lungful of smoke.
“I don’t do this often,” he says. I don’t know if he is trying to reassure me that he only sometimes talks with teenage girls in empty parking lots, but then he points to the cigarette. “They made these five bucks a pack.”
I can see the lines on his face, the edges of the folds soft in the weak light. He’s smiling, and I want him to leave. I nod.
“Maryanne has Alzheimer’s, right?” He says. I don’t respond. “Paul told me she did.”
I nod again, and tell myself I’m being dramatic. “Yeah, she does.”
“That’s too bad. My mom’s got dementia so I know how it feels.”
“Thanks,” I say. Mark’s shoulders, already small, are curled forward, making him seem smaller than me. You don’t know how I feel, I want to tell him. It’s your mom and you love her, but I don’t even feel sad about Nana. Mark tosses his cigarette to the ground, grinding the small spark into the dirt.
“I gotta take off. You have a good day, now,” Mark says. I give him a tight smile, watching as he turns around the corner of the parking lot.
I check my phone, my hand clammy. A text from Mom: We’re cutting the pie soon!
I want to call her, but for what? To tell her a stranger is standing too close to me and Papa is taking too long.
Then I decide I’ve waited outside long enough, and I walk through the front doors of the nursing community. It’s quiet and no one is stationed at the desk in the lobby.
I keep moving down the halls. The wallpaper, a pale pink, is a print of a young girl swinging, with a little boy standing beneath her, arms outstretched as if to catch her and pull her down.
Music plays. It’s an old song, the notes of the piano slow and soft.
Nana liked playing the piano, Mom told me. She bought my brother a toy one when he was a toddler, and whenever she came to visit she would sit with him on the ground and teach him notes. At their old house, the one I visited twice before they moved, they had a grand piano. It sat majestically in the front room, and the glossy black of its skeleton has stuck in my memory.
Mom said Nana was always playing that piano – when she was alone, when her kids were bored, when guests came over. It wasn’t that she was amazing – she hadn’t taken lessons and couldn’t keep the tempo – but she was confident and energetic. She liked show tunes, the bouncing rhythms and brash notes.
I turn the corner in the nursing home and reach a lobby, where residents sit in overstuffed armchairs, sleeping or staring, none of them talking. An old woman walks slowly out of the dining room. She has her skirt fisted in her hands, pulled up over her hips. I look away, embarrassed.
“Are you looking for something?” The voice is sharp.
“Sorry,” I say, turning to face the nurse. Her scrubs are stretched across wide hips, and partially bleached hair is tucked behind her ears. “I’m looking for my grandpa. He came in with my grandma a while ago.”
“Are either of them residents?” she asks.
“My grandma. Her name is Maryanne.”
“Oh, Paul’s wife. Yes, they’re down in her room. It’s A-9. Go straight and it will be to your right at the end of the hall. And tell your grandfather hello.”
I find the room and stand outside, not wanting to pull Papa away.
Last month, after Mom got off the phone with Aunt Karen, she told me she thought Papa spent too much time at the nursing home, too much time with Nana. “Karen has to call him to remind him to come home,” she said. “And he always tries to take her home for the night. God, you know if it had been Dad who was sick, Mom would’ve been fine. She never would’ve let herself go this much.”
“Does he do anything else?” I asked – more to let her talk than for any real curiosity on my part.
“No, that’s the thing. He sits in his house in the morning watching crime TV, and then goes and spends the rest of the day with her.” She rolled her eyes. “No wonder he’s so depressed.”
Here, in front of her door, I feel guilty, as if I’ve betrayed Papa in some way by having that conversation with Mom.
I pause outside her bedroom.
There’s a picture of Nana hung on her door. Her hair is curled neatly into a bun, and her painted lips smile slightly at someone behind the camera. Next to the picture, a paper says, “I’m Maryanne.”
I stare at the picture and wonder if Nana stares at it too. Does she recognize the woman smiling at the camera, and smile back at her? I wonder if she imagines the life of the beautiful woman caught inside the frame. I wonder if, when she is lying in her bed, she sometimes receives a moment of clarity and wants to scream because she has lived for 80 years and deserves more dignity than sleeping in a room decorated in the saturated pinks of a middle schooler.
I knock and walk into the room. Nana and Papa are sitting on her bed. He has an arm around her, but she is rigid, wringing her hands and staring at the slit of yellow light coming from the cracked door of the bathroom. He is saying something to her, moving his hand up and down her arm.
I don’t have to guess what she’s thinking anymore because it’s in front of me. Her feeble smile, the way she leans away from Papa. She wants to leave. Leave the care community, leave Papa, leave everyone trying to hold onto someone she no longer is.
I feel connected to her in that moment, even with Papa’s shoulders surrounding her, reminding me that I’m the intruder.
“Papa, Mom told me they’re about to cut the pie. We should get going if we want some,” I say.
“Okay, I’m almost ready, just give me a second to get up.” He doesn’t get up, though. Instead he tightens his hold on Nana.
“I’ll wait outside,” I say. I stand in the doorway with the hall light shining on me. “Bye Maryanne.” She smiles politely, and I return the smile – polite and small and forced.
In the hall, the music has changed, still quiet, but the tempo is faster, the chords of the piano rapid and jumping, as if the pianist’s fingers were burned each time they touched the keys.
It takes Papa five minutes to come into the hallway. His coat is zipped up, his hat in place, and his hands are shoved deep in his pockets.
“I’m going to tell the nurse she’s ready for bed,” Papa says
“I’ll start the car.” I want out of the building, with its Victorian wallpaper and quiet music, and residents whose eyes never focus.
Outside, the light has faded. The dark is comforting; I feel invisible.
When Papa comes out, I open the door for him, grabbing his forearms and helping him lower into the seat. I bend down to move his legs in, but he waves me off.
“I’ve got it,” he says. I get into the driver’s seat, waiting as he lifts his legs, the white of his hands stark against his pants. Dense veins and splotches of red mar his thin skin.
“There’s a turnaround at the end of the road, take a left and you’ll get onto I-205,” Papa says. I nod, flicking on my turn signal.
“I hope they haven’t started eating without us,” I say. Papa makes a noise of acknowledgement deep in his throat, but he isn’t focused on me. Instead, he looks down at his hands. He is still, his chest hardly moving with his shallow breaths. The small smile he wore on the ride over here is gone. Lines on his face pull down from his mouth.
The evening wraps its darkness around the car, pulling me into silence. We both stare straight ahead, strangers locked together in a car.
Isabel Lickey was born and raised in Portland, and has grown up loving the rain and cloudy days. Currently attending Grant High School in Northeast Portland, she has been a passionate writer since she can remember. Besides writing, she enjoys backpacking, reading, and playing guitar.