I was on my way out the door when Margaret moved in. Well, not literally out the door. I had three more weeks of rehab after breaking both my legs, can you believe it, in a fall down the basement stairs. It was a real project getting to where my phone was on the kitchen counter but that’s a story for another time. I haven’t even told my kids about it. But then again they didn’t ask. Too busy telling me how I shouldn’t go in the basement of my own house.
Margaret was rolled into my room right after lunch and by rolled, I mean she was on a stretcher, which is a pretty grim way to come into a nursing home even considering all the awful things that happen to people. She was laid out under a sheet and white blanket, everything tucked in nice and tight, like she was being delivered in an envelope. I had to look really close to see the outline of her body under the covers, she was that thin and flat. She was awake though, alert, a little in that painkiller haze we all have coming in the front door, but pretty much with it. She waved hello to me and then turned to the nurse trailing the orderly pushing her stretcher up next to her bed.
“When can I see Billy?” This was said in a querulous manner (is that the right use of that word) like this wasn’t the first time she’d asked. The nurse kept looking at the chart as if she hadn’t heard the question, but you could tell she had. You can always tell when somebody’s faking not hearing. It’s like fake sleeping. Your eyes might be closed but we know you’re not sleeping. Anyway, Margaret didn’t ask again, not right then anyway. There was too much else going on, getting lifted into the new bed, all situated, worrying that her gown was covering all her private areas. She seemed like somebody who would really appreciate a pair of nice pajamas. I had some I wouldn’t mind giving her, but it seemed too soon, if you know what I mean.
Like I said, it was just after lunch, so, of course, the ‘powers that be,” that being the nurses in their scrubs with the blue and yellow teddy bears, came through the room to lower the blinds and dim the lights. It was naptime, don’t you know, for all us oldsters. There was no fighting it. Ever seen a five-year old win the ‘I’m not sleepy’ stand-off with his kindergarten teacher? No. Because it never happens. It didn’t happen here either. Naps were what came next in our day, so it was lights out, friends.
“When can I see Billy? I could hear Margaret whispering behind the thin slip of a curtain between our two beds. She asked a few more times then fell silent. The curtain moved slightly, and I saw that her thin, doll-like hand was holding a fold of the fabric and moving it from side to side in time with her question. When – pull of the curtain – can – pull of the curtain – I – pull of the curtain– see – pull of the curtain – Billy – pull of the curtain.
I figured Billy must be her son or her husband, betting he was a son. Maybe Margaret had a husband but she didn’t have that kind of aura, you know, she looked like that part of her life was over. It would be just a matter of time before her son Billy showed up and took his mother’s tiny hand in his and told her it would all be okay. Then, maybe, she’d stop asking for him. The curtain rustled again. “When can I see Billy?”
Three o-clock was wake-up time, time for all the old kiddos to roll up their little nap mats, rub their sleepy eyes, and ask for a cookie. Janet, the second shift nurse, came to roust us.
“Janet, my new friend here, Margaret, keeps asking to see Billy. I don’t know who Billy is but maybe you can help her?”
Janet was one of the good ones. She didn’t blow people off because they were super old or lopsided or having some kind of geriatric embarrassment. She picked up the chart hanging at the foot of Margaret’s bed, flipped a few pages, and said, “Yeah, it says here that she keeps asking for Billy.”
“So, who’s Billy if I can ask? Is that her son or her husband?”
“Beats me. Chart doesn’t say.” Janet put the chart back on its hook and pulled her stethoscope from around her neck. “Just going to give her a little listen here.” I waited, not wanting to talk over Margaret’s tiny ceramic heart.
“Well, doesn’t somebody know? Isn’t there somebody to ask?”
“I don’t know. Could just be somebody in her head. Chart doesn’t have anyone as next of kin. So maybe Billy’s the neighborhood cat. Who knows?” Janet wrapped the stethoscope around her neck again and reached for the blood pressure cuff.
“She’s pretty deep end dementia. She just has those five words. If there ever was a Billy, she probably couldn’t tell you who he was. Don’t worry about it. She’s only going to be here a few weeks until a bed opens up on the Memory Unit.”
I liked this attitude of Janet’s but didn’t like it at the same time. She was matter of fact about things but sometimes that felt like resignation. If I was a long-timer here and not getting out in a few weeks, I’d feel so hopeless, I’d start knitting my burial scarf.
After the listening and measuring, Janet helped Margaret sit up and then moved her to a wheelchair which she then pushed over to the window. We were lucky to have a big window facing the nursing home’s courtyard. They’d done a good job there, fixing it up, lots of flowering trees and probably a dozen bird feeders. Old people need that, you know, something to look at, makes them feel less like captives.
Margaret asked her question a few times and, each time, Janet patted her arm but never gave her an answer like “I don’t know or I’ll go see or who’s Billy?” I was perplexed at this but I’m not a nurse. My guess is that pointless conversation was considered a timewaster. Reassurance was what the playbook called for. Pats on the arm.
I decided to pull up a chair and look at the birds with Margaret. Only a minute passed before Margaret looked at me, her wispy white eyebrows knit together with what seemed like bottomless longing. “When can I see Billy?”
“Who’s Billy, dear?” I decided it was time to confront this Billy business head on. “Tell me about Billy. What does he look like?”
“When can I see Billy?” Maybe Janet was right, maybe these five words were Margaret’s last pieces of language.
“Seriously, Margaret, you can tell me. I really want to know who Billy is. Maybe I can find him for you. I’m about to get out of here in a few weeks plus I’ve got a phone, Google, all that, I could do some searching for you. What do you say?” Margaret’s eyes never moved from the bird feeder, but I decided to keep trying.
“Give me some hints. Is he your husband? Your son? Neighbor? Friend? Cat? Is he ugly? Handsome? Do you love him? Does he love you? Come on. Let’s figure this out.”
Margaret looked at her hands in her lap. With her right hand, she traced the bones and veins on the back of her left hand. She rubbed the back of that hand with her thumb, hard like she was trying to loosen something up. Then she clasped her hands and wrung them together, almost like kneading bread. Finally, she brought her hands together to her lips as if in prayer and said, “He’s not a cat.”
Ah, I thought. Margaret has nine words! Were there more?
“So, you want to see Billy and he’s not a cat. Is there more you can tell me?”
That was the end of the conversation. Margaret signaled this by closing her eyes, her hands still in prayer mode at her lips and then slowly she dropped them to her lap, turning each palm up as if waiting for an offering of flowers.
I decided that getting 100% more words out of Margaret was a big success but also resolved not to tell Janet or any of the other nurses. Let them do their own work, spend a little time having an actual conversation with a person instead of all that arm patting. It was amazing that even the best nurses started treated old people like pets after a while, doing what was necessary to keep them alive, doling out affection, collecting all their gratitude for the tiniest things. God, I was glad to just be passing through.
I tried many times over the next two weeks to get Margaret to say more. We sat by the window each afternoon after naptime. I pointed out different birds- we had a cardinal pair that was especially wonderful – and she liked that, sometimes pointing herself at a new bird but never saying another word. She stopped asking about Billy, there was no more “When can I see Billy?”
Maybe she was content now. Maybe she didn’t need Billy anymore, whatever she had here at the nursing home was enough, maybe having me around in the next bed, bird watching with her every afternoon had taken her mind off Billy and the reason she needed to see him. But then I was discharged.
The day I left, with my daughter waiting in the hall with my bags, I sat down one last time and leaned in to talk to Margaret quietly so no one passing by in the hall would hear. “I’ve enjoyed our time together, Margaret. It’s been very peaceful. You don’t talk about Billy anymore, but I hope if you’re thinking about him that it’s good thoughts you’re having. I’ll always have good thoughts about you.” I found myself patting her arm, it felt like I was giving her comfort and I understood a bit why this was Janet’s reflex. But at the second pat, Margaret brought her prayer hands together, kissed her fingers and reached up to cup my face.
“Billy is not a cat,” she said, stroking my cheeks and smoothing the hair off my forehead. “He is not a cat. When can I see Billy?”