Blanche walked through the lobby, her hands in her pants pockets, and looked out the window. Her short hair, usually curled and slightly teased, hung straight and was tucked behind her ears.
“That snow is out there taunting us,” she said.
I couldn’t help agreeing; it felt like a bad joke. The world outside had careened to an unrecognizable place, and the world inside had tilted even further from the reality any of us knew.
The facility’s sign could be seen through the window. Blanche read it aloud, trying to make sense of the words.
Last September, I took a job as a receptionist at a senior living facility where most residents are in memory care. I’d spent the decade before that working as an editor, getting laid off a few times, and trying to succeed as a freelancer. During those years, I felt sidelined and useless as everyone around me rushed off to work or school. From my sofa, I chronicled my anger as a middle-age job hunter and the way capitalism negates the value of people who are not earning or creating. I started my new job still carrying some of those feelings. I earn minimum wage, which definitely makes a person feel of little value.
But my self-pity was put in perspective as I got to know the residents, people invisible to the world outside. Hours at work passed easily as I talked with Jackie, Edie, and Alice about wishing we could see our adult kids more. Edie beat me in a Friday night game of Scrabble and then forgot about it by the time she said goodnight on her way back to her room. Blanche played “Claire de Lune” on the piano two or three times a day, often with Edie trilling along from an upholstered chair while reading the New York Times.
This spring, as COVID 19 closed businesses and sent students and office workers home, as those around me took laptops to their sofas and dining room tables, I was the one leaving my house to go to work. Am I “essential”? I feel only marginally necessary, fielding calls from our residents’ worried family members.
During the weekend in early March when the place first closed to visitors because of COVID 19, Helena’s daughter called.
“How’s my mom doing? Is she okay?” Her voice expressed a vulnerability that’s unusual between strangers. It made me realize how new I am to this line of work. This is a home. We’re caring for the most cherished people in the lives of the sons, daughters, spouses, and partners who are forbidden from entering. At the same time, I’m not allowed to offer her much of an answer because of privacy laws.
Families are reading news stories about contagion in nursing homes. So far, we’ve been safe. Or lucky. To thank the hardworking caregivers, they send us pizzas and cupcakes. The management does the same, leaving bowls of candy and boxes of donuts instead of offering hazard pay.
Conservative commentators and politicians, once enthusiastic about protecting life, now promote “sacrifice” in the name of the economy. They have become more vociferous in suggesting that if you’re not producing you have no value.
“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” President Trump tweeted in March. In all caps.
“Many are willing to take the risk of contracting the coronavirus in order to preserve their way of life,” Fox News personality Laura Ingraham told her viewers in April.
“I’m viewing our great citizens of this country to a certain extent and to a large extent as warriors,” President Trump said in early May, as he urged businesses and schools to reopen. “Will some people be badly affected? Yes,” he continued. “But we have got to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.”
Early precautions where I work meant keeping distance between the residents. Dining was split between two rooms, with only one person per table. Plates were shelved, and meals were served in take-out clamshell containers. Those who can have wine with dinner sipped from Styrofoam cups. This mode of distancing lasted three weeks. Now the residents are quarantined to their rooms. No more group crafts or outings. Activity staff go room to room with iPads for online family visits, and coloring pages, puzzles, books, and magazines.
My interactions with the residents, when they were still allowed to hang out in the lobby, were repetitive and predictable. I long to relive these moments.
Alice frequented the front desk, where we stored her cigarettes, to ask if someone could take her outside for a smoke. I’d often have to remind her she had one thirty minutes ago. Edie always advocated for her friend.
“What’s the big deal?” Edie would say. “What is it with you people and control?”
I miss visiting with Helena, who liked to sit in her wheelchair in the lobby, observing conversations between employees and the high-school drama between some of the residents.
When she speaks, it can be hard to understand, which forces me to pay close attention. At night when the lobby emptied, she’d tell me about her family and about the staff member she has a crush on.
“I talk to you like I talk to my daughter,” she once said.
Being around these very vulnerable people right now is equal parts terrifying and life affirming.
Now, the dining room stays empty. The upholstered chairs in the lobby have been removed to discourage residents from hanging around. I sit at my reception desk and read. I take the temperature of coworkers as they come and go, and I hand out face masks. I answer the door when family members drop off socks, mouthwash, or a photo album—tokens of the love that’s barred from entering.
Still, a few residents wander to the lobby for a snack or to make a phone call, or when they’ve lost track of when and where they are.
One night Jackie comes downstairs to ask me to call her son. This is allowed. Family contact is an important element of memory care. I connect her and leave her with the phone and a chair at the edge of the dining room. From my desk, I overhear her tell her son that she remembers the name of the actor she’d been trying to recall during their last conversation. She tells him the hairdresser, who usually comes every Wednesday, hasn’t come in for a few weeks.
“I put lipstick on my bald spot,” she says. She laughs in the intimate way mothers laugh with their children.
Edie wanders down to the lobby alone and plots her escape.
“I have a house on Cape Cod. I could go there,” she says. I consider telling her that locals are urging seasonal homeowners to stay away, but decide against it. Instead, I accept the invitation to join her.
The next night she appears with her jacket on. “I need to get out of here,” she says. “Just for ten minutes.”
I explain again that our governor has asked everyone to stay indoors. I explain that the same thing is happening around the globe.
“I don’t care,” she says. “I feel like I’m in cold storage here.”
I quietly usher her down a hallway and open the back door for her. We face an ugly parking garage as she breathes in the cool air.
“I better close it so I won’t get fired,” I say after a few seconds. An alarm rings if the door stays open too long.
“I’ll fight for you,” she promises, waving her fist in the air.
I walk her back to the elevators.
Blanche finds her way downstairs after the piano has been silent for a month. She plays “Claire de Lune” over and over. I didn’t realize how much I missed hearing it. Its melancholy fits the moment.
Helena’s daughter visits from outside the lobby window a few days later. Helena’s face lights up.
“How are you doing, Mommy,” her daughter asks, and blows kisses at the window.
If ever there were a time to revert to that extra syllable for our mothers, this is it. I think about my own parents, four hundred miles away. Would it be harder not seeing them if we were in the same town but separated by a large window? Like a lot of people my age, I have an immunocompromised parent. Like the adult children of our residents, I wonder when—or if—I’ll see my parents again.
I dial Helena’s daughter on my cell phone and put it on speaker, so Helena in her wheelchair in front of the window can communicate with her daughter.
“I miss you, Mommy,” her daughter says.
Busy care managers, nurses, and kitchen staff walk through the lobby. I’m not the only one who cries watching mother and daughter reach toward one another through the glass.
Lori Barrett is a writer living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Salon, Bustle, Necessary Fiction, Barrelhouse, and Paper Darts. She has participated in Chicago’s Live Lit events That’s All She Wrote and Tuesday Funk. She volunteers as an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel, and as a writing tutor at a local public high school.
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