Dan Pitts is a 27 year-old graduate student at the University of Washington. He wrote this story as a tribute to his grandmother's fighting spirit. He's also thrilled that you'd take the time to read his story.
By Dan Pitts
A nine-letter word for Aware (of). Huh.
I bounce the eraser end of a pencil off my forehead to the tune of Sinatra as he whispers from the ceiling speakers. The Lighthouse common area is quiet this late in the afternoon. What little energy there was here has already been spent, so Frank alone keeps me company as I work on my crossword. The nurses cut a new edition from the newspaper for me every morning. They don’t let residents handle sharp things.
Like most days, this one has passed without event. Most residents are down for their afternoon naps. The only person close enough to converse is slumped against the arm of an adjacent couch. The woman’s eyes look like they’ve been uninhabited for years. They cast a gaze past me as she dreamily taps her foot to whatever tune is in her headphones. I don’t pay any mind to her stare. I doubt she can control it.
I am jealous of her headphones though, silly as they look. Dear old Frank is wonderful, but I hear him laboring through the same ten songs every day. I suspect even my late husband, a man who for the better part of his life tried to fashion himself after Sinatra, would have been worn out by this point.
Perceive? No, that couldn’t be it. Too few letters.
I glance up from my puzzle to the clock above the exit door as it nudges closer to 5pm. I’m behind my pace. I have a pace – a well-established one. I always finish my crossword by dinnertime, because after dinner they shuffle us off to bed. I’ve never failed to complete a crossword – not since I was moved here. In fact, I keep a collection of completed puzzles under my bed, months’ worth of them. They’re proof that my mind is as sharp as the day my son decided I needed ‘advanced care’. On the rare occasions when he visits, I make a point to show him my accomplishments, and I will continue to do so until the day he checks me out of here.
But this one word – nine letters for Aware (of) – could end my streak. I shouldn’t dwell on it too much longer. Better to nibble off letters from other words.
Cognizant? No – that z doesn’t work there. That would turn Ikea into Zkea, and I’m quite certain that is supposed to be Ikea.
The entry door buzzes, and I look up to see a middle aged visitor enter from the lobby. He dithers in the doorway, trying to spot the person he’s come to visit before he ventures forth. This isn’t the most welcoming place on Earth, after all, but he’d better make his move before Marjorie sees her chance to sneak out. A nurse reaches him and closes the door. I go back to minding my crossword.
Recognize? It’s the right fit, but Nkea doesn’t make sense either, doggonit.
“Here she is, taking it easy.” The nurse has led the visitor to the woman wearing headphones. ‘Taking it easy’ is a kind way of describing her state, as if she were just tuckered out from the daily goings-on. In reality, the old bat has practically grown roots into that couch. Every day she slumps there, drifting between a wistful grin and an empty gape. God only knows what kind of medication they’ve got her on. Poor thing. This must be her son.
“How’s she been doing?” He asks through a grimace.
“She spends most of the day sleeping. Just doesn’t have the energy to take part in activities anymore, ya know? Communication is a big obstacle too.”
“I know it. After the last stroke…”
“She does love her music though. I see her over here tapping her foot all the time.”
He allows that small consolation to lift his expression as he crouches down to his mother’s eye level.
“Hey Ma. It’s me.”
The nurse takes her cue to leave. I pick up and do the same. These conversations are uncomfortable, especially when the family has to prop up an act of normalcy. The old bat probably can’t even register that her son is right in front of her face. I’ll be the first to admit I’m lucky – It was a stroke of my own that landed me in this facility. I managed a full recovery, but my greatest fear is of having another one and putting my son in that kind of position. I’d rather just be done and over with.
I move to the dining area and claim an empty table. Time to try a new word on the puzzle. It’s already 5:10. Steve McQueen, The Great___. Six letters, and the second one is probably an s. Oh goodness. He was a movie star years ago, but I can’t picture his face. Nor his movies. This is just awful.
“You gonna be able to finish today?” Another nurse asks in passing, though like Steve McQeen’s face, her name escapes me.
“Not if I keep getting distracted.” I quip, before realizing how ornery I sound. “I’m sorry – it’s just that this one’s a doozy. But I’ll get it done. Mark my word.”
“I’d never bet against you.” She chuckles, “By the way, we’re short staffed tonight. Would you like to help me set the tables?”
She asks as if it were a favor, but really I enjoy lending a hand when they allow me to. I’m the only resident they trust to help around here, which I count as further proof that I don’t belong.
“Of course. But I have to finish this puzzle first.”
Gatsby? Steve McQueen wasn’t in that, was he? Now I’m stumped on two counts. Rotten luck. It’s a shame they don’t serve coffee after midday here. I do still miss the regular afternoon cup from my years at the office. If only I had some coffee, I know could lick this puzzle with time to spare.
“Oh and would you mind changing the music –” I start to ask the nurse, but she’s already swept back into the kitchen. For goodness sake. I’d change the CD myself if I knew where they kept the player.
As I wait for the nurse to come back out, I catch sight of Marjorie. She’s hot on the tail of another departing visitor. She’s making small talk, as is her strategy. Who are you visiting? Oh yes I know her – lovely, just lovely. She’s great friends with my sister Norma, have you met? The two of them are inseparable whenever I come to visit – oh and what nice shoes you have!
But Marjorie has no sister. At least not one I’ve met. She’s trying to sneak out under the guise of a visitor. Most of the time people will sense her desperation and kindly close the door before she can follow them out. Other times the nurses, who know her game well, will intercede. Yet on rare occasion an absent-minded visitor will hold the door open for her. When Marjorie does get out she never makes it past the parking lot, but a full-blown escape is not what she’s after. She knows she’s lost too much of herself to survive in the real world, but outfoxing those who do is enough for her to prove she’s still got her wits.
She finds no luck this time. The door buzzes open then closed, and she remains trapped. “Oh, oh, okay.” Marjorie says with a practiced measure of disappointment. She turns to look at me and shrugs.
The exit door is locked with a four digit number that changes daily. From the common area, it’s the only practical way to leave The Lighthouse. Nobody – not even Marjorie – is daring enough to attempt a window escape. Of course residents aren’t allowed to know the code, and nurses are careful to conceal it, but visitors are often too preoccupied to think about the possibility of a jailbreak.
“I was close that time. You saw, didn’t you?” Marjorie says, taking a seat at the table with no concern for my crossword.
It would be much easier for her to sit here and watch for the pin number, but while she’s clever as a fox, she has the memory of a goldfish. She simply can’t hold numbers in her head.
“Yes very close.”
“It’s such a nice day outside. I just have to make it out there. Today of all days. They shouldn’t keep us in here on these kinds of days!”
She’s right. It’s unseasonably clear outside – the crisp kind of afternoon that looks warmer from inside. “You should come with me.” Marjorie sets her palms on the table and shines a child’s eager smile. “Let’s go take a walk before the sun goes down.”
Some fresh air would be nice. I don’t even remember the last time I stepped foot outside, but I can’t be distracted from my crossword. I have something to prove too.
“I’m afraid I have to let you go alone. I have this puzzle, you see. But I’ll tell you what. I’ll catch the code and write it down for you the next time someone leaves.”
“You’d do that? That would be wonderful. Yes, thank you, thank you.” She shoots up and glides back to her stalking grounds near the door. She’s back on the prowl for visitors, perhaps already having forgotten my promise.
It’s now 5:26, and I have to acknowledge that I may not finish by dinnertime. Distractions are to blame, and there should be some allowance for them. Someday it was bound to happen. Had the building caught fire, I wouldn’t have been able to complete the crossword before dinner either. So that’s that; I resolve to complete it as soon as I can, and be back on my pace tomorrow. It’s not as if the nurses are tracking my performance, or my son were bearing witness to this unfortunate lapse.
Onto a different word. Leto, Goddess of _____, Ten letters. Last two letters are O and D. For goodness sake. These are the kinds of things my son learned in school. I don’t know anything beyond Zeus.
“Now, I’m being serious with you!” An angry voice rumbles across the common area. Len, the crusty old Navy vet is experiencing another episode.
“I promise, your family is just fine.” A nurse pleads. She’s a new and pretty face. I suspect she hasn’t dealt with Len before.
“I’m being serious with you now! I need you to call my family!” He insists, “There’s been a train accident. I just saw it.”
The nurse looks to the TV. It’s turned to the news, though muted. A weatherman is grinning in front of a cartoonish sun. There is no accident, except the one which reoccurs in Len’s mind almost every afternoon. The nurse changes the channel to a home shopping network. They’re showcasing a collapsible ladder, and this does nothing to calm Len.
“Aw ta’Hell with you!” he shouts with a sense of determination which alone almost lifts him out of his wheelchair. Almost, but his tattooed arms aren’t those of the burly sailor he once was. He manages to lean forward in a huff, his elbows trembling, before falling back into his chair even surlier than before.
The nurse isn’t the only one suffering Len’s episode. On a couch near the dining area, I spot Suzanne sobbing. Of all the residents, she may have the loosest tether to reality. She’s rocking wildly back and forth, smothering a baby doll in her lap. There are no other nurses present to notice. She’s getting louder and swaying faster. Her hair is tangled beyond fixing. What a mess.
At 5:40 I abandon my crossword in order to prevent Suzanne from a complete tizzy fit. Of course I’ll still finish, but it would be wrong for me not to help poor Suzanne at this very moment. She’s grown so upset that she’s squeezed the therapy doll’s head right off. The head is laying on the ground in front of her, pondering the carpet fibers. I pick it up and hide it behind my back.
“Well no need to be upset, darling.” I say with the sweetness of a parent as I offer my hand to take her headless baby. “I’ll get you another one and it’ll be just fine.”
Suzanne looks up through her matted bangs, then shoots a glance towards Len. “He’s so loud. Why can’t he be quiet?”
“Well,” I scramble to come up with something. “He forgot his medication. But the nurse is taking care of him and he’ll be fine in a minute.”
Suzanne seems not to trust me. Her eyes shift back and forth. She whispers something to her baby, whose head I’m still palming. Does she even notice she’s talking to a stump? At last satisfied, she thrusts her doll toward me, dangling it by one leg.
“Here. She’s missing her head anyway.”
“Oh gee, look at that. You’re right.” I reply, trying to maintain a comforting tone as I receive the toy. I cradle it as if it were real, since I never know when Suzanne will snap back into her fantasy.
The Lighthouse supplies a selection of baby dolls, which the women and some of the more hapless men will choose from every morning. It’s a form of therapy. Even if most residents don’t believe they’re actually caring for a living human – Suzanne is the exception – it rekindles a sense of motherhood and harkens back to a far more fulfilling stage in life. Most residents don’t go so far as to feed the toys or talk to them, but it’s nice to have that weight in your arms – apparently. I don’t bother with it. The day I catch myself doting over a plastic doll will be the day I give up on ever leaving this place.
I make an act of laying Suzanne’s first baby and its head in the crib, and reattach it. It’s a bit unnerving to be forcing a baby’s head back on, but there I go – concerned about a plastic doll.
“Here she is.” I say, presenting the toy to Suzanne.
“Oh thank you!” she squeals, scrunching her shoulders into her neck as she lovingly takes the doll and falls back into her fantasy. She makes pure joy look easy to find, but only because her reality is well hidden. The baby rocks in her arms as if being the first person to welcome it into the world. She doesn’t look back to me, or even seem to hear Len any longer, who even though he has quieted down a bit, remains insistent. Suzanne is singularly focused on caring for her child. She starts humming along with Frank, and I wonder if she isn’t actually better off than all the rest of us.
With Suzanne settled and a second, more experienced nurse now attending to Len, I consider my work done. The bell rings for dinner, officially snuffing out any hope of finishing my crossword on time. I’ll accept this defeat. Should I ever deteriorate to Suzanne’s degree, I’d hope some able-minded resident would do the same for me.
As I head back to the dining area, I see the son of the headphone-wearing woman walking toward the exit. Marjorie is already seated for dinner, so she doesn’t notice the opportunity. I hurry to catch the code.
“Excuse me, is that your mother you came to visit?” I ask before he reaches the door. Unlike Marjorie, I take care not to crowd him.
He stops, visibly ruffled by his visit. “Yeah, today was her birthday, actually. I don’t think it means a lot though, you know. She isn’t aware of much these days.”
“Oh. I see. That’s a shame, but it’s wonderful that you came to visit all the same. I just wanted to say your mother is a dear – and she does seem to enjoy her music. I always see her over there tapping away.”
“Thank you, the nurses bring her new CD’s every once in a while. They say music helps stir memories.” He makes an empty chuckle, “She’s listening to Sinatra right now. I think it reminds her of my dad.”
“Oh she doesn’t even need headphones for that. Sinatra has been playing over the speakers all day.”
The man starts to form a reply, but hesitates. He cocks his head and listens. “I don’t hear it. Maybe they stopped?” He shrugs and gives me an uncomfortable smile. He’s mistaken; the music is clearly still playing.
The man quickly faces the pin pad. The door buzzes, and he’s gone. A fresh breeze sweeps in from the lobby. 0916 is the code – today’s date.
A spot at Marjorie’s table is open. Len and Suzanne have been seated there too. I rush to claim the last chair just as plates are being brought out. Tonight its spaghetti in the plainest tomato sauce I’ve ever tasted. It doesn’t meet Len’s approval either. While he’s grumbling at a nurse across the dining room, I tear off the top inch of my crossword containing the date and slip it across the table to Marjorie. Suzanne sees my move but I doubt she comprehends.
“Today’s date.” I whisper. “0916. The door code is just today’s date.”
Marjorie’s eyes shine as she snatches the scrap with both of her hands. “Oh wonderful. This is just wonderful.” She tries to whisper, though it comes out as more of a girlish squeal.
I nod to the door. “It’s almost dark out. You’d better get going.”
Her spaghetti goes untouched as she stands up and without pretense heads straight for the door. She enters the code and as the exit buzzes open, she smiles at me once more. The nurses don’t even see her wander into the world.
What I’m lacking in crossword answers I’m making up in good deeds. I fold up my crossword and slip it into my pocket, taking up my fork instead. Frank toils through “All of Me” once again. Goodness, how anyone not hear it? I look over to the woman on the couch, who remains planted. The nurses have forgotten to bring her dinner. And on her birthday, of all days.
I take Marjorie’s abandoned plate across to the couches, utensils in tow. If the nurses mind me serving her this food, they don’t say a thing. I set the plate on the table in front of her couch. Something like a whimper comes from her mouth, but I don’t think she meant to produce such a sad sound. I take it as a ‘thank you’.
“Spaghetti tonight, birthday girl. Do you want me to cut it up for you?” I offer, expecting that she’ll need me to do so anyway.
She keeps staring past me. She’s tapping her feet, lost in her headphones. Poor thing doesn’t even get a different music selection from the rest of us – she just gets it louder. I lean in and place my hands on her headphones, careful that removing them may cause her to react. As they come off her ears, her feet keep tapping. The headphones leak tinny traces of melody into the open air. She doesn’t startle, but her gape does take a purposeful shape, curling in one corner as a bit of spit slips down her lip. Her eyes flicker to life and she finally recognizes me.
The woman lifts a hand underneath her heavy wool blanket, which I fold down, allowing her to reach out to me. She’s holding a crumpled crossword.
“I thought I was the only one who did these.” I muse, fishing the bit of newspaper from her hand. It’s clammy. She’s been holding onto it for some time.
The crossword is today’s copy, but hers is marred by wild scribblings that fail to even line up with the boxes. It’s unintelligible, save for a wobbly circle drawn around the date. How embarrassing. The nurses should’ve found her a better activity. She doesn’t even have the motor skills to operate a pencil.
Yet I play along, holding the sheet up. Her eyes widen.
“Today’s was a doozy, but it seems you got as far as I did.” I laugh, reaching into my pocket to pull out my own copy of the puzzle. But my pocket is empty. I try my other side – still nothing. Could I have left it at the dinner table?
I turn around to find that the dining room is empty. Marjorie is hovering by the door. Suzanne’s doll remains headless underneath her as she sways and yanks at her own hair. Len is wailing in front of the TV, and Sinatra starts to take me through yet another private tour of the same ten songs.
I see it all from a spot on the couch I can’t even hope to leave – where I hold my scribbled crossword in one hand and a trembling pencil in the other. My son is coming to visit soon, and if can just complete this crossword before he arrives, then I can prove that my mind is as sharp at the day he checked me into this place.
All I need is a nine-letter word for Aware (of).