My wardrobe had taken a slow, downward spiral in the last ten years. Finding something suitable proved quite difficult. The dark green skirt, a little tight since the last time I wore it, with a loose, brown sweater went best with my unruly red hair and freckles. Looking in the mirror I remembered to put on sunscreen. Even in the weak, fall sun I could get a sunburn just waiting in line for a movie ticket.
I used my GPS to navigate my way through Tacoma. Funny, I’ve lived my whole life on the Puget Sound yet never had been on these busy streets with so much chain-link fencing and young people walking about in the middle of a weekday.
The Sunset Nursing Home sign was faded and a bit crooked but I was glad to have found it. A vicious-sounding dog gurgled at me from behind a screen door across the street. I double locked my car and hurried to the entrance. My feet weren’t accustomed to the ‘dressy’ shoes I wore. I concentrated on walking properly along the cracked cement.
There is a smell to nursing homes that can’t seem to be avoided. The musty odor of bedridden people hit me as I opened the door, an ‘end of life’ smell. We will all get there someday, I suppose. I hope I don’t recognize it when it surrounds me.
“Afternoon,” said the gruff voice. It came from a gray-haired, black woman who, if she wasn’t sitting at the front desk with a headset on, could have been one of the patients. She looked at me curiously. Her nametag read, “Mrs. Wilson.”
I bustled up to her desk and put my clinking set of keys in my little ‘dress’ purse. Two well-worn chairs sat by the wall with a small, round table between them. A grayish doily lay centered on the table. It wasn’t really a waiting room, more like a resting spot.
“I’m here to see Mr. Walter Burroughs at four o’clock,” I said, cheerfully.
“You are his niece?” Mrs. Wilson’s eyebrows shot up and wrinkled her forehead considerably.
She lifted her bifocals off her heavy bosom and put them on to get a better look at me. I supposed they had to be careful of people claiming to be relatives trying to get into a last minute will.
I smiled openly and let her inspect me from behind the bifocals. “Yes. I am Jan Wilmitsky.”
Mrs. Wilson grinned. “He will be so happy you are here. You know, he has never had any relatives. An orphan in this world, poor soul. Nicest man you will ever meet, though. He’s very special to us. He has talked about nothing else since you called.” She nodded toward the tired chairs. “Please have a seat.”
Relieved to hear that he was taking this news so positively, a weight lifted off my shoulders. He wanted to meet me.
Mrs. Wilson punched a button on her phone. “Dolly, come up here quick. Mr. Burroughs’ niece is here.”
Several women in somewhat matching white uniforms came from the hallway, whispering to each other and sneaking peeks at me. I was touched by the interest the others were taking.
A beautiful Hispanic woman, about my age, marched efficiently toward me in her big white nurse shoes. I stood and adjusted my snug skirt, my hands shaking slightly.
“Hi there. I’m Dolly.” She smiled. “Walter is right back here. Follow me.”
We passed two other rooms in the hall. In one, a miniscule person, looked like a woman, with permed, white hair stacked up on her pillow and enormous, plastic-framed glasses covering most of her face, watched a talkshow on a television perched in the upper corner of the room like in a hospital. The other room contained a bed with a person sleeping under a blue blanket with an IV tube emerging and snaking up a stand. I wondered if Walter would be hooked up to tubes.
“Mr. Burroughs?” Dolly poked her head in the next door. “Your niece is here.”
“Please send her in this instant,” boomed a voice so deep I could feel it through my dress shoes.
Dolly stepped aside and I approached the bed, trembling slightly. A very old, very tall, very black man sat upright in his crisp white bedsheets. He held out a huge, ash-colored hand toward me. His milky white eyes stared dreamily in my direction.