The Nursing Home
The old woman sat in her chair next to the window, looking out over the parking lot and the poorly maintained bit of greenery nobody but the nursing home’s website would describe as “lush and verdant parklands.” Her room was small: just big enough to house a bed, a nightstand, a small coffee table and two chairs.
Had anyone come to visit her she would have been ashamed to let them in. The carpet was old, the wallpaper flaking, the curtains unwashed and stained. But nobody would come. The few people that had ever cared for her were long dead.
Her children might as well be dead, too. When they had found out she had trouble remembering things and was getting a bit unsteady on her feet, they hadn’t hesitated. They had removed her from the family home she had lived in all her life and packed her off to an ‘affordable’ nursing home, far enough away from town to give her children an excuse never to visit her. She had outlived her usefulness and was put here to be forgotten; to wither away and die like the forgotten pot plants surrounding the parking lot outside.
The old woman sighed and stared into the distance. How did she end up here? Not just the home, but her whole situation: alone, discarded, forgotten. What had happened to her that a whole lifetime could so easily be summed up in a 4-line story:
She was born.
Then she died.
For quite a while she sits there, motionless, lost in thoughts.
Gradually, however, an idea begins to take shape in her mind. What if her whole dismal situation was simply a mistake? A wrong turn she has taken, sometime in her past? It would explain so much. The feeling that this wasn’t the life she was meant to live. That she was an actor that had been given the wrong script by mistake. That her real life was out there somewhere, just out of reach. That the glimpses of a better, more fulfilling, more passionate life she had always dismissed as wishful thinking were actually more real than the empty existence she had endured.
She decides she is going to find out.
She straightens her back, closes her eyes, and concentrates on the last time she had felt a part of her self slip away.
The Family Home
“Really Mother, you can’t go on like this,” her daughter said, for the umpteenth time, “living alone in this house. What if you fall and break something? You could lie here for days with nobody knowing about it. You could leave the gas on and blow up the house. You could get lost outside. It’s just not safe for you to live alone any more.” She did her best to sound worried and concerned but all the old woman noticed was her daughter’s impatience and irritation.
“It’s just ridiculous,” her son chimed in, “you keeping this place to yourself. All those empty rooms: a waste of space and energy. No-one ever comes to stay here. You should be ashamed of yourself: hogging this place. Think of all the homeless people. Look at that garden: they could build an apartment block there and house a dozen families. It’s selfish, that’s what it is.”
“You just can’t go on like this,” her daughter said, again. “It’s costing a fortune in maintenance, insurance, rates, … all wasted because you are too stubborn to admit you are simply too old to stay here. We don’t even know if you’re all there anymore, you know, … mentally? You’ve grown so absent-minded and forgetful, so withdrawn. We can hardly have a decent conversation with you these days. It just can’t go on. Something has to be done. For your own good.”
The old woman remembers the whole conversation, every painful word spoken piercing her heart like a dagger. She had wanted to push back, to argue, to tell them she loved this house and its gardens. That she was content here. But the words had failed to come. Her mind had slowed down lately and by the time she had found words for what she wanted to say, her children would already have gone on. So she had just sat there, in silence, shaking her head in frustration and pain.
“… sign here, and here,” her son said, aggressively pushing a sheet of paper towards her over the table, “that will give me power of attorney so I can take care of everything for you. It’s for the best, and you know it. Someone needs to take responsibility for your situation, and you’re clearly no longer capable of doing so.”
In her mind’s eye, the old woman sees herself reach for the pen, not wanting to sign but too tired to fight against her children. They had confused and humiliated her with their constant barrage of accusations. They had made her ashamed of herself and her selfish desire to have something for herself. They had pushed her into a state of silent despair where giving up and surrendering almost felt like a release. She felt herself getting ready to sink even deeper into apathy and oblivion. She was going to sign the paper and be done with it all.
“No!” she says, “I am not having this!” To her own surprise she finds she has spoken these words out aloud. Her children, as startled as she, recoil in their chairs. They look at her in amazement.
The old woman pushes on: “I know what you two want. This is not about me. You don’t care about me. You never have. All you are after is the house and what it is worth. To you I am just a burden and an expensive one at that. You think you can put me away in some godforsaken nursing home in the middle of nowhere. So you can forget about me and go on with your own self-centred existence. But I’m not having it. I will not sign this piece of paper. I will not be taken out of my home. I will not be made to be ashamed of who I am. Not by you two, nor anyone else. It’s you who should be ashamed. Deeply ashamed.”
With fiery eyes, she glares at her children, cowering in their chairs, too surprised to have anything to say. “Look at you both. Cowards, is what you are. Vultures praying on the old and frail. Maybe it is all my fault. Maybe I have let you become what you are today. If that’s the case, I am sorry. But enough is enough!”
She stands up, and tears up the paper her son had given her. “Here is your power,” she says and throws the pieces in their faces. “Nothing but shreds and hollow phrases. I won’t give you any power over me. Not anymore. You wanted to get rid of me? Well, good riddance then. I want you both to get out of my house. Now! Get out!” She points at the door with a remarkably steady hand. “And don’t even think of trying anything. I will disinherit you both before I let you treat me like that ever again.”
Speechless, her son and daughter get up and walk out. They don’t even look back. They slam the front door on the way out. She hears them speed away in their expensive cars.
She will never see them again.
In her mind, she looks around. The house is hers now. Her life is hers. For the first time in her life she has turned a situation around and taken control. And it feels great.
She sits back in her chair and closes her eyes again. It feels good to be in her own house and in control of her life. But she is still alone in the world. Her life still feels empty and unfulfilled. She knows life had so much more in store for her. Where else could she have lost what was supposed to be hers?
“Mrs. Olwen? Could you come to my office, please?” She looked at the shape of her boss disappearing in the distance. She got up and followed him to his spacious corner office overlooking the ocean.
He stood at the door of his office when she arrived and ushered her in, in passing placing a hand on her lower back, seemingly innocent enough but with just a hint of a lecherous squeeze as she walked by. It was as she feared. The blinds had been closed, the lights reduced to a shimmer. Not a good sign. She had heard the rumours but refused to believe them. Now she was afraid they may have been true after all. She heard him close the door behind him and turn the key. She was trapped!
He walked towards her with a leering smile on his face. “I couldn’t stop thinking of you,” he said, “you’ve been on my mind all morning.” He grabbed her by her waist and pulled her towards him. “Come here, and give us a kiss. I know you want it.”
She knew what would come next and she hated it. But what choice did she have? She couldn’t afford to lose this job. A single mother with two school-going children, she needed every penny. Best endure it and get it over with quickly. Offering no resistance she let him draw her to him. As his face came closer she could smell the whiskey on his breath. He had clearly taken a few drinks to get into the ‘mood’. It was disgusting.
With her eyes closed, she can’t help but shudder at the memories. She had let him get away with this for several years, always fearing for what he could do to her if she refused. He had let her know from the start, in no uncertain terms, that she would not just be fired, he would ruin her reputation forever. No-one would ever hire her again. Of that she could be certain. He had that kind of power, he assured her. She had been too afraid to resist and he had had his way with her, again and again, until at last he had become bored with her and replaced her with a younger woman he could intimidate into obedience. He had let her keep her job, in return for her silence. She had stayed till the company was unexpectedly sold and she got laid-off like almost everyone else. Her silence had been for nothing. She had wasted her years, while her former boss had gone on to become ever more powerful and rich. Until his wife had enough of him, filed for divorce and leaked his dirty past, in glorious detail, to the press.
Remembering the humiliation and frustration of those years brings tears of anger to her eyes. She shouldn’t have let it happen! She will not let it happen!
As he pushes his tongue into her mouth she bites down – hard. He pulls back, moaning, with blood dripping from his mouth. “What the fuck?” he shouts, “what are you doing? You stupid bitch, there’s blood everywhere.” As he fumbles a handkerchief from his pocket to dab at the bleeding she straightens her back and looks at him, coolly. “I am not your plaything, you despicable little man. I am not some toy you can have your way with and discard. You are disgusting!” He looks at her, astonished at first, then slowly angering. “Who do you think you are, you little slut? What makes you think you can talk to me like that? You will regret this for the rest of your life.” “I don’t think so,” she says. “In fact, I know I won’t. You have no power over me. Not anymore. I will tell you exactly what is going to happen. I am going to walk out of this office. By the end of the week I will get a generous severance offer from you, that I will graciously accept. I will then leave the company with a letter of recommendation personally signed by you. If you do that, you will never hear from me again.”
Still dabbing at his mouth he tries to look fierce and indignant. “And what if I don’t? What is stopping me from throwing you out right now and making sure you never find work anywhere again? Why wouldn’t I tell everyone what a worthless piece of shit you are?” “Because I know everything about the deal you are planning. I know how you want to sell off this company, and get everyone sacked while raking in the proceeds.” She realises the power her hindsight is giving her younger self and goes full out. “I also know the names of the other young women you have ruined. I know of the secret fund you have been building up by skimming off our profits. I know enough to bankrupt you and get you sent to jail. Now, get out of my way, before I change my mind and go public straight away.”
She strides to the door, pushing her boss aside. He is too stunned to even protest as she unlocks the door and walks out, closing the door behind her.
In the hallway, she stops for a moment, feeling her body shake with the adrenaline and excitement. She did it! She stopped the bastard! Composing herself, she walks back to her desk, gathers her stuff and walks out. She tries hard not to laugh out loud as she leaves the building behind and walks off into the sunshine of the early afternoon.
She walks to a bench on the nearby beach and sits down. She closes her eyes to bask in the warmth of the Sun and reflects on what just happened. She can hardly believe she had the courage to stand up to that man. It changed everything: her career, her self-esteem, her belief there is a space for her in this world. Although, to be honest, the idea she had to earn the right to exist still plagues her to this day. She has always felt she had to tread carefully, and please and appease people, or they would find out she was an interloper and exile her for the error of creation she deep-down believed herself to be.
Would she be able to do something about that, too? She silences her mind and goes searching for another defining moment in her life.
She remembers how she had woken up to what was supposed to be happiest day of her life with a feeling of dread and hopelessness.
When John had proposed to her, months ago, she had said ‘yes’ rather quickly. They had been dating for more than a year already and she had constantly feared he would tire of her and drop her for someone more deserving of his love and attention. So, when he proposed, she felt she couldn’t take any chances. If he sensed even the slightest hesitation, he might take offence and change his mind. Her ‘yes’ at least sealed the deal, preventing him from running off.
It had felt like a victory at the time but now it felt like a life-sentence. John had changed so much in those past months. Happy at first that she had accepted him, he had paraded her around his circle of family and friends, like a hunter showing-off his trophy kill. And, without consulting her, he had begun planning the wedding. He set the date, the location, the program, drew up the list of guests. It was his show. It was all about him and his conquest. She should be grateful she was given a role at all.
The closer they came to the wedding, the less John had been interested in her as a person. She had become an extra in his grand pantomime; a backdrop to his shining persona. Her feelings didn’t matter. Her input wasn’t wanted. Her beauty was all that counted, and her family’s fortune, of course, wasn’t unwelcome either.
She tried to convince herself John was only behaving like this because of the pressures riding on him. He had worked so hard to make something of himself. Coming from a humble family he had made a career in sales. Moving up fast, he was sure he was destined for greatness. She knew how important his career was to him. She knew how much he was convinced their marriage would show those upper-class bastards they couldn’t keep him out of their inner circle any longer. Once the wedding was behind them he would turn his attentions back to her, she told herself. They would then become the happy couple everyone expected them to be.
But then, just one week before the wedding, she had caught John in bed with another woman. She had gone to his place unannounced, as a surprise. Looking for him she walked into the bedroom, to be shouted at by an angry John, telling her to leave immediately. She had recognised the girl in bed with him from his office. The girl didn’t even try to cover herself but sat there, grinning, while John yelled at her to close the door on the way out.
She had fled the house, crying, and went to her favourite spot on the beach. Sitting on the bench overlooking the water, she let the full impact of what she had seen sink in. John had betrayed her! He didn’t love her, after all. All his past attention, his promises, his gifts and beautiful flowers, it had all been a show. He had hunted her and roped her in with his charm and his intensity. And she had fallen for it, like the stupid fool she was.
She knew he wouldn’t let her go. She was his trophy wife, his ticket to respectability and what he thought of as class. Even worse was her realisation that she knew she wouldn’t even try to get away. Her parents wouldn’t understand. Her friends would think she had lost her mind. Even if she would tell them what she had seen, John would simply deny it, tell them she must have been dreaming. They would believe him, with his charm and his smiles and his beguiling manners, not her. They would all side with John against her.
She had never felt more alone in the world as on that bench near the water.
When she came home later than evening, John had been waiting for her and greeted her as if nothing had happened. She hadn’t dared to say anything, dreading his anger and scorn, so they both carried on their charade. In private, she became more and more withdrawn, locking herself in her room with the curtains closed, or sitting for hours on her bench by the water, thinking of jumping in and drowning herself, knowing she lacked the courage to do even that. In public, they played the happy man and wife to be. They chatted with friends about the wedding, the final arrangements and what a grand show it all would be. Crying inside, she forced herself to laugh along with John’s jokes and his bragging while feeling swept along by a raging torrent towards a cold, dark abyss from which she would never be able to escape.
And now the day had arrived she would make that final plunge into darkness.
She cringes as she recalls how she had felt that day. Numb inside, but smiling to those around her, she let herself be prepared, like a lamb to the slaughter, for the big ceremony. Hair, nails, dress, jewellery and make-up all in place, she had been the perfect picture of the perfect bride. She had let her father lead her to the altar, where a triumphantly grinning John waited for her. She had heard the priest mumble through his litany without taking in a single word of what he was saying. Until he came to the moment of the vows.
John had already said his “I do”, so it is her turn now. It is now or never. As the priest is waiting for her answer, she moves in and takes over from her past self. “No, I won’t!” she says, “I will not let him destroy me.” It takes the priest a moment to take in what she is saying, then consternation spreads on his face. John is quicker to grasp what is happening. He glares at her and grabs her hand, pulling her towards him. “What are you doing? Making a scene? Now? I’m not going to let you do this,” he whispers angrily. He tightens his grip but she manages to pull herself free. “I am already doing it,” she says, loudly, triumphantly. “You have no power over me. You don’t get to claim me. You don’t deserve me. You never did. You never will!”
She turns around to face the family and friends gathered behind them, most of them just beginning to understand the enormity of what she has just done. “Don’t even think of stopping me. Any of you. My life is not yours to determine. My existence doesn’t depend on your approval. From now on, I’ll be the one in charge of my future.” Well aware of the dramatic effect, she rips the veil and flowers from her head and throws them in John’s face. She kicks off her pumps, lifts the hem of her dress, and strides out of the church with her head held up high, defiantly. She doesn’t need to look back to know the confusion she is leaving behind.
She smiles. She has escaped. The life she thought to be over lies ahead of her, waiting to be discovered.
She goes back to her bench on the beach and looks out over the water and the sunlight dancing on the waves. She feels light and liberated, free to embrace the world and dance with its rhythms, unconcerned about other people and what they might think of her.
For a while, all she does is sit and enjoy this newfound freedom. As the sun begins to set, however, and the shadows lengthen, she becomes aware of a darkness inside her. It’s a darkness that has always been there, she realises, but seldom acknowledged. Whenever it presented itself she had ran away from it, preferring to flee in the emotions of fear and anxiety the darkness triggered, rather than face that darkness itself. She had thought that this had kept her safe but now she realises that ignoring the darkness had only made its power over her stronger and more pervasive. It was the source from which all her chains and limitations had sprung, and the one remaining anchor that kept her from being totally free.
She knows what she has to do. She lets the encroaching darkness outside meet the darkness within and lets herself sink into the void she knows is waiting there.
“Mummy, mummy, look what I found!” She sees her five-year old self running through the garden, clutching a bit of green in her tiny fist.
It had been a beautiful Summer day. Her mother had dressed her in her favourite blue frock with the pink ribbon, let her put on her new pink wellies and let her loose to play in the garden behind the house. “Stay away from the beach, dear” her mother had said, “and watch out for the wasps in the apple tree. They can get angry when you get too close, you know that, don’t you?” She had nodded, with great seriousness. She knew all about the wasps. She found them fascinating but a little scary, too. She didn’t want to risk them getting angry. “Mummy will be busy in the kitchen all morning, so run along now and be good girl.” With a little push her mother had sent her out and closed the kitchen door behind her.
She had been happy as anything. She loved roaming around in the lush green of the garden. She could sit for hours watching the ants go about their business. She would catch ladybirds and count their spots to know how old they were. She loved how the birds sang in the trees or chased each other for the best spots. And she loved rolling down the grassy slope in the back of the garden, making her feel all giddy and light.
But more than anything she loved hunting for treasure. One treasure in particular. Not for herself. She didn’t think she needed it. But for her mother. Her mother who had been very silent and withdrawn lately. Sometimes, when her mother hadn’t noticed her, she had seen her silently crying. She clearly wasn’t happy. When she had heard her father tell the story about the treasure, she knew she had to find it for her mother. To help her be happy again. To chase away the sadness.
And this time she had found what she was looking for. Hidden between thousands of ordinary clovers, she had finally spotted a genuine four-leaved clover. She had carefully plucked it from the ground and counted and re-counted the leaves to be absolutely sure. There was no doubt about it! This was the real thing! The lucky clover, the magic charm.
So she ran to her mother, calling out to her, her young heart filled with joy and anticipation.
She cringes at the memory and almost turns away. But she has to face this. This is the moment that had defined so much of her life. She braces herself, and lets the memory continue.
“Mummy, mummy, I’ve found one. I found the lucky clover!” she stormed into the kitchen, expecting her mother to be there, cooking. Her mother was there, but so was her father. She saw him hitting her mother in the face, hard. Her mother received the blow and cringed, but didn’t react. Her father opened his mouth to say something, but was stopped by the sight of his daughter standing there. He glared at her, his eyes full of anger. “And there’s another one of your fuck-ups. Look at her! All dirty and wild. No discipline, no grace. I doubt she’s mine even. You dirty whore!” He turned around and stomped out of the kitchen.
Her mother had stood there, her head hanging with tears falling from her eyes. She had ran to her mother with the four-leaved clover in her outstretched hand. “Don’t cry, Mummy, don’t cry. Look what I’ve found for you. This will make everything right. This will make you happy again.” Her mother had looked at her daughter. “What? What is this? What are you holding there?” She had looked in disgust at the grubby little hand holding the clover. Disgust had turned into anger and she had hit out, slapping the little treasure out of her daughter’s hand. “This” she had spat out the words, “this will make everything right? You stupid, stupid child. I wish I had never let you be born, that would have made everything right. Look at what you have made be become.” Her daughter had been speechless, barely comprehending her mother’s words but deeply feeling the anger and resentment behind them. “You want me to be happy? Get out of my life, that would make me happy. Disappear. Just die already.” With those last words her mother had burst into tears again and had ran from the kitchen, leaving the little girl behind in complete consternation. Not knowing what to do, she had ran back into the garden, hid under a tree, and started crying and crying, as if she would never stop.
Her heart is torn as she looks at her younger self crying herself into exhaustion. This was a wound she would never really recover from. The feeling of total rejection, of being the source of her parent’s anger and unhappiness, of being unworthy to live; that feeling would become the unspoken truth underneath her very existence. Sure, she would manage to find a certain strength inside and grow up with an appearance of balance and occasional joy. But it would never be completely true. It would be a carefully constructed lie she never fully believed in, however hard she tried.
The pain and hopelessness of the little girl threatens to overwhelm her. The urge is strong to run away and leave her there, forgotten, buried deep in the darkness of her unwanted memories. But she fights back against her cowardice. If not now, when will she ever be able to face this moment?
She moves towards the little girl and sits down besides her. Stroking her hair she begins to talk to her.
“They have hurt you deeply, I know. But you don’t deserve this. You are innocent of their misery and hatred. Cry, my little one, cry as much as you have to. But don’t keep all this pain to yourself. It is too much for such a young heart to bear. Let me carry it for you. I have suffered so much already, I can take your suffering, too.”
The little girl looks up at the silhouette of her older self outlined against the late afternoon sun. “Are you sure?” she says, sounding much older than her five years. “It’s a terrible burden to carry and I have carried it for you for so long.” “I am so sorry for that,” she tells the girl, “I should not have let that happen. I should have taken over when I was older and stronger. Instead, I locked you up in darkness, leaving all this pain and guilt buried with you. Leaving you to carry it all. Can you even forgive me?” “What’s there to forgive?” the little girl says, smiling through her tears. “You’ve come back for me. I had almost given up hope, but here you are. Are you ready to let go of the darkness and take me into your heart instead?” The woman looks into the girl’s eyes and sees none of the reproach and accusations she had expected, only love and forgiveness. It’s time to make the final step. She takes the little girl in her arms, carries her to the bench next to the water and sits there, hugging her in silence, as the sun goes down.
They found her sitting on the bench with a smile on her face. The women and men that called her “Mother” knew she had died as she had lived, fully in peace, in harmony with her self and the world. She had taught that same peace and harmony to so many others. She would never be forgotten.
As had been her wish, she was cremated and her ashes scattered over the water she had loved so much. As they turned over the urn, the wind picked up the ashes and they formed a cloud that for a moment darkened the sun. Then the wind moved the ashes again and each particle of ash shone like a star in a silent explosion of light. Her ashes drifted down, fire mixed with water, until she sank beneath the waves into the tranquility below.
Next to the bench they placed a small sign in remembrance:
She was born.