“Room 306,” they said. I wasn’t so sure. Her last name is common; could this be another Mary? It had been two years since I’d seen Mary, my stepmother. She was in that slow decline and had since moved to “managed care” in the south of the city. The city was sort of between St. Louis and home, and I decided to try to see her since I was alone.
Tiny and still, Mary lay with her knees drawn up and hands near her chin, covered in light blankets to her midsection. A tattered teddy bear lay on her chest, peeking out of the covers. Her gray and white hair was short, thick, and curly. When she saw me, she blinked and took my outstretched hand. When she started to talk, I recognized the throaty timbre of her voice. Yes, this was my Mary.
“Who is it?”
“It’s Birdie, Mary. It’s been so long.” Mary began a rambling narrative about what had happened in her life lately, tightly holding onto my hand. I released her hand for a moment to shed my jacket and sit on the side of the bed.
Her roommate in this tiny room was sound asleep in a reclined chair next to her empty bed. A radio and a television were both turned up loud, creating a racket that taxed Mary’s limited hearing (and my own). Suffering from Macular Degeneration, Mary could not see clearly either. It became apparent in a few minutes that she did not recognize me. But she was eager to talk, and I listened, speaking only to comment and prompt.
“Did you know I’m Canadian?” Mary was born and raised in Illinois, moving to Florida where she met my newly-divorced father. They married in a quiet civil ceremony. Mary was telling me about her husband, who was thrown out of the Navy. She said that she told him to move out and she divorced him; she never married again. None of that is true. She is in a world of her own making now.
"I have only one friend now. His name is Jesus. I don't have any family." I, my sisters, and our children are erased from her memory. But she still has her sense of humor.
“My old body is so thin now. My left boob is the size of a quarter. My right boob is worth seventy-five cents.” We laughed out loud at that and moved on.
She rambled about a couple of incidents when people “tried to trick" her. I managed to steer us out of that conversation after awhile. Her conversation slowed and she closed her eyes briefly.
"Are you tired?" I reached out and caressed her cheek, and she closed her eyes as her mouth opened in acceptance of touch.
I had seen that look on my young children’s faces as they lay in my lap. So I did for Mary what I’d done back then: I leaned forward and ran my fingers through her hair, slowly tugging on strands, tenderly brushing her brow and cheeks. It looked like I was putting her to sleep. Her breathing slowed and I continued. After ten minutes my arm was aching. I put it down to switch hands and she opened her eyes.
“That’s wonderful,” she sighed.
I turned off the radio and resumed caressing her with my right hand, and she closed her eyes again. We continued in this quiet tableau as tears ran down my cheeks. I finally had to stop to blow my nose. I gently stepped away and Mary opened her eyes. I returned to her side and took her face in my hands. I put our cheeks together and spoke clearly into her ear.
“I love you, Mary.”
After a sharp intake of breath, she looked straight into my eyes as though she recognized me.
“What’s your name?”
“Birdie.” I had to repeat it. I stood to put on my jacket.
“Please come back.”
I kissed her and she held my head in her hands. Then she tucked her mottled hands under her chin, turned her head and closed her eyes.
She has had a good life for the most part. She is ending her life where she started, most of her family gone. A nephew is faithfully attending to her needs. She is happy.
I don’t know why I’m crying.