I had been hired to tell stories at an afternoon Valentine’s Day Party for the residents of the Hallmark Nursing Home in Troy.
The party took place on the Sunday before Valentine’s Day. I entered the one-story brick building from the parking lot and came immediately upon a nurses’ station like you’d find in a hospital. The nursing home looked very much like a hospital although it was trying hard not to. There were flower-covered walls and mauve carpets and cozy chintz sofas and chairs. Table lamps produced warm pools of light. The hallway was dotted with very old people slumped in wheelchairs or leaning on walkers. Some were staring off into space, some were calling loudly for a nurse, some had their eyes closed. The nurses were busy answering calls, fluffing pillows, handing out medication. But one of them paused in mid-flight to point me in the direction of the dining hall where the Valentine Party was to be held.
As I walked down the corridor, a woman in a wheelchair held out her hand to me. She was dressed up for the party or for a special visitor — or both. She wore a bright red silk blouse, a white skirt, and red stockings that ended in shiny black leather pumps. Her hair was combed and set. Her face was powdered and rouged.
I thought she might have mistaken me for someone else. Or perhaps she was simply welcoming a stranger. In any case, I took her offered hand and held it in my own. We stayed that way — connected by our right hands — for a long minute. I told her my name, said she looked very nice, and asked her if she was coming to the party. She was looking at me intently, her brows pulled together as though she were about to tell me something important — something she needed to say. She began to move her mouth, forming words very precisely with her lips — but no sound came out. I bent closer, thinking she might be whispering, but there was just nothing. It seemed like she was pretending to speak. Or that a ventriloquist who was supposed to provide the voice had missed his cue and she’d started without him.
We were still holding hands. Several yards down the corridor I saw the entrance to the dining hall. It was hard to miss. Red and white streamers with balloons attached were hanging from the top of the doorway. One had to pass through them to enter the room. Past the streamers I could see more balloons strewn on the floor. The round tables were covered with brightly-colored paper tablecloths.
The dining hall was calling to me — that’s where I was supposed to be. But I couldn’t go there. This woman and I weren’t finished yet. I knelt down to her chair trying to get close enough to help her find the words that would release me from her grasp. Her struggle had grown more desperate and a noise finally had come up from her throat. It sounded like “ack ack.” “Ack ack,” she squawked over and over again. And when she heard the noise she sobbed and her tears began to create a path through the caked-on rouge.
Her hand felt warm and dry and powdery in mine. When I knelt down, I’d caught a lavender scent. Her grip was no stronger than a child’s. I could have pulled away at any time, but it wasn’t in me to let go of someone who was drowning in her own unspoken words.
Suddenly another woman, pulling hard on the wheels of her own chair, slid up beside us. At once the new woman took the red-bloused woman’s left hand. I still had the right. “No, Inez. Now, no, honey,” she said, “This ain’t your daughter. It ain’t Lucy. She don’t even look like Lucy.” Inez sounded a desperate “ack, ack” at the newcomer, who eyed my short hair with disapproval. “I know, I know,” she said, “Lucy’ll be here. She’ll come when she can.”
This other woman, Clara, I found out later, was quite different from Inez. She had no make-up on her wide face. Her hair was yellowish white and her gray sweatshirt was covered with stains. Clara had powerful-looking arms and a heavy swollen left ankle propped on pillows and held straight out in front of her. She spoke sharply to me, “I’ll look after her. You go on about your business. Shoo!” as though I had somehow tricked Inez into holding hands with me in the first place.
I smiled at Inez and laid her hand carefully in her lap. Then I walked toward the dining hall. In the distance, I saw that the young, professionally cheerful Activities Director, Marie, had lost some of her cheer. She still hadn’t seen me so she stood among the red and white balloons looking at her watch and biting her lipstick off. Behind me I heard Clara talking, almost cooing, softly to Inez. Inez’s frantic noises had grown calmer. Clara seemed to know the exact meaning of each “ack ack.” These lovers’ sounds floated down the corridor and followed me to where my microphone and water glass were waiting. It was time for the party to begin.