17 (Tennis balls)

John hasn’t spoken through the vents in weeks, but I know he’s there because I can hear him. He was agitated in the beginning. Objects were picked up and put down. Footsteps covered the entire length of his room. Last week, something crashed again and I didn’t see him until several days later.

He now uses a walker, which I can tell he resents. I wanted to say hello to him in the breakfast nook, but he doesn’t recognize me as the imaginary wife he talks to at night. Instead, he says nothing, refusing to use his walker until I leave.

Yesterday morning he wasn’t at the breakfast table. The Sunday copy of the New York Times wasn’t even touched. I found myself eating slower than normal, just to see if he was coming. He never did.

I walked down the hall, as if going to my own bedroom, but stopped abruptly at his. The door was open. Open.  At first I didn’t recognize him. John is so composed and quiet. He holds his body inside of himself, leaving little for exposure outside elbows and shoulders. His legs are frequently crossed and underneath the kitchen table. I rarely see him even standing.

Towering over his bed, two of the aides pulled at his pants, his shirt already hung over one of the chairs. There was some sort of rag in a dish of water next to the walker. I was unable to look away from the tennis balls. It was as if they were anchoring me to some sort of fantasy that life like this would not happen to me. Like I might live in the moments when tennis was actually a game. Like I was outside – away from horrific nightmares like this.

“If I had known she was just going to call out, I never would have come in.” One of the aides said. She vaguely reminded me of Sue with one hand on her hip while the other quickly and efficiently took care of other problems. When she sighed, her bangs briefly puffed out of her eyes. These are the women I’ve come to fear.

“She can’t work any schedule more than six hours. She lazy. Always.” The second aide said, her voice harsher and with a thicker southern drawl. Women like this have kids early. They think being an aide is an easy fix for money with only a year or two of schooling required. They’re all the same. Impatient. Resentful.

John tried to shift, but he couldn’t. Something was wrong with his hip.

“Shhhh.” The cooing began instantly and insincerely. So many regressions take hold of the residents here. Cinnamon applesauce and a bottle of baby powder that I can’t look at sit side by side in a cabinet next to the refrigerator. I tried not to blame them for the painful process of infantilization, but as much as we hope our mind’s will, we never truly regress that far. The voices of both aides became inaudible at higher and fluffier ranges and I could hear the click of John’s belt as the other lifted him.

“Hold him,” one said before he saw me.

John froze and the aides were on him. Down the hall, a grandchild was walking with several flowers. The zipper on his fly whined. I could hear some of the residents talking from the kitchen. His breath cut jagged.  Immediately I shut the door and both aides fell silent. The word “please” is still locked in my head.

This morning John eats breakfast in his bedroom. His radio is on and I can hear the BBC playing on NPR. If I look at him, he now avoids my stare. In my earliest days of contemplation, I wondered if one’s own denial meant an abundance of all good things refused in the afterlife. Seeing John helpless, touched and displayed made me realize denial is a privilege that can  only last so long.

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