This story was produced through the Herstory Writers Workshop.
“No matter how hard I try, I can’t remember how old I am,” she said to me with great anguish. “I also can’t remember if I have family or not,” and while she said this, tears of sadness began to roll down her cheeks.
“It’s okay,” I said, “everything is fine. You have your husband, Jack, and your son, John, who love you, and they love you just the way you are.”
She looked at me with sweetness and with an appreciation difficult to describe, as if my words had given her back her life. I smiled at her and took her hand. “Come,” I said, “it’s time for a bath.”
Rose smiled calmly. Taking a bath was something that relaxed her a lot. We both walked slowly to the bathroom that was in her bedroom.
Rose was an 82-year-old woman, a very sweet woman who suffered from dementia. Each morning that I came to keep her company and prepare her lunch, it caused me tremendous sadness to see her efforts to remember.
I met her in April of 2007. I had been a volunteer for many years at the Catholic church of Hampton Bays, and I got along very well with the nuns at the Corazón de María Center. One day, Rose’s husband, Mr. Jack, called Sister Frances to ask if someone was able to help with his wife, since he had to work and couldn’t tend to her like she needed. The sister gave him my telephone number after talking with me, and I showed up at his house the next day.
Upon arrival, Mr. Jack welcomed me. “Good morning, Mr. Jack. I’m Elsa Sánchez. Sister Frances spoke to you yesterday….”
“Yes, of course, pleased to meet you, Elsa. Thank you for coming. Come in, please.”
At the entrance of the apartment, on the left-hand side, there were two recliners. On the right-hand side there was a small, round dining table with four chairs, and in front of this a small kitchen and a hallway in between that led to the bedroom and a half-bath.
And there she was, sitting in one of the two recliners, with an empty expression. Even though the television that was in front of her was on, her gaze didn’t seem focused on the machine but lost in some memory of the past.
“This is Rose,” said Mr. Jack. She didn’t seem to notice my presence. Her eyes remained lost in the distance. “Like Sister Frances must have told you,” he continued saying, “Rose suffers from dementia. She hardly remembers anything from her life. She barely remembers me, or our son, John. There will be time for you to meet him.”
I nodded and headed to where Rose was. I stood right in front of her in order to capture her attention. “Hello, good morning. My name is Elsa, you must be Rose,” I said while I extended my hand to greet her. Rose slowly lifted her gaze towards me, but her eyes were filled with confusion, as if she were asking herself, who is this woman and what is she doing in my home?
Mr. Jack came closer and he explained that I was there to help her. “Say hi, Rose. She’s going to take care of you every morning while I’m not here.” Suddenly, Rose looked at me and smiled.
“Oh! Hello, whoever you are.”
“Hello, Rose. My name is Elsa, and I’ll be here every day for whatever you need.”
As soon as Rose felt comfortable with me, Mr. Jack said goodbye. As soon as he left I sat next to Rose. She looked at me with her beautiful blue eyes, incredulous, not knowing or being able to remember who I was.
“Very good. What can we do, Rose? Mmm, what if I make you something to eat? Have you had something to eat? Are you hungry?”
“Well, I don’t think I’ve eaten anything. Then again, I can’t remember, but…” she said hesitantly, “maybe what I feel in my stomach is hunger.”
“Very well, let’s see what’s in the fridge that we can prepare for you.”
I prepared her a ham sandwich. In reality, the fridge was practically empty, which seemed to me a bit inconsiderate of Mr. Jack. At least he could have some fruit for her to eat until he returns, I thought sadly.
Rose ate calmly, pointing out to me that the sandwich was delicious, even though it had only the basics: ham, tomato, lettuce, and mayonnaise.
There, both of us sitting in the dining room, Rose began to tell me some of the things she did remember.
“You met my husband, Jack. What’s your name again?”
“Elsa, my name is Elsa. And, yes, I did meet your husband.”
“I also have a son. His name is John. He’s an adorable boy. Have you met him?”
“Not yet, but I know I will soon. And knowing you, I imagine he’s a great person.”
In between comments, Rose stayed quiet for some minutes in order to take a bite of her sandwich. I just watched her and asked myself what it would be like to live in a world where your memories were lost day by day. Could she be totally aware of what was happening to her? She herself gave me the answer.
“It’s very sad not to remember anything from your past life, you know? I have dementia. The doctors say that it’s not something that’s going to go away, so I have to deal with it every day.” She remained pensive for a moment. “I can’t remember if I have siblings or not. I can’t believe this is possible,” she said answering herself. “I’m the youngest of all, but I don’t remember how many we were or what their names are.”
When Rose finished her sandwich, I cleaned the table and then the kitchen, and then I started talking with her again.
An hour after I would arrive, a nurse would appear. She would bathe her, give her the appropriate medication, and take all her vital signs. This would take her approximately 30 minutes and then she would leave. After this, Rose and I would sit and talk in the recliners in the living room. Day after day, Rose told me the same stories. But I never told her anything because I knew perfectly well that she didn’t realize that I already knew the things she would tell me.
This would be the routine of almost every day. Only occasionally did she want to go out to walk a bit. Since she suffered from arthritis, it took a lot of work to convince her, given that her knees hurt her a lot. There were also days in which she would wake up more lucid and remember more details of her life.
When this happened, she tended to tell me small details of her life. Rose was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, and I remember that she once told me about playing with her siblings in the snow. Even though she couldn’t entirely remember their names, she did have very beautiful memories of her childhood.
Image courtesy of open cage via Flickr.
One of these days, she showed me a photo album. Many of the photos were of her wedding, where she looked beautiful. Others were of when her son, John, was young, and others were with her husband, Mr. Jack, in a dance at the firehouse, since he had belonged to the firefighters of Hampton Bays many years earlier.
Every day, when Mr. Jack returned, I said goodbye to Rose by giving her a kiss on the cheek. She was so tender, and I had sincerely grown fond of her. I had started to see her as a member of my family.
Months went by, and things followed their normal course. Each morning, Rose talked to me about her son, John, about Mr. Jack, about her illness, but I had started to notice that her energy was on the decline. There were days when she didn’t even want to eat and she would just sit in the armchair sleeping, watching television or just pretending to watch.
Mr. Jack was never home when I arrived. Since the day we met I had not seen him in the mornings, only when he returned home. But that morning, he was there. “Elsa,” he said, “the nurse will no longer be coming. The insurance won’t cover that expense anymore, so I’m going to ask you to bathe Rose from time to time, please. I will be in charge of her medicine.”
“Yes, of course.” And as soon as I said this he left. His personality was so cold and dry that it contrasted greatly with Rose’s sweetness.
One morning, he showed his coldness entirely. That day, before going to Rose’s house, I stopped by the supermarket. I thought it would really please her if I brought her something. I arrived and went in, since they had given me a key to do so. I placed all the bags I had brought from the supermarket on the table. Mr. Jack was in one of the back rooms, the one he used as an office.
Rose was, as always, sitting on the recliner in the living room, watching television.
“Rose, look what I brought you!”
“You brought something, for me?” she answered excitedly.
I began taking things out of the bag and showed her. “Look, cherries! Your favorite, right?”
Her face lit up as if she had found a treasure. “Oh, yes! They’re my favorite. How did you know?”
“Maybe I’m a good listener,” I told her. It was incredible that even though we had met each other only some months before, Rose remembered me clearly every morning that I arrived at her house. What was it that made her remember me? I don’t know, and maybe I never will know.
“I also brought you fresh fish, some broccoli…. You’ll see, I’m going to prepare you a delicious lunch.”
Her eyes, filled with tenderness, thanked me before her lips did. Just then, Mr. Jack appeared. “Look, Jack, at everything Elsa brought me. Isn’t it great? Fresh fruit, fresh fish, and I don’t know what else!”
Mr. Jack gave me a cold look and answered Rose in a very annoyed tone. “Yes, I see. And you think she’s brought all this for free. We have to pay for all this! So don’t get all happy because this isn’t a gift.”
Image courtesy of hweiling via Flickr.
Upon seeing Rose’s facial expression change with that comment, I couldn’t feel anything else but rage. How could he talk like that? Filled with anger I answered him, “Well, Mr. Jack, you’re mistaken. This is all a gift for Rose. I’ve noticed that she barely has anything to eat when you’re not here. In the refrigerator there are only things that require the use of the microwave, the toaster, or the stove. And we both know that she can’t use any of these. So I think it will do her good to have fresh fruit and fresh vegetables. And don’t worry about the bill. This a gift for Rose from me, but I am going to ask you from now on to make sure she always has fresh fruit.”
Anger was clearly reflected in Mr. Jack’s eyes, but he said absolutely nothing to me. He just took his hat, turned away, and left.
Smiling, I looked at Rose. “Very well, Rose, I’m going to prepare you something to eat. Is that alright?” She nodded, and we went on with our everyday routine.
After lunch, I headed with Rose to her bathroom to give her a bath. Once there, while I was helping her get undressed, I was met with a big surprise. On Rose’s left breast, there was a large brown mark that looked more like a scar than anything else and that also gave off a foul smell. How could this happen? Could Mr. Jack not know anything?
While I bathed her, I asked, “So, Rose, I’m going to help you scrub your body, is that alright? Just tell me one thing, does this scar hurt?”
“Oh! What is this? I didn’t know I had that there! No, it doesn’t hurt me, but why does it look so bad?”
I didn’t want to worry her and so I lied. But as soon as she fell asleep, I immediately called Mr. Jack.
“There’s something wrong with Rose, Mr. Jack. There’s something growing on her chest and I don’t think it’s anything good. The nurse never said anything?”
“No, she never mentioned anything abnormal. But I will take a look at her when I get home.” And he hung up. His coldness froze me. Could it be that he couldn’t care less about his wife’s health? And what had happened with the nurse? Did she not realize what was happening or did she simply ignore it? Or could it be that she told Mr. Jack and he didn’t think it was important? It all just seemed unbelievable to me. To disregard a loved one seemed to me the most atrocious crime.
The next day, Mr. Jack called me. It would not be necessary to go take care of Rose since he was taking her to the doctor. Finally! I thought.
In the evening, I received the news I dreaded: Rose had cancer. My God, what sad news. This poor woman, suffering with dementia, with arthritis, and now cancer? How much more suffering did Rose have to go through?
The next morning, I got to see her, and I hugged her tightly. Now I understood that those depressive states in energy she had shown lately were perhaps due to cancer. This terrible illness had been attacking her in a powerful way and she hadn’t realized it.
Immediately, the doctor ordered an operation to remove the tumor. Mr. Jack did not agree.
“I think that it’s just a waste of time,” he said to the doctor while they were seated in the dining room in his apartment. “She’s not going to get better.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing while I was cleaning the kitchen. And apparently the doctor couldn’t believe what her ears were hearing either.
“So then, what you’re suggesting is that we let her die?” the doctor asked, surprised.
He remained quiet. “Well, I’m very sorry, Mr. Jack, but I’ve already made the arrangements. We operate on Rose in two weeks.” As soon as the doctor said this, completely indignant, she got up and left.
I couldn’t say anything, but inside me my feelings were all mixed up. I felt sadness because Rose’s life was filled with such suffering, and rage at this man, who supposedly should love her and take care of her, but didn’t care in the least if she lived or died.
The next two weeks I did my best to make Rose feel happy. Her son, John, called every morning, and when I helped her bathe I tried to make her feel good.
I dressed her in her best clothes, styled her hair nicely, and put a little makeup on her. When she’d look in the mirror, her expression would change completely.
“You look beautiful, Rose.”
“Umm, I don’t think that’s possible, I’m an old….”
“Don’t say that, you look really good. Let’s see, let’s put a little perfume on you.”
“But I’m not going anywhere. Why are you fixing me up so much?” Rose answered back.
“It doesn’t matter. You always have to look pretty, even if you don’t leave the house.”
The day of the operation arrived. They had removed the tumor, but they had found that part of her pancreas and lungs had been partially contaminated by the illness.
I cried when I found out the news. My God, what more awaits her? I felt powerless not being able to do anything for her. I felt a tremendous hole in my heart. I so wished I could see her well again in her home and be with her… but not everyone had the same idea.
Mr. Jack told me that my services were no longer necessary. “But I can visit her, right?” I asked.
“Well, she’s in the hospital,” said Mr. Jack to me on the phone, “and they don’t recommend visitors, only family, you know. It’s always like this.”
I knew I had never been Mr. Jack’s favorite person, and he knew he wasn’t my favorite either. I understood that he didn’t want me close to Rose, and so I didn’t cause trouble. I waited to have the opportunity to be close to her again so I could tell her how dear she was to me.
I kept on calling Mr. Jack continuously to get news about Rose. And in one of our conversations he told me he had to put her in a home, given that the hospital didn’t give him much hope that she would get better, even with chemotherapy, and he could no longer take care of her. What was wrong with this man? At 84 years of age, he was as strong as an oak tree. That was one of the things that would make Rose sad. Every time she saw him leave so busily, she felt bad she no longer had that same energy. I knew that Mr. Jack could spend his wife’s last days with her perfectly well, but he simply didn’t want to. But, why not? Why leave her alone when she needed him the most?
“Can you tell me where she is? I would very much like to see her.”
“Of course, you can go when you like.”
After hanging up, I stared at the paper where I had written down the address. I knew exactly where the nursing home was. I would go first thing the next day.
At night, while I got ready for bed, I told my husband Fabián what had happened to Rose. He had been aware all along of the long and painful path Rose had traversed since we had met her up until now, and he had always felt a great deal of compassion for her. So when I told him I was going to visit her, he decided to come with me.
The next day, we arrived at the home, and my husband and I looked at each other without being able to utter a word. We both have always thought that this is the last place a person would want to end up. It’s very sad that people get rid of their loved ones in this way, abandoning them like a thing that has become obsolete, without thinking about the tremendous treasure they have at their side, with all that wisdom and all that experience….
After receiving instructions from the nurses, we began to walk down the long hallways filled with old people in wheelchairs. One woman stopped my husband and asked him, “Are you my son?He told me he’d come but he never does, and I don’t even know what he looks like. Is it you?”
My husband looked at me, and with his eyes brimming with tears he said to the old woman, “Yes, I’m your son. How have you been?” The old woman didn’t answer him. She just started laughing like crazy and turned her back to us as she walked away crying out, “My son came to see me! He does love me…. He came to see me!”
We both had to take a deep breath to recompose ourselves. It wasn’t easy to be here.
We got to Rose’s room. A hospital room like all others: painted in a pastel color, with an electric bed, a chair and a small television, and beside the bed a bureau with a pitcher of water and a box of disposable tissues. And there was Rose, alone, like always. Upon seeing her, I felt rage, I felt sadness, I felt powerlessness, and I don’t know what else. She was sitting in a wheelchair, having soiled herself. Rose hadn’t realized I was there. She had, like always, a vacant look on her face, and she didn’t react until I called her by her name. “Rose, Rose, it’s me. How are you?”
When she saw me her expression told me everything. She recognized me, and she was happy to see me. “Elsa! You’re here with me! How great, I’ve missed you so much!” she said while she tried to sit up in the chair to no avail. I hugged her tightly and kissed her. “I’m here, Rose. Everything’s fine.”
“It hurts, Elsa. It hurts a lot, and they don’t give me medicine for the pain, and I can’t take it anymore.”
“Tell me, what hurts?”
“My body, my head, everything hurts.” I felt sad knowing that it was nothing more than the illness invading her entire body and that, in spite of everything, the pain would increase day by day. That’s what the nurse had told me when we arrived.
“She’s very sick,” the nurse told me. “The cancer is very advanced, and she’s in constant pain. We give her something for it regularly, but she doesn’t stop complaining.”
“Don’t worry, Rose. I’ll ask them to give you something for the pain.”
I went out looking for a nurse, and just then there was one coming down the hallway towards me. “Excuse me,” I said, “The patient in room 23A is complaining a lot about pain, and she’s also soiled herself. Could you help me with this, please?”
“I’ll be there in a second,” responded the nurse with a hint of annoyance.
I went into the room and let Rose know that in a moment someone was coming to help. And just then the nurse came in. “Please wait outside while I change her,” she said to my husband and me, and we left immediately.
When she told us we could come back in, I sat her in the wheelchair again and took her for a ride throughout the building. She was very happy. A smile had returned to her lips. We talked about many things. I told her about my daughters, I told her about my volunteer work with the nuns, I told her anything and everything as long as it distracted her and made her forget that pain that tormented her.
But then came time to say goodbye, and that was going to be the hardest thing. With tears in her eyes and in mine, we hugged, and I think that this was one of the moments in which I saw Rose at her most lucid.
“I have to go, Rose, but I promise I will return soon. I have a lot of work the next couple of days, but I’ll come at the beginning of the week. How does that sound?” I told her as I knelt in front of her wheelchair so she could see me without having to look up, since this caused her pain in her back.
“That’s good, Elsa. I very much appreciate that you came to see me. No one does. I think no one wants to be near a demented, dying old woman.”
Her words caused a lump in my throat. I had something stuck there. I didn’t know what to say, and no words would come out of my mouth. I breathed deeply and said to her, “Don’t say that again. I love you very much and will come to visit you all the time.” I hugged her again and took her hands while I looked into her eyes. There was something in her eyes that made me feel uncomfortable, as if she knew that death was near.
“If I don’t see you again,” she said to me with her eyes fixed on mine, “I want you to know that you have been very good to me. Since the day I met you, you always worried about me as if you were my own daughter. Thank you for everything, Elsa. Thank you very much.”
“Don’t say anymore. I’ve done everything with great love. I’ll see you here next week and everything will be fine, alright?” I said to her as I let her lean on my arms to get up from the chair and move to the bed.
She agreed. I helped her lie back down, and a few minutes later she was the same old Rose, lost in her memories, with her gaze fixed in the abyss of her lost memories. After a while, she fell asleep, and it was then that I could find the courage to leave the room, to leave her.
During the following days, her image was fresh in my mind. I wanted so much to have the time to go see her again, but I had so many activities that I couldn’t although I wanted to.
Four days had gone by since my last visit to the nursing home when I received a phone call from Mr. Jack. I was paralyzed in the kitchen of my home. I was preparing lunch for my family, but when I received the phone call, I couldn’t continue.
“Elsa, how are you? I’m just calling you to tell you Rose died.”
“What?!” My heart stopped beating for some seconds. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. And he tells me like that? That’s it? I felt a cold wave invade my body and wash over it completely, and then a sensation of unbearable heat. The coldness of this man was tremendous.
Quickly he described to me how the cancer ended up taking over her entire body and the inevitable occurred. Her death pained me, but I felt peace knowing that she was at least in a better place. A place where she didn’t have to suffer any pain, a place where only one thing would reign—happiness.
Elsa Sánchez is a domestic worker who lives in East Quogue. She is originally from Guanajuato, Mexico.
To order a copy of “Latinas Write/Escriben,” the bilingual anthology in which this appears, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feature image courtesy of jayneandd via Flickr.