I don’t remember what had triggered the idea for this tale, but be sure to have tissues handy when reading.
“God, I hate this.”
With a sigh, Lois climbed out of her car, the winter chill causing her joints to ache more than usual. Grunting, she kept her feet on the slushy tarmac of the parking lot, no small triumph at her age. Rubber booties protected her sensible shoes. Hardly the height of fashion, they and the varicose veins in her pale calves indicated her age as well as the short iron gray hair atop her head.
Making certain to lock the car door, she pocketed the keys in her navy pea coat, patting them to remind her where they were. Lois’ mind remained sharp despite her age, but she occasionally forgot the little things. A latent fear that she’d demonstrate such forgetfulness here, of all places, caused her lips to thin.
She held her jacket close against the cold, stepping carefully onto the sidewalk. Just her luck, she’d fall and break her hip right outside the home. At least they won’t have to move me far. Snorting at her black humor, she shuffled along the shoveled walkway past the sign that read ‘Welcome to Shady Haven.’
Lois thought it looked mighty shady today, what with the low clouds threatening to drop more snow. According to Hank Fonseca on Channel Four News, the storm remained a few hours away. She had a little time before having to return to the bungalow. Her reflexes weren’t as spry as a twenty-year-old’s anymore; driving through a snow storm was a dangerous thing for a woman her age.
The double glass doors loomed before her and Lois paused, her heart catching in her throat. She reacted this way every time, no matter how hard she tried to quell her fear and loathing, it was always the same. A mad desire to just turn around and leave, never looking back, washed over her. Lois swallowed and raised her chin, forcing herself forward.
Maddie needed her.
Even as she thought it, Lois could feel the falseness of the statement. Regardless, she entered the nursing home foyer.
Perhaps she needed Maddie.
The smell of antiseptic filled her nostrils as she carefully wiped her feet on the entry mat. Neutral colors met her gaze, as if anything other than pale blues and greens would cause the inhabitants to riot uncontrollably. She couldn’t help but snicker at the thought of some old fart demanding hot pink paint for his room, balancing himself on his walker as he shook a fist.
A couple of residents idled in the foyer. One sat on a steel and gray chair, her cane standing beside her on four little legs. She rocked back and forth, staring out the door with a coat draped across her lap. Every time Lois came to visit Maddie, the woman was there; she waited for someone who never came to pick her up.
The other resident idled about on an electric wheelchair. His face was grizzled from lack of shaving, his body contorted with whatever disease afflicted him. There but for the grace of God, Lois thought.
At the nurses’ station, two young women discussed their children’s school pictures while a third looked over a chart. Glancing up from the paperwork, the nurse smiled in welcome.
“Mrs. Dorsett! How are you today?”
“I’m good, Mandy,” Lois said, smiling against the distaste of being there. “And you?”
The nurse glanced outside. “Well, if I can get out of here before the storm hits, I think I’ll be fine.”
“I hear you.” Lois paused, the unspoken question rearing between them.
Taking heart, the nurse smiled sadly. “No change, I’m sorry, Mrs. Dorsett.”
Lois nodded, looking away. “I didn’t expect it, but thank you,” she lied. “Is she in her room?”
Glancing at her watch, the nurse nodded. “Yes, she is. Today they had a pottery class, but Madeleine should have been returned to her room by now.”
“Thank you.” Lois shook off her prim response at this woman calling her partner by her first name. It all boiled down to making the residents feel as if they were on a first name basis with the staff, a ridiculous premise in her opinion. The fact of the matter was that all the residents were inmates and the staff their keepers.
Swallowing angry tears, she left the foyer, ignoring the crippled man as he whirled his chair in place to watch her pass. She forced herself to cheerfulness as she approached Maddie’s room, not wanting to upset the love of her life.
Not that it would really make a difference.
Maddie was seated in her favorite rocking chair, a quilt draped over her lap. Her hair was silvery white, reflecting the grayness outside the window she gazed through. She wore her favorite sweater, a deep blue pullover that looked more suited to a Greek sailor than a little old woman in a nursing home. Gold glinted off her breast, a delicate butterfly pin her only decoration.
Pausing at the door, Lois watched Maddie for a moment, allowing her heart to thump pleasantly. It had always been this way, ever since she’d seen the beautiful young Madeleine entering the deli she worked at all those years ago. Maddie’s mere presence could take Lois’ breath away and fill her full of such love nothing else in the world mattered but them.
Age was an odd thing. Lois remembered the past so clearly these days. In her mind’s eye, she watched Maddie flirt with her over the deli counter, dressed in her Sunday best even though it was a weekday. She wore just a hint of make up, her lips reddened and cheeks rouged, white blonde hair put up in a sophisticated hairstyle for that day and age. Lois could almost smell the perfume Maddie wore.
An intercom interrupted her thoughts, returning her to the present as someone announced that square dancing class would soon commence in the rec room. A vision of a roomful of geriatrics swinging their partners around a pastel room to the music of a record filled Lois’ mind, and she shook her head to dislodge the sight.
In Maddie’s room, the four walls reflected the same drab pastels as the rest of the home, an off yellow here. Several pieces of decent wooden furniture adorned the room, the hospital bed standing out, contrasting the somewhat homey feel with its chrome rails and monitoring system. Lois had taken particular care when choosing what furniture to place here, wanting Maddie to have the best. She’d hoped the familiarity of her partner’s surroundings would also keep Maddie content, if not happy. Only the bed remained in their room at home, a bitter reminder of their union and life together.
A row of pictures lined the dresser, each in its own special frame. Despite her somber mood, Lois smiled. She knew them all without having to see them. One was of Maddie and her family when she was a child, her white hair cut into a pageboy, a frilly dress adorning her chubby little body. The pewter frame held a picture of the pair of them, dashing in men’s clothing as they lounged outside a long gone bar downtown, their hair piled up under the straw hats and cigars jutting out from their teeth in defiance of tradition. Lois’ favorite was a portrait of Maddie that had been taken only a few years ago, the careworn lines around her mouth testament to the happiness of their lives. She had a copy of that same picture on the fireplace mantle.
Lois glanced at the rocking chair, seeing her lover’s pale blue eyes regarding her, a welcome smile on her face. It almost made her heart stop. She forced away a sudden desire to cry, and returned the smile. “Hello. How are you today, Maddie?” Stepping into the room, she eased closer.
“I’m quite well, thank you.”
“Do you mind if I sit and visit with you for a spell?”
“Please.” Maddie gestured for her to occupy a wooden chair, patiently waiting as Lois divested herself of her coat and galoshes before sitting down.
Lois inhaled deeply in an attempt to relax. Unable to put it off any longer, she smiled as she studied her partner’s face.
Maddie’s expression was a welcoming one. Her eyes, however, reflected uncertainty and puzzlement.
Gritting her teeth, Lois held out her hand. “My name is Lois Dorsett. Please call me Lois.”
A subtle wave of relief colored Maddie’s eyes as she shook hands, her smile relaxing. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lois.”
“The pleasure is all mine,” she said, as she did every time she visited. Some days Maddie would recognize her. Today was not one of them. “I heard you had pottery class today?”
Maddie laughed, and placed her hands in her lap. “Oh, yes! It was quite fun! Though old Mr. Humphrey can be such a stick in the mud.”
Lois swallowed against the lump in her throat, seeing the young woman her partner used to be. Gregarious, outspoken, sweet, Maddie had been the light that illuminated her dark soul. As Maddie chattered along, she kept the smile plastered on her face, nodding and encouraging where necessary, wishing for just one moment the woman would break through the haze of Alzheimer’s to remember her.
“You said your name is Lois?”
“What?” She brought herself back to the present. “Yes, that’s my name.”
Maddie’s smile became sad. “My . . . best friend is named Lois, too.” She glanced out the window. “I haven’t seen her in some time. I’m quite afraid she’s forgotten me.”
“Oh, that’s not true!” Lois said, reaching out to take Maddie’s hand. She squeezed it for emphasis. “You’re much too special a lady to be forgotten!”
Blushing, Maddie seemed nevertheless pleased with the compliment. “Thank you. But I can’t help wondering if she’s displeased with me.” She glanced around the room. “Why else would she have left me here?”
Tears filled Lois’ eyes, regardless her attempt to quell them. “I’ve heard from her, you know,” she said, voice cracking. “She’s far away and wants you to know she loves you.”
“Really?” Maddie’s gaze intensified and she leaned slightly forward. “You’ve heard from her?”
Unable to speak, Lois nodded.
“Can she receive letters?”
Sniffling a little, Lois frowned, cocking her head. She cleared her throat. “Yes, she can.”
“Oh, good!” Maddie creaked to her feet, showing her age despite her mind’s tricks. She grimaced a little at the pain but continued talking excitedly. “I tried to send this to our house in the borough, but it came back undeliverable. She may have moved, I don’t know.” Rummaging in the top drawer of her dresser, she pulled out an envelope, clutching it to her chest as she returned. Her hands trembled as she held it out to Lois.
The old woman smiled and took the letter, desperately fighting an urge to bawl her eyes out. “I’ll be sure she gets this. Never fear, Maddie dear.”
An intriguing smile crossed Maddie’s face. “That’s funny. Lois used to call me that all the time.”
“She must have mentioned it to me.”
Maddie accepted the lie, and sat back down, pulling the quilt across her lap again. Soon she prattled on about people long dead and places long since demolished, reminiscing her life and love.
Lois remained until it was dark, knowing the snowstorm was coming but unable to tear herself away from her partner’s voice. The nurse interrupted them, telling her visiting hours were over. With reluctance, she stood, a sharp pain in her hip reminding her she’d forgotten her arthritis medication.
Maddie also rose, her expression confused. “Lois?”
“Can I come home now?”
Lois stopped putting on her jacket to see clear comprehension in her lover’s eyes. The tears she thought controlled instantly spilled over, and she held out her arms. Their embrace was one of long comfortable years together. Fighting to control her sobs, Lois pulled back and wiped a single tear from Maddie’s wrinkled cheek. “Never forget that I love you, Maddie dear. Always remember that.”
Maddie nodded, sniffling. “And I love you, Dearest Lois. I always will.”
They shared a watery kiss before being interrupted by the nurse herding visitors out of the nursing home.
Blushing, Maddie eased out of the embrace, casting a puzzled look at Lois. “Excuse me,” she said, wiping at the wetness on her face. “I don’t know what came over me.”
The lucid moment gone, Lois felt the depression weigh down upon her, but she attempted a smile. “That’s quite alright, Maddie. A hug is always therapeutic.”
Maddie smiled. “Yes, of course.” She held out her hand. “Thank you for visiting today . . . ?”
“Lois,” she reminded, voice soft. “Lois Dorsett.”
“Lois! Of course! You’ll see that my Lois gets that letter?”
“I’ll be happy to.” Lois shook her partner’s hand before saying her good byes and leaving the room. She glanced back to see Maddie lost in thought and memories, fingers gently tracing her lips.
Pale and withdrawn, Lois made her slow way out of the home, barely acknowledging the nurses who said their good byes. Outside, the wind hit her like a knife, and she huddled under her jacket. At least it hadn’t started snowing yet. The bungalow was only a few miles away; chances were she’d make it before the storm hit.
Patting her pocket, she remembered her keys, and unlocked the car door. Her hip burned as she got inside, another reminder to take her pills when she got home. The door closed, she started the motor, and waited for the engine to heat up.
Maddie couldn’t take care of herself. She wandered away from the bungalow late one night, and was gone for two days before police found her, confused and dirty. Lois had been frantic. The doctor’s told her Maddie needed twenty-four hour supervision, something Lois couldn’t provide. Her only option had been to place Maddie here.
Lois sat in the dark and cold, tears turning icy against her cheeks as she cried. Sometimes she wondered if it wouldn’t be better to not return, not put herself through this torture. Seeing her lover, knowing Maddie didn’t recognize her, didn’t remember the life they shared was unbearable. Tonight’s moment of clear-headedness was the first in months, and not likely to be repeated for as long.
Sometimes, despite the heaping piles of guilt it caused, Lois wondered if it wouldn’t have been better for Maddie to simply die. At least she wouldn’t feel abandoned, unloved; wouldn’t believe in her heart that Lois had dumped her there never to return.
At least Lois could mourn the loss and get past it rather than have the wounds open anew each and every day. Then she’d be able to give up, to follow her heart to the other side where they could be together forever. Not stuck here in this Godforsaken limbo, not able to let go, to leave this miserable world.
Paper crinkled in her pocket. The letter.
Lois pulled out a handkerchief and blew her nose, mopping her face, before pulling the envelope out to look at it.
A fond smile curved her lips as she noted the loopy handwriting of her lover, warring with another desire to cry at the address on the envelope. They hadn’t lived in the borough for twenty years or more.
With care, Lois opened the envelope, slipped out a sheet of stationery. She chuckled through her tears at the hand drawn butterfly in the upper corner, gently brushing her thumb across it. So like her lover. Holding the letter out a bit, she peered down her bifocals to read in the illumination of the nursing home parking lot lights.
I so hope all is well with you. I’ve asked countless times for someone to contact you, and tell you of my predicament, but it seems the staff here is ignoring me.
I am well, all things considered, though my heart aches to see you again. Where are you? When will you return?
There is something wrong with me, of that I’m certain. I’ve noticed that some days I can remember things so clearly, and others are just a fog, as if I’m dreaming through the day. I think I’ve seen you once or twice, but when I look again, hours have passed and you’re not here.
What else have I forgotten, my love?
I try to keep my mind active, try to remember my life with you. You fill all of my thoughts, every day, as I hope I fill yours.
I miss you so. I miss your touch, your laugh, the way the sun lights your hair. I so want you to take me dancing again! The last time, you were so dashing in your suit! But that was years ago, wasn’t it? The time all jumbles together anymore, and I don’t know what’s now and what’s then.
Please, Lois, write me at the very least! I need to know you’re well, wherever you are.
Never forget that I love you, Dearest Lois.
With all my heart,
Tears splattered the writing. Lois carefully blotted the letter with her sleeve, and folded it to put away. The letter was dated three weeks ago, and she was vaguely surprised that Maddie had remembered it at all once it had been tucked into her drawer. She wept anew for the loss of her love, her life.
The flakes floating down to melt on her now warm windshield brought Lois out of her funk, reminding her it was time to go. Putting the letter back into her pocket, she wiped her face. Lois put the car in gear, pausing to glance once more at the ominous glass doors of the nursing home, the obscenely cheerful lights shining within.
She’d write Maddie a letter, and deliver it personally. Regardless of her raw feelings, and the loss of her woman she thought she knew, one thing stood out above all.
Maddie needed her.