Aunt Beatrice had once been beautiful. She wore her coal black hair up high in a French twist and sprayed to perfection. Frosted coral lipstick, pearl clip earrings, and perfectly powdered skin were her signature style. I never saw her in a pair of slacks, as she opted instead for pleated skirts and sweater twin sets. One look in her wardrobe would reveal rows of matching shoes and handbags in every Crayola color imaginable, from goldenrod to mulberry. She would smile and try not to laugh as I clomped around noisily in a pair of burnt orange pumps. I wanted to be just like her.
She smelled of lilacs.
So who was this person before me now? Slumped in her hospital issue geri chair, the woman who was once my aunt stared into the bathroom mirror. I stood behind her as we both cocked our heads, confused by an image neither of us completely recognized. The nursing assistants had made an attempt to fluff up the poof of white cotton candy hair which barely covered her fragile pink scalp, but with so many patients, their time was limited to carrying out only the basics of personal care such as toileting and feeding. Unless an attentive family member regularly visited, there was no time for the luxury of primping. Besides, what was the point? All the residents sat side by side in the day room, blended together to form one face—all with staring, distant eyes.
“You would never have wanted anyone to see you this way,” I thought to myself. The hospital gown. The lap blanket.
With a bristle brush I gently pulled at her hair, matted from too much time spent lying in her twin sized mechanical bed. She squeezed her eyes shut and grimaced, but uttered no words of protest. Six months ago a stroke had come in the night to selfishly hold her voice captive, only allowing a few squawks and garbles as she struggled to communicate. How I missed our long talks over raspberry tea, served in real china cups. But unlike the other patients at Morningside Specialty Care Center, a light in Auntie B’s eyes still faintly glimmered. She was in there. But how to reach her?
A sudden noise startled me from my daydream. It came from my aunt.
“Itch!” she croaked.
Surprised but relieved to finally be able to decipher her twisted words, I placed my face close to hers. “Itch? You have an itch? Do you want me to scratch your back?” I slowly enunciated every consonant and vowel, probably a little too loudly, and at the same time reached around her thin frame to stroke the sharp spines of her back. She wriggled away from my touch.
Thinking I had obviously missed my mark, I kept trying. “Here? Over here?” moving my hand left, then right. My attempts to soothe her only seemed to frustrate her more. Sighing loudly and forcefully, she leaned forward to repeat her request with surprising vigor.
“Itch! Mah itch!” She grabbed my hand to squeeze it, holding it close to her cheek before angrily throwing it down in disgust in response to my blank expression. This was going nowhere.
“I don’t know what you want!” Now my own frustration was becoming apparent. My aunt pushed back in her chair, turned from me, and was silent again.
I watched then as her milky blue eyes fell on a gray plastic dish at the edge of the sink. As she stared at it, I followed her gaze. Removing the lid, I peered a little tentatively inside. My aunt grunted approval. Dipping my fingers into the warm, foamy water, I carefully felt around until I found it—two tiny porcelain teeth held fast by a thin piece of metal. So this was it.
Carefully I placed the bridge against my aunt’s gums. Her body relaxed, then straightened as she turned again to face me. Gradually a smile stretched across her face. The kind of smile that says, “Thank you”. The kind of smile that says “I know you” and “I love you”. My Aunt Beatrice’s beautiful smile. It was then that I saw her once again.
Wrapping my arms around her, I closed my eyes. The room filled with lilacs.
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