Pieces of Stars
by Susan Bass Marcus
The sound of her flip-flops scuffing the floor brings me back. “Franny,” she jollies me, “Franny, wake up. Chocolate pudding!” I hear the smile in her voice and my eyelids flutter open. Her brown eyes are close to mine, and I can smell sour rice on her breath. I turn away my head, a body part that still moves. It’s Lee; her name is Lee. If she sets the hearing aid in my ear, then her words reach me clearly, but if she forgets to do that, an acrid, but not wholly unpleasant whiff of vinegar and spoiled fruit announces her proximity.
My other senses are failing, but I don’t care, really. I don’t need to touch, to feel things. One of my hands is clenched and numb, anyway, so I can’t hold a book. Sometimes I can lift my left hand to touch my face or push away a spoon if I don’t overthink it. Can’t stand the noise and flickering of the old television that Lee wants me to watch with her. Actually, I’m not interested in seeing much in this little apartment... Well, okay, except maybe my son. He’s nice. Reads me stories and shops for us.
My world used to be so vast: big-city life, a condo right downtown. I could walk everywhere and go out to eat with my friends. They loved to meet me for lunch. We’d get a salad in an upscale Italian place right on Michigan Avenue, joke with the waiter, munch and chat about friends who weren’t there, husbands who had left or passed away. Then one of my friends suddenly died in a car crash. Months later, another one’s lung cancer killed her. Then I had a couple of strokes. That’s what they tell me.
“Here, taste this pudding, Franny. Your son bought it for you. It’s so-o-o good. Yum-yum.” Lee tickles my lips and my mouth gapes open. A glob sits on my tongue. A little gluey. What’s the point? She says, “It’s full o’ pro-tee-in, build your muscle. Here, more?” Lee rubs the spoon on my tongue. I gag and close my eyes. My hand quivers to push away the spoon. The woman hovers over me until I catch my breath. I feel her body heat in the space between us.
Then she lets the spoon clatter into the sink and she sighs. “Okay, Franny. You rest a little. I wash up.” I hear her rinsing the container and spoon. The scrape of a pan on the little two-burner stove signals she’s making a snack for herself. Probably warming up the rice that’s been sitting there since she put me in the wheelchair this morning and, groaning softly, pushed me into what the management calls a living room. I sit there all day, hardly living. My scenery changes when someone wheels me outside and around the parking lot, for fresh air, they tell me. Lee says it’s snowing today. No field trips.
She doesn’t take me downstairs to meals anymore. In fact, Lee complained to my son when he last visited that the manager barred us from the dining room and the lounge. Someone made a fuss because Lee sat at the table with me and fed me; so that someone didn’t want to sit with me anymore. Said I slobbered. I think people don’t want to share their table with my nurse.
This place is supposed to be “assisted living,” which means they help you a little, but no nursing allowed. I moved here ten years ago, into “independent living,” after I recovered really well from my first stroke; but my son was worried about my living alone downtown, and I let him install me here. In a couple of months, management started “assisting” me all the time: “Franny, sit here, Do this activity. Go to the gym. Get your hair done.” Who asked them?
When I first moved to this place, people used to request my table. “Why can’t you sit me with Franny?” they’d complain. “She’s so smart. Such good conversations.” Not now. I guess they feel depressed around me. The kitchen sends up a tray; Lee eats my leftovers, whatever she didn’t put in the blender for me.
My appetite is gone, too. My tongue gets in the way of chewing. Lee asks me too many questions. To escape her, I close my eyes and let my eyelids fall, the way they used to at Symphony. Sometime during a concert, they’d feel scratchy and dry, so I let them drift shut. I felt as if a gray, music-punctuated cloud had enveloped me. Not for too long. My head would snap back and I’d wake up again for the rest of the program.
Now, whenever I close my eyes, I feel little bits of whatever is myself fly away. They peel off and separate from me. No pain; like you don’t feel dead skin falling off your arm. That’s how it goes. A kind of sloughing. Sometimes I follow the bits into the dark spaces behind my closed lids. That doesn’t surprise me anymore, but the first time I floated after them, like a lazy swimmer in a deeply shaded pool, I felt lost. What was I doing there, alone and away from my caregiver, my over-attender, while an escaping strand of my hair bobbed in front of where my nose should be? In the dark it shone like a silvery thread and wriggled away until it broke apart into countless little twinkling dots.
Out there in the dark, the wheelchair disappears. My arms stretch wide and my fingers flex. My legs and toes kick and wriggle. Then I swim and pull myself forward with breaststrokes and frog kicks, head up to keep my hair dry, into a sea of silvery, sparkling pinpoints. Each stroke makes me laugh. I didn’t forget how to swim. Now this is my kind of stroke, not like the one that took my words and froze my body. I keep on swimming until a whining sound dissolves the sea around me and I feel my body grow heavy and stiff.
“Time to change your diaper, Franny. Sorry, sorry, but you know, dear... after you eat, you poop.” Lee is very tall, and she has heavy, flabby arms. She lifts me like I’m one of those big green and round fruits. She lays me out on the bed and apologizes as she cleans me up, always with the same clucking sounds.
I’m just glad to be rid of the itch. She washes my bottom and dabs ointment into skin folds. I don’t feel the pressure of her fingers on my right leg and arm, but I do glimpse her hands moving around my numb side. Some days I can see better, but not today. My eyes are tired of staying open.
“Don’t want you having that rash, dear. I get in trouble with you-know-who.” Lee tells me that today the hospice nurse is coming, and she dresses me in a diaper with extra pads, slacks with an elastic waistband, a tee-shirt, and my favorite loose white blouse with long sleeves. She slips socks on my feet. I don’t walk in this all too solid place. Pairs of shoes used to cover my closet floor. I wonder if someone took them.
Lee arrived after my last stroke. It had left me so weak that I couldn’t dress or feed myself anymore, couldn’t even use a walker. Because a doctor said it looked like I’d be dead in six months, insurance covered hospice care for me at home.
I didn’t die. The insurance stopped covering hospice care, and Lee and my son did their best, I guess. Lee said he was ordering my diapers and ointments. Hope she paid him back for them. Hope he asked for the receipt.
But now I’m getting hospice care again. They send me a nurse three times a week, although I’m not keeping track. A doctor sees me, too. Everyone talks to me in a chirpy, cheery voice: “Hi, there, Franny. You look so pretty today!” or “So nice to see you. Beautiful weather isn’t it?”
I haven’t been outside. Wouldn’t know. Every day feels the same; only the aches and spasms change and stab at different parts of my body.
I’m eighty-nine and still alive, still amazing. “You’re amazing, Mom,” my son tells me. Eighty-nine years old. Time flies. Wasn’t I just 70 and having lunch with my friends? So they started hospice care again, sure of my mortality this time around. Anyway, I can’t tell them what I’m thinking, that I don’t care. My son says he can’t understand my words but knows what I’m thinking. How can he know what I’m thinking? He wears me out with his talking.
Lee coaxes me to take my pills in some chocolate creamy thing she makes in the blender. To refuse it, I grunt a kind of ‘no’ and press my lips together. She knows I’m not going to sip any of it, but she tries again and again until I close my eyes and start to cough. Then she stops; she’ll lie to the nurse, I suppose.
The hospice nurse also told her to give me some drops to help me breathe. She squeezes them onto my tongue, and I don’t give her any trouble. Lee says she doesn’t like me to be so doped up because then I don’t eat and she so wants me to eat. She doesn’t give me as much morphine as Nurse wants her to.
Just as well. The morphine sends me into some kind of a fog, and I can’t remember where I’ve been; but I also don’t feel so angry and sad when I swallow the drops. My truly good times happen without the drops, in the dark place behind my closed eyes. If I could just get Lee to put me back in bed now, I could leave again, follow my bits and pieces into that dark place. Enough sitting in this wheelchair. It numbs my behind. My legs feel like logs.
When my son visits and pats my left foot to wake me up, I hardly feel his hand. Hoping to get a smile out of me, he tells me stories about places he has been and the people he’s met. Very sweet, so I smile. Sometimes I even laugh, but can’t stop myself. He thinks I’m laughing at his story, but it’s just some kind of brain fart. A little drool seeps out of the corner of my mouth. He wipes my chin and goes on talking. When I’ve given him enough time, I close my eyes and follow my ship-jumping body pieces to my other place. Lee says he is coming tomorrow and we’ll do all this again.
Before Nurse leaves, she helps Lee put me back in bed. She raises the mattress behind my back and tells Lee to keep it up. My head rests on a pillow. They want my chin to be closer to my chest. That way, I can swallow more easily and breathe without choking.
They should let me choke, although I don’t think I’d like all that gasping and coughing. I saw Nurse whisper to Lee. She forgot to turn her back like she usually does. I could make out she was telling Lee something like, “It won’t be long. That kind of breathing, you know.”
Time to get out of here. I hate when they talk like that, as if they see only a brittle package wrapped in parchment, left behind like waste. After so much swimming in the dark sea behind my eyelids, more than half of me has drifted into the billowing star clouds anyway.
I hear a deep, almost groaning pulse rising and falling between galaxies. Starry wheels surround me and pull me into their core. I feel lighter than ever. A feather of a person. A bird of paradise. A hot-air balloon rising and sailing into a swirling, shimmering cosmic soup.
I am racing, plowing through the iridescent waves to reach my escaping tiny bits. Although my arms pull and push through the sea of stars, the sea also flows inside and through me. Nothing separates us, yet I can’t catch up with myself. No matter. The deeper I slip into the sea, the calmer I feel.
“What day is it? What is your name?”
Who said that? I open my eyes to painful bright light. Someone is standing next to my bed. I don’t know the face. The person bends over me and asks me again, “What is your name?”
I know I’m Franny. Why should I tell him, whoever he is? I let out a groan and hear myself say, “Fuh-fuh.” That’s good enough for government work. Now who used to say that? I can’t remember. So many things I can’t remember: faces, names of things, what I’m doing here in this bed.
A tube in my nose tickles, but I can’t raise a hand to pull it out. My mouth purses and opens like a fish sucking water for its gills, but I can’t catch enough air. Little star bits fall like snow in the dark, and I float away until glittering waves pick me up and carry me out to sea.
When we swam in the Dead Sea, I floated like this, but my own dark sea is tossing me around. I’m thrusting my arms and legs with my breaststrokes. Pull-kick-pull-kick. I am aiming for a very large star that looks warm and friendly, an orange crayon sun that sits in the upper left-hand corner of my son’s drawing. A sunny day, a forever of sunny days.
* * *
The thin, gray-haired man assumed his mother did not recognize him before she lost consciousness, but when he kissed her dry forehead, she opened her eyes, looked up at him, and opened her mouth. He would always remember the smile that brightened her face.
The nurse checked his mother’s pulse and shook her head. She started her usual condolence speech, but stopped when she saw that he had dozed off. She closed the old woman’s eyelids with a gentle stroke, and was going to cover her face with a bedsheet after lowering the mattress, but the man suddenly woke up and asked her to stop. He needed to look at her face just a bit longer.
The nurse nodded, said she was so sorry, sir, and went into the living room. Now they were waiting for someone official to arrive and confirm his mother’s death.
Not long before those last moments, he had closed his own eyes, maybe for a minute, maybe more, and drifted off into what he assumed was a hypnagogic hallucination. He and his mother were on the balcony of her condo. It felt so real. They were looking at the Milky Way in the night sky and, as they stood there, stars began to tumble toward them. At first they fell slowly and looked like stray, ragged pieces of chrysanthemum fireworks. Very soon, however, they picked up speed and the man was sure they were hurtling directly at him and his mother.
His arms stretched out to push his mother back into the condo, but he was too small to protect her from the giant stars that surrounded them and ignited the iron railings. The old woman fell away from him and became really tiny; and the man began to swim freestyle through all the star matter crashing down on them.
Dismissing his own sloppy form, he plowed on, flailing and churning through the cosmic particles toward a giant orange star. Before diving into its boiling mass, he woke up and saw that his mother had stopped breathing. His hand had been squeezing hers.
As he slowly released his grip, he could see his fingers had pressed dents into her soft flesh. He called to her. He tapped her bony shoulder. He looked up at the nurse. The woman shook her head and said she was sorry, but his mother was gone. Her words passed through him, but the dream of a celestial catastrophe still burned.
After the funeral and the burial, whenever the man closed his eyes to nap or sleep for the night, he would see stars behind his eyelids. Little bits of twinkling light gave him the feeling that minute parts of his own self, maybe his skin shedding dead cells, floated into that starscape and, receding from his view, absorbed enough starlight to form their own constellations. He could swear that, sometimes, they rearranged themselves and he would see something resembling his mother’s face in their glow.
Copyright © 2015 by Susan Bass Marcus