Who Will Take Care of You?
I pull into the parking lot and turn off the engine, staring at the oatmeal-colored building that used to be called a nursing home. The skilled nursing facility (further euphemized with the term “health and rehab”) is not at all different than that awful building where my family stuck my great-grandmother in the 1980s. And every morning, when I type in the five-digit code and pull open the door, I am again four years old, watching wide-eyed as wrinkled flesh and arthritic limbs roll by, pushed by plump staff with blank expressions, surviving the eleventh hour of their shift.
My job is to help residents consume foods and liquids safely. To prevent them from choking on poorly chewed pieces of meat and to keep sweet tea and buttermilk out of their lungs. But the residents know better. They know me as the short lady in scrubs who, at the slightest hint of a cough or throat clear, will demand that the kitchen prepare a tray of baby foods and green slop and brown, pureed meat-like substances, three times a day, for the rest of their lives. If I am in a particularly nasty mood, I may even recommend thickened water, the color and consistency of mucus or other bodily fluids.
I usually work with my patients on the side of their firm, sterile beds, covered with thin knit blankets and waterproof mattress pads. Today, I am with Mrs. K., who was just admitted from the hospital post-stroke. I elevate the head of her bed and place a gloved hand on top of her own frail hand, blue-violet veins trailing the course of her translucent skin like mountains in a snowstorm or rivers coursing through a canyon. As usual, I provide ½ teaspoon-sized bites to my patient, encouraging her to use her jaw and remaining teeth to learn how to chew again. We discuss alternating small bites and sips to clear any buccal and vallecular residue, but Mrs. K. (Olivia) is more interested in learning about whether I have children and, if not, when do I plan to? I’m not getting any younger, after all.
At lunchtime, I casually hop between tables to make sure that the patients on my caseload are using their recommended safe eating strategies without drawing too much attention from the other dining residents. Mr. P. wears a red velvet crown on his balding head and extends his arms for an embrace. Apparently, he was crowned “Mr. Cincinnati” in the 1950s, so why not flaunt his glory on Meatloaf Mondays? Mrs. F. averts her gaze and wheels herself away from the table and out of the dining room when she sees me approaching. Residents with beige scoops of nameless protein glare across the table at their roommates, as they devour greasy fried chicken with loose dentures. The delectable crunch of fried batter fills the dining hall.
I make my way back to the rehab gym, which is an uninspiring windowless cavern of dirty cement blocks and outdated fitness equipment, when the physical therapist informs me that my long-term patient has unexpectedly passed away. The staff used to make sure that all residents were in their rooms when they transported the dead on a gurney under a white sheet. Now, most residents stare, expressionless, as the parade of staff shuffle the body through the narrow hallways. The newest inhabitant of 115a brings a hand to her mouth in a gasp, tears welling in the corners of her eyes.
I shut down my computer, grab my umbrella, and head down the back steps to my modest car. These days, I often contemplate my own mortality. I purchased a one-story home without stairs and hope to eventually modify my bathroom to have a walk-in shower in a few years. The plan is to age in place. But then the nightmares come. Nightmares about being strapped in a wheelchair, spoonfulls of blended green beans shoveled into my mouth amid the stench of bedside urinals and soiled briefs. Tomorrow, I will again punch in the door code and suck down the horror deep within my chest as I pat my patient’s hand, attempting to dodge the question, “But who will take care of you when you’re older?”
Ashley McCurry is a speech-language pathologist, MFA student, and short fiction/creative nonfiction writer living in the Southeastern United States. Perhaps more importantly, she is a rescue dog mom, cosplayer, and lover of short stories and musical theater. Her work has been published in Bright Flash Literary Review and Six Sentences, with forthcoming publication in Flash Fiction Magazine.