Jimmy knew he should visit more often. He didn’t need to be reminded, despite his mother’s best efforts.
“When are you going to visit your grandmother?” his mother would ask every chance she got.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to visit. He just preferred to remember her before her brain shut down to the world. At 92, she spent every hour and every minute of every single day lying in bed, staring at the cinderblocks making up her living space at the anything-but-Sunny-Days Nursing Home Center. Jimmy always felt there was something sadistically ironic about nursing home names. Much like subdivisions named after animals, forests, and creeks dissolved by suburban sprawl, nursing home names are constant reminders of days-gone-by. For the patients who still had their wits about them, Jimmy wondered, why the constant, painful reminder of what was no more?
His grandmother did not have her wits about her. Physically, she was just about as healthy as someone her age could be, which made her condition even more devastating. Her Alzheimer’s had been holding steady ever since it reached its devastating peak nearly ten years ago. After a gradual decline, she reached the point of no return. Living life like the living dead, she spent her days in a blank void. Since his divorce from his wife, Amy, so did Jimmy in his own, self-isolated way. The key difference, of course, was that he was aware of it.
For the first few years, his grandmother would be taken out of Sunny Days for holidays, birthday parties, and weddings until it simply became too much trouble. But for whom? Jimmy always wondered to himself. For her or us? Car rides made her sick and she spent the rest of her day in a state of nauseous confusion.
So no, it wasn’t that he didn’t want to visit her. He just preferred to remember her when she was alive: stubborn, crude, baking cookies — a vibrant, larger than life woman, rather than the sunken hull she had become. Although he would never admit it, he often prayed for God to take her. Part of him felt guilty for thinking this way, but he took comfort in his conviction that he was probably not the only one who did. In a family as devoutly Catholic as his, he doubted he was the only one to pray for this.
Visiting his grandmother always put Jimmy in a prolonged depression, but he realized it was selfish to lean on that as an excuse not to visit. Once the family stopped taking her on outings, Jimmy visited three or four times a year, usually around the holidays. He always brought her a Kit-Kat bar, her favorite treat. She may have forgotten her family members, but she certainly recognized a Kit-Kat bar, giving hope not all was lost.
However, in the nine months since his divorce, his visits — like everything else in life — had come to a crashing halt. His mother’s insistence on visiting his grandmother, however, did not, but he didn’t need to add to his mental strife. Avoidance became the only way he could handle most aspects and avenues of life. At least he was no longer in denial about being in denial – a clear sign of progress.
But on this day, fate aligned itself with his mother’s wishes. While returning home from a trip to the dentist, he realized he was approaching Sunny Days.
If only I switched dentists, Jimmy thought to himself, now regretting his sentimental decision to continue going to his childhood dentist, despite living thirty miles away. He momentarily considered driving right past the Home, but his conscience eventually won out. Except for one regrettable, earth-shattering error, his conscience always won out. The next thing he knew, his turn signal blinked, his brakes slammed, and he was pulling into a gas station to buy a king-sized Kit-Kat bar for his grandmother (and a frozen burrito for himself), before driving across the street into the parking lot of the Sunny Days Nursing Home.
He entered the dimly lit lobby of the nursing home through a door with a prison-invoking sign “kindly” asking visitors to:
PLEASE SHUT DOOR BEHIND YOU TO PREVENT RESIDENT ESCAPE
Welcome to Sunny Days, Jimmy chuckled to himself. The scent of urine and rot immediately filled his nostrils. A dozen or so wheelchair bound residents congregated in the lobby, perhaps plotting their escape. Then again, most stared too far into space, with a puddle of drool forming in their laps, to entertain such thoughts. Jimmy couldn’t help but notice that the tight space the residents crammed into also seemed to be the sunniest spot in Sunny Days.
Chirping finches accompanied by singing canaries from the aviary on his right lent to the atmosphere, sending his mind back through the never-ending, haunted vortex of his former life. His ex loved birds more than anything. In fact, when they both had visited Jimmy’s grandmother, it wasn’t uncommon for them to spend more time in front of the aviary than with his grandmother. Ironically, at the beginning of his relationship, Jimmy could care less about birds. Within a couple of years, they had a cage full of them. Now, she had sole custody of the house that was once his, and he missed the birds more than he ever thought possible.
Now a habit, he paused in front of the aviary for a brief moment, watching the birds through a sad-sacked solo reflection. Depression was already settling in and he hadn’t even seen his grandma yet.
He continued on down the endless hallway (which he dubbed “the green mile”), lined with mostly female wheelchair-bound residents resembling the geriatric version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Most stared blankly. Some waved. Some looked at him hoping, praying, pleading that he was somehow there for them, like dogs in an animal shelter. He couldn’t get to his grandmother’s room soon enough.
Adorning the walls were cardboard 4th of July decorations and bulletin boards featuring resident artwork, reminiscent of the halls of an elementary school.
He passed one of the “living rooms” where still-conscious residents would gather to watch television. He peered in and saw a resident decked out in Detroit Tigers gear rooting his team on. He realized he was quite possibly staring at his future self. His depression deepened.
Before he knew it, he was lost in the maze
of Sunny Days. He thought his grandmother’s room was nearby, but he somehow veered of course. Once again, he found himself drifting through a situation, as he did most days. He looked around, but everything looked the same. This is exactly how the patients must feel, Jimmy realized. Every moment of their life. Nobody was around to ask for directions. He certainly wasn’t gong to ask a patient. After wandering aimlessly for a couple more minutes, he finally found his way.
When he entered his grandmother’s sparse, cinder-block room, he discovered her unmade bed was empty. For a fleeting moment, he wondered if she perhaps escaped, before looking at his watch. It was 5:30, which meant dinnertime.
To avoid getting lost again in the labyrinth-like design of Sunny Days, he headed to the nearest nursing station for directions to the dining room. A handful of overworked nurses looked more depressed than the patients themselves. He stood at the desk, assuming that his presence would naturally lead to a greeting. But there was none. After several seconds had passed, he realized he had no choice but to speak up.
A Filipino nurse looked up, as though surprised by his presence.
“Which way to the dining room?”
“Down hall, then left,” she mumbled in broken English.
“Thank you,” he replied, but at that point, she was already ignoring him again.
He headed to the dining room. At the entranceway, a wheelchair-bound resident greeted him, hands locked on the wheels of her chair.
“I know you,” the woman said, pointing a bony, mangled finger at him. “You got a girlfriend in there, don’t you?”
“Nope. Not in there,” he replied with a smile. As he wiggled past her, he wondered if she actually did recognize him, or was simply confused. He certainly didn’t recognize her. But then again, she looked like countless other nameless residents. So perhaps the confusion was mutual.
Inside the dining room residents – again, mostly female – finished up their meals. He scanned the room for his grandmother before he finally spotted her, sitting alone and staring blankly ahead. He approached her, her plate nearly clean, which was a promising sign. Most days she wouldn’t take a single bite.
His grandmother’s blank face morphed into rare recognition.
“Oh, Jimmy,” she said, as her grandson kissed her on the cheek. It was seldom that she would remember anyone’s name, let alone show any indication she was aware of their presence. There were good days and bad days when it came to her memory. Much like the aftermath of divorce. At first, good days outnumbered the bad. But as time wore one, the bad days far outweighed the good. And just when it appeared as though she would never have a good day again, she would throw a curve ball.
“How was your dinner?” Jimmy asked.
“Good,” his grandmother said, staring blankly ahead.
“What did you eat?”
“I don’t know.”
He handed her the Kit-Kat bar. Her eyes lit up with excitement.
“Oh, yes,” she said, smiling like a giddy schoolgirl. He opened it for her and handed her a piece. She gobbled it down.
She nodded, toddler-like. He offered her another piece. Before he knew it, the king-sized bar was no more. Also, like a toddler, she had melted chocolate smeared all over her face and fingers. He wiped it off with a napkin.
“Let’s get you back to your room.”
He attempted to pull her away from the table, but her chair wouldn’t budge. A resident seated nearby bluntly stated, “The damn brakes are on.”
“Well, that explains it,” Jimmy said, before unlocking the brakes and wheeling her out of the dining room and down the hallway to her room.
“So, how have you been feeling?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
She simply shrugged. He wheeled her the rest of the way in silence. Sometimes, it was better that way. When they arrived at her room, he pushed the call button so someone could get her ready for bed.
They sat in silence, which wasn’t unusual during most visits.
“Where is the aide?” Jimmy finally asked, breaking the silence. His grandma shrugged with confused indifference. He headed to the nursing station, where the nurse on duty ignored him. Par for the course, he thought before finally speaking up.
“Hello. I was wondering if somebody could come to room 125. My grandma needs to be put to bed.”
“We’ll be there shortly, sir. You took her out of the cafeteria ahead of schedule,” the nurse said in a scolding tone. “Please be patient and let us do our job.”
He bit back a rude retort, before deciding to let it go. It wasn’t a battle worth fighting. He knew her job left a lot to be desired and left it at that, before heading back to his grandma’s room with his tail between his legs, wondering if she even knew he was gone.
“Someone will be here soon to get you ready for bed,” he told her. He briefly considered doing it himself, but realized that would entail taking her to the bathroom — a task he didn’t feel he could live up to. So they waited in accustomed silence.
Several minutes later, a beastly aide entered, cutting through the silence like a jackhammer.
“Alright,” the woman sighed as she flung back the covers. “Let’s get you ready for bed.” Jimmy couldn’t help but imagine what her demeanor was like when there wasn’t a visitor watching her every move. She proceeded to lead his grandmother into the bathroom, not bothering to shut the door. Jimmy figured from her point of view, privacy was irrelevant in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. Loud, explosive farts poured out of the bathroom, making it clear in his mind where he inherited that from. As sad as it was, he couldn’t help but chuckle. Farts never get old, he thought to himself.
To bide his time, Jimmy looked at the bulletin board hanging over her bed, featuring random greeting cards and photos of family. Suddenly, a pair of recognizable eyes dancing with laughter, peered out at him from a photo nestled in the center of the board. It was his wedding photo, the sight of which forced his wounded heart into his throat, filling his mouth with an acid after-taste. He considered taking the ghostly photo down, but figured if there was one place where the past was fluid and timeless, it was here at Sunny Days.
On an end table next to her bed was a framed portrait of his grandma and grandpa taken on their 60th wedding anniversary. He glanced back at his photo and felt a layer of sadness he never experienced before. The contrast between the two photos couldn’t be more startling.
The toilet flushed and his grandmother, now dressed for bed, was led out of the bathroom and, with machine-like efficiency, roughly tucked into bed, prompting Jimmy to once again wonder what happened when nobody was watching. As much as he tried to dismiss this thought, it was no use.
The aide headed out of the room without uttering another word. As his grandmother stared into the vacuum of space, he became more depressed with the knowledge that what he had witnessed for the past hour was her entire existence, day after day and year after too many years.
“Would you like the TV on?” Jimmy asked, already knowing the answer.
“No,” she said, annoyed that he would dare ask such a question. For reasons that maybe she didn’t even know, she flat-out refused to watch television, preferring nothing over something.
He remembered the CD player stored beneath the nightstand. He opened it up. The CD he made for her five years ago was still in there. He realized it was possible the last time it was played was the day he gave it to her. The CD was labeled ‘Memories’ in his ex’s handwriting – another ghost.
He wondered if he should bother to play it for her at all. He didn’t know how she would react, and the last thing he wanted to do was irritate her. After mulling over it, he ultimately decided that he had nothing to lose and pressed play.
The first track was the 1930’s jazz standard “Stardust”, his grandparents’ wedding song, which later became one of his personal favorites. From the very first note — a swelling of violins—his grandmother’s entire face transformed, and her eyes returned to vivid life.
As the melody ruminated over departed lovers, Jimmy felt the early twinges of nostalgia seeping into his veins. Both he and his grandmother found themselves suddenly time-traveling together in unison, each riding on their own individual living timeline, united by the fuel of their shared ancestry. He felt every ounce of her existence in mirrored contrast to his. For the first time, he realized the full extent of everything he lost.
Halfway through the first verse, Jimmy returned his focus to his grandmother who was now waving her hands from side to side like a conductor, as she imagined immortal stardust memories from years gone by.
By the third verse, she was singing along at the precise moment Jimmy’s nostalgia blossomed into full bloom, returning him to the exact moment when he and Amy first fell in love. He had a pretty good idea that his grandmother also returned to a parallel moment in her life — a time when both thought they were never going to be alone again. One couldn’t have been more wrong. The other, was given a rare, fleeting moment to remember the happily-ever-after nostalgia of once upon a time; the other with no happy ending at all. Both were now unified by their shared ancestry.
By the last verse, grandmother and grandson were both in tears, realizing that everything was now only a fading, fleeting memory, a refrain remaining only in the recesses of their hearts. By the time the final note of the song ended, the life that had temporarily returned from a long ago past, reverted back to blank stone. For just one brief moment, his grandmother was alive again. And for the first time since the divorce, so was he.
“You look so much like your grandfather,” she muttered. She then shut her eyes. To him. To the world. To herself. Seconds later, she was snoring, which he took as his cue to leave. He watched her sleep for a minute — woman who birthed his own mother. This woman who was the epitome of what a grandmother should be. And what he thought he was gaining in holy matrimony for his own future children and grandchildren. The cookies. The sleepovers. Countless holidays. An entire life. Every memory. Love. Joy. Sadness. All buried within her, forever locked away, deep into the vault of her mind, much like Jimmy often wished he could do with his own lingering memories of his former love’s refrain.
He gently kissed his grandmother’s forehead, before heading toward the door. And out of thin air, like a sword through his heart, he heard, “How’s Amy?”
Caught off guard, Jimmy froze for a moment, pondering how to respond. Should he tell her the truth? Or let the past remain alive in at least one remote corner of the world. At Sunny Days.
“She’s doing well,” he replied. She smiled and closed her eyes once again. Her snoring resumed and he walked out the door, consoled in the stardust afterglow of his grandmother’s melody, haunting his reverie.
Heading back down the long hallway, one of the wheelchair-bound patients lining the hallway smiled at Jimmy, then began applauding, followed by another patient and then another.
The somber atmosphere that had greeted him was now replaced by an unexpected contentment. The clouds lifted and sunny days were truly here once again — if only for a moment – a paradise where roses once grew, rather than the moss was accumulating in his heart and soul.
And for the first time since his whole world came crashing down, he knew he was going to be okay. His stardust melody…