I have spent many years working as a nursing home aide. Some would say one of the very worst of jobs. We are doing all the jobs the untouchables did in India – handling human waste and dirt, dead bodies and nearly dead bodies. We participate in much suffering, but we do so with a future ahead of us, unlike the patients who are so glad to see us in their final loneliness. Knowing what suffering is, and still being able to step away from it, is a gift. As is the friendship of those so near the edge.
I write. And I like to write in the late afternoon, when the shadows are long and night is approaching. For that reason, I have always worked the third shift, come home for sleep in the morning and written in the late afternoon in evening, before showering and eating and heading out again. Rest assured, you have not read anything I wrote before this.
Neither is this something I have created. It is the transcription (from memory) of a story I heard from an old woman one night. Ruth is a pleasant-looking woman, particularly if her poor legs are hidden under the covers. Her eyes are so just barely blue that they are almost no color at all. Wispy hair that springs out from her head in the front is so white that it actually seems to brighten the light that shines through it. Ruth’s legs are severely swollen and painful. When her pills start to wear off, she cannot sleep and there are strict orders about how often she gets those pills. So she dozes after each dose, but is often wakeful in the night and glad for someone to talk with. Usually I tell her about the news, about the weather, about my cat. She usually says very little, but when Ruth started on this story, I just listened. Sometimes there were long gaps while Ruth’s mind flew around the past trying to keep the thread, and she often repeated herself and even contradicted herself once. But, yet, this is neither a delusional woman nor a person with enough energy to invent such a tale. I think her story is true. And even if her memory has re-shaped the facts in some ways, they are true ways. So, I am going to try to tell it in her voice, just the way she told it to me. There are points where the reader will wonder why I didn’t ask questions, request more details, express amazement. I did not want to interrupt the flow. This is an important story to Ruth, not an anecdote. She has been lying in bed with those poor bloated legs thinking about things for a long time.
Ruth’s story was prompted by an image in the window in her room. It was 2AM and there was a fearsome thunderstorm. The nursing home had an emergency generator, but when the power went out, it took a minute to kick in. While we waited, the lightning shot out of the black sky and we could suddenly see both our reflections in the glass – hers looking up from the bed, my red-maned head looking square-on from the chair beside her. The image lasted less than a second, but it got Ruth talking.
When I first started getting bad with my legs and all, Doris told me that she would come up and stay with me. I didn’t need anyone right then, really. I could get around all right and I had good neighbors, but Doris was alone and needed somewhere to be.
Doris has never been a very satisfied person. Even as a baby she always wanted more than her little stomach could handle. And then she left Joe after fifteen years or so. Never liked Joe much, but there was nothing really wrong with him, if you know what I mean. He didn’t drink or anything. A little surly, but Doris could make. . . . Anyway, she left him and went off with another man. Can’t even remember his name. I only met him once and I liked him better than Joe and it was clear that Doris doted on him. It was an awful mess. She took the boys with her, but the oldest went back to his father within a week. An awful mess. And then, of course, the new guy left her. I honestly think Joe might have taken her back, but she was too proud. Little Jeff stayed with her because he felt sorry for her, I think, and I felt bad about that, because the two brothers were close. Anyway, when Jeff went off to college, Doris moved in with another guy and that lasted for a few years. She told me that she left him, but I wouldn’t put any money on who left who. Anyway, none of that matters – she was alone and broke. Never worked regular. So she came to “take care of me.” I think she tried to make everyone think she was doing a good deed, but people knew.
Not that I didn’t appreciate it what help she did give me. And it was hard for Doris, sleeping in the spare room and being so far away from everyone. She had been gone from Massena for over thirty years, and hardly knew anyone. Except for Kathy. Kathy lived next door to us when Doris and J.J. were growing up. J.J. died over ten years ago in a car wreck. He was drunk so I guess it was a good thing that he was the only one who died.
We lived in a pretty poor neighborhood when the kids were growing up. Duplexes. Never owned a house in my life. Kathy married good, though, and she is in one of those big houses near the Catholic Church. Not Catholic though, as far as I know. She never left Massena, married a local boy whose father bought a Toyota dealership before it was the big thing. Anyway, Kathy had just lost her husband about a year before Doris came to town, so she was alone too – there was a daughter, but she was living in Atlanta. So she and Doris picked up where they left off all those decades ago. I never saw Kathy much over the years, and I still didn’t see her much, but Doris was over there almost every day and would come back and tell me all about it.
Doris described Kathy’s house to me – how it was all decked out with antiques that she inherited from her mother-in-law. There was red velvet upholstery in the parlor with one of those hump-backed sofas, and oriental rugs everywhere. And over the sofa was a huge mirror with a gilt frame. Doris said it had to measure at least six by eight. Amy’s room – that’s Kathy’s daughter – had a canopy bed hung with lace and covered with dozens and dozens of teddy bears. There was stained-glass in the transoms and the sideboard in the dining room was white marble. I think Doris must have been jealous, but if she was, she didn’t say so. She just loved it over there. In those days, I could still bake a little, so I would make muffins or scones and send them over with Doris and it seemed like the two old friends would drink coffee and just have a great time. Once in a while, they would go to the Roxy to see a movie together, but mostly it was just talking in the kitchen. Then Doris would come home to me and we’d sit in my kitchen and she would tell me anything interesting that they talked about. It was almost as if I were there. I soon knew all about Kathy’s dead husband Jim and the ungrateful daughter and horrible father-in-law. I imagine that Kathy knew all about me too. It worked out perfectly. I had my mornings to myself and Doris would come home for lunch and chat with me for an hour and then I would watch my TV shows and she would go get the groceries and do whatever else had to be done.
One day, Doris came home looking upset. I thought maybe she and Kathy had disagreed about something – Doris isn’t all that easy to be around all the time. She was real quiet while she was making coffee, but not like she was mad. Usually when she’s angry she clams up, but makes sure that everything she touches makes noise. But this time she was just thoughtful. I feared that if I asked her, she would never tell me, but I think she had to talk to someone, because after one cookie she just started talking.
“Something strange happened at Kathy’s house,” she said through the Oreo crumbs. I just nodded. “We were just finishing up some tea and the last of that Irish soda bread that you sent over there yesterday, and Kathy asked me if I would look at something that had been worrying her. I thought we were going to look at a crack in the ceiling or something, but she led me into that front parlor of hers and we stood looking at that big old mirror. You remember? It came from her in-laws along with that old red furniture. Well, she was just standing there looking in the mirror. After a couple of seconds she asked me what I could see. I told her I could see two good-looking broads. “What else?” asks she.
“Well, I can see that your mail just got delivered.” You could see out the front window in the mirror and I saw Joe Bergeron headed down the sidewalk. We just stood there for a while longer. Finally I asked her what she saw.
“Nothing right now,” she said. “But sometimes I see something strange out of the corner of my eye. It’s hard to describe. But you know how sometimes you look around quickly and see something on the floor that you just assume is the cat, but it takes a few minutes for you to realize that it’s not, that it’s just a pile of clothes or something. Well, sometimes when I come in here I see something in the mirror that looks like another person – besides me, of course – but when I look more closely it turns into something else. I didn’t think anything of it at first, but now it’s happening all the time and I feel like I see more and more of the person each time – that they stay on the mirror just a fraction of a second longer each time.”
Doris didn’t know what to say, but she did know what Kathy meant about the cat. After our dog Buddy died, we saw him on the edges of things all the time. So Doris just asked if Kathy saw anything when they came into the room this time and she said she didn’t. Then Doris asked her what this extra person looked like, and she said that she disappeared before Kathy could get a good look at her.
I had just been nodding and sipping my coffee up until then, but now I asked Doris if maybe Kathy had been alone too much since Jim died.
“I thought of that. But her daughter was home at Christmas for a week, and Kathy’s been alone for almost two years now. Truly, if you were never alone in your life, it takes some getting used to – but she doesn’t seem desperately lonely. She’s glad to see me when I go over, but she never tries to get me to stay longer or have dinner with her or anything. And she doesn’t act weird or anything. She’s always clean and the house is tidy and she goes to her church group and everything. She always was a little weird about some things, but. . . . ”
Doris shrugged and that was the end of that for a while. But it was about then I noticed that Doris wasn’t sleeping too well. I never slept too well myself – up and down to the bathroom all night – but it seemed almost always when I woke up in the middle of the night, there was a light on downstairs and sometimes I could hear her moving around the kitchen. I knew it was a steady thing, too, because Pussy abandoned sleeping on my bed. She hangs out in the kitchen if she thinks there is any possibility that someone will feed her. She was pretty fat, and we were trying to control her diet. Anyway, it was at least a couple of weeks until Doris brought up Kathy’s hallucinations again.
She and Kathy had gone out to a movie – I think it was something with Barbra Streisand in it but I’m not sure. Kathy lives within a few blocks of the Roxy, so Doris had left her car there and they had walked. When they came home, Kathy talked Doris into some tea – Doris doesn’t drink coffee too late at night. When they got in the house, Kathy said she was going to have some brandy and asked if Doris wanted any. So they both had brandy. Doris stopped at one – at least that’s what she told me, but she didn’t have to drive very far anyway. After a couple of drinks, Doris told me that Kathy started talking about the mirror again.
“I’m still seeing things in that mirror,” she told Doris. Doris said that everyone caught things out of the corner of their eye and that she shouldn’t worry about it.
“No you don’t understand. I stand there and look in the mirror and in a minute there is another me standing behind me.” Well this gave Doris a shock, but she told me that she thought she had come up with an explanation.
“Maybe another image of you is reflecting off the window glass or something and it just lands on the mirror at a different angle. Does it always happen at the same time of day? Maybe it has something to do with the position of the sun.”
Kathy just shook her head. “No. I thought of that. It’s happened a couple of different times of day, including at night. And the reflection does not move like I do – if I wave my hand, it just stands there. And there is no one playing tricks on my because I’ve tried turning around quickly just to see if there is anyone back there. Besides, the image talks.”
“The image talks?” You can imagine how Doris felt when she heard this. She didn’t know what to say.
“Yes. It talks. But the sound does not come from behind me – it comes out of the mirror. It’s really hard to explain. And it gets worse.”
What Doris told me she wanted to ask was how could it get worse than talking hallucinations, but she kept her mouth shut.
“It’s not exactly me. Well, it is me and it’s wearing my clothes and everything. But this last time it was me about forty years ago. A young me. A teenager. Before I married Jim. Back when you knew me in high school.”
Well, the truth is that Doris and Kathy weren’t all that close in high school. They lived next door to each other, but I think it was a friendship of convenience, if you know what I mean. Kathy had a rough home life – the old man would bellow so you could hear him all over the neighborhood – so Kathy liked to come to our house where there wasn’t a man at all. Jed left me when Doris was just a baby. Doris tracked her father down a few years back and he’s still alive, but he wasn’t much interested in her from what I can gather. Anyway, Kathy was a good-looking girl with a nice manner about her and our Doris was not so easy to be around if you know what I mean. Kathy was nice to her, but it was plain clear that Doris was jealous. So they rubbed along, but I doubt whether they were much in touch after high school until Doris came home.
But anyway, Kathy told Doris that she was surprised how good her younger self looked in the mirror. That’s true isn’t it? Years later you see a picture of yourself at a time you thought you looked atrocious, but decades afterwards you don’t think you looked so bad after all.
Doris just stood there, not knowing what to say or to ask, but hoping that Kathy would go on. They were both just standing there staring into the mirror, but – of course – Doris said she was just seeing herself and Kathy. But she was not sure at that point what Kathy saw.
“Do you see her now? Is she talking?” Doris asked.
Kathy laughed as it that were absurd. “Of course not.” But then she went on to tell Doris that her young self in the mirror – Kitty was what Kathy called her – was mistaken about a lot of things. I guess Kathy’s family used to call her Kitty, but we never did because she didn’t like it. Kitty told Kathy that she didn’t think that Kathy remembered her childhood very well. Kathy argued that, on the contrary, she remembered it very well and thought about it often. The reflection then asked Kathy what she remembered.
Doris said that Kathy looked kind of embarrassed at that point, but explained that she had told the mirror Kitty that she remembered birthday parties – one particular on with a pink cake with a ballerina on top. She remembered when her mother took her and her sister to see Pinocchio. It was the first time that they had ever been to the movies and the family didn’t even have a television, so it was a very big deal. Kathy remembered hot dogs and homemade baked beans on Saturday night and how the whole neighborhood smelled of roasting chicken on Sunday mornings. She said the reflection just smiled sadly at her.
Well, I jumped in here because we all knew what a miserable life that child had at home. “Kathy don’t remember right,” was all I said. I could have said a lot more.
“That’s what the mirror girl told Kathy,” my daughter exclaimed while nodding her head. “You’re right – Kathy was pretty and popular, but her home life was the pits. Her old man was weird. Cruel. We were all sure he was using her something wicked, but when I brought it up she always denied it. Kitty really upset her though. Kathy told me she argues with her, yells at her.”
A couple of months went by and nothing was said. Doris reported that Kathy seemed a lot better, calmer. Kathy had even talked a little about the past, testing her recollection against what Doris remembered. There was no more talk of the mirror. Doris was still not sleeping well, so I figured she must be worried about something more than her friend.
One night, Doris came home all excited and woke me up. “You have to come to Kathy’s house,” she said as she gathered my clothes and orthopedic slippers. “I saw it. I saw a person in the mirror. Really. I need someone else to see this.” Once I realized I wasn’t dreaming, I painfully dressed myself and hobbled out to the car. I’m not sure I knew what I expected to happen.
Kathy was waiting for us at the front door. Doris helped me up the front steps and the three of us moved into the parlor and stood in a row facing the mirror. Our three faces – pretty blond Kathy, well-worn Doris with her mousy hair in a ponytail, and me with my curly gray hair and bed wrinkles on my face. And there were two other faces. Behind Kathy there stood a figure which I expected to be a child, but it was an old lady. She had silver blond hair and happy eyes, and just enough rosacea on her cheeks to make her look healthy. And content. I could see no one behind Doris. But behind me was a very, very old lady. Me. But very old, very near the end – and smiling. Just like I saw in the window glass a few minutes ago. That was what made me want to tell you this story. I turned away from the mirror and then turned back; there were still five of us and no one said a word. Believe you me, it was one of those moments you want to tie up in a red ribbon and tuck into your undie drawer.
Finally, I asked Kathy if the woman, the old woman, ever spoke to her like the child did.
“No,” said Kathy softly. “She doesn’t need to.”
We all just stood there for another five minutes during which time the old ladies faded and we just looking at our reflections and that of the big screen TV that was mounted on the wall behind us. Doris took me home and we never talked about it again.
Doris died in a car wreck just a few months later. She was drunk, it turned out. Just like her brother. I think she was probably drinking the whole time when I thought she was up worrying about something in the night. Don’t know where she hid it, but when my grandson Jeff cleaned out my house when I got deported to this place, I guess the attic was loaded with empties. Jeff thought it was me, but he should have known it was his mother. I kept my mouth shut.
Kathy is still around. She comes to see me sometimes and she looks just like the old lady in the mirror. She ended up taking in a niece who had no place to go, so she’s not alone and has someone to help her take care of that big house. She seems pretty happy.
Ruth closed her eyes and sucked her lower lip into her mouth. The thunderstorm was over, and I squeezed her hand and told her to go to sleep, that I had to get back to doing my rounds and would check up on her later. When I did, she was snuffling peacefully.
Usually, I don’t leave through the extravagant lobby (designed to convince relatives to leave their loved ones at our doorstep). But that night, my partner had needed the car, so he was picking me up out front at 6:30AM. As I passed the huge mirror gold-framed mirror in the vestibule, I stopped to look at myself. There I was, wearing my pink uniform and carrying a book and my lunch bag – a red-haired woman with a wide jaw and tired eyes. And behind me was an old woman. Not really old – maybe about 65 or 70. And she looked rested and alert and happy. Her hair was long and coiled around her head and there was a pencil stuck in it. She winked at me. And I winked back and left for home.