by Jane Snyder
Violet, disgusted, closed her eyes, lay as still and small as she could, hoping they’d go away, but they stayed, John and Dr. Walters, talking above her head.
I might speak, she thought, if they’d shut up. Her husband, John, old, thin, raspy as a grasshopper, showing off for Dr. Walters, the psychiatrist. Twenty years before, when Dr. Walters was an intern and John was chief medical officer, the nurses under Violet called Dr. Walters a pretty boy. Those young nurses were funny. She’d liked them so much, hoped they’d liked her a little too.
“Psychosomatic,” John said. “Well, I wondered. I did indeed. It came on so suddenly. Of course, I go back to when we called it hysterical blindness. Wandering Womb. I still think there’s something to that. Not at Violet’s age, of course,” he added comfortably. “But what do you think, Doctor?” Violet wished she could take a damp cloth, wipe the crispy bits from under John’s nostrils.
What Dr. Walters thought was that Violet’s behavior was a response to her daughter’s death. When he’d see her around town he said, with her daughter or John, he said, she was fine.
News to Violet, this benign presence observing her successful adjustment to old age. John, Violet believed, would have liked it if Dr. Walters had said hello.
“One of those cancer tragedies,” her husband said, of Anne. “It seems as if it’s always the woman who’s the center of her family’s world, the one everyone depends on. When they become ill they’ve already exhausted their strength caring for others. They can’t put up any defenses against the cancer.”
Oh, so that’s what happened.
John was wearing a clean shirt today; hadn’t remembered to shave.
“Violet,” Dr. Walters asked. “Do you know your daughter has died?” When Violet worked at the hospital the nurses claimed Dr. Walters would raise his hand for silence when he spoke. Doctor at work.
Anne had died nine months ago. The doctor may have her grieving, Violet thought, decided she’d be the judge of that.
“What was her name, Violet?”
“Anne,” her husband said, embarrassed, Violet guessed, by her recalcitrance.
“Was her name Anne, Violet? I know you can talk if you want to.”
I was never so flattered as when Anne was small. I was a queen to her, could soothe, delight, comfort, enchant, entertain, anything. How she loved me.
“What was Anne like?” She was as dull as John made her sound, Violet thought. A good wife, mother, and daughter, put the needs of others first.
It was what I was like when I was with her.
“You spoke last night, Violet. To that young man. Mark. You scratched his face.”
“Oh my,” her husband said. Not embarrassed. Currying favor.
Dr. Walters wants me to be ashamed, Violet thought. I’m not.
“Did you think you were in danger? That you were home and he was breaking in? That he would hurt Anne?”
“Mark. I marked him.” Violet thought she’d spoken aloud but no one answered. You’d think a healthy young fellow could have gotten away from me. I wanted to hurt someone, she wanted to say, and you weren’t here.
“We cared for Anne in our home. With help from Hospice,” her husband said. “Our son-in-law just wasn’t able. It was easy for us, with our medical background.”
I cared for her, she thought. John came to Anne’s room once a day, showing off, as if he were on rounds with the residents. Keep the patient comfortable, he’d told the CNA. That’s the main thing in palliative care. She knows all that, Violet wanted to say. She works for Hospice.
“Violet,” Dr. Walters said, taking her right hand in both of his. “I know you can hear me.”
Yes, and it’s no treat. Anger, now, anger is what I enjoy. She held onto it as tightly as Eliza held onto her son Harry in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, running over the ice floes, away from the bloodhounds to freedom.
“You’re a smart one, Violet,” Dr. Walters said into the room, performing again. Not for her so no need to listen. “And I’ll tell you: I’m not putting up with this. I know you can talk and if you’re not doing that very soon you’re out of here. Nursing home, assisted living. Whatever. This is 1995. Sicker and quicker. Hospitals don’t provide long term care. Get better or don’t. Your choice. Either way, you’re not staying here.”
Eliza felt the dogs’ hungry hot breath on her legs as she ran. They’d tear her apart if they caught her but better that than being dragged back and Harry sold away from her. She held on and ran.
Violet’s head dropped forward and she bit into Dr. Walters’ hand.
“Really, Violet.” Her husband made a clucking sound.
Her mouth was pried gently open. Sue, the nurse she liked, would have done it. Dr. Walters snatched his hand away. “So you heard me all along, didn’t you, Violet?” His tone was triumphant; she must have hurt him.
‘She’s never done anything like that before,” her husband said. Thinks he knows everything about me. Apologizing for me.
“I may have come on too strong,” Dr. Walters said. Violet imagined the bruise growing darker. The skin would coarsen, appear granulated.
“Oh, no,” her husband said. “No.”
“It isn’t that I don’t sympathize with your loss. But sometimes confrontation is what it takes to get through to a patient.” Dr. Walters had always been like that, Violet remembered, pluming himself on his “unconventional” methods, knowing more than anybody else.
John’s voice was creamy. “Oh, of course.”
What a toady, Violet thought. What a pantywaist.
When he said goodnight John kept his distance. Afraid I’ll take a bite out of him, too, Violet thought. “Tomorrow will be a better day,” he said, before leaving with Dr. Walters. Violet snorted. Trying to align himself with Pretty Boy. Just who do you think is going to take care of you.
John had been frightened last week when Violet stopped speaking. When he tried to take her to the hospital she inserted herself between the stove and the wall.
He told the Crisis Team she was the gentlest lady alive. Violet had kicked at them.
Like a donkey, she’d thought, braying.
“I wish you could have seen Dr. Walters’ face,” Sue said after they’d gone. She laughed. “I probably shouldn’t tell you that. I don’t know; I’ve never worked Psych before. We’ve got low census on 4A so they sent me here. It’s kind of fun.”
Violet began to wish she could ask questions. Sue, though, spoke as if Violet was speaking and she, Sue, was responding to her. “4A is oncology. I don’t know if that’s different since your time. My nurse manager sure has been talking about you. Linda Richards. Remember her? She wants to see you tonight before she leaves.”
Linda. Not an agile mind, not as pretty as some of the others, but persistent.
“You don’t have to see her if you don’t want to.”
Violet remembered when oncology was on the seventh floor and called cancer. This was when she was the nursing supervisor on night shift. Her choice. She could sleep when Anne was at school, be with Anne when she came home. On weekends when John wasn’t on call, she was supposed to catch up on her sleep. He’d take Anne to the hospital with him, stow her with a coloring book at the nurse’s station while he saw patients. Violet, when she was alone, slept deeply.
When she was small Anne was sweet and appreciative and time with her father had gone smoothly. The summer Anne turned twelve, though, John became fierce with her. Chubby, he’d call her and say there’s no excuse for that. Wanted Anne to drink warm water and lemon juice when she got up in the morning and instructed Violet to serve fruit for dessert. At dinner he’d quiz Anne on what she’d eaten during the day, tell her she must be eating more than that.
Violet said it was temporary. She’s not going to be heavy, she told him. We’re not. When Anne was a baby she’d been the same, get a little chunky, have a growth spurt and be thin again. Why bother her about something that would go away on its own?
You indulge her too much, John said. There are serious health risks involved here. The subject, he told Violet, was closed. He wanted Anne to exercise, made her go on bike rides with him. He’d sit up straight, spare and erect in his khaki shorts and gingham shirt, talking the whole time, to prove he wasn’t winded.
Anne was embarrassed, didn’t want her friends to see them. She swam in their pool every day, she said. That could be her exercise.
“You float on your back and daydream in the warm water. Genuine exercise is what you need,” John said, announcing plans to take her to the pool at the country club. “It’s bigger. You’ll get a real work out.”
Anne said the high school kids went there on weekends and she’d feel funny.
Perhaps, John told her, you’d be less self-conscious if you’d lose weight. In any case, we’re members, have every right to be there.
He took her one Saturday after breakfast. Anne was sullen. John was stolid, cheerful; pretended they were having fun.
Violet anticipated trouble but she’d worked a double and fell deeply asleep as soon as Violet and John left for the pool, slept till late afternoon when the smell of chlorine and emesis sent her rocketing up from deep sleep to the surface. Anne was gripping her hard around the waist. Shuddering, sobbing.
“Sweetie? Where’s Daddy?” He’d be angry with Anne for waking her and scold her for crying and getting in their bed. Like a baby, he’d say.
Anne sobbed louder. She was still in her bathing suit. Damp. She ought to have changed; she knew about mold and mildew. Violet felt the heightened anxiety she sometimes had at work when there was no quarter for mistake, when everything had to be done right. “Sweetie? What’s wrong?” There was another smell. Acrid and sweet. “Tell me.”
Violet cautioned herself not to yell, not to frighten Anne. She was frightened herself, guessing what was coming.
“Don’t be mad.”
“No. No, I won’t be mad.”
John had dropped Anne off, and, as Violet learned from Anne, had driven on to his office himself, too angry to tolerate his daughter’s company for another minute.
Anne had gone into the hall bathroom and swallowed the contents of a leftover bottle of baby aspirin on the top shelf of the medicine cabinet, the first thing she found, Anne said, crying harder. She’d gone to bed, thinking she’d sleep and not wake up. She’d lain there for a few minutes, feeling dizzy, but then her stomach had started to hurt and she’d vomited a big pinkish blob onto the rug. “
“It’s a throw rug,” Violet said, thinking how inadequate this sounded. “I can put it in the washing machine. It’s all right. Everything’s all right.”
Again she asked her where her father was. He wasn’t home, that was clear, or Anne wouldn’t have allowed her to lead her to the kitchen where Violet made lemonade from a can of concentrate. Anne gulped it all down even as Violet cautioned to drink slowly. “I’m not going to die?” She was diffident, wanting to know the answer, not wanting to show how much.
“No.” Violet thought of the things that could have happened. “Not today.”
“Well, I’m a nurse.”
John, when he wanted to pull her up short would say, “Oh, I think I know, Violet. I’m a physician.”
Johns hay fever pills would have been enough. Or Anne could have made herself a noose and not been able to extricate herself in time. “Did you want to die?” Anne started to cry again. She had. She’d formed the thought and intended to carry it out. Violet felt something being pulled from her grasp.
“Why?” Imagine letting yourself entertain those thoughts. Actually thinking them, following where they went, not pushing them away. “What’s wrong?” Allow me to fix it for you, Violet wanted to say, put it in perspective for you, change it for you. I’m so glad you’re not dead, she wanted to say but already she was moving away from that. Moving herself and Anne away. “I’m so glad you’re all right. Whatever it is I won’t be angry.”
“Daddy is. Daddy’s angry.”
Violet wanted to promise to take care of it, wondered if she could. When she complained about the fat talk John only got harder on Anne. “I think it must have been a misunderstanding.”
Anne stood up. “I know what he said. I hate him and he hates me.” The lemonade had dampened the orangey pink powder around her lips.
She’s little, Violet thought, she’s just a little girl. “Oh, no, sweetie.” Do it right, Violet told herself. It has to be right. “Please tell me what happened.” She stood behind her, put her arms around Anne who seemed to grow smaller.
Her father had wanted them to swim laps but there were older kids in the lap lane. Larking, he’d said, not swimming at all. So he’d asked them, is this not the lap lane, specifically designated for laps? They’d shrugged.
A few minutes later he came back with the embarrassed lifeguard and the young people rolled their eyes and complied with her request to “move to the general pool area.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Anne said. “I didn’t say anything. He just yelled. He said they were rude and he was going to talk to their parents. And he said I wasn’t even trying. My stroke was lazy. I wasn’t doing it right or I’d swim faster. He said I must want to be fat.”
She’d turned mulish then, pulled herself onto the side of the pool to get out. He’d tried to pull her back but she’d run to the dressing room. He hadn’t gone after, Violet guessed, because he couldn’t bring himself to break the rule against running on concrete. He hadn’t gone into the ladies dressing room to get her. He’d called in to her to come out. “I know you’re there. You’re behaving like a spoiled child who needs spanking.”
She’d stayed in the shower till the same lifeguard, still embarrassed, came in and said her dad wanted her to go to the car. “He’s pretty mad,” she told Anne. “I think you’d better.”
I should, Violet thought, be telling her none of this matters. Only she couldn’t; she was feeling what it had been to be Anne, unable to get away from her father. “Daddy wouldn’t spank you,” Violet said, knowing this was true. He was too dignified, no matter how mad he was, to struggle with Anne. He was more afraid of looking ridiculous than Anne; the events at the pool would have been horrifying to him. I ought to tell her she’d done wrong, trying to hurt herself, Violet thought, say it isn’t as bad as she thinks, there is no problem that can’t be resolved. “I’m so glad you’re all right.” Fatuously. “You didn’t really want to die.”
Anne turned away.
“Now. You don’t want to die now?”
Anne got up, stood in front of her.
“Oh, sweetie. You can tell me.”
Anne paused, appeared to be struggling to pick the right words. Violet couldn’t remember Anne editing what she said to her mother before. “Don’t tell Daddy. I don’t want to talk to Daddy about any of this.”
“I don’t think it would be right to keep this from your father.”
Anne had never questioned her mother’s ideas about what was due her father before. “What about what he did?”
Violet imagined the three of them at a therapist’s office. A man of course, someone John would pick. Would interview first to make sure he wouldn’t question John’s authority. But maybe, she thought, I’m not being fair. Maybe he’d be shocked into a new approach. Or maybe John wouldn’t see the need for outside help, would talk to her himself. Violet imagined him sitting behind his desk and Anne, still with the grainy pink stuff around her mouth, sullen in the chair in front.
“If you think he’s right you’re no better than he is.”
“He shouldn’t have embarrassed you.” Anne glared at her, didn’t acknowledge the concession. “I don’t know why he did that.” Because he never lets anything go, Violet thought. “But it isn’t really the same thing. This is serious. He cares about you.” If she said love Anne would argue. “I know it doesn’t feel that way to you now.”
“No. It doesn’t feel that way to me. Fat, fat, fat! If you tell him you’re as bad as he is.” This is ridiculous, Violet told herself, childish manipulation. I won’t be doing Anne any favors if I give in. The thought was in John’s voice. “I won’t tell your father,” she said. “But you must never do anything like this again.” Violet told herself she’d had no choice but to bargain. John would be furious if he found out. If Anne ever threw it at him in anger, for instance, accused him of driving her to it. “I’ll talk to your father. He never had a sister. I don’t think he knows much about girls.”
Or maybe he did. Violet thought of the distaste in John’s voice when he talked about Anne letting herself get fat. He knew how to hurt her.
You have to stop, she’d told John that night. No more talk about her weight.
No, he said, his confidence restored from the time spent in his office. He would not lower his standards and he would not be swayed by tantrums. He meant Anne. Violet was too frightened to be angry and she couldn’t match him in arguments. How had he harmed Anne, he demanded. Why did Violet ask less of Anne than she could do? Why was she selling their daughter short?
Violet wore him down, not talking. “Oh, very well,” he said, benevolently. “Since you feel so strongly. It may be, too, that the woman’s point of view has more value now that she’s an adolescent.”
Violet knew what was expected and expressed gratitude. John stopped twitting Anne on her weight, didn’t comment when she became slim again. He found other ways. A boy she liked who asked her out once, didn’t ask a second time. A poor grade in a class where she’d thought she was doing well.
“She’s her mother’s daughter,” he would say. As if Anne’s preference for Violet was a personal idiosyncrasy, like preferring broccoli to green beans. He could be humorous about it, telling their dinner party guests about Anne’s calls from college. “Fine,” he’d say. “She’s fine. If I answer the phone she’s always fine and her classes are interesting. And then she talks to Violet for an hour.”
Linda came after supper. She had the air of one conferring a favor by her attentions, no mention of Anne’s death or the circumstances surrounding Violet’ s hospitalization. In the old days, Violet remembered, Linda often expressed the belief that an elderly patient should be taken out of him or herself, needed to know they weren’t the only ones with problems.
“Can you believe it? They’re having us chart four times a shift now. Every aspect of care, you have to write it down as soon as it happens.” Violet, who wanted to remain with her thoughts of Anne, listened in silence, nodding politely. Thick as a brick, thinking she, Violet, cared about that or wanted to hear about Linda’s children. Who were in college now, though, as Linda pointed out, they’d been toddlers when Violet retired.
Violet longed for the quiet she remembered from night shift. The patients sleeping and the staff subdued by the stillness. She used to imagine herself walking through the patients’ dreams. A soothing presence, she hoped. She wasn’t usually imaginative. Being awake when others slept, moving through the dim corridors, gave a fairy tale quality to the time.
“She told me to take good care of you,” Sue said after Linda announced she had lots to do and went away. “So I guess I’ll let the other patients go to hell in a handbasket.” Violet, surprised, laughed. She was glad Sue was her nurse. “If she comes again I’ll tell her you’re asleep.”
She won’t come again, Violet thought.
She admired the way Sue helped her to the toilet without making a thing of it. Got her ready for the night without talking overmuch. Good thing, too, Violet thought. You go on and on, ii makes the patient nervous. She asked Violet if she wanted to sit up, guided her hand to the button for lowering the bed, and to the call light, if she wanted a sleeper.
I won’t, Violet promised herself. I won’t give Dr. Pretty Boy the satisfaction. If he even checks on details like that. All style, no substance, was the way she remembered him. She moved to her right side, pleased Sue hadn’t closed the curtains. It was early summer and the sky was still light.
Nightshift started at 10:00 pm. Violet remembered it was always dark when she began her rounds but the summer darkness was different. Not as heavy. The stars, when they appeared, were less sharp.
Violet couldn’t see the ground from her bed. The shallow rooms on this side of the building faced Monroe Avenue. There was a little park on the other side. She remembered looking down on it. Mysterious in the night, flushed and pretty when the sun rose. A creek ran through the park and Violet was always surprised when she saw this evidence of a world beyond the hospital.
Snowfalls were impressive when seen from this high, she remembered. Whenever she saw one she thought of the ticker-tape parade they’d had for John Glenn in New York. She’d watched the footage from a television in a wakeful patient’s room. In black and white, the sky thick and gray with torn bits of paper.
The last year she worked, 1975, there was a freak snowstorm in April. It melted off before her shift ended but that night the snow twirled down in huge flakes. Violet had stopped to look for a moment when she got off the elevator on the ninth floor, the ward for respiratory patients.
Violet had come up, hoping to be useful, because the patient in 906, a Caucasian male of 50, moderately obese with a history of cocaine use, had coded. Acute myocardial infarction. They didn’t use the intercom at night. Violet had a beeper, something new then. She sat at the nurse’s station, answered the phone. She did rounds on the hour, walking from room to room. The patients were sleeping despite the hubbub, except for Ruth, an elderly woman, close to death herself. The room was bare, none of the pleasant clutter Violet would later assemble in Anne’s sickroom. Flowers, photographs, treasures from Anne’s childhood, as if their cumulative weight was enough to hold her, keep her there.
The second time she did rounds Ruth had gotten out of bed. How, was a mystery. She was too weak to even feed herself and ought to have been in soft restraints, Violet thought. If she fell she’d no doubt break her hip. Which would be painful and indicative of substandard care but Ruth was so weak, never trying to sit up, and old skin tears easily. The nurses would have thought restraints weren’t necessary.
She sat in the chair by the window, watching the snow.
“Isn’t it pretty?” She was small. Violet thought she could manage to get her back to bed on her own. It was a young crew of nurses that night and they’d want to be together, talking over the code.
“You’re cold, Ruth,” Violet said, holding Ruth’s hands, ringless and knobbed with arthritis, in hers. “Let’s get you warm.”
She’d smiled a conspirator’s smile. “I’m so excited.”
Ruth stared at the damp, swirling snowflakes. “He’s coming.”
If she dies in the chair, Violet, thought, I’ll have to call for help. I can’t manage her if she goes slack.
“You wait and wait. You wait forever. But he always comes.” She pursed her colorless lips and hissed into Violet’s ear. “Santa.” She drew her head back a little to study Violet’s reaction.
Violet, entrusted with a confidence, nodded solemnly. “I think so.” The absence of personal possessions, of visitors, of anecdotes to establish herself with the nurses, suggested deprivation and institutionalization to Violet.
Ruth would have been a good little girl, she thought, anxious to please. Violet imagined her receiving a stiff doll in a dusty cardboard box, colored pencils, a jigsaw puzzle.
Her Santa Claus was driven hard through the cold night, Violet thought, imagining Ruth’s mother dreaming of a golden haired doll who cried mama, a teddy bear made of genuine mohair, telling herself next year would be better.
Violet had made wonderful Christmases for Anne. She’d sit with John in front of the tree on Christmas night after Anne had gone to bed, tired, but replete, thinking about how lovely it had been and what she’d do next year.
“You work too hard,” John would say, “Anne’s too young to appreciate it.” She wished he’d talk about what she’d actually done, perhaps admire the dish towels she’d embroidered for Anne’s play kitchen.
Ruth, still smiling, allowed herself to be guided back to bed. She was quiet then, but not still. Her hands reached up as if she was pulling threads from the air. Her eyes shone with excitement. She took fewer breaths. Ten one minute, then six. Four. Two shallow gasps.
Here, not here.
Violet left Ruth for a moment then to call the morgue and get a shroud and the body bag from the supply room. She would prepare the body herself, she decided. It would bother her less, she thought, than it would the inexperienced young girls. Ruth was even lighter than she’d supposed and the log roll to move the body bag and then the shroud underneath her was easily accomplished without help. ADC, After Death Care, it was called, and simple enough in the absence of family. No need to propitiate a coroner, or harvest organs.
Ruth was squeaky clean but a bed bath, with special attention to the hands and face was customary. It wasn’t necessary to place pads to protect the workers at the funeral home from possibly infectious fluids; Ruth was dry toast. Her limbs, despite the distorting effect of the arthritis, were graceful. Ruth’s eyes were open and Violet, imagining Ruth staring out into eternity, massaged the eyelids down and outwards till they shut.
Violet imagined Ruth smiling with delight, her thin fingertips stroking the soft cotton shroud, and realized she was thinking of Ruth as if she were still alive. A common mistake. She’d heard nurses talk to a child’s corpse, explaining what they were doing as if to reassure it.
Is that what you’d think about as you died, she wondered. Santa Claus? It was regrets usually, regrets the family didn’t understand. Not the steadfast conviction that someone, not God, was coming.
After the two orderlies took away Ruth’s body, Violet sat at the nurse’s station charting. She was glad Ruth had died at night, when the other patients wouldn’t know.
The nurses were apologetic. The girl who’d been assigned to Ruth was near crying. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Wythcombe. You shouldn’t have had to do all that. If you’d only called.”
“It was nothing,” she said, hoping the girl didn’t feel she was being scolded. The patient in 906 had also died, and Violet wanted to be kind and helpful, draw her good deed around her like a shawl, so that the nurses could relieve their feelings by speaking freely, but they went back to their charting in silence.
I didn’t know anything about Ruth, she realized. Not one thing.
She looked again into the soft darkness and imagined herself talking to someone. Perhaps Sue, when Sue came back. “To the old,” she’d say, “the dead are not so far away. They wait for us in another room. I’ll go to Anne soon.” Tonight, though, it wasn’t a calm, happy, nicely dressed Anne she saw but a fat Anne, her features sunk deep in protective fat.
What if Anne hadn’t resumed her young girl’s body? What if, instead of becoming slim again, she’d gotten bigger, spilled out of her clothes? What if she’d been grossly, morbidly, obese? Would Violet have harried Anne? Would she have looked at Anne’s body with disgust? Said ‘piggy, piggy, what’s in your trough,’ as John had done once when he walked into the kitchen and found Anne there, eating ice cream?
Anne’s face, as Violet saw it then, was blurred with fat and misery, a mirror reflecting Violet’s betrayal.
Unloving, complicit with John.
I didn’t love her enough.
John would hate being alone. No one noticing him. His little grasshopper legs rubbing all the time, rasp, rasp, but no one to hear. If no one watched him, if Violet wasn’t there, what would he have?
Violet, alone in the soft dark, tried to loosen her clutch on the bitterness she held, found she couldn’t. Reaching for the call button she thought how it would be one in the eye for John, for Dr. Walters, even for Linda, that Sue, substitute Sue, would be first to hear her speak.
Jane Snyder‘s stories have appeared in Cobalt, Lunate, and Bull, Men’s Fiction.