I find her as I usually do, the tv turned to the home shopping network, images of big sparkly rings on display. I clear a space in her only chair and scoot as close to her bed as I can. She flashes me her bottom row of front teeth, her only teeth at this time, and I know she still hasn't received her dentures.
"How are you?" I ask, and she shrugs, turns her face back to the tv. Into the silence, she hacks a gargled, raspy cough, her mouth opening like a baby bird. "I've got a cough," she says, finally, and I can barely understand her without her teeth.
She had this same cough two weeks ago, and I ask her if it's possibly turned into something worse? But no, she says she has emphysema, too. I didn't know.
She asks what I've been up to, and I struggle, as always, to know what to say. I'm horrible at small talk when it's about myself and I don't feel comfortable telling her what's going on in my life. I tell her about the trees turning toward spring, about the sunshine of the past several days, about beginning the season of Lent leading up to Easter.
"I can't hear you," she barks. I try to project my voice and feel more self-conscious doing so.
I've been coming to visit her for a year and a half now, and it's as if I'm no more than three inches closer to knowing her than I was when I started. I can't seem to reach her, though there are moments when I see her smile and I know she's happy I came, even with the halted conversation.
I'm not accustomed to connection being this difficult. I have sometimes prided myself on my ability to draw nearly anyone out, eventually, but this one feels like a failure. No matter how much interest I show in knowing about her life, how much encouragement I offer or questions I ask, she seems as reticent to talk about herself as I. Even I would be willing to talk more about my life if I sensed she wanted to hear it.
I try to find common ground as I maneuver generational and personal differences. I hide my inward cringing each time she refers to gay people as The Gays, with a wrinkled nose, or black people as Coloreds, as if she were speaking of another species. She's said no less than twenty times how much she hates long hair on women and I feel a twinge of anxiety when I visit her with my short hair growing longer. She tells me the woman who lived next door to her here in the nursing home, the one she didn't like who would wander into her room and pick up her things, died recently. She sounds relieved, and I don't know what to say to her. I remember that woman with the long white hair, so sweet and confused, and how her daughter visited her and as I watched them shuffle along the hallways, I thought of my own mom - how that could be her years down the road - and it made me want to weep.
I'm trying not to watch the clock, but it's just above the tv, and sure enough the time is passing slowly. My heart is quickly sinking, the longer we sit in this heavy silence.
And finally, a piece of her reaches me through the noise of this crowd of negativity: "I just feel yucky."
I turn to her and lay my hand carefully on her soft, bruised arm. This woman, who has no one to visit her except a niece and myself; who lays in bed all day, every day, uncomfortable and in pain; who cannot see the light of day from where her bed lies in this gloomy hospital style room; the only real thing I know about her is that she is unhappy and alone. That the past, for her, is quite possibly no more than a painful reminder of what life is no longer, the future is hazy, and the present is not worth speaking of.
I'm here, my hand on her arm whispers through the crowd. I see you. You're not alone.
Maybe this is all the conversation that is really needed, and I am learning to see through the crowd to the woman here, in the bed beside me.
. . . . . . . . . .
Joining up with Lisa Jo for another Five-minute Friday post that is not five minutes, per usual. The prompt today is "Crowd."