A few years ago, a large grey rabbit appeared in the hallway of the nursing home.
Residents would park their Zimmer frames and wheelchairs by its cage and stick their fingers through the bars.
The rabbit would twitch its nose in curiosity, and in response they’d exchange satisfied smiles.
Frau B told me it belonged to Alessandro, one of the care-workers. She said his girlfriend had thrown him out of the flat they shared and ordered him to take the rabbit with him.
This wasn’t true. But it was amusing, and so I went along with it.
I wasn’t sure Frau B really, truly believed it either.
Sometimes, when Alessandro came into the room, Frau B would say, “Here he is! The rabbit’s daddy.”
“It’s NOT my rabbit,” Alessandro would reply through gritted teeth. Then he’d slam the little cup that contained her painkillers down on the table and leave before she could say another word.
Frau B’s stories always had a dramatic narrative arc. When an old man named Mr Klein moved into the room next to her, she swore he was having a liaison with one of the women at her table.
She said she’d caught them looking at each other across the dining hall.
It was a most appealing tale which conveniently erased Mr Klein’s wife, who lives downstairs.
Still, I nodded indulgently.
As time went by, Frau B’s stories changed. They became less Mills and Boon.
She became increasingly paranoid.
The care-workers were coming into her room at night and eating her pears.
The cleaners were stealing her money and helping themselves to her jewelry.
The other residents were giving her dirty looks and talking about her behind her back.
She had deliberately been given a wheelchair with a faulty brake.
Frau B didn’t respond well to my attempts at gentle persuasion, so I mastered the art of deflection.
I’d listen as she catalogued the slights against her, then change the subject. I’d tell her about my friends’ love lives, or read to her from the Erich Kästner book.
For a while, it seemed to work.
But things are different now.
She insists that the staff hate her.
And that the people she sits with at mealtimes are conspiring against her.
She sits in her room all day, ruminating about their treachery.
As a result of these perceived slights, this year, she is boycotting the Christmas party I’ve accompanied her to for the past five years.
The one where one of her favourite care-workers dresses up as Santa Claus and distributes gifts to every single one of the residents.
When I suggested she may regret not going, she became angry.
I didn’t bring it up again.
Last Sunday, when LSH and I came to visit, we found her looking for money.
She’d hidden it envelopes all around the room and couldn’t remember where she’d put it.
I offered to help, but she refused, in a tone that suggested she thought I wanted to pocket it.
We unpacked the shopping she’d ordered on the phone the day before: pears; hair slides (the long ones; she can’t grip the shorter ones with her arthritis-ridden fingers); two bars of chocolate and baby powder. We’d also picked up her jumper from the dry-cleaners.
“Is that all?” she said.
“Oh?” I said. “Did you need anything else?”
“You know I did,” she said. “Why didn’t you get grapes?”
I tried to explain as politely as I could that she hadn’t asked for any.
“And what about the pine branch?” she asked.
On this, she had a point.
She’d been talking about getting a small festive centerpiece for her table.
I’d actually bought her one already. But when I’d arrived with it last week, I discovered that her niece from Hamburg had been around in the interim and had supplied her with an alternative. It featured a glittery cut-out of a reindeer wedged inside a box of festive vegetation.
Frau B preferred mine, but thought it would be too risky to switch them in case her niece came back. On her instructions, I took the little pot home back home.
She did mention pimping her inferior centerpiece with a real pine branch. But she hadn’t brought it up again when I called, and – after a tiring week of getting up at half past three for work every morning – it had slipped my mind.
“So you’ve begun to exploit me too,” she said. “You think you can do what you like because I’ll forget.”
“That’s not fair,” I said, calmly.
“I told you I wanted a pine branch,” she said, her voice rising in anger.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get you one,” I said, curtly now. “I’ll get one this week.”
“You’re playing me for a fool.”
“Let’s read,” I suggested.
I thought it would help.
But she interrupted and said she needed the bathroom.
I let her wheel herself in and closed the door behind her – a small dignity she still insists on.
“Let me know if you need help,” I called after her.
LSH and I sat there, looking at our phones and whispering about how this wasn’t a very enjoyable visit.
Suddenly, a terrible cry came from the toilet.
I shot up and found Frau B hovering over the seat, clutching the bar with one hand and trying to pull her soiled underpants back over her knees with the other.
I re-inserted the sanitary towel that had slid down the inside of her tights, pulled up her underpants and tucked her vest into them.
Then she slid back into her wheelchair, and broke down.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she said. “I can’t go on.”
I bent down before her, and looked her right in the eye.
“Today is a bad day,” I said. “Tomorrow will be better.”
“I’ve been horrible to you,” she said.
“I need to get out,” she said. “I need to leave this room.”
We left LSH in the bedroom to ward of the thieves and I wheeled her up and down the corridor.
When we came back, some of the darkness had lifted. I made up stories about my baby niece I knew would make her laugh.
Still, a heaviness accompanied LSH and me home that evening.
The next day, I called her on my way home from work.
“Who’s this?” she said.
She sounded agitated and I realised she would have to strain to hear me above the traffic.
“Yep, it’s me.”
“I wasn’t expecting you.”
“I just wanted to see how you were.”
“I’m feeling ashamed,” she said.
“Don’t,” I said.
“I treated you terribly.”
“And to think that after everything I said, you still call me.”
“I was worried about you.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line.
“I often think I’m no longer capable of crying,” she said finally. “But the thought that there’s still someone who worries about me is enough to make me shed tears of joy.”
Now it was my turn to pause.
Then, in a matronly tone designed to stop me from welling up, I said: “Of course I care! How could I not?”
We hung up just as it began to drizzle.
As I walked on towards the train station, I imagined her watching the clouds form from her bedroom window, imprisoned in a cage she had a part in making.
How very poignant and moving! You have shown enormous sensitivity, maturity and empathy in dealing with Frau B. You have shown the cruelty of old age and what tricks it can play with your mind. And you have also hinted at the tragedy that comes from imprisoning yourself in your own cage. But the care of Kätchen lets in some sunshine which melt the bad thoughts, andwith it the bars of the cage and let her come out again.
Thank you so much for your lovely, thoughtful comment! It was hard being there last Sunday but it was also really heartening to see the glimmers of light amid that darkness.. and to think that even towards the end of life, there are good and bad days, and that despair rarely lives without hope.. xxx
It is a dark, heartbreaking piece with the only ray of light being your kindness. The closing line is fatalistically poignant.
Thank you so much for reading and for your lovely comment, Umashankar. I’ll go there again tomorrow, with some presents, and of course her pine branch.. and I hope that some of the darkness may have lifted since last time.
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