Dr. El

Louise, a petite, 79-year-old woman, was the roommate of another resident I was seeing for psychotherapy at the nursing home. 

Louise sat by the B bed watching TV and working her needlepoint, anchoring the tapestry frame against her chest with one arm while she slowly pushed the needle through with her good hand. 

“Hello! Please excuse us for a little while,” I said as I pulled the curtain for “privacy” to talk in hushed tones with Cynthia, who was dying of cancer.  

I wasn’t too sure how much Louise could understand since her speech was garbled and unintelligible, but she always acknowledged my greetings when I arrived for my weekly sessions. 

Once, she waved me over to her side of the room and pointed to something she had dropped on the floor. Handing it to her, I got a better glimpse of her needlework, which was surprisingly neat considering her physical constraints.

“That’s lovely,” I told her. 

She pointed to the framed floral works covering her windowsill and walls. 

“Wow, impressive!”

She nodded, seeming pleased with my compliment.

I pulled the curtain to focus on Cynthia, who was growing weaker. 

Two months after I began my visits, I learned in morning report that Cynthia had died. Sitting among my coworkers, I offered a silent prayer and farewell.

I wondered how Louise was doing. It didn’t seem like she and Cynthia had had much interaction, but nevertheless I stopped by later that day to offer my condolences. 

To my surprise, Louise burst into tears. She held up her good hand for me to wait, while she labored over a note that she wrote on the back of the recreation calendar. She pushed the paper toward me, and I read it out loud. 

I was in the room when she died. I was in the room when my father died. 

She began to wail. I murmured reassurances and stayed with her until she calmed.

A few days later, after she threw a cup of water at her aide, Louise was referred to me for her own treatment.

She told me about her life via handwritten notes and the occasional use of a talking computer that verbalized what she painstakingly typed out.

I’ve been a cripple ever since I got polio as a girl. I never had a job.

“Yet you write so well,” I commented, “and your spelling is perfect.”

My mother home-schooled me. My parents insisted on an education.

She told me about her twin sisters, Lina and Lana, now 81 years old.

They doted on me, just like my parents did.  

She laughed and took back the scrap of paper to add: They still do. 

The twins lived together in the family home nearby. Louise longed to join them, but her frailty and theirs, along with a steep set of stairs to enter the building, put it out of reach.

Once Lana came to the nursing home after a fall and I pushed Louise in her wheelchair to visit with her on the rehab unit. The kissing and hugging that ensued caused me to turn away with embarrassment. 

I teased Louise about this on the way back to her room. 

“I felt like I was interrupting a pair of lovers.”

She giggled, proud of their effusiveness. I helped them get together twice more during Lana’s rehab and each time their greetings were just as enthusiastic.

After Lana left the facility, Louise returned to her solo pursuits and I tried to widen her world. On warmer days, I brought her out to sit on the patio. In cold weather, I took her to the computer room to surf the internet and discuss her areas of interest: needlepoint patterns, movie stars and fashion. 

As we exited her room, I introduced her to some of the other residents, but without my accompaniment she sat by her bedside day after day.

I can’t talk to them. No one understands what I’m saying.

“Why don’t you try using your computer?” I suggested. 

I set her up in the hallway and explained to some of her neighbors how the computer worked. She tried this a couple of times, but soon retreated to her television and needlepoint. 

“You know, Louise,” I finally said, “you might have been disabled and different from others all your life, but now you’re just like everyone else here. Almost everyone is in a wheelchair. When I first met you, I didn’t know you’d had polio. You looked like you could have had a stroke like Ms. Lopez or Mr. Wilson down the hall. It’s hard to understand them too, and they’re still out there, attending activities.”

She didn’t say much about this, but the next week I found her at a concert in the dining room with the other residents. The week after that it was arts and crafts. Her childish rages with staff diminished. She became a regular at all the recreational activities. 

She stopped me in the hall one December day after we’d concluded treatment. 

I’m going to be Mary in the Nativity play this year. Will you come see me?

“Congratulations, Louise! Yes, I’ll come by for a little while.”

A large group of excited, red-shirted residents packed the dining room on the day of the show. I stood in the doorway to catch a few minutes of the performance. 

Louise didn’t have any speaking lines, but she was clearly enjoying her essential role in the ensemble. She lovingly cradled the Baby Jesus doll and placed him in the manger on cue. 

Sitting up straight and tall after her big moment, I watched her eyes search the crowd until they met mine. We shared a smile from across the room.

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D., author of The Savvy Resident’s Guide, is an Award of Excellence winner in the Blog Content category of the APEX Awards for Publication Excellence program. She also is a Bronze Medalist for Best Blog in the American Society of Business Publication Editors national competition andGold Medalist in the Blog-How To/Tips/Service category in their Midwest Regional competition. To contact her for speaking engagements and/or content writing, visit her at EleanorFeldmanBarbera.com.