|Rowena's Page, Rowena Gets a Life.||Rowena Moves Closer, Part 4|
Rowena led Sammy down the hallway towards her Aunt Glad's room. “I just hope . . .” she began, and trailed off. Sammy touched her hand. The first time she'd brought him to Aunt Glad's nursing home, Aunt Glad had not managed to recognize her.
But Rowena felt she had to introduce her aunt to Sammy before it was too late—before all of the old lady's days were “bad” days; before her memory left her entirely. This time she'd brought her photo album, to amuse Aunt Glad and possibly—if necessary—possibly to jog her memory. She wasn't sure this would work, but she'd brought it. She'd brought her camera, too; it contained six unexposed frames, which she would use if everything went well, if Aunt Glad remembered.
Room 26. Rowena stopped. She handed the album to Sammy and watched him settle it carefully where the camera wouldn't scrape it. She smiled at him, shifted the flowers she'd brought into her other hand, paused a moment and knocked lightly. She stepped into the room; Sammy followed a moment later.
Rowena skirted the bed occupied by her aunt's roommate, Mrs. Glover, careful to look at her aunt instead. “Aunt Glad—”
“Rowena! How good to see you!” Rowena approached, relieved.
“It's good to see you,” she said, with truth. She put the flowers down and gave her aunt a hug.
“And this patient and polite young man would be . . . ?”
“Sammy,” Rowena picked the flowers back up and pointed them at him. “My boyfriend.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Sammy said, approaching. Aunt Glad put out her hand for him to shake.
“You don't mind being dragged over here to be shown off to a little old lady?”
“I was under the impression that she was showing you off,” Sammy said. Aunt Glad laughed.
“Planning a career in politics, young man?”
Sammy looked over at Rowena and laughed. “Not exactly, Mrs. Ness.”
“Call me Aunt Glad.”
“Would you like to see my photo album, Aunt Glad?” Rowena held her hand out to Sammy, who passed the album to her.
“Your photo album?” asked Aunt Glad, as if it hadn't occurred to her that anybody Rowena's age might have one. “Yes, I would.” She picked her reading glasses off her nightstand and put them on.
Rowena set the album before her aunt and opened it. Aunt Glad gave a small, startled cry; on the first album page Rowena had placed a number of photographs that had been taken long before she was born, back when Aunt Glad's generation was young.
“Where did you get those?”
“I had my mom and my grandma make some copies for me. But Grandma couldn't tell me—let's see—she couldn't tell me who this is, the second from the left there. Do you know?”
Aunt Glad adjusted her glasses and peered closely at the picture. Sammy watched from his chair, not interfering. “That one there?” Aunt Glad asked, and laughed. “That's—what was his name—that's Rupert, Rupert . . . Birney. He was sweet on your Aunt Charlotte—your Great-Aunt Charlotte, my little sister—but your Grandma Edith kept trying to flirt with him.”
Rowena looked over at Sammy. “Oh, no,” she said.
“It was the funniest thing, actually; he was such a serious young man. He'd just stand there looking as if he wished he were somewhere else. Mama'd try to get Edith to stop, but you might as well try to stop a train.” Aunt Glad laughed again. “There was no stopping that Edith.”
“What happened?” Rowena asked. “I mean, to Rupert?”
“Rupert?” The old lady gazed off into the distance, remembering. “Rupert died, of—of tuberculosis, I believe.”
“Oh, no,” Rowena said. Aunt Glad patted her hand.
“It was tragic, of course; it always is, a young person like that. But Charlotte never loved him as she loved Howard.” She glanced briefly at Sammy, then looked back at her niece. “If you want to pity your poor Aunt Charlotte, God rest her soul, don't pity her for Rupert.”
Rowena was silent, thinking of Aunt Charlotte nursing Uncle Howard for years after his accident, even after Charlotte herself was diagnosed with cancer. She continued to do everything she could until the day she came home from yet another chemotherapy treatment, ill with chemicals and more bad news, and found her husband dead.
“They're at peace now,” Aunt Glad said gently. “All three of them.”
“I know . . .”
Aunt Glad patted her hand again. “Let's see some more pictures,” she said, and bent back to the album.
“Would you like any of these copied, Aunt Glad?”
Rowena's aunt hesitated, and then began paging through the album. “Are you sure it wouldn't be too much trouble?”
“No trouble at all,” Rowena said. Her aunt selected some pictures, and paused again at a photo taken at the park, of herself pushing little Rowena and Rowena's sister Marilyn on the swings. Rowena looked at the picture also, at the delight on all three faces.
“Remember that park, Rowena?” Aunt Glad asked again. “Remember the fun we used to have there?”
“I remember,” Rowena said. “How could I forget?” She almost said, “I'll never forget,” but remembering Aunt Glad's vagueness, she simply couldn't. She looked at the picture, a happy moment captured but somehow escaped.
“Would you like to go back there?” Sammy asked. “Today?”
Rowena and her aunt looked at him. Then they looked at each other.
“Oh,” Rowena said.
Aunt Glad laughed and clasped her hands together.
Rowena insisted on sitting in the back seat next to Aunt Glad, who tried only halfheartedly to dissuade her. “You girls be good back there,” Sammy said, and he did not sound condescending.
“Mind your own business,” Rowena retorted.
“What a way to speak to your young man,” said Aunt Glad, but she was laughing.
“She's never said that to me before,” Sammy said. “She's usually a lot older than this.” Rowena stuck her tongue out at him and Aunt Glad laughed again.
“Your mother always said I'd be a bad influence,” she said.
“My mother? Said that?”
Aunt Glad's eyes twinkled. “She brought you girls to visit once—I think your sister had just been born—and my bird said a bad word.” Rowena burst out laughing. “She said if I could corrupt an innocent animal, just imagine what I'd do to her poor children.”
Rowena laughed and laughed. She barely noticed when Sammy pulled up alongside the park.
“Okay, girls,” he said. They climbed out and looked around, then began the trek over the lawn to the play area, walking slowly together at the old lady's pace. Rowena looked with sudden dread at the deep, treacherous-looking sand that covered the playground, and hoped her aunt could walk on it. But when they got there she found that at their deliberate pace it proved less difficult than she had feared. Aunt Glad walked with her to the swingset, to the nearest swing; once there she grasped a support chain, turned herself around, grasped the opposite chain, and sat carefully down. Rowena handed Sammy her camera, then settled herself into the swing next to her aunt's. Sammy stepped back, focussed, and snapped their picture.
“I want to swing,” Aunt Glad said. Rowena hesitated, thinking of her aunt falling and breaking her hip, breaking any number of bones. “I want to swing,” Aunt Glad repeated, a little wistfully. Rowena got up and went behind her.
“Hold on tight,” she said. And began very slowly to push. She could see Sammy turning her camera for a vertical shot; she looked at her aunt's knuckles, knobby and vulnerable-looking. Really the swing hardly moved. Rowena looked to the camera and smiled. This couldn't be what her aunt had in mind, but—
“Thank you,” Aunt Glad said. “That's enough. Your aunt's an old lady now; she can't take too much excitement.”
“I want to see you swing. I wish I could push you again.”
“You don't have to push me,” Rowena said. She sat back down on her swing.
“How about this?” Sammy suggested, approaching. “I can push her and you can take pictures.”
“A sensible young man,” Aunt Glad said. He helped her up and handed her the camera, helped her lower the strap over her head.
“It should still be focussed for where I was standing,” Sammy said, and pointed out his footprints. He walked back with her, then returned to slip behind Rowena. She felt self-conscious, not for being on a swing but for allowing herself to be treated as if she couldn't get the thing moving by herself.
She remembered feeling the same way as a girl, as a not-too-little girl.
Sammy took hold of her seat, moved her back. He gave her a push forward and she smiled at her aunt. She swung back and he tickled her briefly at the waist before catching her and pushing her again. She swung higher. Aunt Glad lowered the camera and smiled at her; she looked as if she might cry. For a moment Rowena forgot she was on a swing; for a moment she didn't seem to be moving at all. Then she swooped down and back, rose again, and watched a little girl approach her Aunt Glad and say something in a high soft child's voice. And Aunt Glad looked down at the girl, smiled, carefully bent and, taking something the girl handed her, smoothed her hair, gathered it up, and made it into a ponytail. The girl, pleased, thanked her; Aunt Glad responded, and the little girl pointed over at the swingset. Aunt Glad smiled, shook her head, and said something else. The little girl ran over to the swing Aunt Glad had occupied, and plopped herself into it. Rowena rose forward past her, but as she came back she heard the girl ask Sammy for a push, saw Sammy come close to set her in motion and then hurry back to where he could catch Rowena again . . .
Rowena looked back at her Aunt Glad, watching all this, smiling, raising her hand to wave at them and then lowering it to take hold of the camera and bring it back to her eye.
Rowena and her aunt sat on a convenient bench and watched Sammy push the little girl. “How long do you suppose she'll want to do that?” Rowena asked.
“You were like that once,” Aunt Glad said. Before Rowena could think up a response, her aunt asked, “What time is it?”
Rowena consulted her watch. “Five to three.”
Aunt Glad opened her purse and, after rummaging a bit, extracted a little cup. “Pill time,” she said. “Could you get me some water?”
“Sure.” Rowena took the cup, looked around, located a drinking fountain, and got up. “Back in a minute,” she said.
When she returned her aunt had the pills ready. Rowena handed her the water.
“Thank you,” Aunt Glad said. She took the cup, but hesitated a moment, looking at the pills.
“They changed my medication, you know,” she said. “It turned out the pills they'd been giving me were causing some . . . some of my confusion.”
“Oh,” said Rowena. She remembered something like this happening with Aunt Glad's antidepressants a couple of years ago, back when she first started to forget. “Well, I'm glad they got that straightened out.”
“It's a good place, on the whole,” her aunt said. “It wasn't a mistake, going there.”
“Good,” said Rowena. She wished she felt less uncomfortable. Her aunt set the cup of water down and patted her hand.
“Remember,” she said, “it was my idea.”
“I know,” Rowena said. She remembered her Uncle Clem's death, and how the family had waited in vain for Aunt Glad to recover from it. How she'd given up and sold her house, not wanting to live alone and refusing to “impose” on the family. Rowena watched as her aunt picked up her water cup and carefully swallowed her pills, one at a time. And then she watched as Sammy stopped pushing the little girl, exchanged a few remarks with her as she slowly swung down, and then walked up to join them at their bench.
“Hi,” Rowena said, as he sat down beside her. “See what poor Aunt Glad had to put up with, all those years?”
“All too few years,” Aunt Glad said. She patted Rowena's arm, then turned to Sammy. “So,” she said. “Tell me about yourself.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Anything. Tell me about your family, your job, your favorite book, your intentions towards my niece . . .”
And she burst out laughing, shaking her head, before Sammy could say a word. “Don't worry,” Aunt Glad said. “Just talk to me.”
He told her about his job, about his education, and a little about his family, leaving out his father's suicide as he had the day he and Rowena met at the zoo. And then without prompting he told her about that meeting, about the lemur fight. Both women laughed, though one of them had not only been there at the time but had heard Sammy tell about it more than once.
“Well,” said Aunt Glad presently. “That was very entertaining, but I've got to get up now.”
“Only if you want to,” Rowena said, checking her watch.
“I need to go to the Old Ladies' Room,” Aunt Glad said.
“The Old Ladies' Room?”
“I outgrew the Little Girls' Room years ago.” Aunt Glad rose, carefully, and made her way towards the restrooms.
Rowena considered—briefly—pretending that she had to go, too. But she stayed where she was, and just watched her aunt walking by herself.
“She's not doing too badly,” Sammy said. “If I hadn't seen her as she was last time, I'd wonder why she lived in a home.”
Rowena went on watching. “She's doing pretty well today.” She glanced briefly around at the rest of the park, and then looked again at the small, slowly-progressing form of her aunt. “Actually, I was going to suggest a trip to the ice cream parlour down the street, but I think we're already wearing her out.”
Sammy patted her hand, then wrapped his own around it. “Maybe next time,” he said.
“She'd probably only eat about one bite anyway.”
Sammy squeezed her hand, rocked it back and forth. “I thought we were having a nice day.”
“We are. I just . . . Maybe I just want to cram too much in. Kind of like a parent who only gets to see the kids for a couple of hours every other weekend or something.”
Sammy smiled. “Don't worry, Mom.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yeah.” He raised her hand and kissed it. “And you know that what really counts is that you see her, and you're there for her, and what's in your heart, and what's in hers.”
She leaned up against him, and he put his arm around her. “I guess—really—she doesn't forget. I mean—even when she does, it isn't gone.” She looked at him. “Right?”
He raised his hand to her hair. “You tell me.”
Aunt Glad returned; they watched her approach without bothering to straighten up and move apart until the old lady was nearly about to sit down. After Aunt Glad had rested for a while they went back to the car. This time Rowena sat in front, next to Sammy, and let Aunt Glad have the whole back seat to spread out as she liked. They had almost two hours to get Aunt Glad back to the home, but there seemed to be no reason to hang around the park.
“Would you like some music or something, Aunt Glad?” asked Sammy.
“Oh, that would be lovely; thank you.”
“Do you have a favorite station?”
“A favorite station,” Aunt Glad mused. She laughed. “Do you remember my Dixieland program, Rowena?”
“Oh, yes,” Rowena said. “That was fun.”
“I miss that show,” Aunt Glad said. She was silent for a moment, and then gave Sammy the name of a classical music station. Sammy found it on the dial, and into the car flowed the closing minutes of Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
“How's the volume?” Sammy asked. It was low enough to talk over.
They drove on for a while, listening. When the last note faded away, Rowena almost sighed. If such a day really had to end . . .
The Mendelssohn was followed by an ad for an upcoming concert—and then an ad for a mortuary.
Rowena saw Sammy's hand move towards the radio, then stop and withdraw. She looked at him, but he just kept driving. She stared out the window. The announcer read a public service message and outside a minimall went by.
“It's been a long time,” said Aunt Glad from behind her, “since I visited your Uncle Clem. A long time.”
Her late husband. Rowena looked at Sammy again. “Sammy?”
He pulled up behind a pickup truck, halted by a red light. “Tell me where,” Sammy said.
Rowena walked with her aunt; she had wanted to go behind with Sammy and allow the old lady a little more privacy, but today at least Aunt Glad preferred to lean on her a bit. Rowena wasn't very familiar with the cemetery, so she and her aunt helped each other to the family plot.
Aunt Glad's parents. Rowena barely remembered her great-grandma Arlene; her great-grandpa had died before she was born. Rowena stood in silence.
“I don't want to just throw these,” Aunt Glad said, and held out to her great-niece the flowers they'd bought on the way. Under her direction Rowena laid three chrysanthemums on the grave of Glad's father, John. They stood a moment longer. “The iris are for Mama,” Glad said, and Rowena set them carefully down. After a while, Glad moved the few steps to where her younger sister Charlotte lay; Rowena stood with her in silence, then respectfully gave Aunt Charlotte three tulips. Aunt Charlotte with the sweet brown eyes.
Last was Uncle Clem, buried with his wife's family hundreds of miles from the home town he'd left years and years ago. They stood for some time, looking at his headstone, his grave. When Rowena lowered his roses, she kept hold of her aunt's hand. And when she felt Aunt Glad's grip loosen, she slipped tactfully back a few paces and lowered her head so as not to watch too closely.
And she tried not to look too closely at the empty space next to Clem, neat and tended and waiting patiently for his wife.
“Thank you both so much,” Aunt Glad said. They were back in her room.
“We enjoyed it,” Rowena said.
“Our pleasure,” Sammy added.
“You're a very tolerant young man,” Aunt Glad told him. She gave him a hug. “You be good to my niece, now.”
“I'll do my best,” Sammy said. She patted his hand.
“Good to meet you,” she said. “I hope that girlfriend of yours brings you back some day soon.”
Rowena stood by, watching and smiling. She'd hoped for this, waited for it, looked forward to it—not to this leave-taking, but to the meeting, to the day these two important people came to know and like each other. And now . . .
Now it was her turn. She went to her aunt aware that it might be the last time and feeling that she shouldn't be thinking that way, that she should just be enjoying the moment. She gave her aunt an extra squeeze.
“What a wonderful day,” Aunt Glad said. “Thank you.”
Rowena blinked and took a breath. “Thank you,” she said.
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