This story is by Diane Engelstad and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
While a pair of cardinals flitted outside her window with nesting material in their beaks, Vivian lay dying.
This wasn’t the first time. She’d survived a few myocardial infarctions—the terminology she preferred over “heart attack”—and the doctor had baldly stated she probably wouldn’t survive the next one. And here she’d gone and had another, and even returned from the hospital. Still kicking.
Perhaps that was a poor metaphor, as Vivian’s legs didn’t actually work anymore. The diabetes had slowly progressed till it was too much effort to go walking outside, and her apartment was so crowded it was difficult to maneuver a walker. Eventually she’d graduated to a wheelchair her neighbour had found for her, and after her first heart attack, all her support workers agreed it was time for the nursing home.
Not that she minded at all. She didn’t have to cook, or shop, or volunteer. She could do what she wanted, all from the bed. She’d brought her craft supplies, and her TV. She hadn’t kept up with old friends whose lives were full of ex-husbands, blended families, grandchildren, and cruises. Here, life was uncomplicated.
Often what she found most satisfying was planning her own funeral service. She used a special calligraphy pen and some floral paper, recopying a whole page whenever she made some changes. The daily news about Covid 19 gave her extra motivation.
She pulled the cord a fourth time to summon the nurse.
“Oh, there you are,” she said to the young woman who came eventually. Vivian didn’t recognize her, partly because a protective mask covered most of her face, but also because the girl was new. One could hardly keep track of who the regular staff were anymore. (Vivian found this made life easier and just called everyone “Dear.”)
“Mrs. Glass, how are you today? I’ve brought you a nice hot cup of tea,” said the young woman, whose name tag identified her as Jasmine RPN. She deftly clicked the touchless thermometer while setting down the mug.
“Would you adjust my pillows for me please, Dear?” Vivian asked. “I’m so uncomfortable and this hand is too weak to fix the pillows; because of a suicide attempt in my late thirties. I almost died.”
“Oh, no, is that right? Jasmine asked as she cheerfully rearranged the pillows. “Is this better for you?”
“Yes, much… Also, please tell the kitchen I don’t like this juice they gave me this morning… and the glass was half empty, I might add.”
“I’ll do my best,” Jasmine smiled. “I’ve heard they’re having supply problems. Maybe there’s been a run on orange juice.” She swept up the breakfast tray, opened a new box of tissues, and tied back the window curtain.
“Please close the curtain, Dear, it’s too bright in here for the TV.”
Jasmine released the curtain tie, but not before she whistled genially towards six pigeons congregated on the window ledge. They looked at her as if she were sharing an important secret, then flew away.
“Those pigeons drive me nuts!” Vivian said. “Sometimes they’re so loud I have to turn up the TV.”
“What are you watching?”
“Dr Phil, and I’ve already missed ten minutes,” Vivian said, hiding her irritation as best she could.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it then,” said Jasmine, as she disappeared into the hallway.
The rest of the day went by like any other day: supper at five-thirty (perogies with onions, apple sauce and sour cream—Vivian’s favourite, although they’d forgotten the extra sour cream); news at six; Judge Judy, six-thirty; Wheel of Fortune, seven; Jeopardy at eight. She dozed off during a reality show at nine, about a guy in voluntary solitary confinement for prize money.
The next day, Jasmine was assigned to Vivian’s sponge bath. She also took Vivian’s temperature, and then a swab. “We have to do a swab on everyone now, even if you don’t have symptoms,” she explained. “New directives.” The swab taking was unpleasant, but done quickly. The tea Jasmine had brought helped.
“Can I call you Vivian?” Jasmine asked, gathering everything onto the utility cart.
Vivian drew a noisy sip from her tea. “Sure,” she shrugged. “I used to hate my name. ‘Vivian do this, Vivian help your brother, Vivian aren’t you finished making dinner yet?’ she mimicked. “That’s all I ever heard at home. I thought about changing it to Jessica a number of years ago. But then I saw Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman and her character’s name was Vivian. It means “life.”
“Vivian suits you,” Jasmine said. “And see? Now it’s your turn to be taken care of.”
Later Jasmine returned with the supper tray. She was intrigued with Vivian’s funeral writing project. Vivian chuckled. “It’s kind of a hobby by now. I’m like a cat with nine lives. Besides, I won’t be there to enjoy my funeral, so I might as well enjoy putting my personal touches on it.” She observed the young worker, poised to return to her numerous other duties, but lingering just to spend a few extra moments here with her. “I guess you aren’t writing your funeral service yet.”
Jasmine shifted a little and looked out the window thoughtfully. “I don’t know; my fiancée is worried about me, with this pandemic.” She looked back to Vivian reassuringly. “But I’m not worried. And they can do whatever they want for my funeral when the time comes, since I won’t be there anyway. Maybe just play a nice piece of music that makes them all cry,” she laughed. “I better go, I have all these swabs to do!”
Vivian didn’t see Jasmine for the remainder of the week. Cardinal Court, with its once familiar routines and soothing sounds of institutional care, was transforming into an unpredictable place Vivian barely recognized. One, then two, then five, residents on the second floor contracted Covid 19, and several staff showing symptoms had to stay home too. Vivian’s door was kept shut. Meals and medication were delivered to her room at random times, missing things like forks, or salt. She was left alone far more than usual, and didn’t get a sponge bath for three days. Fortunately, with some effort, she could still maneuver her body to manage the bedpan, and avoid bed sores. No one brought tea in the afternoon. Apparently orange pekoe was as scarce as orange juice. Even the pigeons seemed to avoid Cardinal Court, one lone crow occasionally taking their place on her ledge.
By day four, it was impossible to keep up with who and how many were affected, and in which rooms. Vivian learned on the news that two residents had died. Eventually she heard from one of the staff that, just as she had feared, Jasmine was ill, quarantined at home.
Vivian took out her funeral project to calm herself. She hadn’t decided yet between readings of “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and “Don’t Weep for Me.” Frankly, in her sleep gently was exactly how she wanted to go. And maybe Jasmine was right: people should mourn however they wanted to. She tucked the funeral service into its envelope and let it drop to the floor. “That’s enough of that,” she said. The lone crow was back on the ledge and for a little while Vivian watched it, squawking and strutting, until it flew off into the blue.
On Day 8, Vivian learned Jasmine was in hospital, on a respirator.
How can this be? Vivian pondered; spirited Jasmine, sick enough to be on a respirator, while someone like me wins the Covid 19 lottery? She remembered being Jasmine’s age, all finished college and finally free to propel her own life. Had she realized her dreams? No. But to think Jasmine might be deprived of the same chance seemed unbearable. Please God, take me, let Jasmine live! she prayed.
Days blended together. Her TV shows marked the time of day, but Vivian focused on the door, hoping for good news. PPE-clad staff, looking frazzled, performed their tasks efficiently with little chit-chat, and no word about Jasmine.
When three noisy pigeons woke her up on Day 11, she felt oddly soothed. She imagined herself among them—cc-coo, cc-coo…Thanks for keeping me company, please stay here awhile. It lifted her spirits to see them going about their business, unruffled by human troubles.
The door to her room opened earlier than usual with delivery of the breakfast tray, and on it was a whole pot of tea. “I hope you like Jasmine tea,” said the anonymous worker, looking for all the world like a Christmas pageant angel, except for the mask. “And here’s a nice coincidence: Jasmine is out of ICU.”
Vivian practically leapt up and kissed her. “Oh, thank you, Dear!” she exclaimed. “You’ve made my day!”
All will be well, she breathed. It’s all going to be okay. And when she was alone again, she drew a long sip from her tea, taking in the intoxicating aroma of flowers and green leaves.