Between its wingbeats,
the sweet song of the bird ripples
across the mountains
the scent of woodsmoke from houses
hangs in afternoon haze.
a blushing sun
bleeds across the sea
muezzin call the faithful
who scurry like insects
to last prayers
on the roof a hot breeze
blows down my neck
I flap my damp top
praying for nothing
but cold beer
with the suicide of the day
comes a hot night
people gather in the square
sit and talk in the dark
a child stamps on a cockroach
Helen and Max
Helen and Max were two of the best-loved residents, here at Brookside Manor. They had lived together in a condo on the residential side of the complex, until Helen’s health had begun to fail, and Max still lived there, though he spent most of his time here, on the extended-care wing. Helen’s room was the last one on the right, there at the end of Cherry Lane. I’d always thought it silly, condescending, even, to give that sort of name to the wings of our facility. I’ve come to see that it’s like giving people here an address, rather than a number. Who wants to be a number, especially when that will be the last definition of home one ever accepts?
It’s difficult, of course, knowing that this is the last stop in all these people’s journeys. I’ve my own philosophical ideas about the after-life, but it doesn’t stop the hurt when one of my people goes on ahead. Not even when I know how ready they are to go. Maybe even especially not then, because I don’t know how to rejoice for them and weep for me at the same time. I thought I’d learn, but I haven’t.
This was a good few years ago, of course, when I was younger and newer, and less comfortable with the idea of death as more than just an idea. I got into this work mostly by accident. I’d volunteered to play piano on Sunday mornings, and, well, I kept coming back. I do more than volunteer now, but I still think it’s astonishing that I get paid to do a job I was happy doing for free.
Helen, now, oh how that woman could play a piano. She drew music out of our old and seldom-tuned piano like another hand might draw a purr out of a cat. She’d cuddle up to those keys, and somehow, even the out-of-tune notes fit right in with what she played. I learned a lot of my old staple songs from her, back when all this old music was still new. And what a sense of humour! I’d never guessed that old folks still told dirty jokes, but I guess some just refine the art over time. Max was nearly as bad, with his puns and teasing. They were a joy to see together, still hand in hand, even once Helen had to take to a wheelchair.
Max, he would stroke her hair with such tenderness, such silent eloquence of love, that I envied her. Love like that is rare, love that endures and evolves and still holds true, like time doesn’t matter at all. I used to watch them dance on our social occasions, and she knew just where her body fit next to his, and he knew just where her hand would lay. And despite the familiarity of it, you could still see the current between them, a living connection. I don’t know if they still had sex, but every time they danced, there was lovemaking to be seen. They must have been something spectacular when they were even a few years younger.
But Helen’s health began to fail. She had a fall, and then another, and then a mini-stroke. It left both her balance and her memory precarious things, and I never knew from one day to the next how she’d be. One day she’d be teasing Max, and the next she wouldn’t be entirely sure who he was. It was excruciating to watch. It wasn’t that he looked injured by her forgetfulness, it was more that it clearly didn’t matter. She was still his beloved, and if the time came that she forgot him entirely, he would love enough for the two of them.
He did his best to make her room here into her home. He hung photographs of their families, including one of Helen and her four sisters. There were pictures of their adventures and trips, and of the whole army of grandchildren, and there was always a vase of fresh flowers by the door. When she first moved down here, Max spoke to me, and to all the staff. He said that Helen had nightmares most every night, that she always had and probably always would. He said she’d had a very bad childhood, and didn’t want to say more than that. The night staff became accustomed to her screams. I did only a few night shifts, and that on one of the other wings, but I heard her every time. I never want to hear sounds like that again. They weren’t just screams, not just a loud shout, they were terror made audible. I rushed to her on one of those nights, and touched her arm. She screamed once more, and then opened her eyes. It took her a long moment to focus on me, but when she did, she smiled.
‘Sorry, dear,’ she said. ‘Have I been making a racket again?’ That smile was one of the purest acts of courage that I have ever seen, courage and kindness both. She wanted to spare me the difficulty of her dreams. I’d felt shattered by the horrors she fought, and yet, she smiled at me.
After a while, Helen drew further away. Some days she knew me, or Max, and some days she wept because she didn’t know anything. It broke my heart to hear her. She’d close her door, and go sit in the bathroom to weep, just so no one would worry. How could we not? She didn’t play piano any more, and she rarely sang. Sometimes when Max touched her hand, she would draw away in what looked like terror. It was only when he spoke or sang that she reliably knew him. And me? I was just a passing shadow in her world, a kind voice, perhaps, but nothing more.
One afternoon as I held my sing-along, I heard her scream. It was the nightmare scream, that terrible sound bubbling up from depths of terror and pain I couldn’t even imagine. Staff ran to her room, but Max was already there, holding her hand, speaking, singing, anything to try to bring her back. She screamed herself hoarse before the nurses managed to get a sedative into her, and even then she whimpered and kicked, drowning under the weight of her past.
I remember I went home that day and cried, and I expect I wasn’t the only one. I’d hated to leave, but there was nothing I could do. And no matter what a compassionate heart desires, a body can only do so much. It wasn’t just Helen, lovely soul that she was, but Max. He couldn’t even touch his wife without her pulling away, crying out. The hurt in his eyes would have crushed a lesser man, or even a lesser love, but he kept loving and he kept being there.
I sometimes came to visit them before I went home in the afternoons. Every day that I came, Max was there, touching her when she could stand it, and singing when she couldn’t. I wish I could forget that day, and perhaps when I’m Helen’s age, I will. Until then, Helen’s voice is written across my memory in acid.
She said ‘Please don’t hurt June, daddy, please don’t. You can have me again. I promise not to fight, I promise.’
I looked at Max, and saw his face crumple, and he nearly fell out of his chair with the storm of his weeping.
‘He’s got her again,’ Max said. ‘I promised I’d keep her safe, and he’s got her again.’
June was the name of Helen’s youngest sister, and all at once I knew more than I ever wanted about Helen’s nightmares.
I wish I could say that I comforted him, that I eased his pain and sang Helen to sleep. I didn’t. I was overwhelmed by it all, and I fled. I didn’t tell anyone what I’d heard, but my own dreams that night were horrifying.
I had two days off, and when I came back, there was an ambulance outside the door. It always makes my stomach lurch when I see that white and red van, especially when the lights are off. That usually means there’s no hurry.
I ran in, and one of the girls told me that Helen had passed. I may never forgive myself for the surge of relief I felt to hear it. I asked how Max was doing, and she told me was still in her room.
I’m never quite sure what’s the best thing to do. I’m more or less an employee of all the people here, though I feel differently about them than that. I never want to intrude, and yet, I want the family to know that I care.
So I went to Helen’s room. The flowers were still fresh, and the scent of lilacs hovered in the air, so rich and thick it was nearly visible. Max sat in a chair beside Helen’s bed. I was grateful to have missed the paramedics taking Helen’s body, but seeing Max was almost more difficult.
He heard my steps, and turned.
‘Didn’t think you’d be back, songbird,’ he said. ‘Sorry you missed her.’
I didn’t know what to say, so I hugged him, and he held on tight.
‘I’m sorry I did, too,’ I said.
‘If we’d known you were coming, we’d have waited,’ he said, and looked into my eyes. He held his hand out to me, and in it was an empty syringe.
‘Max?’ I said, not wanting to understand. ‘What did you do, Max?’
‘I killed her,’ he said, simply. I waited for there to be more, but there wasn’t, only the vivid scent of flowers in a too-silent room.
‘But you loved her!’ I said, and he nodded.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I loved her.’
They don’t often do a postmortem when people die of old age, and I never knew what was in the needle anyway. I never told anyone, and I never saw Max again. I hope when he dies it will go easier with him than it did with his beloved, but I doubt it. He loved her, you see.