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You got here extra early, which made you feel slightly better, more prepared. You put on the blue cotton uniform they handed you at the front desk. To your chest, you pin a badge that displays your name in large bold letters. You realize that your grandmother taught you how to make the bunny ears you still use when you tie your shoes. You put your stethoscope on your neck and a pen in your pocket. When you were little and you got upset, she would take out her old stethoscope from WWII and put it around your neck. The weight of it made you feel important. You would pretend to be a nurse like she was. She taught you how to listen to you own heartbeat, and the rhythm of it soothed you.
After giving you your ID, the receptionist had wished you good luck as if you would need it badly. A thousand what-ifs run through your mind, most of them completely unrealistic. You lean back against the lockers for a moment and close your eyes. When you open them, you don’t feel any better. The early morning sun comes through the small windows near the ceiling, casting a grayish light on the tall green painted lockers and the tiled white floors. It is a prison in here, but the owners have given the place a cheery name to make families feel less guilty: The Sunshine Meadows Home.
Nobody is here yet, and you can hear your watch. You wash your face with cold water from the ancient sink. The blue paint is peeling on the walls and the mirror is cracked. You notice how little they seem to value their staff here, while they give the patients the most modern and elaborate facilities possible. For them, there is a well-groomed garden in full bloom and even a swimming pool. Yet beneath it all you sense the presence of death, though they tried to hide it with full schedules and art classes and live music on Sundays. You can even feel it in the empty lounge you walked through to get here, as if the residents spent their time waiting. You imagine they are waiting for the grim reaper to show up at their side, wanting to fade into nothingness. In their sleep, they are probably dreaming of lost loved ones and living in the past. That is, those of them who can remember it.
You walk out of the locker room and up a staircase. You are now on the main residential floor. You take a seat in an armchair facing the huge window that spans the length of the room. From the small table beside you, you pick up a People Magazine. As you read about Angelina Jolie’s newest baby, you hear a whining noise coming from somewhere off to the right. You don’t see anyone there. You try to ignore it, but after a few seconds you get up and walk into the hallway that leads to the residents’ rooms. It is dark and everybody is asleep, but you still hear the noise.
You’re about to turn around and go sit back down when you see a fragile woman curled up at the end of the hall, her white-haired head in her knees. She is wearing a floral pink nightgown and white slippers, and she wears a tarnished wedding ring. You rush over to her, wanting to help. The sheer desperations of her cry makes it sound like she is in pain, but whether it is physical or emotional you do not know. You kneel beside her. “Ma’am, are you alright?” you ask tentatively. No, you think, obviously she’s not okay. You have to get better at this, you need this job, and it took four years of school to get here. This will get easier with time, you tell yourself, but you aren’t convinced. You got the letter the week before your grandmother died. She was in the hospital, and though she was sick and pale she grinned when you showed it to her. At the time it had seemed perfect, but now you don’t know if you can do it.
The woman is still crying, and you are brought sharply back out of your reverie. You put a hand gently on her arm, and she starts screaming louder. That was a bad idea, you think, and remove your hand. If this continues, she’ll wake up all the others. I can’t handle this, you think. Then you feel selfish; if you were having a hard time, the woman must be in ten times more agony. “What’s your name?” you ask softly, “Do you know what year this is?” She still doesn’t answer, but she stops wailing and curls up in fetal position on the gray linoleum floor. She is silent for a moment. She frowns at you, like when a baby scrunches up its face before they start to cry, and you sense the oncoming storm. “GO AWAY!” she shouts at you a few seconds later.
You get up, promise you’ll be right back, and run back down the hall. Halfway through the main area, you realize that since you are early, there will be no other nurses. The receptionist was only trained to answer phones, not stop elderly women from crying. That’s your job. You stop and run back to the darkened hallway, where she is still lying curled up on the cold floor, staring at the blank wall. She looks so small and insignificant, and you pity her. Hearing your footsteps, she tries to stand up but only makes it a foot off the ground before she starts to wobble. You help her up and put your arm around her shoulders to steady her. This time, she doesn’t object; she is too dazed to care. You ask her twice where her room is but she only mumbles something that you can’t understand. For lack of a better idea, you steer her out to the main area where you were sitting before. Everything will be okay, you tell her as you slowly sit her down on a couch. You kneel in front of her and put two fingers on her wrinkled wrist. Her pulse seems fine. She seems calmed but distracted.
“Birdy?” she asks. You look over your shoulder and then realize that she is speaking to you. You decide to go along with it, hoping to squeeze some information out of the recesses of her mind.
“Yes?” you answer.
“Oh my birdy, I haven’t seen you in so long! You have to come visit your old Agnes more.” Good, you think, at least she knows her name. You are lying to this lonely old woman because of a selfish desire to know who she is, and guilt rushes over you. You couldn’t tell her the truth though. She seemed so happy to see her birdy that you couldn’t ruin it.
“I’m sorry I’ve been so busy. How are you?” you ask.
“After Bobby, well, you know.” You don’t know, but apparently Birdy did, so you do not press the issue further. Agnes, if that was indeed her name, takes off her wedding ring and lays it on her flat palm, staring at it.
“What did you do yesterday?” you inquire.
She furrows her brow in deep concentration. “Forget about boring old me. You must be having much more fun these days.” She speaks as if each word is a struggle to get out. Something in her eyes reminds you of your grandmother, and you can see that in her youth, she was a beauty. Her round face and high cheekbones make you think of how she must have looked in old photographs. Somehow you feel deeply connected to this woman, and though you have never even met her before, you feel as if you have known her your whole life. You want to tell her how you don’t know where your life is going, that it’s moving so fast and you have no idea how to slow down. You want to tell her there was something missing and you can’t fix it. You want to tell her everything, like a child crying to its mother, but you have to be her Birdy.
“Yeah, I’m having tons of fun,” you whisper.
“Birdy? BIRDY? WHERE ARE YOU?” she shouts, looking frantically around the room.
“I’m right here. I haven’t gone anywhere,” you assure her.
“Birdy? Oh my, I thought you left me. I thought,” she says. She begins to cry again, silently this time. You take off your stethoscope and put it around her neck.
“Listen,” you say as you put it to your heart.