Love And Ghosts
The man in the wheelchair had a face like the cartoon character Fred Flintstone and the feet to match. He sat in the middle of the nursing home hallway, one third of a human obstacle course Jim needed to navigate to get his mother out to the backyard and into the fresh air she was craving. Behind him was a doughy blonde, balancing a brownie on her chest because her belly seemed to have eaten her lap. Beyond her a nurse in hot pink scrubs stood by a rolling medicine cart and stared intently at a binder.
At 82, Jim’s mother’s eyesight and hearing had disintegrated enough that she didn’t seem to notice them, or to hear Jim ask if he could push the man’s wheelchair a few feet back so they could pass.
Fred Flintstone scrunched his eyebrows then turned his green eyes to his wife, who stood nearly hidden a few feet off of the hallway and in a room.
“Who is he?” the man said. Jim expected slurring, but was surprised by his clear and low voice.
The wife looked at Jim expectantly. She had that short hair cut you only see on women of a certain age, when haircuts were chosen because they were “easy” rather than stylish.
“I’m Jim,” he said. “We’re just trying to get through.”
The wife nodded and lifted the wheelchair brakes with a click.
Jim looked down on the top of his mother’s fuzzy white head. She stared at her lap, where her hand, made useless by the stroke five days before, lay on a pillow.
He leaned into her ear. “We’re going to get some fresh air.” She nodded and he rolled her past the man.
When they pushed through the double doors to the lawn in the back, his mother craned her neck so she could see him. At least that was what Jim guessed she was doing – he could only see the whites of her eyes and the scant row of bottom lashes.
“He has the most beautiful singing voice,” she said.
“At the sing along?”
His mother shook her head. “In his room, when his wife is in there,” she said.
“The woman with the short brown hair?’
“No, no,” she said. “His first wife. She’s dead though. She doesn’t come around when the second wife is there. Doesn’t like her.”
Ghosts. His mother thought she was seeing ghosts. Another terrible symptom of the stroke, or the dementia, or old age. He’d given up trying to sort out which symptom went with which ailment.
“So, you see her then? Do you talk to her?”
“Just to say hi. You have to acknowledge them, you know. They’re just like people.”
She said this in a matter-of-fact way, as though he should know the rules of interaction with ghosts.
“I’ll remember that,” Jim said. “He looks like Fred Flintstone, don’t you think? The cartoon character?”
His mother nodded but he wasn’t totally sure she remembered who Fred Flintstone was. Didn’t really matter, he decided.
They sat under the maple tree, its leaves glowing bright green in the late afternoon light, until she got cold.
On the way back in, Jim peeked in the man’s room to look for the ghost of the first wife but only saw the brown haired woman, who was now knitting something blue while the man dozed in his wheelchair.
The physical therapist, a wiry Asian guy wearing thick-rimmed glasses, whisked his mother to the therapy room for leg lifts and painful steps until it was time for dinner. Jim watched as the wife with the short brown hair stood in the hallway texting for a few moments before leaving out the side door, purse on her shoulder as though she was not coming back that night. Burning with curiosity, Jim told his mother he had to go to the bathroom and stepped into the hall so he could pass by the man’s room. But the man sat in his wheelchair alone, his plate of food on a tray in front of him and his eyes glued to the television.
The next morning, Jim arrived early in order to meet with his mother’s case manager. Already, after just six days, the insurance company was talking to him about where his mother would move next. The dollars were running out for the nursing home. Had he considered assisted living, the case manager asked, her face too close to his.
He constrained his temper and the urge to bite her nose, and walked back to his mother’s room. A sparkling object on the floor outside Fred Flintstone’s room caught his eye. He bent down to pick it up. It was a heavy diamond ring, a large square-cut diamond surrounded by dozens of tiny diamond cousins. Easily a $15,000 ring, he thought.
The brown-haired wife pushed Fred Flintstone toward him.
“Are you missing a ring?” he said, holding it up.
The woman started to run, and Jim thought briefly she might ram him with Fred’s wheelchair, but she stopped short.
“My wedding ring,” she said. “Give me that.” Her hand stretched to his and her face took on the expression of one who just ate a lemon.
Jim considered not giving it her, just based on her imperious tone. But a quick glance in the hallway confirmed their interchange was being watched by residents and staff alike. He dropped it in her outstretched palm.
“You stole this,” she said in a loud voice.
Fred chimed in. “You stole her ring.”
Now Jim couldn’t control his frustration. “Are you people crazy? I just saw it on the floor. I picked it up a few moments before you came down the hallway.” He turned to the nurse’s assistant folding sheets for confirmation, but she shrugged. Then he turned to the doughy blond, but she looked away from him.
“Why would I steal your ring then give it back? It doesn’t even make sense.”
The woman twisted the ring on her left hand then started pushing Fred past him. “I don’t know what goes on in criminal minds,” she sniffed.
“I didn’t steal your ring, lady,” he said to her back side as she navigated the wheelchair into the room. “I didn’t steal it,” he said again to the hallway audience, but everyone avoided his eyes.
He stepped into the shadows of his mother’s room, where he expected to find her sleeping because the shades were drawn and the lights were off. But her eyes were open, and a grey-haired woman sat on the chair next to her bed. They were both smiling. Jim felt a strange, prickling sensation along the back of his neck as he strained to recognize the woman. She was solid but yet shadowy, her features slightly blurred, somehow. He rubbed his eyes but she remained blurry though his mother was clear and distinct.
“This is Barb,” his mother said.
“But you can call me Wilma, if you want,” she said with a wink. “I know you think my husband looks like Fred Flintstone. I used to tell him that when the show first came on. We even dressed up like them for Halloween one year.”
All Jim managed to say was “errr.”
“He’s never seen a ghost before,” his mother said to the woman, who nodded.
“I’m sorry about the trouble you had out there. I’m the one who slipped the ring off of her finger and left it on the floor. I like to play little tricks on her. She thinks she’s going crazy, you know.”
Jim poured a glass of water from the pink pitcher and drank it down, gagging over its honey-like texture from the thickening powder. His mother couldn’t drink regular water yet or she’d choke.
The three of them watched silently as the brown haired woman marched out the door and into the sunlit parking lot.
“That’s my cue to leave,” Barb said. With a shimmer, she vanished from the chair. Jim slumped into the seat, and the prickling on his neck finally stopped.
“Did that really happen?” he said, but his mother had closed her eyes and laid her head back on the pillow.
A man’s voice rose through the din of the nursing home, singing an old song about lollipops and roses.
“Listen to that,” his mother said. “He loves her still.” Jim smiled. He’d never believed in ghosts before, but he’d always believed in love.
more by LYNN LIPINSKI
photograph by Jenelle Ball