July 23, 2012
“Everyone is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies.”
- Jane Austen
Celia fell in her apartment several weeks ago and left The Place to recover in the hospital and then a nursing home.
Since then, she and Alice have spoken twice by phone. The conversations proved frustrating for both. Alice couldn’t hear, and Celia talked grimly about an uncertain future. She might come back to The Place, or she might have to move to another nursing home. Her living situation, she said, was no longer in her hands.
They gave up on phone calls. Alice has faced her friend’s long absence armed with nothing more than hope.
Then on Saturday, as lunchtime ended, the woman Alice calls the Bead Lady came to her table in the dining room.
The Bead Lady makes her own jewelry and usually likes to talk about the craft. But this time she touched Alice’s shoulder and told her how sad she felt that Celia had passed away.
She talked for a while in sympathetic tones but Alice couldn’t hear her. Finally, the Bead Lady pushed her walker toward the elevator, leaving Alice speechless and wondering if this news could be true.
In Alice’s mind, the Bead Lady seemed the weakest link in the slender chain of people around Celia. In fact, Alice had never even seen the two of them talking to one another. Was this some awful misunderstanding about Celia’s absence from the dining room or, given the wall of secrecy around health issues, had something happened Alice didn’t know about?
She set off to find out.
First, she approached Jolie at the front desk and came straight to the point. “Did Celia pass away?”
Jolie shook her head. “Haven’t heard a thing about that,” she said flatly. “Who told you?”
Alice almost answered the Bead Lady, but in the nick of time she remembered the woman’s actual name. “Ardith came up to me a few minutes ago and that’s what she said.”
She felt heartened by Jolie’s response. Surely the receptionist would know everything going on.
But then she noticed that Jolie looked around the office. “Everybody’s on lunch break,” she said. “I’m the only staff person here. Maybe one of the residents knows.” She nodded toward the diners as they drifted down the halls, heading back to their apartments.
Alice spotted Laundry Edie, the pleasant editor of the newsletter. (Alice had met her for the first time in the laundry room and had given her this name – privately – to differentiate her from another Edie, who lives across the hall.) A newsletter editor, she thought, would be up on the latest information.
Laundry Edie was talking to some friends, but Alice got her attention and asked, “Have you heard anything about Celia? Did she pass away?”
Startled, Edie shook her head. “Oh no, I don’t think so. I saw her just last night.”
“Last night?” Alice was bewildered. Had Celia left the nursing home across town? Was she back at The Place but confined to her apartment and could not come down for meals with Alice? If confined, how had Edie seen her? And if here at The Place, why hadn’t she called?
Laundry Edie nodded in the direction of the elevator. “I saw her right over there.” Before Alice could ask anything more, she turned back to the friends who were waiting for her.
She stood puzzling over this news about a Celia sighting near the elevator when tall, thin, fierce-eyed Olivia came along tapping her cane. Laundry Edie was fairly new, but Olivia had lived at The Place for several years. She knew everybody and everything.
“Have you heard anything about Celia passing away?” Alice asked.
Olivia’s dark, close-set eyes scanned the room, then she raised her cane and jabbed it toward two staff members shoving tables together for afternoon games. “I saw her yesterday right over there, playing Bingo.”
Bingo? If Celia was back at The Place, how could she be well enough to play Bingo but not well enough to share meals with her closest friend?
Olivia left her alone to try to figure it all out.
Next, Ricardo, President of the Tenants’ Association, came into Alice’s path. She asked him the same question about Celia, adding that she’d been told various things, including Olivia’s certainty that Celia had enjoyed a recent game of Bingo.
Ricardo frowned. “I’ll speak with the activities director,” he said, seeming only to hear the part about Bingo. “I’ll get to the bottom of this.”
Alice sat down in the nearest chair to await Ricardo’s return with whatever news, bad or good, lurked at the bottom of things. Surely the President of the Tenants’ Association could bring Truth to the surface.
She waited for fifteen minutes, then twenty. Ricardo seemed like a man who took his position seriously, but she was beginning to doubt him. Then she remembered that the entire staff had gone to lunch and no doubt Ricardo, thwarted, had stepped outside for a cigarette, forgetting all about his constituent waiting for him.
She stood up and started back to her apartment.
Flora, one of the medical aides, breezed by. Alice stopped her. A medical aide would know the medical facts. She presented her question bluntly: “Where is Celia? Did she die?”
“Oh! Oh no! Really?” Flora looked around in confusion, but at least she didn’t firmly announce that she’d spotted Celia somewhere on the premises recently.
Exasperated, Alice returned to her apartment and called Celia’s number at the nursing home. No answer.
She called me and reported her activities in a tone that was part relief – Celia might be alive, after all, and well enough to play Bingo – and part disgust. “What is wrong with that Ricardo?” she asked. “Shouldn’t he have gotten back to me? He’s the President!”
After the lunch hour, I called the Director. He didn’t know what to make of Celia’s phantom appearances around The Place, but he knew she was alive. “Your mother has been misinformed.”
By the time I called Alice back she’d tried Celia’s number at the nursing home once again and they’d spoken. “We laughed about the Bingo and Laundry Edie and the president,” she said. “Celia’s feeling good, but she’s moving to a new nursing home on Monday.”
I took a deep breath. “So she’s not coming back?”
“We’ll go visit her,” I said.
We discussed the Bead Lady and how she must have observed Celia’s absence and drawn the wrong conclusion, but what should we make of Laundry Edie, Olivia, and the President of the Tenants’ Association?
In some ways I feel almost grateful to the Bead Lady. Celia’s move to another nursing home is not as bad as what could have been true. At least she and Alice can see one another again.
The sky hasn’t fallen after all. Not today anyway.
I’m reminded that two long-time friends of Alice via this blog both make jewelry:
And Katie Gates: