A Short Story by Bozena Helena Mazur-Nowak
Finally, after almost two years, Suzanne got a job. This wasn't exactly what she was waiting for, but anything was better than the endless stagnation. It was a job in Care Home. Four twelve-hour shifts per week. One week in the mornings and another week on the nightshift. Wages were pretty decent; for starters, a six-month temporary employment contract. Workers had meals at work, and whatever supplies, cleaning products, uniforms, footwear variables they would need. The offer was so unexpected, and she was so surprised that she did not want to be happy about it, for fear of jinxing it.
On Monday, she would start her one week of training. She had never worked in such a place. None of her friends had either, so she had completely no idea what to expect.
She spent the weekend alone at home with a book in hand. Her fiancée, who was a tour guide, went with a group of tourists to Venice.
A new week and new month began so nice and sunny. June broke into the room through the open balcony window bringing with it the scent of flowers. Suzanne finished her cup of fragrant coffee and slowly prepared herself to leave.
At the bus stop, she met Elizabeth.
”Where are you going so early in the morning, Suzanne?”
“Hi, Elizabeth. I am off to work.”
“I did not know that you are working. That's good news. Where do you work?”
Susanne did not have time to answer because the bus arrived. Elizabeth was left at the bus stop with question marks in her eyes.
Fifteen minutes after eight Suzanne had a meeting with Anna Sparrow, the director of the House of the Golden Autumn. After a brief greeting and an introduction to her responsibilities, Suzanne was placed under the care of Martha.
“Welcome to the team,” said Marta politely shaking Suzanne's hand.
“Good morning. Everything is new for me here. I've never worked in such a place.”
“Do not worry. I will tell you everything you should know. And I will show you everything as well. I will do my best, so do not worry too much right now.”
Martha grabbed Susanna's arm and led her along the corridor.
“Here, on the first floor, we have residents who are completely independent or need just a minimum assessment of their daily needs. I will introduce you to the residents before breakfast. Here is a list of our clients. You can make your own notes. It will help you later when you go back to them.”
The corridor was wide, airy. Lots of flowers in big pots standing along or hanging on the walls.
“Room No. 1 is double. There the two men in it, Andrew and Christopher. They have been with us for seven years already. They became friends with each other. It's probably the only double room, which has not had any arguments so far.
“Good morning gentleman,” said Suzanne entering.
Two old men greeted her with a smile.
“This is Susanne, our new healthcare assistant. She begins her training today. Welcome her and help her as much you can, please.”
“Good morning, Suzanne!” both men responded almost simultaneously.
Susanne and Martha moved on down the corridor.
“In-room No. 2 lives Mr. Felix. Oddball and eccentric, but a calm, harmless old man. He does not like anyone to bother him. He reads a lot. Sometimes writes. He has his own computer. His self-sufficiency keeps him happy.”
“Room No. 3 is also a double bed. Here live Sophie and Barbara. They argue very often but cannot live without each other.”
“Good morning, ladies. Susanne will be accompanying you on your way to the dining room. She is our new health care assistant.”
They examined Susanne from head to toe, as she and Martha moved on.
“The next three rooms are empty now. Our clients are in the hospital. Our responsibility is to keep track of our residents while they are in the hospital as well.
“In-room No. 7 lives Irena. She can walk but does not want to. She does not speak and does not take part in any activities. She has lived with us for five years already, and yet no one has been able to break her silence.”
“No. 8 is also a double room. We have a couple in it. Can you imagine that they met here nine years ago? They fell in love and got married five years ago. They are inseparable.”
Susanne greeted the Kowalski's.
“The rooms on the ground floor are occupied by those, who are in the wheelchairs, or permanently bedridden. I'll tell you about them tomorrow, as I think it might be too much information to take in on your first day.”
After breakfast, Susanne received a brochure about working in a nursing home. How and what to help residents with, and about confidentiality and mutual respect.
It also had information about the training that waited for her before she could work independently on her own.
Martha was a very communicative woman. She did not use pompous phrases. And did not act in a superior way. She was nice. She was very professional.
At the lunch break, she asked Susanne a little bit about her family situation. She told Susanne a bit about herself. They even found out that they live in the same neighborhoods. Just two streets away from each other. How is it possible that they hadn’t met so far shopping, or at the bus stop?
“Suzanne, the first two days you will be with me on the first floor. To get more familiar with our residents. This afternoon we will have some entertainment here. Every two weeks Mr. Zenon comes to perform with his accordion. One of our girls, Sylvia, plays the guitar. We sing all together with songs that we already know and learn new ones.
“On a board next to the office, you can find a plan for the next two weeks. We finish our duties when most of our residents are already in their beds, and ready to sleep. If you will feel that I have given you too much information for the first time let me know. If you have any questions, feel free to ask. Do not wait for later, because there might be something that you could miss.”
At eight-thirty Susanne sat in a chair at her home with a cup of chamomile tea, thinking of what the day had brought her.
Susanna had a day off on Tuesday. It was time to calmly sort out in her head what she has learned yesterday.
Irena was a mystery to her. She was in Irene’s room several times. She brought up her meals. Every time tried to start a conversation but had no luck. The old woman sat in an armchair by the window staring at the photograph on the wall and said nothing. She was with two girls in that picture. Who were these girls? Susanne wondered every time crossing the room. Daughters or maybe granddaughters? Where are they now? Or perhaps they were already dead? And why in the whole room was there just only one picture? Susanne decided to ask Martha when she was back on duty.
At twelve she had chat with Mark on skype. He promised to go to Venice with her next year. In the afternoon she went to the cinema to see a romantic comedy.
Wednesday greeted her with cold and rain. At the bus stop, people crowded under a small roof.
In "Haven", that was the nickname for the care home where she worked, it was warm and nice. During the morning check, she found out that Irene had been taken to the hospital. She had pain in her chest and breathing problems. That news saddened Susanne.
“Martha, could you tell me more about Irene?”
Martha with reserve looked at Susanne.
“What do you want to know and what you need it for?”
“I was just thinking yesterday, that maybe if I knew a bit more about her, maybe I could find a way to get to her. I'm not asking out of curiosity, but because I care about her. Who are the children in this photograph, and where it was taken?”
“Actually, we do not know much about her. She came to us after the death of her husband five years ago. I know that the girls in the photograph are her children. I do not know what happened to them. I do not know whether they are still alive or not.”
“It is sad that we know so little about someone who has been with us for so long.”
“You know what, Susanne, today is the day when we visit our patients in the hospital. You can go there with Anna. You can introduce yourself to the three residents who are there, and who are waiting to return home, and perhaps you can stay a little while with Irene. What do you think?”
“Well, actually it sounds great to me! What time we will go there?”
“Usually we go to the hospital after breakfast and come back after lunch.”
Before eleven Anna introduced Susanne to the other residents. There were two delightful ladies, Wanda and Dorothy, and a very gallant gentleman, John.
“Do you want to go to see Irene on your own?” asked Anna.
“Yes, if you do not mind.”
“No, not at all. I will stay with the ladies because John will play chess.”
Irene was lying in bed. Her face was pale. Purple pail mouth. Eyes staring at the ceiling.
“Good morning, Irene. I am very worried about you. What has happened? How do you feel today? I hope it's better.”
Irene did not say a word. Still was staring blankly at the ceiling.
“I brought your photograph. The one from the wall.”
At these words, Irene looked at Susanne, with tears in her eyes.
“What do you want me to do with it? Put it on the table by the bed or give it to you?”
The patient reached out a trembling hand for it then put the photograph on the chest and hugged tightly. Susanne sat on a chair beside the bed. She put her hand over Irene's and so the two of them kept silent together for a while.
“I brought magazines for you, Irene. Maybe I will read something for you?”
Irene shook her head. It was a breakthrough in their relationship. So far, nobody was too much bothered about Irene. She did not say a word and it was her business. After all, everyone talks to her. She did not participate in the activities organized by the care home, her choice as well. And she’d become more and more invisible, shrinking into herself. Until today when someone saw what was important to her. And made sure to give what was so valuable to her.
“Goodbye, Irene. Get well. See you soon.”
Anna was with nurses. They said that Irene's heart was very weak. Doctors were even considering the pacemaker surgery for her. Back at the home, Susanne's thoughts often returned to what happened today in the hospital.
In the evening, before going to bed Susanne had a chat with Mark again. She missed him very much. She wanted to nestle in his arms and fall asleep safely.
Thursday was overcast but warm. Another day off. From early morning, her thoughts returned to Irene. Residents have visitors only once a week. Care Home called family and friends with information about their loved ones’ health every day, but they visit them just once a week, so sad.
Finishing her morning coffee, Susanne had decided that she would visit Irene in a hospital on each of her days off.
At eleven she greeted the nurses again. She told them that she wanted to stay with the patient for a while. Nurses were immensely pleased primarily because of the complete lack of communication with Irene.
“Good morning, Irene. It's me again, Susanne!”
At these words, the patient looked at Susanne. Her face was now more cheerful. Not joyous but no signs of grief.
“How are you feeling today? When you are planning to come back to us?”
In response, Irene spread her hands helplessly. With this further gesture, Susanne made sure that she made the right decision coming with a visit.
“Maybe today I will read you something?”
Susanne pulled out three magazines from her bag and put them in Irene on the bed. Irene pointed to "Angora".
It was evident that the patient was listening. Even at the jokes of "Little Angora" an almost imperceptible smile appeared at the corners of her mouth. Susanne felt proud of herself, and maybe even fulfilled. When Susanne was leaving, Irene lifted her sick hand and waved goodbye, and watched her go out the door.
“Good morning, Martha. You know, I have visited Irene in the hospital yesterday.”
“What? It was your day off! Why did you do that and what for?”
“I told you already that I have no parents. They died in an accident ten years ago. I have no children, and my fiancé is abroad now. I did not have anything important to do, I decided to visit her.”
“So, tell me how was it?”
“Imagine she responds to me! She turned her head when she saw me, and even answered me twice with a gesture of her hands.”
Martha listened attentively to Susanne's story.
“Well, I think you should write a short report. I am happy for you! You are here only since Monday and already broke a long silence. Bravo! Everything indicates that you are perfect for this job.”
After dinner, Susan wrote the report, as Martha suggested, and gave it to the director.
Birds sang so beautifully in the morning. Marek will return from Venice late in the evening. Susanne put her hair up. It promises to be a hot day, and she didn't like it when her hair stuck to her neck.
Very soon she began to prepare for dinner with her fiancé. She wanted to do as much as possible before going to the hospital. Along the way, she bought bananas and oranges. She greeted, as usual, the nurses, first asking for Irene's health. To her sorrow, she learned that Irene had a rough night.
“Good morning, Irene! And what happened to you again last night?”
She sat by the bed holding Irene’s hand.
Irene turned her head toward her and whispered, "Good morning Susanne."
At these words, Susanne's heart beat faster. She had completely not expected anything like that. This time it was Irene holding her hand.
“Tell me something about yourself baby?” asked Irene. “Do you have parents, children, husband? What were you doing before we met?”
Susanne briefly told Irene her story in short words. Irene listened intently all the time looking at her visitor.
“Maybe you would like to sit up in a bed? Or maybe just lift your head a bit up?”
“Ah, you know it's probably a good idea.”
Susanne asked the nurse for help. And they sat her up. Then she helped Irene drink tea. The poor thing was so weak that she could not keep the cup.
“You look much better now, Irene. Can you tell me something about this photo? Where it was taken? Who is on it with you? And where is your photo by the way?”
“Open the drawer table, please for me. The nurse hid it there in the morning.”
Susanne as requested pulled it out from a drawer.
“That's me and my daughters,” she said in a trembling voice. “This photo was taken more than thirty years ago. It was in Krakow. Where we lived at that time. My husband was a major. We lived well. We stayed in a beautiful villa in a quiet neighbourhood. The girls went to a good school. They were well taught.”
Irene spoke slowly, taking long breaks. She struggled to catch her breath. But she continued.
“They went to study. When my husband got a transfer to Opole, the girls were in Krakow, studying at the Jagiellonian University. The older one, Anna was studying art history, and the younger one, Eve, economics. After graduation, they received scholarships abroad and never returned to the country. Anna lives in Sweden now and Eve farther away, up in Australia. In the beginning, they wrote letters rang even quite often. After my husband's death, they stopped. They didn't even arrive for their father's funeral …”
Irene closed her eyes; tears were running down her cheeks.
“I still write them letters, you know. Once a week I write …”
Susanne trembled to listen to that story. She would be given all to be able to see her parents one more time. And here someone has a loving mother …
Susanne bent over Irene and hugged her tight. She felt her sobbing quietly.
For goodbye, Susanne promised that she would come on Monday with her man. On the way home her thoughts swirled in her head like crazy. Dozens of questions unanswered. She wondered whether to tell Martha about it tomorrow; Irene's confession was so personal.
Marek came before 8 P.M. He stood in the doorway as usual with a bouquet of her favorite tulips. Suzanne snuggled into him hard.
“Marek, I'm so glad you are back! I have so much to tell you.”
After dinner, they sat snuggling on the sofa. Susanne told him about her new work, about Irene. About all that it happened in such a short time. Not long into the night, unable to fall asleep. As she was listening to Mark's steady breathing, her thoughts were with Irene.
Susanne was awakened by the wonderful smell of coffee.
“Breakfast in bed, honey. You deserve it. It is a pity that you have to go to work today. I hope that will not be so every Sunday.”
Mark smiled and kissed her on the lips.
“What do you want me to prepare for your return?”
“Surprise me. I like it when you cook for me, Marek.”
Getting on the bus Susanne had some strange feelings. Later on, all was confirmed during the morning report.
“I have sad news for you. Today, at about three in the morning died Irene. Suzanne, she left a letter for you.”
All eyes turned on Susanne. For a long five years, no one was able to get to Irene and now she passed away leaving a letter for complete stranger, who had just begun to work here...
“How it's possible! But yesterday I saw her! She felt better already …” Susanne was crying.
“Anna, would you ask Susanne to see me, please,” said the director as she came down the hall passing the women.