The genesis of this story is: I went to a Victorian Fashion Show at a local library. This presentation so enchanted me that later I thought "I could adopt an eccentric Faulkneresque persona and dress in period clothing. People would say -- There goes that writer Emily, and her rose." This thought process took place at about 2:30 A. M. My mind leapt from that bit of whimsy to the idea for the following story which I can only describe as a collision of my love for Faulkner and Edward Albee.
One of the overhead lights flickered and dimmed as Nurse Chloe Redman walked down the hall of Valley Rest Care Home. She'd have to make a note for Maintainance. At the Nurses' Station Nurse Delores Devoe was finishing up her charting for the night. Devoe struggled to suppress a yawn. She had the book ready to make the change of shift report to Redman. The CNA's --Certified Nursing Assistants -- were quietly loading linen carts for the morning crew due to arrive in an hour. Outside an anemic sun made a feeble attempt to filter through the morning haze.
"Quiet night," said Devoe in greeting. "Johnson will probably pass sometime today. It's been expected. Her daughter's number is on this pad. Katie Carson is sitting with her now."
The new CNA might not have been Redman's first choice for someone to sit the death watch, but they did have to learn sometime so why not early on? She remembered her first time sitting with a patient who passed. It had been a private home case and she was as nervous as a cat in a room full of pit bulls. She had hoped the woman would have the courtesy to wait to shuffle off this mortal coil until Chloe Redman's shift had ended and responsibility had been passed to another. No such luck. In spite of all Chloe's appeals to deity and encouraging thoughts toward her patient the woman gave up her iron grip on life. After the woman expired Chloe had gone into the living room to phone the doctor on call. Suddenly she heard a voice from the bedroom -- the bedroom of the dead woman. The dead woman. Chloe had frozen in momentary terror and seriously considered fleeing -- until she realized that the voice she heard was not that of her deceased patient nor the Grim Reaper, but merely the clock radio set to come on automatically at that time. Telling that story, with appropriate chagrin, was always a bonding moment with new CNA's.
Redman looked over the charts, noting what meds would be required. After she set those up she'd relieve Carson, give the CNA a chance to decompress a little before shift change. She knew it was hard to walk out and suddenly go from the intensity of a death watch to everyday life.
"233?" she inquired. This was the case she thought about the most, was haunted by even in her off hours.
"She's there. Been there all night. Came in before I came on shift. You know, after three years I thought she would let go -- emotionally release her husband and focus on her own life, but I don't think there's been a day that she hasn't spent some part of it here with him."
"I wish some of our other patients had a fraction of that caring from their families," responded Redman to Devoe's observation.
Devoe agreed. Valley of Rest was a state of the art care center for chronic cases, many of them in a vegetative state. Yet who knew what may be perceived even by the worst cases?
The rooms were tastefully decorated to look as much like bedrooms and as little like an institution as possible while still containing the necessary equipment. Everything about the facility was designed to foster a feeling of well-being in an exclusive setting. Original artwork worth tens of thousands of dollars graced the walls. Each "suite" opened to a courtyard which led to a rosarium. This was all for the benefit of visitors. Patients were rarely aware of their surroundings with any clarity.
Unlike a hospital, with more strict visiting hours, Valley of Rest had a relaxed and understanding policy about visitation. The cost of maintaining a patient, or "guest" as they were euphemistically referred to in the brochure, was astronomical -- far beyond the capacity of insurance to pay for. Only those with significant personal resources had the means to place their loved ones here. Redman knew that the bill was paid as conscience money by most patients' relatives who felt that getting the best care money could buy exorcised any further responsibility. When visitors did come they were treated with every deference. No hard plastic bed side chairs here. Tea and coffee were offered, along with samplings from a local patisserie.
So if Emily Thorne wanted to come in the middle of the night -- or day --and sit with her husband she was welcome to do so. The fact that the woman had generously donated a million dollars outright to the facility upon admitting her husband and frequently brought thoughtful gifts for the staff -- such things as an expensive box of chocolates every month and gift cards at Christmas -- certainly served to cement that welcome. She had even taken a home nursing course so that she could assist in her husband's care -- bathing him and changing the 600 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets. By the look of her designer clothes she did not normally have to change her own sheets. The CNA's loved her and not just because she lightened the load by one patient. She never failed to inquire about them and their families. New CNA's always noted the vase of white roses on the nightstand -- roses replenished each week.
"I carried white roses the day we were married," Emily told them in explanation. Nothing was said about the fact that the vase was a Lalique.
"She's still so young. She could have a life of her own," one CNA had said to Redman. "And with all the money she has she could travel -- do anything she wanted for herself and still give him the best care!"
"I guess that's love -- she wants to be with him even if he's not really with her," Redman had replied.
"I hope he has some idea she's here," the CNA had sympathized. "It's such a shame if he doesn't even know his wife is here."
The patient in 233 knew his wife was there. He could not move or speak and he had no control of his bodily functions, but he was aware of her presence. He could smell the roses, too -- the damned white roses she had carried on their wedding day. Every week a fresh bouquet. Every week.
He had tried furiously to signal his terror and rage -- anything -- tap his fingers, blink his eyes -- anything -- but he was frozen. She had seen to that.
She'd told him quietly, chiding him for foolishly planning to leave her and "run off with that yoga instructor." That very flexible -- mentally as well as physically -- yoga instructor. . . . She couldn't have that nonsense so she slipped some tainted salmon into a casserole and left it for him one evening when she went to her watercolor class. By the time she got home he had supped, made an explicit call to his mistress and nearly died. The most aggressive medical treatment preserved his life. Sort of. The company pulled the product and made a settlement offer that meant he would never have to be placed in some cut rate warehouse. They were happy to avoid the cost and bad publicity of a lawsuit.
His wife, tenderly shaving him, had explained all that. His condition was expected to be permanent, sadly. Afterwards she kissed him, her lips upon his making him shudder inwardly.
"I will come to see you every day, darling. We'll never be parted," she had said. "I vow, just as I did the day we were married. For better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health -- until death do us part."
Sometimes he feigned sleep when she came into the room, her hourglass figure reminding him of the red mark of a certain spider. He hoped she would get bored and leave him to the relative peace of her absence. The visits lasted hours, sometimes all night. The yoga instructor never came.
Mrs. Thorne rose from the bed where she had laid beside her husband. She picked up a long, silky blonde hair from the pillow where it had fallen out in the night. Holding it in her hand she trailed it across his face, like a spider's web, her smile as enigmatic as a Mona Lisa's. Then she gracefully walked out, leaving him alone with the roses and their scent. Those damned white roses. In the hall Emily Thorne passed Nurse Redman who smiled tenderly at the loving wife who kept vigil so faithfully.
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