by Molly Glassey
Please don’t ask why there’s a pool at my nursing home –cataracts make it hard to roll my eyes. Day in day out, it waves, it stinks, and I stare at it, like an old foe I’ve got a hankering to thump.
I’d never swim in it because I’d never get out. Steps are my Achilles heel, while my physical ones lay tranced by arthritis. The painkillers they give me are help, but only for my head. Even forgotten, they’re always aching.
To be fair, no one swims in it, because while everyone knows their neighbour is wearing the same, cheap diaper as them, they’d never show it off. We have our pride, even when we spring a leak. Plus the thought of ordering waterproof liners seems wishful, when our mashed potato is delivered in a vat.
In a retirement home things might be different. Beach Boys would play backdrop to wrinkled eyes,hidden by sunglasses, the near-dead enjoying their final years poolside. There’d be a tropical fruit hat in someone’s room – from a party long forgotten – and the breakfast juice selection would range in seasons and citruses. But the festival stops at the nursing home – it just houses the messy clean up.
That’s half the reason my family visit with reluctance. This place is stale, strange and sunk well into a world of the forgotten. The other half is that they don’t care for me.
Half the reason they do visit is guilt. The other half is the pool. Half the reason I hate them visiting is that they fail to mask their boredom. The other half, again, is the pool. It’s the opiate of our estranged families, and they come in their masses.
Every Saturday they arrive in crowds, all concealing towels and reeking of varying SPFs. Children with upturned noses, men in caps and women acting overly inconspicuous, find their aging ticket, obtained through genetic convenience.
This collective, these children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, emit ions of intolerance and snoot, and their goal is never hazed by sad stories, complaints or photo album draw cards.
My youngest son was named after me. My eldest, after my father.John and James, with Patsy and Claire respectfully, with boys of curls, and girls with ears too fresh for their piercings. I love them, I do, but it’s hard to love people who consider you, their father, both burden and bore.
“Are you eating well, John?” Patsy asks, while the others take a moment to sweat.
I am, but I say no.
“Jane drew these at school yesterday. Pretty bloody good don’t you reckon?” says John, handing over papers drowned in brown blobs that were once colours.
“Lovely,” I remark.
They interpret my quick replies as degeneration. Early onset Alzheimer’s, or the belief I’m concealing cancer, because I wouldn’t want them to worry about me. Yet I doubt it keeps them up at night.
After 20 minutes of idle chit chat – cheap reminiscing and near-fiction memories – they take back Ben’s vowel-free report card and fuel an awkward silence.
“You must be tired Dad,” John says. “We’ll let you rest.”
I slip a grin, and shake my head. I haven’t napped since I was a tot.
“It’s a nice day though isn’t it,” says Patsy, the prettier of the wives. Polite, and mostly wishful nods succeed.
The silence continues, its break in my hands.
“You should see Dahlia’s freestyle, Dad. She might go the Olympics one day,” and with one swift, borderline genius suggestion, our agenda moves from my musty room, to poolside, with dozens other disgruntled dying.
I have many friends in the home, but my greatest is Harold. He can’t remember my name, but claims to remember the day he was born.
“It’s just black, then you see a blinding light,” he assures us. Having been at the birth of my two sons, I dare say his story checks out.
Harold’s wife died three years ago, at this home, the day of her arrival. Harold was still able to drive, do the shopping, cope with stress and remember names back then, and was the one to drop her here. He kissed her good-bye on the lips, then the forehead, hopped in his car, and returned home to an obituary on his voicemail. Three days after the funeral he filled her room.
“Just let it happen, John” he tells me once a week, usually crippled over his rice pudding.
“The faster you age, the faster you zoom out of here.”
Harold wanted to die. He didn’t mind not sticking around. He’d watched his wife die, from the rearview mirror of his car. His daughter died a year later of an aneurysm, and his remaining son had three children of his own, all water hungry like the rest of our visitors.
“He’s dead too,” Harold said, usually as his son approached our table in hesitant steps.
“He speaks without thought, then leaves with a good bye so raspy it’s almost all croak.”
His son once started talking to Patsy poolside, and stroked her arm briefly, while his wife held their youngest in the water. Harold and I watched from a distance but said nothing. The soundtrack of children yelling cannonball, and grown women showing off their wrinkle free bodies can be just as blinding as it is deafening.
The ratio of visiting time to pool time for most of the patients at the home is one to five. If your family gives up ten minutes of chitchat, you owe them nearly an hour in the pool. It’s an unwritten rule that gets followed like scripture.
Harold and I worked this ratio out a year ago, a few days before his daughter’s funeral.
Nessy Williams only ever talks to her daughter for a few minutes at a time, and then the daughter dips her feet in for ten. Lucinda and Mark Rowles’ family takes them out to breakfast every Sunday, then stick around till after lunch, showing off their latest pool toys. When Margaret Donelly didn’t wake up for a day, her son stuck by her bed, then spent the remaining five days sleeping in one of the spare rooms, and spending every moment of sun by the pool.
Today Harold and I watched him pack up and leave, a sleek wet tan his souvenir.
My family usually gets an hour of pool. Harold’s half that.
When our families weren’t around, our days were spent teeing up plans of ridding these families from the pool we never used, but always drifted into Harold’s realms of love and hope. Today was no different.
“Josie was like a light. Blinding but beautiful. And you never forget that light, and it’s beauty, no matter how old they become, or how scarred their arms and faces are from cancers. Because it’s just so blinding, right?”
I knew never to answer, because I knew he was never done.
“Looking at her was like looking at a cloud that held all my memories and hopes. I never saw eyes, or a mouth, or any part of a face. It was just a mist of memories.”
Harold had a habit of looking at his food while he talked, one of few comforts in his life. The evidence, his gut.
“Do you love her still?” Harold asked me for the third time this week.
“She’s in New Zealand, with a man half my age, with most of my life’s savings,” I always replied.
Usually he smirked at me, with protruding falsies, returning to his meal, shaking his head as if hearing a nasty piece of gossip. He usually talked more of Josie in mumbles and warm moans, but today pressed on.
“But do you still love her?” he asked again, looking me in the eyes.
“I couldn’t,” I said.“I visited her and his place a few times, at the insistence of the kids. They paid for the airfares. It was meant to give us all closure, but I couldn’t really stand seeing it all. And the wafts through the house were near choking. You know what the rich and nasty always smell like?”
“What?” Harold asked.
Harold didn’t finish his dinner that night. We stayed up late, sitting at the dinner table, chatting not about our age like we usually did, but everything that preceded it. At ten, he moved to his room in a slow trot. It had staff perplexed, and me prepared.
I went to my own room and sat on my bed for a moment, then let my body lay down. The pool smell, partnered with the summer humidity managed to seep through my glass window, and snuggled up to me as I lay awake. For once, I didn’t feel forgotten.
I don’t know how he did it, how he knew, or why we relied so strongly on his sense of aged intuition and self-awareness to pull it off, but somehow we did.
“There’s a body in the pool,” was a whisper that preceded a scream of the same words and sequence.
Harold floated there, a Saviour and Christ, to the dozens of aged folk who stood at windows, leaned over railing and stretched out as much as they could to see the miracle.
His crippled back was outstretched, comfortable and relaxed. Faced down, it looked like he was asleep, and his body bobbed alone, free of any winds or waves.
It had been difficult knowing what time to check his room. We had always said 3am, but I waiting longer just in case. At four I carried his body, which was lighter than I expected, through the dark halls, past sleeping monitors, and to the deep end. I kissed his forehead, lingered my hold and slipped him in, just like we planned.
I stayed poolside for a moment, before the chemicals bit my nose, and I went inside, to sleep, and to pray.
The pool was closed immediately with plans to fill in the hole sooner rather than later. No one groaned, and no one complained.
Parents, families, children and report cards would still visit. Perhaps they’d spend the same amount of time, but in different attire. Perhaps they’d come once a fortnight, even once a week. But with different intentions – ones with area to grow.
John and James, Patsy and Claire might look me in the eye. Might tell me about their mother with a hint of truth, and try and construe a conversation.
I would help – it was what Harold had asked me to do, to keep up my end of the bargain, and try and emit some love again.
Make a little effort, he’d asked. Dive before you sink.
The Deep End received High Commended in the State Library of Queensland Young Writers Award.