She is sitting in front of the window. I don´t know if the nurse helped her get there, if she even suggested it, or if she went there all by herself. I doubt the latter, though. She rarely ever does anything anymore. She just sits there, in the chair by the window. The nurse knows she doesn´t see a thing and she won´t recognize anything around her, so she didn´t even draw the curtains for her. I do that for her. I want her to see the world from that little room she is kept in; from the hiding place inside her body.
Today, it´s raining. Within seconds, I was soaked through as I got out of the car and hurried over the parking lot to the entrance door. Whenever I get there – and it doesn´t matter if it is an airy summer day or a freezing cold winter evening – the house always smells of death. It is the smell of old people mixed together with the odor of bodily decay. Sometimes, there is the sweet smell of blood or vomit in the air, especially in the visiting area up front. The old people try so hard to be a good host for their children and grandchildren, as not to scare them, especially the little ones. They try to entertain them the best they can, but once their relatives leave, they dwindle to the nearest chair; sweat drops building on their foreheads, their hearts racing from the strenuousness of making people believe that they are still young and healthy; their hands shaking. The woman that used to share the room with my sister would get nose bleed every time her relatives left the visiting area. She died last year.
The reception area is on the left, the light flooded visiting area to the right. I turn left and check in with Nurse Patty, who has worked there as long as I can remember.
“She hasn´t said a word”, Nurse Patty says.
“How is she?”
“Same old, same old”, she says and smiles. Everyone here is old. It´s a joke.
I smile back at her, but then I shiver. My wet hair and the soaked through clothes are clutched to my body and they feel cold. The heating inside the home is on, but it does nothing to soothe me.
I sign the visitor´s sheet with my name and then walk through the hall over to my sister´s room. As I knock and open the door, I see her sitting in her chair by the window. She doesn´t move. She can´t. I feel the shiver again, but this time, it´s not from the cold. She is thinner than last time I saw her. I can see her bony shoulders underneath the white nightgown she´s wearing.
As I get closer to her, I start talking. I imagine having a real conversation with her, as if she would answer back. At first, I started asking her questions and waited for her response, but she never said a word. These days, I rather tell her about my day and the things that had happened in my life. She suffers though it, or so I think.
Her empty eyes are fixed on the bright rectangle of the window. As I follow her glance, I wish to see what she´s seeing. If she is seeing anything at all. I sigh and turn to look at her again. She hasn´t moved. She doesn´t even notice me anymore. She used to. She used to follow me with her eyes, as I wandered about in the room, cleaning stuff up, hanging her clothes up in the wardrobe, arranging the flowers I had brought in a vase on her bedside table. But now, she just sits there, not noticing anything or anyone, just staring into thin air.
I draw the curtains and start telling her about my day at work. I got into an argument with a colleague about some nonsense. As I tell her, I do her bed and shake her pillows out. She used to love sinking into a fluffy pillow at night. The memory of that is a sharp pain. I hate remembering her still alive, somehow. It hurts to see her now, sitting in that old, wooden chair, with a pillow stuck behind her back. She´s always wearing a white nightgown that makes her look even more fragile. Her hands are bedded in her lap – old, but still beautiful. The hands of an artist. My hands, on the contrary, are more brawny and short. She was the artist of the family, the virtuoso. She played piano and the violin. I read. No need for artist´s fingers, when all you do is read. She became a concert violinist, I became a journalist.
While I was reliving details of our joint past, I notice that I had stopped talking. I turn to her and kneeled beside her. Taking her cold hand in mine, I said: “You know what? I found that book you told me about. The one from our childhood? I bought it for you.”
I reached for my handbag and got the book. When we were younger, my sister was obsessed with a book about a lonely princess, who sat at her window day in day out, waiting for the knight in shining armor to come and rescue her from her imprisonment. A foreboding of her own imprisonment. I put the book in her lap and waited, but she didn´t look at it.
Frustrated, I got up and walked the two steps over to the window and drew the curtains.
“You know, I think he´s out there. Looking for you. For the lonely princess”, I said quietly. “You just have to give him a sign.”
I turned around to look into her eyes, but she stared into nowhere and she didn´t meet my glance. As I knew that it was fruitless to get mad, even though I wanted to, I just reached out and stroke her shoulder and then continued to tell her about my day.
As I got home that night, I was worn out. I had an awful day at work and the fact that my sister didn´t even notice me anymore, made me more than sad. For a while, I just stared at the picture of the two of us on my bedside table. I could go to sleep, but I didn´t really think about anything. I just stared at her face and wished she would remember who she was.
I went to see her again about a week later. I brought flowers with me, sunflowers. She loves sunflowers. As I got out of the car, the rain that seemed to be even fiercer and wetter when I went to see her got me wet instantly. I ran across the parking lot, the flowers clutched tightly to my body, my handbag bumping into my side as I ran.
The visiting area was full of people, as usual on a Saturday morning. I heard laughter and the constant mumble of people getting to know each other again, reminding the folks of details about their own lives, telling them new things. Nurse Patty was sitting behind the reception desk, reading in a chart of some of the inhabitants. As I approached the desk, she looked up and a smile brightened her face.
“Lily is still in her room. It was a good day, yesterday.”
“Yes, yes, we persuaded her to come outside with the others yesterday and she sat on the garden bench with Mrs. Finkle and Mrs. Finkle talked to her.”
I smiled at that. Mrs. Finkle was a sweet lady. But I doubted that my sisters answered to her. Yet, the fact that she has left her room and has been out in broad daylight was a good sign. A very good sign.
I noted my name down on the visitor´s sheet and walked down the hall to her room. Her door was closed, so I knocked and opened the door. Silence greeted me. My sister was in bed, her eyes closed, an open book on her lap. Quietly, I walked over to her and put my hand bag down on the floor.
“Lily” I greeted her quietly.
She didn´t answer. As I reached out to get the book, I noticed that the book she had read was the story of the lonely princess awaiting her rescue. The last page was open. The no longer lonely princess smiled up to me, held by her knight in shining armor, her face alight with a bright smile, his face lovingly turned to her. As every fairly tale, it ended with the words And they live happily ever after. Touched by the words, I looked up to my sister´s sleeping face and finally saw what I had been looking for in her face for a long while now. Peace. She looked so much at ease in her deathly slumber, propped up against two pillows, her eyes closed, the mouth slightly open, her hands at her side, an open book in her lap. The constant painful struggle of keeping up with life was vanished from the features of her face, the tension released from her worn out body.
“Lily”, I said again, this time as a goodbye.