«by RYAN GRAHAM HASKINS B.A. University of Central Florida, 2010 A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of ...»
―Oh, yes, are you a family member?‖ she asked with a sense of urgency.
Not wanting to box myself into something I couldn’t prove, couldn’t get out of, I thought it best to be truthful, somewhat.
―No, I’m a staff member at her group home, I’m just here to check on her.‖
was closed and I approached. Looking through the small window in the door, I couldn’t see much, the lights were off, and the sunlight from the drawn vertical blinds blinded any good look in. I opened the door, slowly.
Constance was in the bed, restrained. She was still, immobile, a state she never found when awake. I closed the door behind me. She was lying in the bed, on her back, her head tilted to the side, away from me. Her ankles were crossed slightly, her breaths shallow. I stood for a few moments, allowing my eyes to adjust to the delicate, natural light coming from the closed windows. She seemed peaceful. She always seemed peaceful when she slept, although when she would wake she would always spin into a fury, grasping and screaming. She’d always woke in a fury, confused, or maybe just distraught, sad, waking again to the realization that she was in fact the same person, in the same place. Perhaps her dreams told a story of something different, something blessed and warm, something else possible for her.
There was no chair at her bedside, which I had pictured that there would be, when I’d thought about this moment. Of course there wouldn’t be a chair next to her bed, who would have sat in it? Liberty had stopped staffing her a few weeks back. I’d only known of one family member, a father, who had never visited Constance at Liberty in all the years that I was there. He was only a name in a file, an address three states away, and a signature returned in the mail once a year authorizing her to remain at Liberty. I’d always wondered what he looked like, and what he thought when he received the annual authorization. I wondered if it was just like signing a check for a water bill, or if it was something different, something difficult, a reminder of her. I wondered if he ever thought of her outside of the ten seconds once a year that he signed that
hoped more than anything that he did, I couldn’t imagine carrying the burden of being the person who cared more for Constance than anyone else.
I quietly slid the vinyl chair that was tucked into a far corner next to her bed. I sat down and looked at her, now at eye level. Her fingernails were dirty, although trimmed. She had little hands, for her size, and I had always thought of her hands more as fists, which they were most of the time I had spent with her. Little fists. Little or not, she sure could slug you if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. She had rung my bell more times than I could remember. I thought about the first time she really punched me, square in the mouth. It felt like getting hit by a comet. I thought for sure she had broken all my teeth, and my jaw. She hadn’t. My vision had blurred for a few seconds, and I couldn’t see her, and thought she would hit me again. She didn’t.
She just laughed. She only laughed when she hit someone, or broke something. Well, that’s not true. There were other things that made her laugh, things I think she thought were silly.
Constance was covered in a single sheet, and I could see the edges of a hospital gown on her underneath the sheet. Her wrists were swollen under the restraint cuff, and looking at the contrast of the dirtied white cuff and her skin it seemed she was jaundiced. Her skin looked much more yellow that I remembered. Her hair was greasy, slicked down against her scalp, matted into a knot at the back of her head against the pillow. She quickly turned her head, facing me now, and I took a quick breath, surprised by the sudden movement. Her eyes remained closed.
I’d always thought Constance was very pretty. I never told anyone that, thought it would sound weird, telling another staff member or Malcolm or whoever that I though Constance was very, very pretty. I guess you could say that I had a crush on her. Not really though, not in a
at her, something pretty, someone beautiful, when you could look past the permanently swollen lips from years of hitting herself. When you could look past the remnants of her last meal all over her clothes. When you could look past the screaming and crying and imagine what she would have looked like without a lifetime of her own life. I thought that if I could just hold her when she was crying all those times, just hold her and kiss her forehead, make her understand that, no, everything won’t be okay, but there is someone who loves you, someone who truly cares about you, that maybe she would respond, that maybe deep down inside she knew what love was, and that she wouldn’t kick me or bite me if I just grabbed her tight and held her hard and long enough.
I reached out and took her hand. It was cold and rough, and she didn’t respond to my touch. I cradled her hand in my palm, and lightly rubbed my thumb against her knuckles. Her hand was loose, malleable, nothing like the tense, strained fists I was used to. I had spent hundreds of hours holding her hands, holding her wrists, prompting her, forcing her to brush her teeth or pick up a thrown bowl, restraining her to her bedroom floor in fits of rage and sadness.
Her hand was calloused, but delicate somehow, not the coarse, wooden feel of a tree trunk that existed in my memory. I leaned forward and rested my chin on the edge of the bed, next to her hand in mine. The smell of fresh mildew was still there, her smell, the smell of damp laundry folded and left to dry, a peculiar mix of laundry detergent and stale water. I had become so used to this smell, her smell, over the years, and having been without it now for so long, I remembered her again, and her bedroom, all those many times, sitting next to her on her bed at home as she
an emergency in her eyes.
I moved the blanket away from her slightly, exposing her arm lying lifeless against her body. I placed my other hand on her shoulder, and felt the smooth skin there. I wanted her to wake, but didn’t want to wake her. I wanted her to wake up, and see me, and remember me. I wanted to know she remembered me. I needed to know she would recognize me. I needed to know that everything I did for her meant something. I needed to know that I meant something.
Holding her hand and shoulder, trying to passively guide her to wake, I remembered the first time I worked with her.
She’d grabbed a puzzle box and thrown it across the dining room at Liberty. The box launched into the wall and hundreds of puzzle pieces showered all around us. Her behavior plan called for restitution in this situation. She had to pick up all the pieces and put them back appropriately. This was the consequence, the punishment for throwing something. Normally, she would throw a book or something and would be prompted to pick up the book and put it where it belonged. Having thrown a puzzle box, and all the pieces spilling out, meant that she would have to pick up all the puzzle pieces, put them back into the box, and put the box away. She laughed at the sight of the box, and the puzzle pieces, scattered all around. I almost laughed too, at her, with her, until I realized what an ordeal this would become. I pointed to the pieces, silent. She began to walk away, and I blocked her, and again pointed to the puzzle pieces. She swung at me, and I stepped away. I took her by the shoulder and hand, and walked her to the pieces. I tried to bend her forward, bend her down toward the pieces to pick them up. She was like granite, an immovable mountain, an asshole statue. When I would take a quick break from trying to bend
to the puzzle. She would look at me, confused. I took one puzzle piece and placed it into her hand, and took her hand and held it over the box, and she would drop the piece in, then knock the box off the table or out of my hand, and we’d begin again. After about ten minutes, I think she realized that she wasn’t getting away from this, that she was trapped in this bizarre task, and became enraged, lashing out at me and anyone else who would come into range. I took her wrists, and swung her around facing away from me, and crossed her arms against her breasts, and restrained her, held her close and tight, until she stopped struggling, until she was calm again. I let her go, and pointed to the puzzle pieces, and she began to cry, and stomped her feet.
She tried a few times, independently, to pick up the pieces, but her fingernails were trimmed too short, and she couldn’t manage picking up the tiny pieces from the tile floor. She’d try to scoop them into her hand, but couldn’t. Then she’d give up and stomp and scream and cry, and again I’d have to restrain her. The business of the house, and the rest of the staff and clients went on as usual into the evening, accompanied by her crying and wailing, and we struggled together, as one, seemingly incapable of what had been determined was the right thing to do, two feuding lovers dancing with one another, tears and sweat and hopelessness. This went on for over five hours. We gave up together, and I put her to bed, and, as she fell asleep, exhausted, I apologized to her. She didn’t hear me.
I let go of her hand and shoulder, and leaned back into the chair. I looked around, the room was remarkably clean, except for Constance. I thought about asking a nurse what was wrong, why she was here, what her diagnosis was. I figured I didn’t want to know. I wondered if she died, what her funeral would be like, if there would be a funeral. What happens when
cloudy, hot day, a few of her staff members in attendance. Maybe the staff would bring the other clients. No one would be crying. Mourning sure, but more of a wow, that sucks feeling than anything else. Would she have a gravestone? What would it say? What could it say? How could you summarize her life in a few short words? Beloved Client?
Constance uncrossed her ankles and then jerked her left leg. I sat up as she opened her eyes, looking at me. She remained still, and so did I, and we looked at one another. She searched my face, squinting. She looked away, to the window, then looked back at me, and smiled. I smiled too.
―Good morning, Constance,‖ I said to her, as I always had done when she woke up at Liberty.
She smiled wider, then tried to sit up. The restraints stopped her, and she dropped back down to the bed, hard. She lowered her head, still looking at me, and nudged her head forward, as though she was trying to move the air between us. I stood up, and stepped toward her. She lifted her arm and reached for me, slowly, toward my head. The cuff stopped her, and she held her hand pointing steady toward me, not struggling against the cuff, cooperative with it.
I took her hand, felt it moving now in my palm, but she lightly pushed it away, still trying, reaching toward my head. I leaned down, toward her open hand, and she wiggled her fingers, trying to grasp something. I continued to lean down until my forehead made contact with her fingers, and she touched my eyebrow, with one finger, then delicately traced the length of my eyebrow, toward my nose, down further to my chin, then opened her palm and lightly felt my jaw with her palm, rubbing my beard slowly along my jawline, gently feeling my cheek, and she
chin, and her neck, and then turned to look at the window again.
I stood up and moved to the window, took the cord, and opened the window. The room slowly lit up, and she smiled wider, staring into the outside, into the white clouds, out and above, looking into the nothingness, looking at everything, everything far and away.
Constance passed away eight days later. I got a phone call from one of the staff. The staff were planning a memorial service at Liberty. Everyone was invited.
When I arrived at Liberty for the memorial, there were balloons tied to the group home vans. Yellow and red and blue. It was a cloudy, hot day, no wind to stir the balloons. I went to the front door and rang the doorbell. No one answered. I went in. Immediately inside was the dining room, as it always had been, and on the dining room table was an open book, and some scattered cards. I walked over to the table, and the open page of the book had a line for a name, then a question: ―What’s your favorite memory of Constance?‖ with space below to write an answer. I went into the kitchen and still saw no one. I walked to the sliding glass doors what went out to the back yard and saw the picnic tables, and saw everyone seated and eating, a few staff members standing around. Terry and Gretchen and Nick and Maggie were seated, eating hot dogs. Maggie was eating a large bowl of ice cream. There were two-liters of soda and condiments and potato chips. I turned left toward Constance’s bedroom. I opened the door.
All of Constance’s belongings were gone. The room was empty except for a bed frame with no mattress. The lights were off. I walked in and closed the door behind me. I opened her closet. It too was empty. I opened the mini-blinds and looked out into the backyard, seeing again
I sat on the hard, wooden bed with no mattress. Constance’s smell still lingered, even after weeks and weeks of her being away. I wondered if this smell was really Constance’s, or just the room itself.
As much time as I had spent in this house, this room, I didn’t feel like I belonged here. I never felt like I belonged here. I never felt like Constance, or any of us belonged here. It just sort of felt like we were all lost here for a while, until we found our way out, found our way to where we were supposed to be. I still haven’t found where I’m supposed to be, where life wants me, but it’s not here. I’m sure.
As I left, I signed my name in Constance’s book.
―What’s your favorite memory of Constance?‖