At the nursing home dinner table sit three senior ladies. Two of them are Darla and Louise. The third is Mary Ann, and her son and daughter-in-law are helping her eat.
"I'm confused!" yells Darla, smiling. "Do they serve meals in here?"
"Yes," says the daughter-in-law, very patient. "Every night. Your dinner's coming soon."
Darla smiles and nods. The son gives his mother a sip of gingerale from the cup adapted so she won't choke.
"I like your braid," the daughter-in-law tells Louise. "I had a braid that long when I was a girl."
Louise smiles. "Thank you."
"Hey!" calls Darla. "I'm going to SNEEZE." She smiles, but doesn't sneeze.
The daughter-in-law arranges chicken nuggets on the mother's plate so she can grab them more easily. She wipes the crumbs from lips and chin. A Bobby Darin song plays on the radio. She moves from side to side a little.
Louise stares. "You got ants in your pants?"
"Yes, lots of them," the daughter-in-law says, exchanging an amused look with the son.
The mother says something. It's too soft-spoken. They can't understand her.
"What's that, Mom?" the son asks, bending as close as he can. She tries again. Her voice is too quiet these days; it's hard to make her needs known, when she can identify them. Sometimes she sees things others can't see. Sometimes she's half-asleep and dreaming. She sleeps a lot more. She's in her wheelchair all the time, a new one with even more support, because she's having great difficulty sitting up straight.
"Do they serve meals in here EVERY night?" asks Darla. The son nods. Darla smiles.
The daughter-in-law feeds the mother some corn. Four spoonfuls. Then some sherbet. She still loves any kind of ice cream or sherbet. The daughter-in-law rubs her back to awaken her more before each spoonful.
"I'm gonna SNEEZE!"announces Darla. She burps. Several times. She laughs and everyone joins in except the mother.
The nursing assistant feeds Louise and Darla. The mother says she's done, and her hand remains on the table, fingers grasping, grasping at nothing. Her arm muscles, and many other muscles, twitch often now and contract. Her limbs are stiff.
The son and daughter-in-law make eye contact many times, to say these things: I love you. I'm sorry. This is hard. I love you.
The mother is able to make eye contact when they are leaving. "We love you," they say. "We'll see you soon."
"Okay," she says. "Okay."
She has always been a deep sleeper, and they know that soon she'll be in bed, hopefully dreaming of good times, good places, good people. Night is when they feel peaceful about her, because she's tucked in with her head on a soft pillow and her mind and body are at rest.
"Goodbye!" calls Darla. "Goodbye, goodbye!"
And Darla smiles another huge smile. That's what they miss most: the mother's smile. It's tucked somewhere deep inside.
Maybe she smiles in her dreams.
Don't we all?