You just never know where a mind will take us.
I hope it leaves you thinking. Enjoy.
The Lady in the Painting
Working in the Psychiatric Unit, (pretty name for dementia, diminished capacity, and Alzheimer’s patients) of the Pascal Extended Life Care Facility gave me contact with many endearing patients. And some, not so endearing. But Gladys held a special place in my heart.
She came to our facility a little over nine years ago. We specialize in handling residents who require more care than most families or facilities can provide. If a resident needed constant care or had medical conditions that necessitated monitoring, they came here. Hence the "Extended Life Care" name.
With Gladys, she arrived by means of her oldest granddaughter, Hazel. Hazel couldn’t keep up with her, and none of the other grandchildren were willing to offer any help. Plus, with a budding career, a doddering old woman having the run of the house while she was gone didn’t set well. Hazel never knew what Gladys would get into.
Not that Gladys wasn’t in her right mind, just she tried to keep doing things that she always had. Laundry would be a good example. Trying to help out, Gladys washed and dried a load while Hazel was at work. And, being a neat and tidy woman from days when everything got ironed with smart creases, she ironed the wash as well.
The problem came when you set an iron on high to get those creases, and you try ironing nylon/polyester and silk. The silk blouses of course were ruined. But the nylon/polyester skirt was another story. The skirt melted to the iron, and in the process of trying to get the iron off the material; the iron dropped to the floor and did the same thing to Hazel’s carpet. This was just one of many events that pushed Hazel to finally look into our facility. She just couldn’t trust Gladys alone.
So, when Gladys arrived, we set her up with a room in Unit One. Unit One was reserved for residents with full function of their facilities, and were mobile and self-reliant. Gladys enjoyed being our guest and got along marvelously with all of her roommates. And the spry woman regaled us with tales of yesteryear and lively stories of fancy.
After several years though, her mobility started to falter. She required more assistance to get into and out of bed. Getting her to and from the bathroom became difficult as well. She still wanted to handle that herself, but it just was not working. Her legs gave out quickly and her arms weren’t strong enough to support her for even the shortest distance. She made the move to Unit Two.
In Unit Two, the residents were given more attention. Staffed and equipped to help move the residents, halls and doorways were wider to facilitate walkers and wheel chairs. Every bedroom was equipped with a lift to assist in getting the residents in and out of bed, and the bathrooms if needed. Gladys was just as happy there as Unit One. Maybe more so, because of the extra attention and people. She continued to share her tales and high-spun yarns.
Before too long though, her mind started to wander. On the few occasions when her grandchildren found time to visit, we had to remind her who they were. Days of the week became jumbled. And Dewey was still President. (Not that Dewey was ever President. But, that was Gladys.)
She still spun her yarns though. With all the other stories she graced us with, it took some time to realize one of them never changed. That one was the Lady In The Picture.
There was a picture, a framed canvas print of some famous artist who’s name got lost in the framing process, hanging in her room. She told all of us that there was a lady in the picture. That she talked to Gladys all the time. And all The Lady wanted, was to get out of the picture. That was how Gladys always referred to her, "The Lady".
Before she degenerated enough to be moved to Unit Three, Gladys had taken up the habit of sneaking some food back with her after meals. As she was wheeled past the picture, she would reach out her hand, with the tiny remains of her meal, and rub it on the corner of the picture. When chastised for the action, she would reply in a serious tone, "The Lady gets hungry too, you know." Shortly after that started, Gladys made the move to Unit Three.
I had moved between Units for a while during my training. So I knew of Gladys before she arrived at my Unit. I found working with residents who were severely challenged to be more fulfilling. They needed a special kind of care and understanding. And having Gladys there was going to be a new adventure.
Though bed and chair ridden, she still told some wild tales. Unfortunately, the tales were a combination of her growing up, and the flights of fancy she liked to tell. Her riding the ferry everyday, to and from work, until it got capsized by a giant squid. Costing her her job, and the means to feed her twenty children. And on it went.
The unusual thing was, (as if she wasn’t unusual enough) when she transferred over, she demanded the picture be brought over with her. Not that anyone minded, considering the corner had been stained with the food Gladys had been trying to feed "The Lady" with. So, to help calm her down, maintenance took the picture down and moved it to Gladys’ new room. She seemed much happier after that.
Every time I worked with Gladys, getting her up for meals, to use the bathroom, or to change her bedding, she would whisper to me about "The Lady".
"She really wants out of that picture you know." She would breath conspiratorially in my ear, raising her eyebrows and widening her eyes for emphasis.
"Really?" I always replied in mock shock.
"Yeah. She doesn’t like it there. The water is wet and cold, and it bothers her."
"Well, now. That could be an issue if you had to stay in the water all the time. Can you show me where in the water she is?" I asked because it might help me work with her and her delusions. Moving closer, I held out my hand so it covered a section of the large picture. "Here?"
"Here?" Moving my hand in the direction she indicated.
"Now, over to your right."
"Yes! Right there. Do you see her now?"
Stepping back, I looked at that part of the print. It was the reflection of the water lilies in the water of a pond. I found that if I tipped my head just right, and squinched up my eyes, and the light hit the print at ju-u-u-ust the right angle, there was kinda, sorta a feminine profile showing there with her hair blowing in the same direction as the rushes. Okay, so maybe she did see "The Lady" more easily than the rest of us. Still, it was a stretch.
"Will she talk to me like she does you, now that I see her?" It is best to keep communications open while you can. It is amazing what you can learn, and use, to keep residents happy and calm.
"No. She doesn’t trust anyone but me. Somebody must have hurt her badly at some point, so she only trusts me."
"I see. Well, next time you speak to her, tell her I am a friend. Okay?"
"I’ll try. But she really doesn’t trust anybody."
It became part of our daily routine. I would ask if "The Lady" trusted me enough yet to speak to me. And Gladys would always answer, "Nope. Not yet. You aren’t her friend."
"You don’t let me bring back food for her."
"I see," nodding thoughtfully. "Gladys, you remember I told you. You can’t bring food back here because it attracts bugs."
"Yeah. And I can’t feed ‘The Lady’ if I don’t."
Gladys slipped further and further away as time went on. But "The Lady" stayed constant.
I came in at five to start my shift one day. At five, forty-three, the "wander alarm" went off in Gladys’ room. That meant she was out of bed for some reason, though how she did that was anybody’s guess. She had been bedridden for over six months, unable to even raise her head without help.
Another charge nurse and myself rushed to the room to find Gladys on the floor under the painting. Clutched in her hand, was canvas from the corner of the painting she had smeared food into all those years. It must have finally rotted enough for her to rip it off. Though how she got the fifteen feet from her bed to the painting, we’ll never know. Those fifteen feet were Gladys’ last trip anywhere.
Heading out of the room to make all the necessary calls, I noticed there were a set of wet footprints leading from the room, down the hall and out the security door at the main desk. Neither the other nurse, nor I, passed anyone while heading down this way. It didn’t help my nerves any that when we hit the hall, the other nurse commented that it was bad enough to lose a resident. But, judging from the smell, the sewer is backed up as well. There was a definite gassy, marshy smell, wafting through the hallway.
While waiting on the phone for the various contacts, I couldn’t help but run the security tapes back to the time Gladys’ alarm went off. The time stamp was right on the mark for the call coming in. Then the two of us were heading to the entrance of the hallway. The monitor for the hallway didn’t seem to be working and no picture was available. But the one facing the main door worked just fine, except for about ten seconds of fuzzy, grainy images. When the picture cleared up, footprints were clearly visible on the floor, and the sidewalk outside. But not who made them.
After cleaning Gladys up, notifying the family, and getting her transported to the mortuary, I started the task of cleaning out her room. Never a lot of fun, cleaning up some other person’s life that had been reduced to only a couple of boxes.
Before leaving with the last of Gladys’ personal belongings, I couldn’t avoid it any longer. I looked at the picture. No matter how I tilted my head, or squinched up my eyes, the feminine profile was definitely gone from the picture.
After moving the last of the belongings to the storage room for the family to pick up later, I took a mop to the room and hallway. It was easy to see the dirty footprints still on the floor. Petite feet with a long stride made those prints; definitely a woman. Wherever Gladys is right now, I’d be willing to guess she has company.
And as I erased the last remnants to this whole tale, I kept wondering, "Maybe it is time to find a new job."