Sound of a Sigh

The summer my Grandpa Wally fell, the hospital conditionally released him to a nursing home for a week of physical therapy. I remember the look on his face when they put him in his temporary new room and the words out of his mouth, “Get me the hell out of here.”

There was nothing I could do as far as a jailbreak was concerned, so instead, I joined my Grandma every day driving into town from her home on the lake early in the morning and then back to the lake in the early evening once my Grandpa was asleep. That dedicated love between the two of them showed itself most clearly in times of crisis. My Grandpa fretted over how beautiful my Grandma looked, telling my folks that he didn’t want anyone coming around after he died to “snatch up” his widow. She was a beautiful woman, with a bright smile, twinkling brown eyes, and classy white-grey hair.

That week we did our best to advocate for him– change his lunch order to something he could actually eat, make sure they were monitoring his blood sugar for his diabetes, etc. I quietly observed my surroundings and the people around me.

The day they released him home, I helped my Grandpa into the car. All settled, my Grandma climbed in, shut the door and sighed. Her sigh carried the weight of the week, from his fall to her daily drives into town, mixed with that hopeful whisp of happiness to be finally bringing him home. When I realized that my hard of hearing Grandpa couldn’t hear her sigh, my heart broke.

I have tried many times to capture this moment in writing. The story I am sharing today was my first attempt but ended up being much more about the nursing home than my grandparents. I have long believed that society treats our elderly like children and our children with a dismissive lack of respect. John Prine, with his wisdom and wit, helped to raise me up to this belief with songs like, “Hello In There.”

I didn’t realize until this week that John Prine wrote that song when he was only 23 years old, delivering the mail. It always reminded me of my Grandparents on my dad’s side, with their children scattered far away from them and the mention of a Nebraska town only a few hours east. If I listen to carefully the story weaved by John Prine, I am swept up into tears. At a concert in 2013, before playing this song,  he shared “I kinda grew up thinking I wanted to be an old person.” He paused. “Voila.”

I miss the old people in my life. 2012, a day before my 22nd birthday, I lost my Grandpa. It was the October of my first fall in grad school when I lost my Grandma in 2013. And just a few days ago, the world lost John Prine. I had tried to hold out hope, daydreaming about the rhymes John Prine could come up with for quarantine and the simple, painful truth he would abstract from this experience. Instead, I woke up to a world that is a little more grey, a little less witty and warm.


The Sound of a Sigh

Kylie Louise McCormick

Harold Farnes had long given up on enjoying the rest of his life.  He spent his days sitting in the box of a room his family had placed him in, watching the nurses in the hallway gossip and pretend like death had no effect on them.  All the while he felt himself withering like a grape in the sun or a plum sent to prune, his vitality and juices of life being sucked out of him and given back to the atmosphere.  Yes, Harold Farnes had given up on living.

His daily routine required assistance every step of the way.  In the morning the chatty and bubble gum chewing nurse named Sarah would help him get out of bed and then stand awkwardly over him while he tried to take a morning piss, her ceaseless chatter punctuated with the snap of her gum.  It was in these moments Harold was glad that he had lost most of his hearing.  Sarah’s rants about potty training her children and the price of diapers sounded more like the teacher in Charlie Brown, “Wah, wahmp wah. Wah wah. Wah?”  Her high pitched voice sounded at a level that made the wah’s thinner than air, and Harold could close his eyes and pretend she wasn’t talking at all, and perhaps after ten minutes of working up the nerve and convincing himself, he was finally able to “release” as the nurses put it.

He then was walked to the wheelchair that sat in his room and there he stayed.  Sarah brought him his breakfast but then promptly left, leaving him alone to get frustrated at the failing of his muscles and the difficulty of raising his spoon to his mouth.  His meals were always messy and hard to swallow, most days because he and Sarah had both forgotten about his dentures.  His bran flakes cut at his gums at first, and then by the second bite, the milk had turned those flakes into a tasteless mush that he struggled to swallow do to texture.  Most of it he would pull out of his mouth with his napkin, completely unable to eat and overwhelmed by the saliva that was getting harder and harder to swallow as the years passed.

The bulk of the day Harold spent alone in his room, often staring at the blank TV screen, not wanting to take the effort to turn it on, or aimlessly out in the hallway letting his eyes un-focus so his world looked blurry.  To Harold, this nursing home wasn’t a place to continue his life, but a place for it to end. During group meals, a dozen nurses herded the elderly like cattle leading them to their feeding stalls, one of them pushing Harold into the dining hall to his assigned seat.

Harold sat at a table with three other men, Charles (who had gone to school with Harold), Bruce (who had owned a department store in the small town for 50 years), and Greg (who was new to the nursing home).  At lunch, Greg sat with a smile, “Hello, Harold!”  The deep baritone in his voice was hard for Harold to tune out, even with his hearing loss.  Harold just furrowed his untamed eyebrows, the longer un-plucked hairs crashing together like white-capped waves, and lifted his frail hand as a return greeting.  Harold could not remember the last time he spoke out loud.  The nurses, however, could remember. “Get me the hell out of here,” is a statement not easily forgotten.  Greg nodded as Harold was wheeled in and his breaks set.  Greg smiled constantly, making jokes at the nurses and aging gracefully.  Harold wouldn’t exactly consider himself bitter, but after two weeks of Greg, Harold’s decision to not enjoy life was becoming more and more stubborn.

“How has your day been, Harold?” Even though Harold never answered Greg always asked.

“His day has been like every day.” Charles had always overstepped, even their junior year of high school when Harold was afraid to ask Sue, who eventually was his wife for 67 years until her death, to the prom.  Charles had stepped in when he thought Harold was losing his nerve and asked her for him; Harold had always believed, and not necessarily fondly, that if Charles had had the chance he would have proposed for Harold too.  Greg was oblivious to this, so he just smiled and accepted Charles as the voice box for Harold and moved on to Bruce who had a young woman sitting nervously next to him.

“Well, I’ll be, Bruce! Who is this charming young lady?” Greg said the words with laughter.

Bruce had a quiet demeanor and a higher-toned voice than both Greg and Charles so his side of the conversation always lost its way to Harold’s ears.

“College, eh?  You must be very proud Bruce!” Greg was jubilant; Harold just stared at the empty table in front of him waiting to receive his food.  “My sister and her daughter are coming to visit me next week; Rebecca is thinking about moving in here, says she doesn’t want to be a burden on the kids anymore and that I could use the company.  It will be like old times again, living under the same roof with her.  Probably make us both feel like teenagers again,” Greg’s laughter came like gasps for air and it was a minute before he could catch his breath back up again.  Harold was happy for the brief silence and hoped Greg’s sister would have a higher-pitched voice and maybe keep to herself.  “How is Ivan doing, Charles?”

Harold furrowed his messy eyebrows again, and hunched himself back; he was tired of hearing of the grandchild who visited every day at 2 pm. The food arrived, a hamburger with soggy fries, not what Harold had ordered in the morning but because he wouldn’t talk, there was no way of protesting.  While the others around him ate the roasted chicken soup, Harold struggled with the hamburger, trying to chew but finding difficulty in his false teeth.

“What about you Harold? You haven’t ever told us about your family?”  Harold dropped the fork he was using to cut his burger.

“His wife Sue died quite a few years back.” Charles started in recounting Harold’s past with a nose that stretched like Pinocchio’s into Harold’s private life, the details never exactly right, but the basic idea was too true.  “And the kids—“

“I didn’t know you had kids, Harold!” Greg continued to look at Harold during this conversation even though Charles was the one speaking.

“Yes he has, uh, three kids is it, Harold?” Harold looked up from his abandoned food with contempt, “Yeah, three kids, but they all live far away, different states I think.” For once Greg didn’t answer; he just stared at Harold for a minute—taking in the hunched repose, the lack of joy, and the quiet disdain.  Luckily for Harold the rest of the meal went quietly, most of the conversation happening between Bruce and his granddaughter who he couldn’t hear.

When the nurse came to wheel Harold away, Greg stood promptly and raised one hand, “Please, allow me.”  Harold’s jaw set and he started grinding his teeth, something he hadn’t done since he had lost his real ones.  He didn’t want to spend a minute longer with the happy go lucky Greg than he had to.  The nurse, a bigger woman with unkempt hair, looked at Harold and shrugged her shoulders then smiled back to Greg before moving on to a different person.

Greg grinned, quietly excusing himself and Harold.  Pushing through the crowd, Greg made their way through the hallway past the nurses unnoticed and past Harold’s room.  Harold lifted his hand as if to show, but Greg, whose demeanor had changed from smiling to calm, just shook his head, “I have something else in mind.”  Greg wound around the corridors to an empty one and then to the emergency exit with the broken alarm.  After parking Harold towards the door, he propped it open and reached inside his pocket pulling out a pack of cigarettes.  Greg offered a cigarette to Harold who, taken aback, gently lifted his trembling hand to accept it; it had been well over 70 years since his last smoke.  Greg smiled and took one for himself.  Harold looked cautiously at Greg’s smile; there was something darker in it, something of an understanding that had replaced the artificial grin Harold despised. After lighting Harold’s cigarette and then his own Greg leaned back against the door frame and took a long drag.  Releasing the smoke Greg asked, “What did you use to do, Harold?”

Harold looked up; he had been taking shallow inhales getting his tired and weak lungs used to the feeling of smoke again.  “I used to dance.”  Harold stared up at Greg with a sense of loss and anger.  Greg smiled warmly and nodded his head, glancing down at the wheelchair.  They stayed that way quietly for another minute before Greg once again broke the silence.  “Listen, Harold, I—uh” Greg paused, tossing his cigarette out the door and reaching in his pocket, “have something for you.”  Greg sat down on his haunches like the good ol’ boys used to do and pulled Harold’s cigarette from his lips tossing it away.  Greg then took Harold’s hand and pressed three oval objects into it tightly, holding on to Harold for just a moment longer before letting go.  Looking down Harold saw his hand filled with large white pills.  Greg pushed his lips inward watching Harold intently, “I was saving those for the day I decided I was ready, but I thought maybe you might want them more.” Greg stumbled over his words, speaking them slowly and lowering his eyes to not meet Harold’s, “I just thought maybe you should know that you have options.” With that, Greg stood up and took the brakes off of the wheelchair.  He pushed Harold quietly to the room, poured a glass of water and left it on the counter.  Then Greg walked out of the room, closing the door behind him.

Harold stared at the pills. What seemed like hours passed and in those hours Harold remembered:

the death of his mother at the age of 16,

the first time he danced in front of people

the way Sue would bite her lip and smile at him when he grabbed her hand unexpectedly,

the feel of cold water on his feet,

the stone that dropped in his stomach when he heard his first baby cry,

the sound of Sue singing in the kitchen, humming broken melodies,

the last time he held Sue in his arms, her skin already turning cold,

the smell of fried chicken,

the last time he was out of breath from actual exertion not just age,

the smell of the daffodils that grew wild in the backyard of his childhood home,

the feel of a foreign city: the fear of being away from home,

the day his father taught him how to change the oil in a car,

the way the money he saved for a ring had smelled,

the way music caused his muscles to ache for movement,

the way Sue crinkled her nose and snorted when she laughed,

the last time he made love,

the acceptance letter he received from the dance academy,

the sting of a slap,

the first awkward moment of discovering love,

the hug from a daughter who just learned to walk,

the feel of the breeze,

the fear of having a second child,

the smell of freshly cut grass,

the sound of his daughters laughing,

the weight of Sue sleeping next to him,

and the sound of a sigh.

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