Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Erma

   Sometimes when I visit my mother in the nursing home I see a short, frail woman in a wheel chair named Erma.  She has light gray hair curled softly about her face that poofs up just a little higher than it should on top.  She wears glasses that are too big for her face that sit perpetually perched part way down on her nose (which is also too big for her face).  I remember reading somewhere that our noses and ears continue to grow throughout our lives even when the rest of us has stopped.  It seems to me that must be true judging by the ears and noses on the folks at the home.  Behind those too big glasses, Erma's eyes always seem to be in a squint and full of suspicion for those around her.


   Nearly every time that I have seen Erma, she has been cradling a doll baby in her arms.  The little pink doll wears a pink and white dress and white ruffled bloomers and is wrapped in a small green hand towel for a baby blanket.  Attached to the doll's hand with an elastic band is a tiny cloth teddy bear.  Everywhere she goes in the nursing home: in the dining room for lunch; up and down the halls; in the lobby; in the recreation room; or in her own bedroom; Erma carries that doll along with her, sometimes resting it in her lap, sometimes clasping it tightly to her chest.


   Erma talks to the baby, coos to her, and gently strokes the doll's head.  Sometimes she sings very softly to the baby while cradling it and swaying back and forth in her chair.  It reminds me of the bounce and sway that new mothers seem to instinctively have when standing or walking with a fussy, crying baby.  The rhythm of their movement, a gentle rocking back and forth, calms the infant and lulls it to sleep.  Most mothers do it without even realizing it, I think.  Some folks are born to nurture, and I think Erma must be one of those.  It is a familiar role to her, one that she doesn't want to give up.  I imagine that it makes her feel needed.  She has the need to love someone, anyone, even if the someone is nothing more than a toy rubbery baby doll.  Giving love makes her feel loved, makes her feel as if she has a purpose, I suppose.


   One day I was sitting in the dining hall next to my mother as she was eating her lunch.  Erma, clutching her doll baby as always, wheeled into the room and up to our table.  I could tell she was upset, agitated about something, but I didn't know what.  She stopped next to me and took the green towel off the doll.  She folded it and refolded it on the table, trying to get it a certain way.  She wrapped the doll up in it, unwrapped and tried to swaddle it up again.  After several frustrated and failed attempts at wrapping the doll the way she wanted it done, Erma shoved the doll into my lap and said, "Here. You take her.  I don't want her."


   "I can't take your baby.  She's yours." I say back to her.


   "I don't want her.  I don't want her." Erma answers back, her voice rising as she repeats her plea.


   I lay the doll on the table and say, "Well, I'll just leave her here then.  Maybe you can get her later."


   "You can't just leave her by herself!" Erma cries out at me.  "She'll die if you just leave her there."


   Not knowing what to say, I say nothing.  The doll remains on the table where I had placed her.  Erma angrily wheels away from the table and goes to the far side of the dining hall as far from us as she can go.  She is muttering to herself the entire distance across the hall quite upset about something, although I still haven't a clue why she is upset.


   My best guess is that she is lonely and feels like a stranger in her own skin.  She doesn't feel like herself unless she is taking care of someone.  It is the role she is most familiar with, the one that suits her best.  All her life she has been the one to care for those around her.  She doesn't want this role she has now, the one that has been thrust upon her by her health and age, of being the one who is in need of care.  It makes her feel that she has failed, now that these roles have been switched for her.  Perhaps she feels useless and unwanted, with no real purpose left to her.  I could be wrong.  There could be any number of reasons why she is upset, but these are the impressions I am left with.


   One of the aides sees the doll on the table, comes and picks it up, and takes it off to Erma's room  She returns shortly to get Erma, who has found the locked door of a storage room that she is trying desperately to open, trying to get out of the dining hall.  The aide pushes Erma's wheelchair away from the door and out of the dining hall, presumably taking her to her room.


   The next time I visit my mother, I see Erma in the hall once again cuddling and cradling the pink rubber doll in the green towel.  It makes me both happy and sad, simultaneously to see her holding that doll.  I'm happy for her that she can find some comfort in this fantasy world where she lives, holding onto her past and keeping alive that part of her and that time in her life when she was well and truly able to nurture and care for a helpless infant.  At the same time I am saddened by the fact that I know with each passing day she is becoming more like that helpless infant that she cradles.  Each day takes her closer to being someone she doesn't want to be.