Excerpt from "Highest and Best"
Honorable Mention, Fifth Anniversary Nonfiction Contest
under the gum tree
Linda and I have packed the van with everything that is to go with Rebecca. It's not much. Because she’ll have a bed in a four-person ward, most of what's in her Miriam's House room has to be left behind or given to her daughter. We shut the van's back door and walk slowly to the house. Time to get Rebecca and go.
Yvonne, our nurse, has Rebecca ready, bundled against the February cold. Her head hangs chin to chest and she does not look up nor does she respond to us when we say, softly, the van is ready. Yvonne goes to the dining room to tell the gathered residents Rebecca is leaving. They follow along behind her, coming through the hallway door and gathering closely around her wheelchair. Still she does not lift her head. But the women try.
“'Bye, Rebecca. I'll be missing you a lot.”
“Don't you worry about nothing. Them folks there gonna take real good care of you and you can get better and come back here.”
“Man, Becca, who I'm gonna scratch tickets with now?”
“Yvonne say you can come back for parties.”
Rebecca is shaking her head.
“Don't cry, Rebecca. It'll be okay.”
Finally we load the chair into the elevator. Linda gets on with her and the rest of us wait in the entryway for them. We don't talk. We hold the front door open and they pass through, Linda pushing the wheelchair and telling Rebecca to put her scarf up, it's cold. We follow in a tight, still silent group under the cherry trees arching bare limbs toward an occluded sky. Linda sits next to Rebecca, I heave the wheelchair into the back and climb into the driver seat and Yvonne takes the passenger seat. As we pull away from the curb, the vigilant little group waves, their hands describing small, shivery arcs in the frosty air.
The ride to the nursing home is long. All I can hear is Rebecca's effortful breathing and Linda's murmurs about wiping the spit off her coat. No one wants the radio on. No one speaks. We drive far past Silver Spring to an area I have never visited. Finally I see the place. As we pull in, Rebecca begins to sob.
We get out, shoulders hunched against the dreary day and its dreadful task, unloading the few bags from the van and settling Rebecca into her wheelchair. We find a ramped side entrance and enter the single-story brick building. Rebecca's sobs echo, slapping the tiled floor and bare walls. We meet with the social worker and the nurse. They take us to Rebecca's new room and show her which bed of the four will be hers. Everything is neat and clean but it's not Miriam's House and still she cries.
While Yvonne and I go back to the admitting office to finalize details, Linda stays with Rebecca to arrange her things. When we return, the little bedside table is covered with a lacy cloth and Rebecca's clothing is neatly placed in dresser drawers or hung in the tiny closet shared with the woman in the next bed. A few photographs are taped to the wall.
We say good-bye, lovingly but quickly, not wanting to draw it out, bending over her hunched and shaking form for hugs that make contact but no impression. We leave. Rebecca's wordless lamentations pursue us down the corridors and out into the wretched day.