Don’t Live Past Ninety, Dear

Don't Live Past Ninety, Dear by Meghan Vigeant

By Meghan Vigeant

Mimi’s white hair sticks up stiff and electric. I notice a brown spot on her gown—the same black and white flannel dress she wore yesterday. Why didn’t the last caregiver change her? I kneel in front of her on the floor, fumbling to bring a pale green nightgown over her head before unbuttoning the dirty flannel dress and trying to do it without leaving too much of her body exposed. She whines. She hates getting naked, hates the cold air on her skin. The thermostat is set on 82. I’m sweating. “Why are we doing this?” she asks.

“Mimi, we need to get you into a clean outfit.” I point at her chest, “Look, a stain, probably from lunch.”

Her face twists in disgust. “Oh, I’m a slob.” She pummels her knees with her fists. “Slob. Slob. Slob! I hate myself. I hate myself.”

“Whoa,” I intervene, my flat palms protecting her tender knees. “Whoa, there.”

Her hands in mine are a landscape of blue vein rivers and brown spot hills. Her body balloons with fluids and shrivels into loose folds. Shoots of pain interrupt her every step. She would sleep all day if she could, but her legs twitch and her mind cycles through loops of dementia and anxiety. By noon, she’s afraid of the dark. Even with sunlight pouring into her apartment, she’s afraid.

“Why am I still here?” she moans. “God doesn’t want me. He doesn’t love me.”

What do you say to a 93-year-old woman who just wants out of her body?

I could ask the same thing. On my drives home from work, I cycle silently through mantras that sound so similar to Mimi’s. Nobody loves me. Who would want to love me? Why am I still alone at 36?

“Don’t live past 90, dear,” her mother used to warn her. She repeats this line for me like a song. She is three years overdue.

Before dinner, I arrange two green tea towels on her chest and lap to avoid more spills on her clothes. Her chest rattles when she breathes.

“I have this terrible cough,” she tells me.

“You sure do. You should get rid of it.”

“Help me. Tell it to go away.”

“Hey cough,” I say, “we’d really appreciate it if you’d leave.”

“Oh, thank you,” her gratitude laced with sarcasm.

There is a brief pause. Mimi coughs.

I shrug. “If only it worked that way.”

While she eats, I wash dishes in the kitchen and keep an eye on her through the pass-through window over the sink. She’s snoozing, listing to starboard, as she says, then startles and picks up the spoon and pokes at the shrimp casserole on her lap. “You should just put me out with the trash,” she declares.

I snort, roll my eyes. This line again. I need a new comeback. “Would you prefer recyclables or waste disposal?” I ask.

“Disposal,” she deadpans, her gray eyes daring.

I wipe my hands on a tea towel and flip the switch for the food disposal. A deafening rumble shakes the apartment, growling like a demon as it grinds orange peels and shrimp tails.

She looks up from the plate sliding down her knees. “What’s that?”

“That’s gonna be you, dear. That’s what you want, right? To go with the disposal?”

“Hmm. Maybe not.” She smirks at my joke.

I am the court jester. I trick her out of bed. Trick her out of her funk. Trick her out of lousy thoughts. I perform magic on a confused crumpled woman, a transformation with words, with favorite books, lullabies, black and white movies, sips of Ensure, and spoonsful of coffee ice cream. I make jokes, put a smile on her face and mine too. Before I know it, she is up on her feet, wobbling, shuffling her walker to the big brown chair. Before I know it, she is eating her grapes and singing, “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy.” She doesn’t even like grapes, but she’s eating them. Before I know it, she is laughing and lighthearted again.

Before I know it, she will be gone, and I will still be here.

About the Writer:
Meghan Vigeant
is a writer, teacher, and oral historian in Maine. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Island Journal, Balancing Act 2, Maine Boats, and Hole in the Head Review; it has been also been featured on public radio and podcasts. Meghan was a Monson Arts resident and an Island Institute Fellow. She is the author of Guts, Feathers, and All: Stories of Hard Work and Good Times on Swan’s Island, Maine. She recently earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from Stonecoast.