It was a very nice nursing home. One of the best in the world, in fact, with beautiful grounds, state-of-the-art facilities, and a well-trained and cheerful staff.
One of those staff members smiled at the middle-aged woman who had just entered. The visitor had dark glasses, stiff red curls, and a rather old-fashioned outfit.
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” said the staff member. “Who are you here to see?”
The visitor didn’t smile. “Dowling,” she said.
“Oh, how lovely. He’s in Unit 234. If you could just sign in, please…?”
She gestured to the tablet on the counter in front of her. The visitor tapped in her name and the date and time of her visit before passing through the lobby and into the nursing home proper.
Though the staff member didn’t know it, a glitch in the server at just that instant prevented the visitor’s name from being recorded. But that was just unfortunate timing, of course.
Unit 234 was easy to find; it had a little placard next to it bearing the number and below it, the words “W. Dowling.” When the visitor knocked, an aide answered the door.
“I’m here to see Mr. Dowling,” the visitor said. “I knew him...a very long time ago.”
She had a Scottish accent, which surprised the aide - they were in California, after all, and none of the many visitors who usually came to see his charge were Scottish, though he did sometimes talk about having grown up in England. Perhaps it was this surprise that caused the aide to forget to ask her name.
“Oh, well, please, come in,” he said. “He’s taking a nap at the moment, but if you don’t mind waiting he’ll be awake in a half hour or so, and I’m sure he’d love to see an old friend.”
“I don’t mind waiting,” said the visitor. She walked past the aide into the unit, which was like a sleek and very modern little one bedroom apartment with a lot less kitchen and a lot more mobility aids. The visitor took a seat in the living room, crossed her ankles primly, and folded her hands in her lap.
The aide suddenly recalled that he’d parked his car in a spot that would stop being legal in about three minutes.
“Listen, I’m so sorry, I never do this,” he said, “but I need to move my car, and since you’re here...he’s asleep, he won’t be up for a bit, but do you mind if I just run out? I’ll be back in ten, I swear.”
“Go right ahead,” the visitor said. She looked unsurprised.
The minute the door closed behind the aide, the visitor got up and went into the bedroom. A very old man lay in the bed, not at all asleep. He frowned at her as she entered. “You’re not Charles…” he said with the distant tone of someone who often had trouble remembering where he was.
And then a look of delight crossed his face and made him look ten years younger. “Nanny,” he said, his voice soft with wonder.
For the first time since she had entered the building, the visitor smiled.
“Hello, dear,” she said. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”
“Awfully long,” said the old man, reverting to the British phrasing he’d used as a child. “You went away.”
“I’m so sorry,” the visitor said. “I was busy, and you had so many things to do without me. But I’m here now.” She reached out and straightened the blanket over him. “You’re supposed to be napping.”
“I can’t sleep,” the old man said. “Everything’s so uncomfortable now. Will you sing me a lullaby, Nanny?”
“Of course, dear,” said the visitor. And she sang:
Go to sleep and dream of peace
Sadness ends and pain will cease
Sleep so sweet, my darling boy
In your dream of endless joy
The old man closed his eyes.
The visitor sat for a moment, lips pressed together as if against some great emotion. Then she leaned forward, kissed the old man on the forehead, and turned to the dark figure in the corner of the room.
“Don’t make it too traumatic for the aide, all right?” the visitor said.
DON’T WORRY, the dark figure said in a voice like a night without stars. THEY’VE BEEN EXPECTING IT FOR SOME TIME.
The visitor went out. Later, the aide did not remember that she’d been there at all, or that he’d stepped out to move his car. In the grand scheme of things, the grieving and the tears and the paperwork, it didn’t seem to be very important.
“Well, that’s over now,” the red-haired woman said. She did not sound Scottish anymore.
The gentleman in the cream-colored coat took her hands in his. He seemed concerned. “Are you all right, my dear?”
The red-haired woman took a long time to respond. “Yes,” she said finally. “You’d think it would get easier, you know. But it doesn’t.”
“No, it doesn’t,” the gentleman in the cream-colored coat said. “Still, this is why we did all of it, isn’t it? So that they would keep coming, and going, and coming again?”
The red-haired woman nodded. “Yes,” she said again. “This is why we did it.”
She freed her hands from his, but only to tuck one of them into the curve of his elbow. “Thank you for coming with me,” she said.
The gentleman in the cream-colored coat smiled at her as they walked away from the nursing home, into the blazing light of the setting sun. “Always, my dear,” he said.