I stifled a yawn as I pulled my gloves up over the cuff of my gown. Sleep had been elusive for a while now. I often had nightmares of the dead calling out for the family that didn’t get to say goodbye. We’ve been lucky so far at our facility, not one single case of COVID 19. Still, it was taking a toll on our residents. Many did not get visitors regularly, but Christmas was usually the exception.
We did our best to set up a place for the visitors to sit and wave to their loved ones. The activities room had a large glass window that displayed the entryway lobby. Time slots would be scheduled by the receptionist for the families and residents to get the space to themselves. It was a pain sometimes to coordinate everything with our regular tasks, but well worth it.
I wished I had more time in my shift just to sit and visit, to be the company, so many of these residents needed. I could see the difference that human contact made. But, if I didn’t get my charting done, the company that ran the home would fire me in an instant. We were not allowed overtime. Instead, when I finished for the day, I would clock out and sit down with a resident. Visiting with the patients was frowned upon too, for fear one day I would sue for lost wages. My supervisor would turn a blind eye, trusting me to be discreet.
Mr. Mulroney has always been one of my favorite residents. He arrived like a hurricane, just around the same time I started working for the veteran’s home. “Today is my ninety-second birthday, love.” he had told me. “I’ll keep you company if you bring me some Jameson, neat.”
He loved to spin intricate yarns and often captivated the other residents with his tales. He was one of the few veterans left from World War Two. Many of the others loved to hear his war stories. But his favorite tales to tell were about his Alice.
They had met wartime in France. He had been part of the military police corps for the United States Army and her a chief nurse in the Army Nurse Corps. His stories always depicted himself as a ladies' man, but I could tell even now, he only had eyes for her.
Before COVID, the man would sign up for every outing and event. His daughter told me he had never done any of this after her mom had died. He would just sit in the house alone. The veteran’s home had been a second chance at life for him.
He was one of the few that still got a visitor most days. The daughter and one of his granddaughters would sit at the glass pane, smiling and trying to shout through the window. After a time, his granddaughter started to bring a tablet and play movies for him. He loved movies and music. I remembered him being first in line, in a sports coat and bowtie on the movie theatre outings. The pandemic had been particularly hard on him.
Recently Mr. Mulroney’s health had taken a turn for the worse. His family and the doctors had decided on moving him to Hospice. In addition to his primary health concerns, he had been displaying small signs of dementia for quite a while, and things were going downhill fast. The lack of contact and interaction had greatly deteriorated his health.
About a week ago, he had stopped speaking in English. His daughter explained that his parents had moved to the US from Quebec. As a child, French was his first language. Unfortunately, I did not speak French. So often, I would jot down pieces of what was said and get my boyfriend to translate.
Each night after an exhausting day, I would feel renewed as Chris would recap the stories for me. Part of me knew I could just plug the words into google translate, but there was something sweet and romantic about hearing my boyfriend tell me Mr. Mulroney’s tales.
Chis had been my rock during this pandemic. He had given up any semblance of a life outside of our small apartment, effectively quarantining himself with me. Just so I could come home every night and not fear killing one of the residents when I returned to work the next day.
It was lonely. We ordered all our groceries to the apartment and didn’t even go for walks outside anymore. Our small treadmill was starting to squeak with overuse, but we just ignored the noise and would take turns describing the wondrous places we wanted to walk through. But we had each other.
The stories Mr. Mulroney told were scattered and sometimes hard to translate. Spelling in French was a challenge for me! Many of them were about his time in World War Two, but most were about his Alice.
Mr. Mulroney’s wife had passed away a few years before him. According to his daughter, the pair had always been best of friends and soulmates. Where he was easygoing and optimistic, she was sharp and meticulous. Something in the relationship was magical, like yin and yang.
Tonight was Christmas Eve. I had made Christmas cookies for the residents that were allowed to eat them. Hopefully, enough people would still be awake when I finished my shift. After clocking out, I went from room to room, doing my best to spread some sort of cheer. Mr. Mulroney, I would save for last, since he was my favorite.
“Je veux vieillir avec toi, belle femme!” I heard him shout as I passed his room. I grabbed a notepad and jotted that down for Chris to translate later.
I had been practicing my Joyeux Noël for him. Initially, I was going to read a whole story in French, but I was just too exhausted to attempt it.
After finishing my merry rounds with the other residents, I made my way back to his room. His
face looked gaunt, and his pale skin clung to the bones as if there was nothing between them. Things were starting to shut down inside him. We had learned earlier today the doctor had decided tomorrow they would move him to hospice. This would give his family to spend the holiday with him there.
There was a nearby facility that would enable immediate family in the room for end-of-life care, even during the pandemic. This holiday would be bittersweet for the family, but I was grateful Mr. Mulroney would receive this gift.
I tried not to get too attached to any of the residents and was usually pretty adept. With times being the way they were now, it was next to impossible. Sitting down in the chair next to his bed, I pulled out a copy of “The Night before Christmas” and began to read from it.
“T’was the night before Christmas,” I started softly.
He sat the whole time enraptured by my voice, and after the story, he spoke tenderly, his voice cracking slightly. "Alice, Je ne peux pas imaginer ma vie sans toi. Passons le reste de notre vie ensemble.”
Smiling, I stroked his hair, hoping whatever memory he was having was a good one. A serene look spread across his face as he began to drift into sleep. I sat with him, feeling a sense of peace and stillness for the first time in months.
I knew it was time to say goodbye, but I stayed just a while longer. The wet tears slide down my face, and my shoulders shook silently. He would be gone before my shift tomorrow.
I squeezed his hand and whispered to him, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Mulroney. I love you.”
“Je sais maintenant que toi et moi sommes vraiment faits pour être ensemble. Je t'aime Alice.”He muttered back.
When I arrived home later that night, Chris was waiting. He wrapped his arms around me tightly as I sobbed into his chest. After a time, the heaves subsided, and he gently stroked my hair, not even flinching as I wiped my nose on his shirt.
“Oh!” I sniffled. “I’ve got new stuff for you to translate, from Mr. Mulroney.”
I handed him the crumpled paper from my pocket.
As he read the words, his whole face lit up with a radiant smile, and he disappeared into the
kitchen, returning with a small Christmas bag.
“Veux-tu m'épouser?” He said.
“That wasn’t on the list!” I giggled and sniffed again. “What did he say?”
“That’s what he was asking,” Chris replied, pulling something out of the holiday bag. Then he gets down on one knee and whispers. “Bella, will you marry me?”