I swear in another life she was a doe. It may have been due to her large round brown eyes, slightly sunken into her face, and framed with her showing veins, the type that only come after the age of seventy-five, that still shone. Or maybe it was the way her face gleamed, illuminated by the TV, in the dark room with all of her sadness crystal clear to me.
“You don’t have to answer anything you don’t want to. If I ask too deep a question, tell me to shut up.”
“Oh I will. I’ll knock you back down if you do.”
Facing me with her bed as a divider, she sized me up. I was some random girl asking not only to interview her but to record her. I willed myself to not crack under my own discomfort as we regarded each other in silence.
“Can you put this on the dresser?” she suddenly asked, holding out a small bottle of hand sanitizer. “And could you put this there too?” she held out a bottle of lotion, “and pass me that bottle…no, not that one, the other one…now put it in the drawer.”
Again we found ourselves quiet. The daily noise of the nursing home infiltrating the room combining with the sputtering of the air conditioner and the voice of Whoopi Goldberg on The View was all that could be heard.
“Ain’t you going to ask me some questions? I’m ready.” And she was sitting there in her wheelchair erect, purse on her lap, arms folded in front of it, primed for our talk. I quickly got out my notebook and turned on the recorder.
We talked about the basics that first day. Where she was from? South Carolina. Was she an only child? Only girl of seven. Why did she move to Brooklyn? A better life for her and her daughter. Did she have anyone up here when she moved? No. How did she survive? Through sacrifice and patience and work in hospitals. Did she want to be in this home? No. Did she wish she was back in South Carolina? Yes.
She didn’t give much more than that on the first day.
I simply sat there absorbing the presence of the beautiful woman in front of me, as she began to get lost in her thoughts. Her southern accent, her warmth, and her aura of sadness were captivating to me. Her wrinkly brown skin was beginning to take on different tones, each pigment of color varying from the other with beauty marks here and there. Her salt and pepper, heavy on the salt, hair came to a rest at her chin in a bob, tucked under kissing her cheeks. And her voice, it was lilting, sweet, high, and airy, musical even if you listened hard enough. You could hear the shrills and the slight wavering in her tone, as if at any moment it would give way to nothingness, but it like her it always had energy. I still can’t tell if her voice had always been that way, even as a young girl, or if it had simply become fragile just as she did with time.
She always wore some combination of a pastel color. The different shades were always very light, feminine, and springy. The colors screamed infant — something I pointed out to her that day — but with her brown skin and tiny stature, it fit so well.
“It’s funny how that works,” she said to me at the end of our interview.
“That at the end of your life you dress how you did at the beginning.”
I came back to interview her four days later. The minute I stepped off the elevator I saw her parked in the hallway holding onto the rail leaning as far off her seats as she could. There was a smile in her eyes as she watched the nurses walking up and down past her.
“Imma’ buss you up!” she snickered, her airy voice contradicting the mischief in her eyes as she tried to provoke the staff. I watched amused, as she laughingly continued her threats to the nurses, who gleefully played along.
“Miss Susy you causin’ trouble right now?” I teasingly asked, my voice taking on a slight southern accent; she was rubbing off on me.
She looked at me for a while, as if deciding whether or not I could join in on the fun. After a moment she nodded her head, her tucked under curls moving with her, as she snickered some more.
“No-ah, no I ain’t causing trouble these nurses are! They know I’m gunna’ buss them in the head!” she said raising a shaky fist.
She paused to watch more people go by. Her face was unconsciously scrunched up into a scrutinizing glare regardless of whether she liked the person or not.
“So you just gonna’ stay out here in the hallway people-watching, Ms. Susy?”
“Yeah, yeah I am. Why? You gunna’ talk to me today?”
“I just might …will you still be here?”
She smashed her lips together as if she was about to speak before she changed her mind and simply nodded her head. I waited for one more second before turning to walk down the hallway. Whenever I looked back, she was still sitting in her wheelchair right outside the elevators looking up and down the hallway. From afar her face was innocent, childlike, with her eyes wide open darting around trying to figure out what kind of world she was living in — I wondered if she realized she wasn’t in South Carolina anymore.
As I stepped off the elevator returning from my lunch break, I saw her perched in the same spot eyes unfocused on the resident in front her. The resident had just thrust a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into her hands, and she hadn’t noticed. As the resident began to walk off, I made my way forward until I was right in front of her; she finally looked down.
“Oh it’s you again,” she greeted once she tore her gaze away from the sandwich in her hands.
Watching as she slowly turned her wheelchair with sandwich on her lap, I couldn’t help myself: “Ms. Susy you gonna’ eat that sandwich?”
I knew even though she couldn’t see my face, she could hear my smile since she sucked her teeth and proceeded to tell me to “shut up” only to dissolve into giggles, hysterical as she waved around the sandwich. I pushed her wheelchair into the room, and tried not to let my own chuckles cause me to bump her into a wall, as I navigated the turn into the room.
“What am I going to do with this damn sandwich, huh? Ain’t no food up here good anyway!” she exclaimed flailing her arms as I positioned her next to her rolling table.
“Damn air conditioner, freezing me up. Can’t even work that damn machine. You know how to work it? Got all dem’ buttons can’t tell what none of them do. I just want to know why they couldnt’ve put it on her side of the room instead of freezing me up. Can’t even work that thing anyway. Now what was you gunna’ ask me?” she asked finally resting her arms in her lap.
“What was your favorite part about your house in South Carolina?”
She paused for a moment, her eyes beginning to get lost in a memory, wet from the emotions. I watched her wishing I could capture this moment forever — she was the picture of joy. She was in South Carolina.
I waited as she sniffled a little bit, and stared at her fingers. When she finally looked to answer, the doe was back again.
“We,” she cleared her throat, “we used to have grapes and berries wrapped all around the house that my daddy would grow. The sweetest I had ever tasted. And when I was little, I would just eat ‘em, eat ‘em all cause they tasted so good and they were so sweet,” she puckered her lips up, biting into the memory and savoring the sweet juices from the berries. “I love grapes and fruits. My daughter and my grandchildrens they always bringin’ me fruits and stuff whenever they visit. Just the other day she brought me a whole bunch strawberries and grapes. What was I gunna’ do with all dem’ strawberries?” she chuckled to herself and rolled to her wardrobe pulling out a bag of grapes. “I saved the grapes, but I gave most of the strawberries away. I couldn’t eat them all.”
She began to eat some of the grapes, languidly sucking all the juices out after every bite, and placed the rest next to the sandwich on her table. There was no twist of her lips; they weren’t as good as the ones in South Carolina. Her gaze stayed on the grapes, but she was far gone.
“You give away your food? Is that how you make all your friends, as some type of food dealer?” I probed trying to break her out from her fog. All I got was a nod of her head, the only way I knew she heard something I said. But all my efforts were for naught. Ms. Susy was not with me, nor was she trying to find her way back to Brooklyn. I used to wonder if she ever truly left South Carolina. I used to wonder if she wanted to. Now I wonder what she’d be like if she did.