They no longer speak in words—
it is impossible to hear her whisper
and frail neck muscles make it hard for her
to lift her head.
I do not know if he ever holds her or
if they even live in the same room.
But I have seen them knee-to knee, holding hands
across their wheelchairs.
I have caught the quiet secret in their eyes
when an orderly delivers flowers to her lap
and reads the gift card that bears his name.
My eyes have heard them talking.
My best friend is grounded,
not because she has done anything wrong, rather—
each time I put on boots, coat and gloves,
I am the guilty one,
the decision-maker, imposer of limits.
Each time I head out the door without her,
I am the scoundrel cheating on her
like a callous lover.
My best friend is housebound because she is old,
because there is no clear winter ground,
only deep snow banks she can no longer climb,
trails that take their toll on arthritic joints,
depths that strain a willing heart,
turning a joyful bark into a wheeze.
Each winter I have watched her faculties decline,
seen her horizons diminish,
so very like those of Nellie at the nursing home,
her eyes too blurry to read,
knotted fingers too crooked to write,
knees too weak to offer balance.
Can’t react fast enough?
surrender the car keys.
Leave the toaster on?
relinquish the house.
Forget a daughter’s name?
Every day I enter my living room,
decide what’s for dinner or read a paper;
each time I tramp down a snow bank
or head toward town,
I am the deceitful offender.
I am the blind charlatan—
headed toward my own grounding.
Pamela is painting a flower this morning.
Arthritic fingers dip delicately
into reds, greens and blues—
sliding across slick white paper that might have been
like paper once used at the butcher shop, where
her mother sent her for a pound of kielbasa.
She gingerly dabs each finger into a different color,
barely remembering times
when she plopped young willing hands
into its delicious squishiness.
I help her place a rigid thumb to paper
to form petals of a blossom, dragging it slowly
Aged-spotted and wrinkled, these hands
once diapered squirming babies,
molded cookie dough for Christmas snacks
typed letters to soldiers on the frontline
and folded in prayer for a less fortunate neighbor.
Today I hold her still wedding-banded hand,
nails neatly clipped, above a tub of warm water.
Noticing thin-skinned palms, veins showing
like tiny rivulets under newly formed ice,
I swab each frail finger with a wet towelette
to remove stubborn paint.
Cupping her hand in mine, I wash as if
I am John the Baptist
bathing the Master’s feet.