Laura Mathilde Nielsen
The nameplate was printed in blue, large, easy-to-read letters, so the residents at the nursing home could also see who lived behind the double oak door with the large handle. A double door, because that made it easier when the coffin had to be wheeled in to get the resident.
Laura Mathilde Nielsen’s door was closed. Only the nameplate indicated her existence.
Laura Mathilde Nielsen was at therapy, in the therapy room in the basement. The broad and roomy elevator of the nursing home could bring up to four clients in wheelchairs down at one time, or a casket on a trolley if the funeral home’s hearse was parked by the staff entrance. The linoleum floor shone with wax and stunk of institution. Down here in the basement’s intimate sphere there was an aroma of clean efficiency and warm coffee.
Laura sat in her wheelchair at the oval table in the spacious therapy room. She looked tiredly at the canvas in front of her, the childish black outline of a cat. Saliva from the left corner of her mouth had dripped onto the canvas. This drop of clear spit spread had created a dark, round stain next to the tip of the cat’s tail. In her right hand Laura held a brush with a red shaft. There was chalk-white fabric paint on the brush’s mocha-colored sable hair. The cat was supposed to be painted white. The brush was supposed to follow the black line, which formed the cat’s body. The cat had blue eyes which were already painted. The blue eyes looked at Laura, asked her why she didn’t paint it white. Laura looked at her unresponsive right hand. She looked at the brush, which also didn’t move. The white paint started to drip. To Laura it seemed like the drop of paint took years to land. When the drop hit the black line between the cat’s ear and the untouched white canvas outside the black line, the world stood still.
The brush did not move. Laura looked at her sinewy and liver-spotted hand, holding the shaft of the red brush.
Rosa the cat was black, not white.
She dropped the brush, which flopped onto the canvas and hit the cat’s soft back.
“My goodness, Laura. Try to hold onto the brush.” The occupational therapist sighed and patiently picked up the brush, placing it back in the client’s crooked hand. “Come on, Laura. You can do it! I’ll help you.” The therapist showed Laura Mathilde Nielsen how a brush should move with a couple of firm strokes. “Like that, Laura. You can do it. It’s so nice!”
Laura wanted to protest. It was no use. No words formed in her mouth anymore. Only a demonstrative groan escaped her motionless, waxy pale creases of skin, which once were red lips. Not even Laura heard the protest. And the staff definitely didn’t.
“Would you like more coffee, Laura?” The young health aide placed the coffee cup up to Laura’s anemic mouth opening and tried to pour a few lukewarm drops into the client. “I stirred in extra sugar and cream, Laura.”
Laura Mathilde Nielsen closed her eyes.
“Do you want a little more birthday cake?” The health aide cut a small piece and raised the sugar and icing-filled cake to the client’s mouth. “Can you open up? CAN YOU OPEN YOUR MOUTH, LAURA? Can anyone tell me,” the aide shouted into the therapy room, “did anyone change Laura’s batteries?”
“Yeah, I think so. Dorothy and Lona did it a little while ago when they gave her a bath.”
The health aide looked across the therapy table’s collection of paint cups, craft yarn and squeezed tubes. She poured more coffee for Laura. “Can you drink this coffee while it’s hot, Laura? And eat some more cake!”
Laura Mathilde Nielsen did not open her eyes.
“Laura, open your mouth. You have to taste this cake.”
“It’s not a good idea for them to paint while having a coffee break,” said the occupational therapist. “I think we should talk about this at the staff meeting on Thursday.”
“Tell the city council. They’re the ones who made the cutbacks. Laura, open your eyes and drink your coffee. Don’t you want to paint anymore? Then I’m going to take away your brush. Are you sleeping?”
The health aide wiped the ninety-seven-year-old client’s mouth with a napkin and walked over to Hans Sørensen, who was valiantly trying to eat a piece of cake, but was dropping half of it in his lap. He was the institution’s favorite, sixty-three with Alzheimer’s. A well-built sportsman with a brain like a four-year old.
Laura Mathilde Nielsen receded into a ponderous tiredness and fell asleep.
Laura Mathilde Nielsen didn’t know how long she had been asleep. Now she was on the way back, up in the elevator to her room, where the sign with the blue letters told who she was. An easily legible name in blue letters. Laura didn’t need to see the blue name anymore. The blue color was just like the blue light on the ambulance, the night her speech was stolen and a consuming tiredness made its entrance. Apoplexia cerebri. Hemiparesis.
A burden. A living death. A vegetable. A helpless nursing home patient.
“Now you’re back home. We’re having meatloaf and gravy for dinner. Laura? You should wake up now, otherwise you won’t be able to sleep later. Laura, time to wake up. Laura?”
The health aide observed the little shrunken woman in the wheelchair. Then she walked out to get the nurse. The authority entered the room and put her hand on the patient’s forehead while taking her pulse.
“She’s not asleep,” said the nurse softly while stroking Laura gently on her cheek. “Leave her be. Laura is probably just tired. We can look in on her before we eat. She’s not in any pain; her pulse is relaxed and stable.”
There were two things Laura Mathilde Nielsen could decide for herself: seeing and eating. When she was alone again, she opened her eyes to look at the debris from her long life: pictures on the walls, knick-knacks on the shelf and the few pieces of furniture Bitten and Hans Jørgen said she should take when they sold the house. The ones they didn’t want, as Peter – the youngest, Bitten and Hans Jørgen’s half-brother – said when she was released from the hospital and installed at the home. The picture of Peter and his many children – her grandchildren – she didn’t need to look at. She couldn’t remember their names, but she still recalled their laughter. Peter was like his father – warm-hearted, too easy-going, but sharp. Bitten and Hans Jørgen, from her first marriage, inherited their father’s efficiency. When she thought about them, their stirring effectiveness, her tiredness seemed to worsen. A tiredness which seemed different today, because the cat was supposed to be painted white, when it really was black. The cat opened up her old world, because, like the cat, she had always been her own person. One last time she wanted to take the hands of her spouses, Thorvald Madsen and Magnus Nielsen, while she still could.
Would they forgive her? The ambitious and charming Thorvald because she left him and the children in her blind love for Magnus. And Magnus, because she wasn’t home that horrible day when death tore their love apart. Magnus and his cheerful laughter. To lie with Magnus, make love, sleep with Magnus, the gardener of her life. Come, Magnus, lift me from my tiredness. Take me to the realm of the dead and let us adore each other again. Magnus, my love.
“Time for dinner, Laura. What is up with you? Are you feeling sick, little Laura? Should I bring your food in on a tray? Do you want to eat in your room? It looks good. There are pickles and some of Dorothy’s homemade pomegranate jelly. I know you like that.”
The health aide looked with concern at Laura’s motionless form and patted her hand. “You look tired. Are you alright? Does anything hurt?”
“Is she still sitting here?” The nurse was back. She looked at her watch, attached with a large safety pin to her plaid apron pocket. She put her hands on her hips and looked uncomprehendingly at the aide. “Why hasn’t she been moved over to the armchair?”
“We agreed to wait until dinner. And we haven’t had time. Two staff called in sick this morning. And it’s been really busy. Laura has only been sitting here for a couple of hours. I’ll go down and get her dinner. I don’t think she can sit with the others in the day room right now.”
“No. Laura looks tired. Laura,” asked the nurse, whose name was Bente, according to the tag on her scrub shirt, “is anything hurting you anywhere? Laura, look at me. Are you not feeling well?”
Laura Mathilde Nielsen opened her eyes and looked past the nurse.
Rosa and roses. The black cat, Rosa, between rows of rosebushes in the nursery greenhouse one early summer morning. Rosa’s black fur making sparks between the rose leaves and the virgin lightbeams of the sunrise. Deep, damp, aromatic flower perfume. The cat is black, not white.
And Rosa could purr. The roses smelled like love and their first summer. Magnus had a thing for roses. He had crossed a new variety which he named Laura. Very deep red, but not thornless, he said. Springtime was just emerging over the green carpet of the woods, that time we made love for the first time. When the leaves were turning golden, we got married. When spring came again, Peter was born. Magnus lay among the roses. Twelve years is not a long time. The best twelve years. Blue sirens and EMTs running. And Peter’s frightened expression. Dead. Magnus dead in the roses. Only fifty-nine.
“Laura, you look tired. Do you want to go to bed?” The nurse looked back at the aide. “I think we should put her in bed now. Then go get her food tray, and see if you can get any food into her when she’s lying down. I can help you change her clothes while everyone else is eating in the day room. Jens Andersen down in the long hall was taken out in an ambulance, so I have five minutes before I have to go. Let’s get her in bed.”
The aide crouched down in front of the wheelchair and pulled off Laura’s camel hair slippers, then dove underneath Laura’s flowered dress and undid her stockings from the garter clips. She rolled the nylons down over Laura’s white, bony legs and the bunions on both feet.
The nurse undid the buttons in Laura’s dress and, with the aide supporting Laura’s featherweight body, together they were able to pull the dress up and over Laura’s head. She sat there exposed in her slip and underwear. Laura Mathilde Nielsen’s daughter Bitten had made sure that her mother lacked nothing. Her underwear was new and slightly too big, even though it was x-small. The aide quickly found Laura’s nightgown under the comforter, which she pulled aside at the same time. Laura Mathilde Nielsen’s bed was along the wall adjacent to the hallway. It was the only place there was room because the crane, which was there to lift Laura from the wheelchair to the bed, had to have room to move. They rarely used the crane because Laura was so light and she was able to help support with her feet if there were only two people for the transfer. But to follow union rules they had the crane in the room, in case a union rep came by, or in case one of the staff was injured while lifting her. If there were no crane in the room, the insurance wouldn’t cover it.
“We’re going to count to three, Laura. And then we’re going to move you to the bed. One – two – three. Right, like that. Hang on, you have to put your nightgown on first, don’t lie down. Hurry up, she’s heavy. Laura, try to sit up on your own. Laura, can you hear what I’m saying?”
The aide looked uneasily at the nurse while slipping Laura’s pink flannel nightgown over her. Laura was sitting crooked on the bed, leaning against the nurse. The nurse took hold of Laura’s arm and shoulder and gently lay her down. The aide pulled up the comforter and wiped Laura’s mouth.
“Laura’s tired. I don’t think we’re going to get any food in her tonight. If she isn’t doing better tomorrow, we had better call her daughter, Bitten.”
“You mean the dragon?”
“Shut your mouth. You said that, I didn’t. You know what I mean. We don’t want any trouble from the relatives.”
“That’s for sure. We don’t want any problems with the dragon lawyer.”
As long as my heart is beating I will be loving you. Loving you, loving you forever. Every day for twelve years, four months and three weeks. Magnus Nielsen. My Magnus, my life’s gardener, skilled in accounting and in life – an odd combination. Everything in perfect order, said the accountant after the funeral. And Thorvald took my hand. For the first time in twelve years, Thorvald and I spoke, after the grief and loss of Magnus had subsided. But he could never forgive me for my choice in love. Bitterness. Anger. Punishment. A mother’s punishment is the removal of her children. I will never understand how Thorvald could do that to our children. It became a mean and endless curse, which penetrated Bitten and Hans Jørgen and reached out its branches to their half-brother Peter. Thorvald’s cowardly revenge.
“Eat, Laura! Open your mouth. Are you asleep?”
The young aide was looking at the small, shriveled woman in the bed, the white, disheveled hair, the wrinkled, liver-spotted skin along the edges of her face. A shrunken mouth which refused to open for food and which could no longer form words.
“She won’t do it.” The aide turned towards the older and more buxom aide, who had poked her head into the room. “She won’t drink either.”
“Right, I see. Laura is also ninety-seven and she’s had a long, long life. She is the oldest resident here. I’m sure her daughter won’t let her die. How about you go out and get a squeeze bottle and see if she will drink a bit of juice. I’ll go to the office and write that we have to call the family tomorrow if she won’t take fluids. Turn on the nightlight before you leave. Remember that Nielsen in number five needs a diaper change before the night shift.”
Magnus could make anything grow. His hands caressed life, and his voice transfixed every ear and sprout. Thorvald was a well-formulated rogue. He always crossed the the finish line first in the boating club dinghies. He was always the chairman of the board. A well-liked boss. Respected by most, as long as he didn’t say he worked for the tax authority. Mom and Dad’s flower nursery couldn’t be closed down when Dad died. The only flowers Thorvald bought were the bridal bouquet. Red roses. It had to be special. Five years after the war we were married. The young and ambitious Thorvald and I. Bitten was born the first year, Hans Jørgen the next. Then the car arrived as the third and most expensive child. For me, working in the nursery was a well-needed break while Thorvald studied and advanced in his career. We couldn’t shutter the nursery, so I drove from Odense to Assens every day. It wasn’t until later we could afford to hire a landscape gardener, Magnus Nielsen. And he planted love in my nursery.
Laura Mathilde Nielsen opened her eyes. There they were, hanging on the wall: Bitten and her three children; Hans Jørgen and his wife; Little Peter and all five kids; Thorvald Madsen with his boating trophy, sunburned and grinning from ear to ear; Magnus in his work clothes holding a trowel in the greenhouse. Who knows which one she loved the most? A great love for each chapter of her life. Thorvald and Magnus.
“Good morning, Mom. How about having coffee together? Look, I brought rolls. And bananas. Ripe, the way you like them. Mom, it’s me, Bitten.” Bitten’s voice cracked, as a repressed cry tried to slip out when she whispered, “Oh, Mom, are you in pain?”
Laura Mathilde Nielsen opened her eyes and looked at her eldest child. She was hard to recognize because her hair was steel gray now and she had a hard and willful tightness around her mouth. But her daughter’s eyes exposed her. They were like they always were, dark brown and round like her father’s. Bitten was frightened.
“Have you called the doctor? Mom is sick. We have to do something. She must not suffer. She can’t tell us if she’s in any pain.”
“Your mother has not indicated that she is in any pain. She is very tired and just wants to lie there. But we can call the doctor and ask him to come.” The aide looked good-naturedly at the client’s daughter, dressed in a black business skirt and short jacket.
“I think he absolutely should come. She may need to be admitted to the hospital. Something is wrong, because she doesn’t usually just lie there like this. Has the nurse been here?”
“She has. She thinks your mom is tired. But she might perk up again.”
“What do you mean?” Bitten looked down at her mother under the comforter, the small shrunken head sticking out from the edge of the yellow flowers on the fabric. “My mom is strong.”
“I’ll go call the doctor.” The aide returned the daughter’s tense, anxious smile with a smile of her own.
“It would be good if he could make it here this morning. I have to present in court at two o’clock.”
“I’ll let the receptionist know at the doctors office, but it doesn’t usually help.”
Bitten and Hans Jørgen were accomplished children. Solid careers like their father. They were the pride of Thorvald and me. I placed Bitten’s graduation cap on her head, and the following year Thorvald placed Hans Jørgen’s cap on him. It was so lovely. We got divorced the following month. I was already three months along with Peter. I was so tired, like I am now. There was so much chaos it felt like it was going to tear me in half. Magnus, my Magnus, was always there for me. He was standing in the greenhouse. He talked to me and put his arms around me. Oh, Magnus, how I long for you to take me in your arms and whisper that you love me. I am so tired.
“Mom, the doctor’s here. Say hello to the new young intern from Dr. Oliver Kuhl-Pedersen’s practice. “
“Hi. I’m the associate from the practice.”
“Aren’t you a doctor?” Bitten looked skeptically at the young man calling himself a doctor.
“Good. My mother hasn’t eaten anything the last twenty-four hours. She must be sick. Something has to be done now!”
“Has your mother been in any pain?” The youthful doctor, who could barely grow facial hair but was still trying, saw her shake her head. “Has anything noticeable happened during the last twenty-four hours? Fever, cough, vomiting, confusion?”
“It’s almost like mom is… dying.”
“When you reach the age of ninety-seven, that’s actually not so abnormal.” The young doctor, because of the summer heat, was wearing shorts above his skinny hairy legs and a red Che Guevara t-shirt. He opened his bag and took out a stethoscope. He stuck the ends in his ears and listened to Laura Mathilde Nielsen’s bony chest. “Sounds fine,” he concluded, folding up the stethoscope. “She is a bit dehydrated and there are no edemas. I don’t see anything wrong with her otherwise.”
Laura opened her eyes. She looked at the boy standing next to Bitten. She didn’t know who he was. Maybe one of her grandchildren.
She closed her eyes again. She simply could not keep them open. When they were closed, she could see the plant nursery, she could even smell the lavender which Magnus had planted in front of the garages.
“Hans Jørgen,” hissed Bitten into her iPhone, “well, you are going to have to! I have cancelled all my appointments for the next couple of days and handed off my two cases to our other attorneys. You only have one mother, and the doctor says she’s dying. Singapore isn’t so far away that you can’t be here by tomorrow. Little Peter says we can stay in his guest room. We can do it this one time. For her sake.” Bitten’s voice cracked. “Just get home, dammit!”
Bitten didn’t cry at her father’s funeral. She was ashen and had received some pills from her doctor, said the son-in-law. Bitten was like her father. She didn’t let her feelings show. There was nothing in the world that work couldn’t make go away. Bitten had a big heart, but she didn’t know it. Laura wished she could touch her one daughter, feel her living warmth and care. Bitten would rather arrange things and deal with practical matters. So she did. Laura knew this and forgave her daughter.
“Why isn’t she in the hospital?” Hans Jørgen’s voice and aftershave made the dying woman open her eyes. “Mom, it’s me, your son, Hans Jørgen. What is going on? Are you abandoning us?” He caressed her cheek and kissed her forehead.
Are you abandoning us? My children. Have I abandoned my children because I chose Magnus above all? I have always and I always will love my wonderful children, all three of them. You don’t abandon the ones you love. My Magnus. I loved my Magnus. My children. Hans Jørgen is kissing me. He forgives me.
The smell of red roses. The smell of fresh cut green rose branches brought Laura Mathilde Nielsen out of her moribund state. She opened her eyes halfway when Peter, the youngest, took her hand and sat down on the the edge of the bed. Bitten and Hans Jørgen stood behind him. Peter smiled. Or was it Magnus? She couldn’t tell the difference.
“Look, Mom. I have flowers for you. Your roses just bloomed.” He took one single rose and held it out to her. “They are especially beautiful this year.” He smiled and placed it back with the others in the bouquet. Then he sighed and looked at her lovingly. “Now we’re all here together. Thank you, Mom.”
Laura Mathilde Nielsen could hear her mother and father laughing. She could see Thorvald waving to her and shouting that she could come down to the water. The wind was brisk. He smiled as only Thorvald could. His smile tugged at her heart. Or was it Magnus who was kissing her in the roses? Loving her in the roses, while Rosa the black cat sat and looked on curiously with her blue eyes.
Laura Mathilde Nielsen sensed her children, caressed them one last time. Her heartbeats grew faint and, as she reached Magnus at the nursery, they stopped.