Chapters 1 and 2 are here.
Chapters 3 and 4 are here.
Chapters 5 and 6 are here.
Chapters 7 and 8 are here.
Chapter 9. The End
“Come on, gentlemen. They’re just about done serving lunch.”
“Eh.” Mike stopped and looked up at Mackenzie. A look of confusion clouded his face. “We’re tied. Two games to two. One more game. Okay, Elisa? I’ll skunk him quick.”
Oh know. Mackenzie though. Not Mike. Before she could respond, Mike winked at her and began dealing the cards out for one last game of gin rummy. The wink threw Mackenzie for a moment, but she knew that something had changed in her friend. He had ever confused her with somebody else. Nor had he ever confused other people. It was an absolute certainty at Shady Acres. Mike was on a first name basis with every resident and employee and never got it wrong.
While the two men played their final hand, Mackenzie sat and waited. When they were done, she stood up. “Let’s go.”
Mike looked at her, that cloud of confusion crossing his face again. “Where we going, Mackenzie?”
“To lunch, Mike. Come on,” Mackenzie sighed.
“Oh. Okay. Why didn’t you say something?” Mike slipped the deck of cards in his pants pocket. “You heard the lady, Gene, let’s go to lunch.”
Could it happen that quick? Mackenzie catalogued the events of the last few days. The exertions Mike forced on himself the day he turned 100. The late morning the next day. And, then the fall, and a bump on his head. Could it? Mackenzie trailed behind the two old men as they made their way to the dining room.
After lunch, Mike asked Mackenzie to help him back to his room where he planned on taking a nap. When they arrived, he first opened a drawer in the nightstand next to his bed. After ruffling around in the drawer, he drew out a folder stuffed with papers and handed it to Mackenzie. “Here, I want you to have this,” he mumbled to her.
“What is it?”
“Aah,” Mike paused while he leaned back to sit on the edge of the bed. “Nothing, really.”
“Mackenzie, just do me a favor. Don’t look in the folder until something happens to me.”
“Mike.” Mackenzie sat next to Mike and placed her hand lightly on his arm. “Nothing’s going to happen to you. What are you talking about?”
He looked at her with glistening eyes. “I think you’re wrong. It’s starting to happen.” He snuffled a bit as his voice weakened. “Do you think I don’t realize what happened earlier? I mistook you for my wife.”
“Oh, Mike, that was nothing,” Mackenzie responded, knowing though that she had already had the same thoughts.
“It’s not just that. I can feel it in my bones. The ache is deeper.”
“Mike, that’s just because you fell the other day.”
“No, honey, it’s not. It’s something more.” He began to lean over and back. Mackenzie got up and helped lift his legs up on the bed. With his head resting on the pillow and his hands laced together on his stomach, he looked up at Mackenzie. “Please, put the folder away somewhere and take it out after I die. I think you’ll know what to do with it, once you take a look. But, promise me you won’t look until something happens.”
Mike closed his eyes as Mackenzie replied, “Okay, Mike.” He was asleep before the door closed behind her.
It wasn’t long after that. A few more days of growing confusion. An afternoon when Mike was found wandering a hallway on the opposite end of the nursing home from his own room. When asked what he was doing, he replied, “Going home.” In the incident report, Mike was described as disheveled, confused, and resistant to direction. He even yelled at another resident, telling him to “get off his damn lawn.”
One afternoon, less than a week later, Mackenzie entered Mike’s room one morning and knew that Mike had known what he was talking about. The smell in the room was different. Deeper than the usual old man smell. She looked at him and in the soft morning light saw that his chest did not rise or fall. His mouth hung open and his eyes stared vacantly at her.
“Oh, Mike,” Mackenzie whispered into the room. She could go no further than the doorway. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she brought a hand to her mouth to stifle a scream. She had seen plenty of death before working in Shady Acres, but this was one death that was too much for her.
Mackenzie turned from the room and began to run down the hall. “Get Antoinette,” she began to yell. “Antoinette,” she yelled and then slumped to the floor against the wall.
Mackenzie came to a stop just outside of Gene’s door. Attracted by the racket, Gene opened his door and looked out. “Mackenzie. What is it?” He looked at her and didn’t need an answer. As fast as his old legs could carry him, he scurried down the hall towards the next group of units. Mackenzie peeked down at Gene as he turned into the little entry way from which three doors led to three different units. From the other end of the hall, came Sylvia, one of the newer attendants. When she saw Mackenzie curled into a ball, her shoulders heaving, Sylvia stopped.
Seconds later, Gene returned to the hallway. His head weaving back and forth from Sylvia to Mackenzie and back to Sylvia, he shrugged. “He’s gone.”
Gene walked back to his room. Before entering, he stopped and placed his hand on Mackenzie’s shoulder for a few seconds. She looked up at him with tears streaming down her cheeks.
“He was such a good man,” she sniffed.
“It was too soon. He told me he was going to live another 100 years. He wasn’t ready to die.” Mackenzie stood up and looked at Gene.
“Come here,” Gene said to her, barely loud enough for Mackenzie to hear. She stepped in his arms as he wrapped them around her. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
Abruptly, she stepped out of his embrace. “My God. He wanted to meet my son. He told me to bring him in. And, I didn’t get to. Spencer would have loved him. Damn!” Mackenzie began to pound her fist against the wall. “Damn,” she repeated with each strike. Down the hall, more staff arrived and entered Mike’s room. Soon, it was business as usual. A nursing home, after all, is used to death.
It wasn’t until three days after the funeral that Mackenzie remembered the folder Mike had handed to her and obtained her promise that she wouldn’t look at it unless something happened to him. Something had certainly happened to him. That evening, after Spencer went to bed, curled up under his blanket with his stuffed penguin in his arms and a lock of hair curled into a C on his forehead, Mackenzie returned to her kitchen table and opened the folder.
Hours later, Mackenzie had waded through more than seventy-five simple poems Mike had written during his years at Shady Acres. The poems were stacked in the order he had written them. The first, in the crooked, slanted cursive of an old man, was titled Anger and Fear and written two days after he arrived at the nursing home.
Red with fury
A hole ripped
Filled with doubt
My life at an end
Anger and Fear
Eat me inside
Will I survive?
The tone of the poems quickly changed as Mike learned to live at Shady Acres. Some of the poems were written about other residents, staff, members of Mike’s family. Others were written about the smallest of things. A bird landing on a chair and watching as Mike and a friend played a hand of cribbage. Dust motes drifting in the sunlight filtering into his room early in the morning when the place was at its quietest. Scattered amongst the poems was an occasional letter. One was written to each of Mike’s children. Another letter was written to Wilma three years ago. Mike had even written a letter to Antoinette when she first met him.
Just before midnight, Mackenzie reached the final document. Dearest Mackenzie, it began in printed block letters. The letter was written two days after Mike’s 100th birthday. Mackenzie caught her breath and read on.
You will probably never know what you do for an old man. Your smile begins my day with hope. You have provided me with a daily reminder of my wife. In so many ways, you remind me of her. Not just in how you look, but in who you are.
I owe you for everything you have done for me since you came to Shady Acres. But I have nothing to give you other than this. Advice.
Raise your son to love his mother. Teach him not just the basics, but also how to howl at the moon. Teach him not just how to drive a car, but also that a car is just something gets him from point A to point B—more important than the drive is the points from which he leaves and to which he arrives. Teach your son that there is value in money, but also value in the most basic of human relationships. Teach your son that without you, without friends, without love, he will not be happy. The rest is icing.
I am sorry that I didn’t get to meet your son, but I have no doubt that you will do a fine job in raising him. Neither should you.
Forgive your former husband, but do not forget what he did. Release the pain and move on. You won’t find peace until you do.
Know this about yourself. You are a beautiful, compassionate, and talented young woman. Stay confident and sure. Move forward. Never step back.
Most of all. Do not be sad that I have died. Mike Robertson lived more than 100 years. I have seen and done everything a man could ask for. Even copped a feel of your glorious ass and felt the curve of your hip! I have left this world without complaint and now move on to the next. I have no idea what is next for me, if anything, but if I should run into Elisa again, I will tell her of you and we will watch over you together.
In the days and weeks ahead, Mackenzie delivered Mike’s poems and letters to the subjects of his words. Mackenzie chuckled at the thought of Wilma’s daughter sitting down and reading the odes Mike had written to Wilma. They were somewhat more than PG-13. Julie’s erotic writings had certainly inspired something in Mike.
The poems that were about the simple things she saved for new residents. She made copies of them and would leave a copy of one of those poems in each new resident’s room. Maybe Mike’s words could help the newly arrived recognize that there was a way to find happiness and peace in a place where they had sent to die.
Her own letter, she kept folded up in a pocket of her uniform. When she needed it, Mike’s words were always there. Mike may have passed away well short of his goal of a second century. His words and his spirit? Mackenzie did what she could to ensure that they lived on.