At the farm, the grandfather clock told the hours, but the land told the seasons. The riots of color that Aniela had planted kept the family grounded in time: lilacs in May, peonies in June, tiger lilies in July. The children, in Aniela’s mind all young at once, shrieked on the river’s shore, cannonballing off the rope swing and flinging arcing torrents from their shaggy summer hair as they surfaced, dive-bombed by dragonflies. Józef tinkered in the barn or in his workshop by the garage, humming the mazurka.
After Józef passed, Aniela was certain one of their children would find her one summer day, perhaps in the vegetable garden among the tomatoes and pole beans, eyes vacant and staring out over the chicken yard—the final page in her final chapter, ended in the middle of a sentence. It was all right with her, imagining it like that. Almost eighty, she’d lived nearly sixty years in America. The farm in Michigan was as much home as her little town of Zapyškis had once been. She would one day go to another home to be with God and Józef, and that was fine.
But she didn’t die in the garden. She was halfway up the sunroom steps one afternoon when a blazing pain in her head sent her reeling backwards onto the stone path below.
She awoke in a foreign, antiseptic room, faces above her mumbling “stroke” and “nursing home.”
She tried to speak, but although the words formed in her head, her mouth would not release them.
She said, “I want to going home.” But her words were like soaked buckwheat.
The doctors, nurses, attendants, and even her now-adult children patted her hand and moved her to the Jefferson City Home for Rest and Rehabilitation.
Here, there was no comforting sound of chickens clucking, no wafting smell of lilacs. Trolley tables squeaked along tiled corridors, aides and attendants spoke in hushed, patronizing tones; residents groaned and cried and retched. Antiseptic smells and metallic bangs, rattles, and clatters startled her awake at night.
There was a framed window in the long hallway between the common room and her own, and one day, stumbling along with her aide, Aniela noticed an old woman on the other side, hobbling in the same direction with an aide of her own. The two women smiled briefly at each other and moved on.
The old woman looked familiar, but Aniela couldn’t place her.
She noticed the woman several times after that, but often, she forgot to look for her.
Monthly, a neurologist checked Aniela’s progress and wasn’t satisfied. Her blood pressure was still not under control, he said; her balance was off, and she had clotting problems.
“We’ll extend your stay a little longer,” her children said.
“I want to going home,” Aniela said, but her words were still mush.
With winter’s onset, Aniela imagined her peonies and lilies retracting, like snails’ eye stalks, into the ground. But nothing, she thought, was dead. It all awaits the rebirth, she thought. Patient, like me.
Month by month, she endured new medicines and daily physical, occupational, and speech therapy sessions. But instead of the rebirth she hoped for, she suffered another stroke.
“We’ve put the farm on the market, Mama,” her daughters, Catherine and Rose, said to her one morning when they visited. “It’s not practical to keep it, with you living here now.”
Aniela had stopped counting days and years after Józef passed. Her big clock had still rung the hours, but she had not counted them; she’d counted seasons, not days. Still, she had enjoyed her life. But here…this was not life. This was storage, like canned beans.
Aniela’s daughters could not see what small godność, dignity, remained to their mother. “I want to going home,” Aniela said that morning, for the hundredth time.
Her words were still so much mush, but by now, Rose and Catherine knew the phrase. They understood the word home.
“This is your home now,” said Rose, pretending not to see her mother’s tears.
After they said their goodbyes, Aniela’s aide helped her down the long hallway to her room. In the hallway window, Aniela spied the same friendly old woman she still didn’t know. I think I need friend now, Aniela thought, so she stopped in front of the window and forced a smile.
The other woman stopped to smile back. She has the nice smile, Aniela thought. The woman was missing one tooth in the same place Aniela was, and this made Aniela smile even more broadly. The other woman’s smile broadened in response.
Aniela thought, Why is it, nowhere else I ever see this old woman but here in this hallway?
She lifted her hand to wave. The other woman did, too.
Aniela put her arm down. The other woman did the same.
Aniela’s mouth opened in surprise, and like monkey-see-monkey-do, the other woman’s did too.
It was not a window. It was a mirror.
The old woman’s image blurred as the now-familiar searing pain exploded in her head, and she watched herself slide from view, sinking to the floor like the last leaf in autumn. Foreign sounds escaped her lips, sounds she was sure she did not make herself.
The aide ran for help.
Aniela felt her cheek puddled against the sterile tile. She remembered the pole beans in summer. She saw wind-ripples of tasseling corn; the delicate, fluttering wings of dragonflies; her grandchildren’s fingers sticky with Easter pączki.
I want to going home, she’d said, and she has.