I barely recognized her, but nursing homes are helpful in this way. The placard by her door read “Mrs. Patricia Elmen,” so I knew this was my favorite high school English teacher, despite her bloated cheeks and chin, her rotting teeth, her vacant stare.
I called ahead this week during a visit to Chicago. The nursing home staff suggested I come after her nap, but before dinnertime. If they had used the term “feeding time,” I would have been better prepared. Mrs. Elmen taught us that concision comes from using the right words.
Since she had a series of strokes about two years ago, Pat has been bed-ridden. She can’t feed herself. What they called “dinnertime” amounted to a nurse spooning pureed food into her. I felt sad and a little frightened when I walked in.
Neural damage causes her to speak loudly, in bursts. I was warned she doesn’t remember much, but I don’t think that’s quite true. It was as if her memories no longer link together, causing her to ask a question again when the context changes.
“What year did you graduate!” She hollers her questions like a drill sergeant. I reply softly, “1975,” hoping she can hear the difference. She can’t. “That was a good year! How old are you!” Math isn’t easy for her now, if it ever was. “57,” I replied. We exchanged smiles.
“You’re a puppy! You’re all puppies! I’m 63! You’re my puppies! I love my job! I love my job! That was a good year!” She called us “puppies” back then. Even though many of us had sisters older than her, we couldn’t see it. She was an adult and we were not. That was as much sense as we could make of things.
Pat had no children — only “puppies.” If she was teaching today, she would be reprimanded for not taking every precaution with us. She played favorites. She once invited us into her mobile home. We knew it by its nickname.
“The tin can! The tin can! I love my puppies!”
She gave her favorite students a dictionary when they graduated. I still have mine.
She taught us that words matter — “Be careful what you call things.” She, for example, was Mrs. Elmen. But after graduation, she was Pat. None of us looked forward to the dictionary, but we all wanted to call her Pat. It’s only occurring to me now how those two gifts were connected.
I was a terrified teenager, which is probably redundant. Without a father or older siblings, I was feeling my way forward when Pat made me one of her “puppies.” She often would drive me to my part-time job after school, sitting and talking with me in the parking lot.
“How are your brothers! How is your Mom!”
Those might have been the same questions she asked me in the parking lot 40 years ago. My Dad never came up, then or now. I’m sure she knew, and probably still knows. She always paid attention.
“My nose itches!” She was explaining why she was raising her left arm toward her face. She shakes, so her arm is more reliable than her hand. The moment her forearm brushed her nose, I could see only her catlike eyes, slanted toward the bridge of her nose. With no worry lines above her brows, her face looked playful, almost mischievous.
Forty years from now, I may have words to describe that familiarity. I’m still her puppy.
We knew the barrier between us and adulthood; she built us a bridge. Breaking with the tradition of the time, she told us her first name, while playfully forbidding its use.
When the strokes hit, they didn’t give her much chance to survive. But she still looks forward to every day, watching the news, chatting with visitors, waiting for dinnertime.
“I don’t want to die early! I want to die late!” We put her desire into school language together. “I want to be tardy! Tardy would be OK! Tardy would be good!”
Be tardy, Pat. Keep reminding us of the rules and teach us how to break them.