Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon


by Stephen J. Lyons

Thelma Skinner fell last month. Tripped over one of the curled edges of her old braided throw rugs placed at every doorway throughout her wood frame house. When she fell she had a stroke right there in front of her old couch. She was still alive when a neighbor found her, but not before a few dismal hours had passed. When the paramedics arrived there was not much left to take to the hospital. She hardly dented the stretcher.

Each time I delivered her lunch for a local volunteer organization that helps seniors, I warned her about those rugs but she wouldn’t let anyone haul them to the dump. She’s stubborn, they would whisper to me, the home health nurses that would visit and write down observations on a clipboard, the young man who trimmed the bushes and sprayed the weeds, and the woman from church who paid for the lunches that I brought each week. Not thinking clearly was another comment, and that was whispered because Thelma refused to leave her home where she had lived for more than a half a century.

The week before the fall, I walked through Thelma’s house past the clutter -- mostly paperwork from physicians, pharmacists, insurance companies, and others associated with the business of aging -- calling her name from room to room until I found her standing in the garden among the waving hollyhocks and bright purple and lipstick-red bachelor buttons. On top of two long braids of gray hair was a wide-rimmed straw hat and below the brim a bigger smile than I thought possible given her five-foot frame. She had on a plaid skirt above the knee, white socks, and a mustard-colored sweater despite the eighty-degree temperature. Her skin was wrinkly like an elephant’s but buttery like a puppy’s first coat. I held her hand as I always did, and all I felt were bones and veins, because that’s about all that’s left at the age of ninety-six. When I saw her happy among all those flowers, I knew why Thelma had made the choice to stay independent.

I wasn’t surprised when I heard that Thelma died within hours after she was moved from the hospital to a nursing home. At the funeral, there were scores of friends, but no relatives. She had outlived them all.

Soon after Thelma died Clara Jones fell. Tumbled down four stairs leading off the front porch. I could see it coming. At ninety-two it’s hard to keep track of the little details in life like the length and width of steps. However, Clara does keeps her large house and double lot immaculate -- like a park with perfect grass you can stretch down across and take a long nap. Clara is even smaller than Thelma, and her white hair is trimmed short with curls. When she goes downtown to the bank she puts on high heels, makeup, and a loose-fitting dress.

Clara is ninety-two, but her libido is much younger. Whenever I visit she flirts without shame, and pushes back her hair so I can see her made-up face. Then she puts her arm around me and we shuffle along through the house to the kitchen, where I set down the lunch tray and put the pint of milk in the refrigerator next to some bottles of beer. Whiskey, though, that’s her drink, and just maybe might have something to do with the falling. She sips it out of a china tea cup while she patrols her yard. "I hate to clean house," she often says. "I‘d much rather be outside. Wouldn’t you?"

She’s losing it, is what a couple of woman at the senior lunch center told me. She needs to go to a home. Her roses are beautiful, I tell them. She doesn’t keep her appointments at Mr. Leon’s School of Hair Design. I don’t tell them that Clara makes me feel human when she puts her arm around me.

A few weeks after Clara fell, the retired gunsmith John Fish tipped his ancient, wooden wheelchair over on himself while trying to get up from the toilet. Down he went in a heap and lay there for several hours until the girl that cleans his house each week happened to walk in. John was lucky for another reason that morning: he didn’t cut himself. He’s a hemophiliac, a consequence he blames somehow on his long-departed relation Gen. Robert E. Lee. Still, John’s bathroom accident was bruising enough to land him in the hospital on the same floor the other broken seniors are brought to be put back together like Humpty Dumpty.

His sister in Walla Walla should take him in, is what Bernice at the lunch center suggests. How could she know about the free advice John gives me every week. Why just the other day he said, looking at the rain coming down in sheets, "We just have to take what Mother Nature gives us." He’s going to end up dead someday. "Aren’t we all?," is what I think.

Clara’s on the third floor of the hospital in the very same room they brought Thelma last month, and the same room that John will occupy later. Results of the X-rays are not in yet, but Clara was wincing and reaching down for one of her tiny hips when I visited her. I leaned over the metal guard rail of the bed and, as quick as a lightning strike, she snatched my hand in a vise grip, squeezing it until I could feel all her nine decades of collected strength. Bones and veins. And electricity. She looked up at me and shouted, "I’m not dead! I’m still ticking!" She hung on tight. She wouldn’t let go.
Stephen J. Lyons
is the author of Landscape of the Heart, a single father's memoir. His articles, reviews, essays, and poems have appeared in many national magazines and journals including Newsweek, Salon, Chicago Reader, Sierra, High Country News, Witness, Commonweal, The Sun, Hope Magazine, Manoa, Whole Earth, and New Age. His writing appears in the anthologies Idaho's Poetry : A Centennial Anthology (University of Idaho Press), Passionate Hearts (New World Library), Living in the Runaway West (Fulcrum Books), and Bless the Day (Kodansha Press).

Read more of Lyons's work here