Saturday is the day that we get paid to read to the patients, at least the ones who don’t have family. While some patients have the privilege of family members that live nearby and take the time to visit them, others are stranded without much human contact from the outside world. Because all of the nursing assistants are usually saddled with all of the work of the maintenance staff, Saturdays we are relieved of basic housecleaning duties in exchange for visiting with the residents who are alert enough to know they have no family visiting and wish they would.
I try to choose one patient a week that I haven’t met before; I’m relatively new here so I haven’t met all of the patients.
“I’m Sophie,” I introduced myself to Wanda, a woman dressed in a dark blue dress and seated in her wheelchair. As I held out my hand to shake, she placed hers lightly in mine, as if I were supposed to kiss it. I wiggled the weak offering, her papery white skin shifting in my fingers.
“I’m Wanda,” she said softly. Something told me that Wanda knew I was her compulsory reader; she wasn’t impressed. “I am actually fine today, dear. You can move on to someone else who needs a visitor more than I do.”
I sat down on the orange straight backed chair next to the bed, neatly made up with its harvest gold bedspread in place. “Actually, I’m trying to meet everyone. I’m new here.”
Wanda managed a little smile. “Oh, well…”
“Do you mind if I stay? I was hoping I could just get to know you.”
Wanda nodded, carefully examining my face for a motive. She was a thin woman, probably in her mid-eighties, with pale skin and a shock of white hair, combed straight back. That day she was wearing a pearl brooch, which looked carefully placed on the blue chiffon dress.
“Is that a dove or an angel?” I asked, pointing to it.
Wanda followed my eyes down to her brooch; she shrugged and looked up again. It was then I noticed her eyes were blue. “One of the nurses brought it back for me from her vacation. I didn’t have the heart to ask her what it was.” Her odd confession made us both laugh.
“Yeah, it’s the thought that counts, right?”
“Exactly.” Wanda was eyeing the book I held in my hand. “Is that what you’re reading? Is that why you wanted to get to know me?”
I looked down at the brown hardcover I had chosen from the shelf in the main dining room: “Murder at Glass River.” It seemed as good a book as any and had a decent sized font. “This seemed like an interesting title, do you like mysteries? I think it’s a mystery.”
“It’s a murder mystery,” she said.
“Yeah, a murder mystery. Have you read it?”
Wanda waited before she answered. “Yes.” She was looking at me suspiciously, and it made me nervous.
“I could go choose another one.”
At this point, Wanda put her frail hands on the wheels of her chair. She looked like she was trying to turn toward me or maybe leave the room. I started to stand up to help her when She pointed at the cover.
“I wrote that book,” she said, wiggling her finger at the title. “Is this why you wanted to read it to me?”
I looked down at the cover and saw the title again, then looked at the binding to see the author’s name: Wanda Ferris. My face grew warm and I looked up at her again.
“You’re Wanda Ferris?”
She smiled again. “Yes, I am.”
“This is you?”
She laughed a little. “Yes.”
“Why are you here?” I blurted out, maybe a little too loud. I regretted saying anything as soon as the words left my mouth.
For some reason, the question didn’t surprise Wanda. She smiled and put her hands back in her lap, straightening her dress as she did. “Why am I here in this convalescent hospital, or why am I here in a Medicaid room with two other patients? Why am I here on visiting day with no one around me? Why what?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, my face reddening even more. “I didn’t mean anything by that. I just meant…” I shifted in my seat, which suddenly felt stiff and unforgiving. “I ... I’ve never met an author before, and this is quite a coincidence.”
Wanda shook her head. “I thought that maybe one of the other nurses told you I wrote that book and that’s why you came over here to read to me. Most of them know that’s one of my books.”
I shook my head. “Really, I didn’t know.”
“Oh, then it really is a coincidence.” There was an awkward silence and I felt embarrassed for both of us. The room that Wanda was in was a low-cost shared room, one where the Medicaid and social security were taken as payment. It wasn’t like the nicer rooms in the east wing: private rooms where there was actually real furniture. I also wondered where Wanda’s friends and family were; was she all alone? How could I ask her?
“How many have you written?” I finally got the nerve to ask her.
Wanda put her hand next to her ear. “What was that?”
“How many books have you written?” I said, louder.
She smiled. “Oh, about ten or so. I’ve only had eight published, though. That series there sold the most. Everyone seemed to love that murder mystery series.”
“Well, should I read it aloud to you?” I was now curious to read it myself.
“Are you a student working here part-time?” Wanda asked, out of the blue.
I smiled. “Yes, how did you know?”
Her eyes sparkled and she nodded. “You’re young, like most college students. This is a college town and jobs are scarce sao a lot of them work here. I’ve never seen you before and it is October; you must have just started your fall semester. Also, you seemed relatively impressed that I wrote a book, a lot of people wouldn’t care but students do.”
I couldn’t help but be impressed. “Yeah, that’s about right.”
Wanda shrugged again. Maybe it was a habit of hers; I didn’t know her well enough yet to know for sure. “Why don’t you take the book home and read it and then when you work next we can discuss it.”
I nodded. “I’d really like that.”
“For now, tell me more about yourself,” She put her elbow on the armrest and then her chin in her hand. “What are you studying?”
I sat back in the chair, wondering if I was allowed to talk and not read. For the moment, I didn’t care. I was wondering if all of the patients were this interesting. I doubted it; it was impossible to know for sure.
“Music,” I said, finally. “In fact, I can play three different instruments.”
And we sat there and talked for an hour or so before the sun made the long shadows that told me it was almost time to go home.