The sprawling state nursing home is in a dreary area on the edge of the city. Arline tells me that schoolchildren often visit the home to entertain the residents, and the president makes appearances. A nun gives us a tour of the cafeteria, the many patios and balconies, the nursing stations. Although the buildings are institutional, grey walls and grey tile, the home offers tiny single rooms with private baths — Nora wouldn’t have roommates to disturb — and nurses on staff around the clock. The price is right; less than Nora’s pension. Arline tears with relief as she thanks the nun for her help. The nun directs us to the social worker’s office.
Walking down the hallway, Arline says Nora would never have wanted to be here. And she feels some shame putting her mother in the poor folk’s home. But we look out at the extensive grounds, shaded with trees. Nora loved to walk when she was healthy. Maybe she would enjoy walking here. Maybe she wouldn’t realize where she was.
I stand near the social worker’s cubicle while Arline carries on a conversation with her that I don’t understand. The social worker flips through files, pulls out paperwork. Finally, Arline turns to me, her jaw locked. They can’t let Nora in without a full medical evaluation and a number of documents. Tomorrow, at noon, the country shuts down for the Christmas holidays and won’t start up again until Monday. There’s no way we can get Nora into this home before we leave for Seattle.
We walk silently back through the complex. A lone resident, a woman in a long overcoat, has drifted away from the main patios and is standing at the gate, looking out at the road.
After we get back to our hotel room, we are delighted when Lili calls to say we can bring Nora to her nursing home. She gives us a long list of clothes and supplies to bring the next morning. We go to Albrook Mall, a mammoth complex that includes a bowling alley, theater, video arcade, and ninety-eight restaurants, and it is so crammed with shoppers the day before Christmas Eve that we have to park at a nearby airfield and take a cab from there.
At midnight, we are celebrating Alma’s birthday with her family. Her husband surprises her with a mariachi band that plays song after song. Alma has been treated for cancer on and off for years; she recently learned that it has moved to her liver. We try to smile into the night, keeping thoughts of decline on the shadowed edges of the patio.
Wednesday, December 24
We’re in line at the Tribunal Electoral, trying to getting Arline’s Panama identification, called a cedula, renewed. The easiest way to pay a nursing home from the States is to open an account in an international bank here, deposit money in Seattle, and allow the home to make withdrawals in Panama. But when we went to a bank to open an account, the clerk objected to Arline’s cedula, which has a picture of her that is over thirty years old.
We don’t know if the lines are especially long because of the imminent holiday or if they are always this way. As we wait, Arline keeps trying to get hold of the manager at Hogar Krueger. It’s our last option. At 7:30 this morning, Lili called to say she changed her mind and wanted Nora to get a psychiatric evaluation before letting her in. Arline cried into the phone. Lili hung up.
Now we’ve decided that our only option is Hogar Krueger. It’s the only home with acceptable conditions that has an available bed, even if it is the most expensive. Arline calls and asks for the manager, but she’s not in. Every half hour, as we move slightly ahead in line, Arline calls again. Between these calls, she’s on the phone to Alma, who is trying to pull strings so Arline can get her cedula today instead of waiting the usual month. After several hours, Arline has a new cedula with a current photo. The manager of Hogar Krueger finally calls her back. Nora’s scabies, she says, are highly contagious. Although we’ve purchased the prescribed lotions and they’re being applied daily, she can’t risk taking Nora if she hasn’t been sufficiently cured. Her home’s doctor will have to evaluate Nora on Friday to see if they can take her.
We sit on a bench outside the Tribunal Electoral, numb, depleted. I’m still carrying around our camera as if this were a vacation, although I haven’t taken pictures in days. When Arline gets on the phone with Alma to tell her the news, I take her picture, documenting her tired eyes, the folder of notes and documents that gets thicker every day, the sun that shines on Panama whether we are vacationing or not.
How is it that Arline, who felt no need to see her mother for years, now throws herself into the project of saving her? Is the bond between mother and child stronger than the abuse? Or is it just impossible for her to leave a human being in such a state of misery and squalor? No one else seems capable of making sure Nora gets decent treatment, not Giselle, who doesn’t have the money, nor Alma who has her own health to worry about, nor Arline’s ex-husband who apparently doesn’t have the sense. So Arline steps in.
And me? I’m doing it for Arline.
Thursday, December 25
For our Christmas present to ourselves, we spend the morning on a lovely beach a couple of hours outside the city. This is my second trip to Panama. We came eight years ago, and I met some of Arline’s family on her father’s side; her father died decades ago. It was then that Arline cut off contact with her mother. She found out about her father’s death when her mother called, collect, from Panama and said, “El hijo de puta ya murió.” The son of a bitch is dead. After hearing this story, I wasn’t surprised that we didn’t visit her mother. We spent most of our time being tourists; we drove the length of the country to the remote province of Bocas del Toro, where we walked for miles on beaches empty but for birds and tiny red frogs.
Returning from the beach to our hotel in the Canal Zone, Arline pulls up to a left-turn lane where a car is stopped, lights flashing. The cars ahead of her have gone around this car and turned left. She does the same. The minute she gets through the intersection, a police car is pulling her over. Holiday ticket trap.
I have nothing on but my bathing suit and a bathing skirt. The police officer makes a show of looking across Arline at my bare legs. He asks for her passport. She is trying to be polite, but I can hear the strain in her voice. She’s Panamanian, she says; she doesn’t have a passport on her. He nods at me. She’s from the States, Arline says. We’re here visiting her sick mother. The police officer opens a book of regulations and shows Arline where she has violated the law. The ticket for this violation is one hundred dollars. He points to where it says one hundred dollars. Arline nods. But, of course, it’s Christmas, says the police officer. So he’ll have to take her driver’s license now and she’ll have to go to court next month to pay it.
Adrenaline seems to have improved my Spanish. I understand her telling him that we don’t have time to come back and pay the bill. Would it be possible for him to pay it for her?
He agrees that might be possible.
The problem, she says, is we don’t have a hundred dollars on us. We certainly do have a hundred dollars on us. It’s in a coin purse in her pocket. I hold my breath.
He tilts his head, looks into the distance. She says, What about twenty? We have twenty. He slides the regulation book into the car. Put the twenty in there. She unzips the purse, keeping it out of sight so he won’t see how much is in it. She pulls out a twenty and puts it between the pages of the book. She closes the book and hands it back. Alma will exclaim later — Twenty dollars? Five should have done it!
“Feliz Navidad,” the police officer says. He tucks his head in the window and looks at me. “Merry Christmas.”
We drive silently back to our hotel. My muscles are limp from swimming this morning, but also from surrendering, over and over, to this country where I understand nothing. The efficiency and professionalism I take pride in back in Seattle, where I chair a college department, amount to nothing here; I know too little of the language and next to nothing of how to get things done. I look down at my legs, barely covered by the swim skirt. I should have had at least a towel to cover myself.
We return that afternoon to the home with another dinner for Nora, who is calm enough now to eat with a fork. The woman in the nightgown points to her mouth again, and we give her a packet of cookies.
The home’s doctor is coming in the front door as we’re leaving. Arline confronts him. Does he know how bad the conditions are here? He shrugs. Arline says Nora has the worst case of scabies her doctor has ever seen. Why hadn’t he diagnosed it? He says there’s nothing he can do. He can prescribe medication, but the families never buy it. And if they do, there’s no guarantee the staff will follow the directions and put it on. Arline glares at him. He probably goes home to his wife and complains about the U.S. relatives, sauntering in once a year to tell him how to do his job.
Our own Christmas dinner is a can of tuna fish on the balcony of our room. We’re staying in a small hotel with a view of the Bridge of the Americas, cantilevered across the Pacific entrance to the canal and lit up by spotlights. Arline says that as stressful as this trip has been, seeing her mother so old and frail somehow allows her to look past the abuse and see the human being. She feels stirrings of affection, even. Nora had some good qualities. She believed in education, for example, and found a way to send Arline to Albert Einstein Institute, an elite high school.
She looks over at me, hunched in my chair, eating crackers and tuna fish. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m unloading baggage on this trip, and you’re taking it on.” But I’m too numb right now to know how much I’m taking on. All I can do is surrender. And hope.
I look at the palms of my hands. Scabies mites, I’m sure of it, are burrowing under the skin.
Friday, December 26
We take Nora to the hospital for an x-ray and an electrocardiogram that were recommended by the doctor. I sit with Nora in the waiting room while Arline attends to details with the staff. Nora speaks English; her husband, whom she divorced years before having Arline, was an American naval officer, and she lived with him in the Canal Zone among English speakers. I ask Nora to tell me about Arline when she was a child. Spitefully, it seems to me, she talks only of Marjean, Arline’s older half-sister. Marjean of the coveted blond hair and blue eyes, who seems alive to Nora and untouched in her mind, despite decades of no contact.
Nora is still gaunt, but she sits up straight in the wheelchair, looking imperiously at me. The food and attention, and the lack of tranquilizers, have sharpened her focus. I am beginning to see the mother Arline remembers.
“Marjean,” she repeats, “had blond hair and blue eyes. Blue eyes are a sign of intelligence, you know.”
Now that she’s said it again, I have to respond. “You have brown eyes,” I say. “Brown eyes and brown hair, like Arline.”
She glances away. I wonder if she was speaking to my blue eyes. I wonder if she realizes I’m not flattered.
In the afternoon, the manager of Hogar Krueger calls to say they’ve given away the bed to someone from the States, who has just arrived from the airport. Even if Nora were to be cleared by the doctor, there is nowhere now for her to stay. We drink a bottle of wine on our balcony that night, toasting the North Americans who can afford to take Nora’s bed out from under us, who know a good deal when they see one.
Saturday, December 27
At 5:30 p.m., the night before we are to return to Seattle, we walk into the nursing home and Arline tells Nora that we’re getting her out of there. We’ve spent much of today in Alma’s office, where she called everyone she could think of to find a place for Nora to go before we leave. Finally, she found a nursing home affiliated with San Fernando Hospital, the same hospital where Arline’s sanity was tested years ago. They will take her for a few months while she recovers from the scabies and malnutrition. By then, perhaps we will be able to find somewhere else for her to live. We need to give them $2700 for the first two months.
Nora’s jaw sets and her eyes widen. She doesn’t look happy; she looks like a woman about to kill someone. The attendant goes in search of the documents Nora brought with her. Felicia is nowhere to be seen. As we wheel Nora through the lounge, her few belongings in a paper bag, the neatly dressed woman who speaks English hands me a brochure about the rosary. “I’m so glad I was able to help you,” she says.
The attendant returns with the documents. All week she has been suspicious and distant. But now she says in Spanish to Arline, You know, I have it, too. She points to her legs and arms. I put on the lotion. But I can’t get rid of it.
Arline winces in sympathy.
“Adiós, Nora,” the attendant says.
Nora lifts her hand, dismissing the woman.
I ride in the ambulance with Nora while Arline drives our rental car. The driver asks Nora how old she is. One doesn’t say, Nora says. He smiles. I tell him she’s 86. I’m holding my breath, hoping nothing goes wrong now.
At the hospital, Nora is taken by an attendant to her room while we meet with an administrator. Arline gives her our credit card number for the two months. The administrator tells us that before we leave tonight, we need to buy two — no, three — boxes of rubber gloves, more lotion, and a can of Lysol. Oh, and we’ll need to get Nora a wheelchair no later than Monday.
The shopping takes longer than anticipated; the hospital pharmacy is closed, and we have to drive a ways to find one. The clerk can’t find exactly the size of gloves we’ve been instructed to buy. We hope what we’ve purchased will be enough for us to leave Nora, finally, in a safe and comfortable place. The wheelchair will have to wait.
We take the elevator up to Nora’s floor. The nurse at the desk points us to the room. Arline asks if her mother is okay. The nurse says she sure is; she ordered a ham and cheese sandwich and coffee with skim milk. Arline smiles. Her mother, who has always been afraid of gaining weight, surely doesn’t need skim milk now.
As we enter Nora’s room, a bellows makes a loud noise. The other patient appears to be on a ventilator that pumps air into her lungs every few minutes. We look, with fear, at Nora. Will she protest this room and its noisy equipment? But Nora is curled in a blanket, eyes closed.
Arline bends down. Nora, she says.
Nora makes a small noise.
You’re at San Fernando Hospital.
San Fernando, Nora says. One of the best.
I hear you got something to eat.
Ham and cheese sandwich? Coffee with skim milk?
I have to go back to the United States tomorrow.
Okay. She snuggles into the blanket, eyes still closed.
Will you promise me you’ll behave?
I’ll behave. And you, too.
In January, Nora will go to the emergency room with heart failure, and Arline will spend a week here. In February, Lili will allow her to move into one of her homes. In March, Arline and I, along with Giselle and her children, will be in Panama for the funeral. This week will be the only time I ever spend with my mother-in-law, but the aftereffects of these events will stretch into the spring and summer and fall. Arline will drift into not-quite depression, something like a low-level infection that never resolves. I’ll find myself criticizing her for the smallest things, instigating fights for the relief they’ll bring afterwards. It will be almost two years before we find our footing again.
I start to leave the hospital room, stepping toward the door. I’m startled to hear Arline, behind me, say, “Te quiero.” Only slightly less startling is that Nora, who has never told Arline she loved her, says it back. I turn to look at them. Nora’s eyes are closed, her mouth a dreamy smile. The words seem to have slid out effortlessly, as if she has said them repeatedly, routinely, all these years. As if she means them. Arline’s face has opened; her eyes are no longer hunted and small. She looks with fondness, love even, at her mother. What a surprise that such a moment of humanity is possible between this mother and this child.
In the elevator, we clasp hands. We’ve done it. Our plane is leaving in twelve hours, and we’ve done it. All the way back to Seattle, we laugh: “Ham and cheese!” we say over and over. “Coffee with skim milk!” The simple pleasures: a sandwich, coffee the way you like it, and a daughter who takes care of you.
Allison Green is the author of a novel, Half-Moon Scar (St. Martin’s), and essays, stories, and poems that have appeared in publications such as ZYZZYVA, Calyx, and Bellingham Review.