Concise Prose. Enough Said.
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When I'm Eighty-Four

When I first meet Bernice she isn’t wearing her dentures. She gives me a tour of her home and then I help her with a bath. She has to sit on a beige plastic shower chair with aluminum legs. I hand her towels, dry her feet.

“So much for modesty,” she says.

I work for a company that provides non-medical care to seniors. We cook, clean and shop for groceries or take them to appointments. The idea is that we can help keep them out of nursing homes.

Bernice is eighty-four and gets around with a walker. She was in the hospital for two months last year. They couldn’t find anything wrong with her except diverticulitis.

She shows me where the rubber gloves are and the sponges and I go to work on her bathroom. She tells me not to do the sink until she gets her dentures in. I want to ask her why she lost her teeth, but I don’t know how to without being rude. I wonder if I’ll lose mine some day.

After I make her bed I dust her living room. She sits at the kitchen table shuffling through the newspaper. As I move around the room she points out which pieces of furniture her husband made. “He was a darned nice man and a good carpenter to boot,” she says.

I learn that her favorite television programs are reruns of Perry Mason and The Golden Girls. There is a copy of the movie Seabiscuit lying next to her VCR. I ask about her collection of rooster knick-knacks and she corrects me. “They’re chickens,” she says.

Meals on Wheels is bringing her lunch. They are running late so I go ahead and vacuum. “I bet they’re bringing carrots,” she says when I stop. Her eyes are bright. She likes carrots.

I’m in her spare room watering plants when Meals on Wheels arrives. Bernice is pleased with her lunch: roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, carrots and applesauce. I’m relieved that I don’t have to help her cook. I had another client who wanted French toast and I didn’t know how to make it. It turned out okay, but it was nerve-racking. She gave me step-by-step instructions. The same woman had made another caregiver cry for folding towels the wrong way.

Sitting next to her while she eats, I can tell that she likes the company. She makes little slurping noises as her tongue hits her dentures. She picks up the remote. “Do we really want to know what’s going on in the world?,” she asks but, before I can answer, she turns to CNN.

When my shift is over I make plans with Bernice for Friday. I’ll be taking her someplace, probably the grocery store, so that she can get out of the house. She’s been inside all winter.

That night, as I carefully brush my teeth, I look into the mirror and wonder what I’ll be like in fifty years when I’m eighty-four. I notice the broken capillaries in my cheeks and the enlarged pores on my nose. I check my gums for redness and swish with mouthwash.

I wonder if I’ll be a widow. Probably. My husband is older by seventeen years. Will I be in good health? Not if I keep smoking. I just read something about smoking being a risk factor for Alzheimer’s.

Mostly, I wonder if I’ll live close to my children. My husband teases them that they’ll have to change our diapers one day. It isn’t so funny to me.

Colleen Wells writes from Wilmington, NC, where she lives with her two sons, three dogs and two chickens. Her work has appeared in NUVO and Orion.

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