Today is Stan’s 88th birthday; I can’t imagine he’ll have another.
I couldn’t imagine that last year either, but here we are. Time passes. Chips fall. Bullets are dodged, or never fired.
Last year on this day, first thing in the morning, the health care aides who happened to be on shift, gathered in his room and sang Happy Birthday.
“And now,” he said, when the warbling had been absorbed by the antiseptic air, “you may all line up for kisses.”
I know this because I heard it from them, from the sainted women who do the hard, hard job of looking after Stan and all the other residents of the Manor for scarcely more than minimum wage. Stan would never have spoken of this moment of levity, even had he remembered. Probably, he didn’t. His armature of decorum is amply layered. It would be a lapse of taste to report an instance of his own wryness.
This is Stan’s bath day as well as his birthday. That means I’ll find him in a foul mood. Some affronts to dignity are easier to accommodate than others.
I’ll pick up a cupcake and a single candle on my way. At the Manor, I’ll sign the guest log, and take the elevator to the third floor. Edna will be sitting in the foyer as she always is, in her blue cardigan, immobile, as she deserves to be at nearly 104. Yvette will be there, clapping her hands and counting between 81 and 86, over and over again, as she always does, as though rehearsing a piece by Philip Glass.
I miss seeing Frankie; Frankie who installed herself every day at the nurse’s station and made whirring sounds like a tropical bird. She was among the February deaths, as was Greta, who lived through the bombing of Dresden, as was Vikram, Stan’s tablemate, who ate nothing but chicken, carrots, and white rice. Vikram and Stan sat across from each other, three times a day, for almost two years.
“Ah,” said Stan, when I told him his mealtime companion had died, “I never really knew him.”
“You look good,” I’ll say to Stan when I arrive. “You look like a man who’s just had a bath.”
He’ll roll his eyes.
A successful life is one lived under the radar. The measure of a man is how little attention he attracts as he moves through his days. Always leave the pond less rippled than when you entered it.
“I hope you’re going to stay long enough to take the blame for that,” Stan will say, when he needs an assist to the toilet and I’ve used the red call button at his bedside to summon an aide.
“Take the blame for what?” I’ll ask, needlessly. I know exactly why he’s upset.
“For using that. That Red Button is for emergency use only.”
When Stan still read, he was a big fan of spy thrillers, Tom Clancy and Len Deighton and the like. I think he sees the Red Button as a kind of detonating device. I think its application excites imaginings of missiles, rising up from silos, or of cars exploding in some far quadrant of the city.
“What’s that about?” he’ll ask, when I place the cupcake before him.
He’ll say, “I don’t think the management of this hotel will appreciate that,” when I light the candle.
And even though it’s the most cheerless ditty ever written, I’ll do what needs doing. I’ll sing Happy Birthday with as much heart as I can muster, sing it as if for the very last time.
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