Ridiculous fears plagued her that day, not of the bad thing, but of missing her self-care regimen. She knew she could miss a day without consequences, yet she could not prevent the terrifying thought that if she missed a day she would lose all motivation to keep trying. And then age would catch up with her fast.
Lydia was seventy years old. With the help of her exercise routine – her attention to weight, hydration, detoxing, sufficient sleep, supplements, and a little Botox – she believed she looked younger. She would say she was sixty-five when asked, and the usual response was a satisfying “No way! You don’t look a day over fifty.”
In her youth, she had hunted for a man with the dark eyes and sculptured face of Peter Fonda and she had found him in the man who was to be her husband. Even at seventy-five, with a mind obliterated by Alzheimer’s, Bob was still erect and handsome, with a head of thick white hair, although his facial expression was blank. Lydia took him to her own stylist rather than allow the nursing home barber to touch him, and she made sure he used the facility treadmill daily. Sometimes, she sneaked the dessert off his dinner tray and threw it away.
During their long and, she would say, successful marriage, Bob had been an executive at a pharmaceutical company in Indiana. Their affluence had afforded them a good life with a large country home, condos in Florida and Colorado, and abundant travel. If Bob did not recognize her now, she would joke that maybe that was the secret to a good relationship – existing amicably without the irritating familiarity that could cause conflict. There was something to be said for superficiality.
Lydia had been floored when the phone call came the night before.
“Mrs. Waterford,” the person had said, robotically, “I’m from the corporate headquarters of the Assisted Living Facility. Your husband is fine. He is unhurt. There has been a crime at our facility in Indiana, and you may hear about it on the media. I wanted to contact you before you heard it from another source and to reassure you that the crime did not involve your husband in any way.”
“Crime?” she had responded. “Please explain.”
“I’m afraid that a number of residents were shot. We are told that the perpetrator was the maintenance man. Your husband was not one of those shot, and he did not observe the shooting. He was in his room asleep at the time in the front of the building. The shootings were in the rooms located in the rear. Your husband is unhurt. It does not appear that the noise woke him.”
Lydia was distracted by thoughts of blood in the building, of stepping in it by mistake or somehow smearing it on herself. She shuddered.
The person said, “Mrs. Waterford, may I continue? There is more but I can call you back at a time of your choosing.”
“No,” She said. “You may continue.”
“The perpetrator is deceased. You will learn that he was shot by the police. It is possible there are other victims who were not in the building. Much is not yet known.”
“Should I go there?”
“There is permission for one visitor per resident to enter the building by the front door. As you can imagine, we are short-staffed tonight and it might be helpful for a family member or a spouse to be with each resident during this trying night. We should be fully operational in the morning.” He sounded like he was reading everything from a script.
Lydia drove right over and was surprised to find the road cordoned off. She had to identify herself to be allowed through. Perhaps a dozen police cars were parked at odd angles in front of the building, red lights blinking. An officer checked off her name when she entered. There was unusual activity in the corridors, but she found Bob in his room, still asleep. She closed his door and prepared to spend the night sitting beside him.
Residents in the back of the building where the level 4’s were housed had been shot. She didn’t suppose any were still alive. Lydia tried to be sad, because it was sad when any person was killed. Still, the person who killed them had picked the right ones to die, to be frank about it. The perpetrator – the killer – the maintenance man – had been helpful lifting and carrying items when Bob had moved in a year ago; she could not recall having an interaction with him since. He was always around, scurrying up and down the corridors with a belt of tools. That was all she had noticed. With a little prickle of fear, she wondered if he was the only shooter.
There was a knock on the door. A young police officer entered.
“Is everything okay in here, Ma’am?” He asked.
“Yes. My husband is asleep.”
“Just checking, Ma’am. We are in the hallway if you need us.”
Lydia wondered if this young man thought that she was Bob’s wife or if she looked young enough, attractive enough to pass for Bob’s daughter.
All of her life, Lydia had been beautiful. As a baby, she won contests. She had never known what it was like not to be the most beautiful girl and later, the most beautiful woman, in the room. She had never known what it was like not to turn heads.
Now it took work to maintain an appearance that used to require little effort. If Lydia believed she did not look a day over fifty, it was because she did what was necessary to win the war on aging. She was convinced people really were surprised to hear she was old enough to have a husband in a nursing home.
Lydia knew she only had a few years before she might wind up in a nursing home herself, looking as old as all the women who lived at the facility. That is what it meant to look bad for one’s age. Not just grey-haired, but unkempt, unstylish, incontinent, smelly.
Lydia thought she would rather be dead before she lost the last vestige of her beauty.
But everyone she knew said something like that. They would rather drop dead before they lost something – their minds, their money, their spouses, their hair.
Yet, here was Lydia’s chance, if there were a second killer. She could wander around, if the police allowed it, making herself a target. But she knew she wouldn’t. She was too scared to actually invite death. She could only wish for it to just happen, quickly and painlessly, in her sleep. But not just yet.
The day after the bad thing, many residents were transferred to other facilities. Lydia agreed to keep Bob in the facility he was accustomed to. It was not as if he knew or understood what had happened. His room had not changed. Some of the staff would be turning over but some from before would remain, even if shell-shocked. Besides, this was still the best such facility in town and the only one on the more fashionable east side. All of the others were across the tracks, so to speak, on the west side. Very inconvenient.
Management, maybe the person who had talked robotically to her on the phone, would be arranging extra support for the relatives as well as for the more cognizant residents. There would be individual and group debriefings, grief counselors, information sessions with security experts, interviews with police officers, and discounts on the monthly fees for the remainder of the year.
During the three days after the bad thing, reporters interviewed the relatives and spouses of the victims and of the surviving residents as well – some the next day, and others, like Lydia, after it was known that the killer’s mother was also a victim. Apparently, she had been shot first. It was guessed that it was an act of euthanasia. Perhaps the others were shot for the same reason before the killer provoked “death by cop” in the back of the building.
Lydia was amazed to see that her interviews were not only broadcast on the local TV news, but on CNN, Fox News, NBC, and all the major networks. The “Nursing Home Massacre” gripped the nation.
“I never thought this could happen in a nursing home. And the killer never seemed unhappy. He was always cheerful when I saw him,” she said, repeatedly, in close-up, throughout the next 24 hours.
She was consistently identified as the “wife of 75-year-old Bob Waterford, a former executive in the pharmaceutical industry, now suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and unable to recognize family members.”
The huge 64-inch television screen in her house, which showed her face in brutal detail, far more so than a mirror did, revealed to her that she was indeed a seventy-year-old woman who did look her age. She was shocked by the camera’s blunt unkindness. Every wrinkle, every blemish, every pore was displayed.
This was when she had a migraine so intense and painful that she could not get out of bed. She lay in agony in her bedroom with a cloth over her eyes, unable to bear any light. She had to stuff cotton into her ears to avoid the torment of sounds. She staggered to the bathroom to vomit and saw whirls and squiggles if she dared opened her eyes.
She did not visit Bob for several days. No one called. No one knocked on her door. If she’d had children, she could have asked them for help, but she had been too worried about ruining her figure to allow herself to get pregnant. She had few truly close friends – her beauty caused resentment in others, she had imagined. Others could not be fully trusted.
When the pain finally subsided, she had no desire to go out. It was not as if Bob would miss her. There was no one to miss her. The thought of her face on TV, in its dismaying oversize devastation – in bars, restaurants, gyms, hotel lobbies – shamed her terribly.
The words “faded beauty” kept running through her head. Her beauty was “fading.” What did she have if she didn’t have her beauty? She had no talent, no interests. She had never lived without beauty. Obsessively, she kept looking in the mirrors in the house, of which there were many. It used to please her to pass through rooms and to see herself reflected wherever she went, just as it pleased her – or reassured her – to see herself reflected in the admiring gaze of others.
But this was nonsense. She would shower and dress and leave the house right away to shop. Retail therapy – that was what she needed. She would drive to the Keystone Mall in Indianapolis, more than an hour away. She would buy several new outfits at Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, or Ann Taylor.
On the drive up, she felt like herself again. But in the mall, it seemed to her that the shoppers, most a generation or two or three younger than she, looked at her with indifference if they looked at all. Had they seen her ruined face on TV, and could they see her same aged features if they glanced at her in person? In stores, she could not recall ever having had a neutral look from a salesperson before. They had always remarked how good she looked in whatever she tried on.
She wound up slinking away without making a single purchase. She made the decision not to stop off to see Bob. She needed to go right home.
Her obsession with mirrors continued to grow. She found she could not pass her reflection, as before, without stopping to gaze at herself, to search for wrinkles, a sagging jaw line, a mottled neck, thinning hair. And with every gaze, she seemed to see more evidence of decline. The memory of the close-ups of her face on TV merged with what she saw reflected.
Her bedroom had a full-length mirror. Previously, she had used it to admire her body, toned by hours spent at the gym. Now, she looked at herself with disgust. How could she not have seen the sagging breasts, the soft belly, the weak underarm muscles, the wrinkled skin? Old.
She was reluctant to leave the house. She phoned Kroger to sign up for delivery service as well as using Amazon for subscription groceries and household goods. How she would miss trips to the stores, the pharmacies, the bank, the dry cleaner, looking like a queen. And Bob at the facility – even though it had only been a week since she had seen him, he was already hazy, as if he were fading, too. In a sense, he had already faded. It was a relief to know she was not really needed there.
Frequent migraines began to confine her to bed. Or were they brain tumors, an aneurysm, cancer? Then, after two or three days, she would awake without pain, with new resolve. She would put on make-up, fix her hair, and drive to the Country Club, hoping for an afternoon of cards and drinks with the regulars, women she had not seen much of since Bob had left home a year before.
But after parking her car, she saw that she would have to see her reflection in the windows to get to the entrance. And she remembered the large TV monitor, always tuned to Fox News, that would have broadcast her aged face to the members. She changed her mind and drove back home. This happened three times before she gave up.
Terrified, she knew she was becoming a hermit for no good reason. What kind of values did she have if she allowed her aging appearance, her “fading beauty,” to dominate her? What kind of person was she? So selfish. So narcissistic. So without character. She would fight this. She would go to an Alanon meeting. It was not just for those with alcoholics in their lives, she had been told. Anyone who wished to do 12-Step work could go. Knowing there should be a meeting every day, she found the time and place on the internet and drove right to the address, in a church basement.
When she entered, she saw that she was the grandmother, if not the great-grandmother, of the group. No one was within twenty years of her age. And she looked out of place in her lime-green silk suit. Everyone was wearing jeans and many wore oversized lumberjack shirts. She turned and fled.
At home, she daydreamed. She remembered being crowned beauty queen at high school proms, the county fair, and the local and state Miss America, Mrs. America, and Miss Universe Beauty contests, in an era before feminist activism put a stop to such events. She remembered going to parties and functions with Bob. There were invitations to the captain’s table on cruise ships and upgrades at hotels.
When another two weeks had gone by, she saw a half-inch of gray root growth at the part in her hair. And without Botox, the wrinkles around her eyes and across her brow were deepening. Her eyebrows were nearly absent and her lips were colorless without make-up.
With nothing to do, she began to think deeply about the bad thing for the first time since it happened. She pictured the killer shooting his mother, an older woman, maybe one who looked like her, a faded beauty. Maybe he hated his mother for becoming old and ugly. Ugliness offended him. Ugliness was offensive.
Her thoughts went back and forth. On the one hand, everyone is told that beauty is skin deep, meaning it is a person’s soul, their character, that defines their worth. On the other hand, everyone is told that people are created in the image of God and, by definition, God is beautiful. Maybe ugly old people who were no longer in the image of God deserved to die.
Never had she thought so intensely and for so many hours at a time. Never had she thought much at all, except about things like the colors of upholstery. She wished she could talk her thoughts over with the killer. She felt he might be the only one who could have helped her understand. But he had died for his ideals, whatever they were. What had her ideal been? A runway model? A movie actress? Jane Fonda? How stupid! That made her laugh, briefly.
Suddenly, she knew what she wanted to do. Throwing on a pair of sweat pants and an old shirt of Bob’s, she drove to the facility. Bob was there, silent and unchanged, as if time had stopped, probably looking younger at this point than she did. She took a chair next to him. After sitting with Bob for hours without speaking, she felt her breath slow and her muscles relax. The pattern on the wallpaper put her in a trance, which was interrupted from time to time by calls for meals and the nurse coming to give Bob his medicine. The facility had, as far as she could tell, returned to normal. That was the only place in the world she desired to be.
From now on, she would be spending the whole day with Bob, going home at night only to sleep. Or maybe she could learn to sleep sitting up in the chair next to Bob’s bed, as she tried to do the night the bad thing happened.
She would wait there for the second shooter. He would be coming for her. Soon.