Maggie sputtered and coughed as she slowly awoke from her drowsy nap. Her eyes took in the blur of the small room. In the corner, a television quietly droned. The peach colored curtains were parted slightly, letting in the filtered sunlight of late afternoon. Maggie’s head was positioned at an angle, one of the pillow supports had fallen away during her nap. Maggie felt like she was falling. She tried to will her left hand into moving, to reach for the small red call button. Why do they make these damn call buttons so small? Maggie thought. Maggie scanned the horizon of her crème colored bedding. Trying to look left, Maggie saw the black partition that emerged every time she tried to use her peripheral vision on her left side, the black blank that let her see only nothingness when her artist’s vision used to be so full of color. Moving her eyes to the right, Maggie spied the elusive call button, the small red orb protruding from the long white cord, snaking around her bed rail. Flailing as she reached, Maggie put all of her effort into nabbing the call button with her right hand. This wasn’t easy to do. Dense hemiplegia caused her left side to be heavy and useless. Where there was once lineless beauty that captured every boys attention at the dance hall on Saturday nights, there were now deep wrinkles with sagging mouth and eye. Maggie knew that she drooled. The nurses were constantly using fresh towels to wipe at her mouth. They seemed to know how much it bothered her even though she couldn’t really feel it. With a huge effort, Maggie attempted to lunge for the call button without supporting herself. This effort caused her to land with a crash against the metal bed rail. Maggie felt the cold against her cheek and tasted metal in her mouth. The right side of her face felt wet. She was crying again, over nothing, the tears just came, they always came. Maggie tried to tell people, but knew that they didn’t understand. In her mind she was saying, “I have just had a massive stroke, it makes me emotional.” It came out as “Daaaaaat, daaa, daaat doo doo” or some other ridiculous combination, never real words, causing Maggie to sigh frequently in exasperation over her inability to communicate. Maggie felt something hard and small in her right hand, as she peered downward through the bed rail, she realized that she had captured the call button. This new, small joy made the tears come even harder.
“Oh, Mrs. Smith, let me get you fixed up.” Jerusha, the most attentive nurses aide by far, was always quick to answer Maggie’s calls. She was different from the other nurses aides who let call buttons ring like chimes up and down the halls while they sat at the nurses station drinking soda and gossiping. No, Jerusha was always prompt. She took pride in her work and made sure that all of the residents in her care were toileted, cleaned, and cared for. “Now Mrs. Smith,” Jerusha continued, “You can’t use your left hand. That’s why I put the call button on your right, next to your hand. Quit trying to reach over with your left hand and you won’t have these nasty falls.” Jerusha patted and smoothed and adjusted the sheets. She had the bed pan in and out from under Maggie before Maggie even realized that she had used it. “The occupational therapist will be in this afternoon to help you learn how to transfer to a bedside commode. Then we can be done with these silly bed pans.” Jerusha winked at Maggie like this would be a good thing. Maggie was horrified by the thought of sitting by her bed on a toilet where any old passerby would be able to watch her go about her private business. Jerusha seemed to read her thoughts. She put her large, dark chocolate hand over Maggie’s and gave her a squeeze. “I can tell that you are a real lady. Don’t worry, they won’t leave you out here. They’ll pull the curtain.” Jerusha gave the curtain that went around Maggie’s bed a little shake. “See just like in the hospital, you will have your privacy.” Maggie noticed the hat when she looked up at Jerusha to communicate a wordless “thank you.” There it was, a little red pillbox hat, with a small piece of netting that just covered Jerusha’ forehead. Jerusha had stuck a small peacock feather in the ribbon that was wrapped around the hat for added flair. “I see that you like my hat.” Jerusha reached up and patted the hat, perched lightly atop her tight afro curls. “That was my grandmammy’s church hat. I like to wear it now and then because it seems to make everyone happy.” Jerusha flashed a brilliant white grin. She stooped closer to Maggie and whispered, “My grandmammy was like that, always bringing cheer everywhere she went. You remind me of her.” Maggie started to respond, “Doooo, daaat, daaa dooo,” Jerusha gave her a quick hug and was off to spread her loving care and cheer to the lucky residents assigned to her this shift.
The hat, the hat, the hat, something about that hat, Maggie inwardly cursed her ageing memory addled more by this recent stroke. After another nurses aide, a rushed and solemn young African (at least he looked African to Maggie) fed her dinner in bed, Maggie remembered the hat, her hat, hidden somewhere in the recesses of her attic at home, the brilliant blue pillbox hat. It looked just like a Tiffany’s box with netting. Maggie kept meaning to clean out the attic. After Joe died, she dealt with cleaning out the house, his office, and study room. That had been an overwhelming task. Joe had been a collector, never throwing anything out in their fifty years of marriage. Joe’s death had been quick, a massive coronary infaraction, he was dead 24 hours later after all of the heroic acts of medical science had failed to save him. Maggie was alone in the big Cape Cod house. Her children tried to make her move out. Once the strokes started, she had no choice. Assisted living was cramped. It took her back to her days of living in a college dormitory only without the freedoms and with the added discomfort of being set in her ways and routines, but not being able to live them.
Maggie wished that she knew what had become of her house and the stuff in it. Her son, Jack, had come around with some papers for her to sign when she first moved into the assisted living facility. She had been too tired and wasn’t up for a long conversation of legalese. Jack had gone away, disappointed in her and mumbling something about getting rid of assets and the high cost of medical care. Maggie didn’t know much about those things. Joe had handled all of the finances. Jack tried to help her sort things out in the years following Joe’s death, but she never really understood it. She had to remember to ask Jack or her daughter, Ruby, about the house the next time they came to visit.
Over the course of the next several days, memories of the bright blue hat played at the corners of Maggie’s mind. “Paintbox, paintbox,” she had shouted emphatically when learning to use the commode with the occupational therapist. “Pink-it, pink-it,” she said rhythmically while learning to use a walker with an arm support during physical therapy. Speech therapy was the best because the therapist always made an effort to try and understand what Maggie was really trying to say. She got close, “Pill bottle, pill bottle,” she had chanted in speech therapy. She had really meant to say, “Pillbox, where is my beautiful blue pillbox hat?” She couldn’t form the words even as she thought them in her mind.
Maggie awoke in the middle of the night. It had come back as if in a dream, the story of the hat and its importance. This was how her memory worked these days, sometimes empty and, at odd times, full. That hat was a gift from John, her first and maybe her only true love. They had met in high school, promised to each other when they left for college. Maggie knew why she had tried to forget this story so often throughout her life, buried it deeply all of these years along with her grief. The hat was the last thing given to her by John before he left forever, dropped out of college, joined the service and was sent to the South Pacific. At first there were letters, love letters that made Maggie blush to remember them. Because both of their names started with “J,” Maggie had lived in fear of accidently calling Joe, “John.” She had put John away in the dark corners of her mind. Over the years she remembered gifts as she had run across them, a scarf, a bracelet, a handbag. John had been sentimental and eager to please her and win her heart. Maggie’s family was poor and the nice things drew her in, but she did love him. The grief that she felt when he didn’t return nearly ate her alive. Joe returned though and Maggie thought that his love would be enough to see her through. The damp spots on her lap robe grew and spread like raindrops in a puddle, Maggie couldn’t stop crying.
The next day, Jerusha was back caring for Maggie. “You seem so sad today Mrs. Smith,” Jerusha commented as she combed Maggie’s hair and helped to put her dentures in. When Jerusha bent down, Maggie brought her right hand up to touch Jerusha’s tight black curls. “You miss my hat? I’ll wear it again soon just for you my dear Mrs. Smith.” Jerusha looked warmly at Maggie. Maggie’s dark mood persisted, even a visit from Ruby, bearing fresh tulips, Maggie’s favorite, was not enough to cheer her. Talk of Ruby’s daughter’s up coming wedding made Maggie feel worse. She knew that Ruby and her granddaughter, Rosa, both wanted her there. Maggie was dreading it, the drooling octogenarian wheeled around and cajoled by everyone. They would quickly lose interest in her gibberish and she would spend the evening alone in a corner unable to eat or go to the bathroom. No, it would be better to stay here at the care center and skip the wedding all together.
Jerusha was on Maggie’s wing a few days later. The sight of grandmammy’s red feathered hat was enough to make Maggie smile a bit, however brief. Jerusha caught her eye, “You really like this hat” Maggie nodded, she hoped that her head was making a “yes” movement, these days she could never be sure what her body was doing. “Do you want to try it on” Jerusha removed the hat from her own head and placed it atop Maggie’s gray hair. “Now don’t you just look smart. I wish that I had my camera. We will have to get you a hat of your own.” Maggie’s ears perked up when she heard this, “Blue box, blue box, “she stammered, trying to get the right words to come out. At least she was using words even if they weren’t always the right ones. Jerusha said, “I’ll see what I can do about getting you a hat of your own Mrs. Smith.” She gave Maggie’s arm a quick squeeze and was gone. Maggie knew that Jerusah did her job well, but she had never seen her move that quickly before.
That night Maggie’s dreams were a blur of hats, all kinds of hats making their way through the centuries with bows, feather, flowers, netting, and ribbon, always ending in a bright blue pillbox hat, a beacon from a long dead lover. Maggie had a sense that John was calling her, asking her to not be afraid and assuring her that he would be on the other side, waiting. She was ready now she told him. John appeared to her, young and strong, dashing in his military uniform with an enigmatic smile and dark, laughing brown eyes. He placed the hat firmly on her shiny long blonde curls, took her hand, and together they flew out of the night.
“What’s in here?” Rosa blew the dust off of yet another of grandma’s boxes. Grandma had died one week before Rosa’s wedding. They had carried on with a gay celebration in her honor. Grandma had always loved parties and pretty things. Rosa tried to imbue as much of her grandma’s spirit as possible into the wedding. Since she had returned from her honeymoon, she and her mother had been working non-stop, taking apart a home that had taken grandma a lifetime to build. A young couple had just bought the house they were ready to begin re-modeling, settling in, and making a home here for themselves. Ruby stood next to Rosa as Rosa pried the lid off of the small white box. Inside, wrapped in tissue paper turned yellow by time, was a perfect bright blue pillbox hat. “What a unique color,” Rosa commented as she gently lifted the hat from the box. “Strange, I never saw mom wear that. In fact I never saw her wear a nice hat.” “What’s this?” Rosa reached down into the ageing crackled tissue and pulled out a faded note card: On leave Nov. 20. Stop. Wear hat. Stop. See you in crowd. Stop. Have surprise. Stop. Love, John