Restless Nell

By Kaitlynn McShea

There was nothing wrong with Nell. She was neither blind nor deaf, and she had no diseases to speak of. She had been admitted to the nursing home against her will, which she told the doctors and nurses every chance she could. When pestered about it, her estranged children only stated that allowing her to live alone was a liability hazard. She replied that she was a healthy one-hundred-and-three and that it was one measly fall, thank you very much. To that, her children would sigh, tell her that they loved her, and hang up the phone.


The fall in question was a month ago to the day. It had rained, snowed, and froze the day prior. Anyone would have fallen. She was planning on putting salt down to help speed up the melting process before her great-grandchildren arrived to shovel her driveway. But instead, they found her unconscious with a big gash on her head.

The stitches were removed and her gash healed to a fine line that was barely a scar. Nell was fine. Completely fine.

What wasn’t fine was being cooped up in the nursing home. The “residential facility” boasted independent living apartments, a hot tub, and a scenic retention pond. Nell wouldn’t be caught dead in the hot tub–who knew what was in there. The scenic pond was beautiful, she admitted, but she could only spend so much time feeding frozen peas to the Canadian geese before it lost its luster.

Over the past month, she had tried. Really tried. She went to the ballroom dance classes and the bingo nights. She tried to make friends with the nurses and the other residents. But in the end, that place was full of creepy old men and senile old women. If only her late husband had been with her, maybe things would feel different.

Nell was simply meant to be an island in this life. But the trouble with islands was that they were all fun and games until the tourists went home and the locals moved away. She didn’t mind being an island while working as a pharmacist–that was part of the job. Even in retirement, she made do with her house and her plants. But now, it was like her island was in danger of being swallowed whole and submerged under water.

She just couldn’t believe it. She, a doctor of pharmacy, a capable person fluent in three languages and conversational in five, was in a nursing home.

It was tempting to give up and become like the rest of them. If she stopped resisting, she could pull on a pair of Depends and take a dip in the hot tub none the wiser.

But she just couldn’t do that.

She stared out her bedroom window to the retention pond below. Spring had sprung overnight–even from her third story apartment, she could see purple crocuses and yellow daffodils edging the sidewalks below. Nell slumped in her chair. The nursing home agenda stated that there would be a finger painting class in one hour. It was absolutely degrading. But at the same time, staying in her apartment was not an option. If she stayed in it too long, she felt like she was drowning.

Someone knocked at her door. She ignored it.

The knocking continued. She continued to ignore it.

It didn’t stop. Finally, she stood and walked to the door. Peering into the peephole, she saw that it was Randy from down the hall. She opened her door. “Yes, Randall?”

He winked at her and wrung his hands. “Hiya, Nell. Looking beautiful today. Are you going to that painting class?”

“I am absolutely not. And yourself?”

“Well, I was hoping you would grace us with your presence.”

“Unfortunately, I am not. If I wanted to dip my fingers into cans of paint, I would spend time with my youngest great-grandchildren.” Even though he towered over her, she attempted to look down her nose at him while she spoke. He had been harassing her for weeks. It needed to stop.

“Well if you change your mind–”

“Thank you, Randall. Good day to you,” she said, and closed the door in his face.

She paced around the apartment. What would she do now? She couldn’t go down there after that display. She didn’t want to bake or watch television or read a book. She would rather stab herself in the eye than knit or embroider.

She stormed over to the window. Nell held on to the pane and willed her heart to stop beating so fast. She hated to admit it, but the doctor told her that her heart wasn’t as strong as it used to be. It was fine, but she needed to avoid being worked up. And right now, she was worked up.

Down below, a duck landed on the surface of the retention pond. When she was a little girl on her daddy’s farm, she would go swimming. Every year, around this time, she would slip into the icy water’s surface and feel like she was coming alive, just like the world around her. Of course, it was much more pleasant a swim in July than in April, but there was something about the shock of the water that emboldened her, that relentless newness of the changing seasons. She stopped the ritual when she headed off to college, but she could still remember how she would breathe and pray and curse until her body got used to the cold.

Without thinking, she grabbed her keys. She took the stairs at a steady pace and went out the automatic front doors. Outside, it was a pleasant sixty degrees. She took off her dress, and in her underwear, she stepped into the water. Birdsong and the musky odor of spring flowers filled the air. She continued walking into the pond until the water hit her stomach-line and she gasped from the cold. She pushed herself until the water was up to her chest, and then she was splashing and smiling, laughing and kicking.

She was made anew.


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