The elderly couple slept in a full size bed, which left no room for sprawl. In order to make this work, they had learned over their fifty one years together to sleep strictly on their backs with their hands pressed tightly down by their sides. Occasionally, Bettie would fling an elbow over her eyes to block out the light and noise from the television, which was nearly always on, but this was as much freedom as their situation would allow.
The mornings, therefore, were the stiffest. After a night of immobility—especially for Ernesto, whose CPAC machine forced air to his lungs through his apparently flabby throat but also held his head in plastic, tubular bondage—all of the night’s aches and pains accumulated. It was more than either of them could do to immediately rise upon waking.
“Good morning,” Ernesto called out from supine once he had put his mouthpiece aside. His warm voice was solicitous. He knew that Bettie had it much worse than he did—and he knew why. It was for him that she had borne four children. She had wanted only two, but he had come from a large South American family and couldn’t see his life unfolding satisfactorily with less than four. He had wanted to have his grandchildren around him in his old age. He had talked her into the last boy and girl and she had paid for it with her uterus, which, at first, had just slipped with sneezing, but then prolapsed all of the time. She had said the hysterectomy was a relief, and his guilt had eventually become tenderness with her.
“Good morning!” Bettie called back, a thyroid-y groan in her girlish, still vaguely Southern lilt. When she met Ernesto, where she had been working as a social worker at Virginia Medical expressly to meet a tall, dark and handsome doctor, Bettie had been a blonde, blue-eyed southern belle—and she still was, thank goodness to John, over at the salon, who was strict about mask wearing. She wasn’t exactly girlish anymore, but no matter. Ernesto was still as short as he had ever been.
“I can’t get up!” she laughed at herself. The great bulk around her middle pinned her to the soft mattress and made her back feel worse. A nine out of ten she might tell Dr. Scravullo if she ever got to see him in person again. She didn’t like to explain over the Zoom. Once, long ago, Bettie been invited to test for a Hollywood movie. She’d just been walking down the street in Beverly Hills, where her father had been in insurance, and a producer had stopped her mother to ask permission, which of course she hadn’t given. But every time she got on the Zoom, Bettie became coquettish and kept the soft curl of her thinning, but still blonde bob on her ruined cheek, where it showed off her still spectacular eyes. Afterward, Ernesto would ask her why she hadn’t spoken up, but Bettie simply never did have aches and pains with company.
“I will help you. Once I get up myself!” Ernesto chuckled, too, but his tongue felt heavy in his mouth. Some of that was the English, which never came through smoothly, even after forty seven years of citizenship. But possibly his cholesterol medicine was also to blame. He remembered how he had felt before the statin: healthy and strong, invincible, actually. His own father had practiced medicine into his eighties and Ernesto had thought he would, too. But when his bloodwork came back high, Dr. Weisman had promoted the drug and Ernesto so admired the young man, so like himself in the beginning, that he had agreed. The tremors and the forgetfulness had started after that and Dr. Weisman had switched him off the generic. It didn’t help, but Ernesto simply couldn’t be one of the troublesome ones.
“Should we just lie here for a while or should we try to hoist ourselves?” Bettie’s good cheer comforted Ernesto.
“Aha! We can’t to lie here all day, but I don’t think we can get up!”
“Well, I have to pee.” At this, Bettie piked a bit, lifting her knees and shoulders simultaneously in an effort to unbudge her sunken parts. The effort was great and she doubled it to pike again so has not to lose ground. In this way, she landed on her elbow, nearer to vertical.
“Well, if you can do it, I can do it, too.” Ernesto’s legs swung down with relative ease, but lifting his head was another matter. The dizziness would come on unexpectedly and he didn’t like to worry Bettie. So he went slowly, fixing his eyes on the floor and breathing deeply as he went. His eyesight dimmed a little, but then he was steady and they were both upright, back to back across the bed.
“Are you okay there, Ernesto?”
“Now I just have to see if I can stand up.”
“Well, don’t go too fast. That’s all I need, trying to get you up off the floor.”
“That’s all I need.”
“I know, my dear.”
“Shall we get up together?”
“No, you go first. I can hold it for a little while longer.”
“Ok. I’ll be quick!” She laughed that girlish laugh again, turning rueful. “As quick as I can.”
It took all morning, but Bettie and Ernesto eventually emerged from their bedroom cleansed and dressed. He wore the sweater and khakis that had replaced the suits he used to habitually wear to the office, and she was in the same, but pastel colored and elastic-waisted.
In the kitchen, Bettie apportioned instant oatmeal into bowls while Ernesto saw to his medicines. His sugar had recently come back high and these pills had replaced the extra toast and cheese he had used to enjoy. He felt disgusted about it and couldn’t shake the vague feeling that someone was cheating him, but his reason told him it was probably all his own fault, though he had eaten heartily, but healthily all his life, and exercised, too. In fact, he still exercised, though down from the two hours a day he had managed upon first retiring and a great deal less than he had done in his youth, when had placed second in his state in the 3,000 meter.
“What shall we do today?” Bettie asked at the table.
Ernesto was still intent on his oatmeal, which he had spiked with fruit and poured milk over. He waited to finish chewing before answering. “I don’t know, my dear.”
“We don’t go for your eye appointment until Friday.”
“Yes. I hope he doesn’t have to do an injection again.” Ernesto had been receiving stem cell therapy for macular degeneration. They told him it was working, but he couldn’t read anymore anyway and the procedure was terrible. He spent a full week with a weeping purple eyeball every time. His first daughter, Lyla, did some sort of physical therapy for him that seemed to help, but the pandemic had put an end to that.
“Lord. I know.”
“Perhaps we can go for a walk on the seawall.”
“We’ll have to wear masks.”
But they didn’t go out. When they went to put on their hiking shoes and use the bathroom one more time, Ernesto had turned on the TV to try to catch the weather. Instead, the news that the case numbers were up and were expected to rise had spooked them. The wind seemed more bitter after that and, in the end, they decided just to take turns walking on the treadmill in their basement.
They felt lucky to have access to this luxury. When the pandemic had hit, they had been sequestered in their Savannah condo. There, they had never previously missed a home set up because they could always go to the association gym or, in the nearly always fine weather, make use of the walking path around the golf course. Their eldest son, Antonio, who was the reason they wintered in Savannah, would also let them use his home gym whenever they liked. But he had advised them against entering his newly built, commodious home, feeling the risk his and his wife’s own medical careers brought to his parents. Instead, he had graciously taken on the shopping for them while they were locked inside their much smaller place, leaving the packages just outside the door. Feeling burdensome, Bettie and Ernesto traveled back to their Rhode Island townhome as soon as they could. It’s extra space made them feel slightly more human.
After they unplugged the treadmill, they occupied the living room, which was normally kept for visitors, but had become tantamount to an excursion. From the sliding door, they could glimpse the lake beyond the tree line at water’s edge. There were often swans in the reeds, looking like a painter’s cliche, but not today.
“Should we call Lyla?”
“And tell her what?” The disgusted feeling was back and Ernesto couldn’t keep it out of his voice.
“That we didn’t go walking?” Bettie’s mood was faltering, too.
“She’ll just get mad at us.”
“Then Teo? The last I heard the kids weren’t likely to have school.”
The mention of his grandchildren shot a pain through his heart. He would have to tell Dr. Weisman.
“Let’s watch our Jeopardy.”
“Did you see? Alex Trebek died,” Bettie said as she led the way back to the bedroom.
Stella Osorojos Eisenstein, DAOM, IMT
Stella Osorojos Eisenstein, DAOM, IMT, is a writer and healthcare professional. Her book, Star Sister: How I Changed My Name, Grew Wings, and Learned to Trust Intuition was published in 2012 by North Atlantic Books.