What I was hearing was something I didn’t recognize. It was like wet chicken hitting a cutting board, a flop, and a slop. And after every wet-sounding flop, a dragging sound followed. I listened closely, fear finding its way through my entire body, my ears pulsing with focus. Hovering over the curious flopping noise was another sound–the sound of someone breathing–a labored panting.
The only thing keeping me anchored in the middle of that room was my sense of duty. Everything else wanted to run—to jump on my bike and hightail it home.
“Hello,” I yelled out with zero confidence.
I heard a faint answer squeaking from the dark hallway.
“Hello,” I called out again.
“Here,” she said. “I’m over here.”
I now knew where the odd noise was coming from and who was making it, but it did nothing to quell the fear.
Moving beyond the front room was something I avoided at all costs. It was a good Sunday if I could stay in my chair in front of the fireplace next to where she sat in her wheelchair. The days that required me to go beyond that room, to change urine-soaked sheets or grab something from the kitchen, were an exercise in mind over matter. The front room, at the very least, had a bit of light that snuck through the broken blinds, and the front door to the outside porch was just feet away—a good escape route if need be. Venturing beyond the front room meant having to navigate the dark, and to go into rooms I was unfamiliar with.
“Annmarie,” she yelled out in her shaky old lady voice. “I’m in the hallway. Please come help.”
My legs felt like rubber bands dangling from my torso, attached but incapable of doing anything but hanging there. But then the little voice inside me that I depended on to reason with the world and talk me through the most difficult things, forced me to take the first step.
As I turned to walk down the hall, I saw her. She was stark naked but for a small towel draped around her neck and was pulling herself along the linoleum floor with her hands and the heel of her one foot. Her stump was exposed on the other leg, smooth and pinched where it had been amputated and stitched just above the knee.
“Took a bath and got myself into a bind,” she chortled.
It was rare that my aunt took a bath, though her smell was not that of someone with bad hygiene. It was a distinct smell, but more like a dusty attic–like someone without sweat glands and not enough moisture.
Matilda reached out for me.
“Help me up,” she insisted.
I stared at the wrinkled old woman who was desperately trying to get down the hallway. As horrifying as it was to see it her in that state—to see things I never wanted to see, especially as a kid, I couldn’t ignore the helplessness in it all. She was an old woman, living alone, doing her best to live out her last few years independently.
Somehow I managed to get her up, though she wasn’t a small woman. She grabbed onto the door jamb and steadied herself as I retrieved her chair. In that moment, something happened. While the house was still a bit spooky and my aunt no saner than the last time I’d visited, it all felt different. She was a woman who loved me, who spent her entire week looking forward to one thing—my visit.
For the next hour, we joyfully went through her musty closet like two girls playing dress-up. I pulled out every dress she owned, commenting on this and that, discussing which ones I liked best, and which ones I thought she should discard. Her joy was palpable, and she was completely and entirely engaged.
Eventually, we settled on two dresses—she never wore less than two at a time, and a sweater. I watched her attach her prosthetic leg and helped her into her thick stockings and put on her dresses.
I won’t forget that Sunday. And not because of what I saw, but because of what I gained. I found compassion for my aunt, and in the process, I lost some of my fear. And after that day, when I called her in the evening to belt out my made-up songs, I wasn’t counting down the minutes. I was feeling the moment.