Current Occupation: Writer, Editor, Wordpool Press, Activities Assistant for a retirement community, Owner, “Putting the Funk in Junk”- Antiques, vintage, painted furniture.
Former Occupation: Adjunct Faculty Member
Contact Information: Colleen Wells’ work has appeared most recently in Gyroscope Review, The Ryder Magazine, The Voices Project, and Workzine. She is the author of Dinner with Doppelgangers – A True Story of Madness & Recovery and editor of One in Four – a collection of student narratives about mental illness. She believes a bad day can get better with a pen, paintbrush, glue, pretty paper and maybe a little glitter.
Sunshine in her Soul
Ms. Robar, the newest resident at the assisted living facility where I work, pushes her walker purposefully to the sitting area for current events. She parks it by the end of the couch. Her walker is collapsible with a seat in between the sides that lifts up. Underneath is a basket where she keeps her Bible. Ms. Robar plops down in the chair next to me, adjusting her navy-blue scooped-neck shirt over her big belly. She has short, salt and pepper hair and sports large, black glasses. They remind me of the ones Buddy Holly wore.
“Hi, Ms. Robar,” I say, collecting my magazines and newspapers into a pile.
“Good morning, Colleen. How are you?
“Great. How are you liking it here?”
“I love it. Everyone is so nice. Thank you for asking.”
She is quick to answer trivia questions. Most of the other residents are slower, except Mrs. Quinn who knows everything, but repeats herself often like a skipping record. She has told me probably fifty times already this morning her son is a heart surgeon.
Ms. Robar attends most activities. In the afternoon she likes to have a cigarette on the porch. I learn that she lived with her brother before moving in, and she used to be a nun. She wears a cross on a simple chain and often says, “I love you. God bless you.”
When I come to work I look forward to her enthusiasm, as not all of the residents are exactly bubbly in the mornings. She loves coffee and enjoys going to the coffee shop down the street.
One afternoon when it’s time for our outing, I find Ms. Robar lying in bed crying. Her eyelids are red, her hair a greasy mess. “My brother’s cat died,” she says.
“I’m sorry,” I tell her.
“I’m sorry for crying so much,” she says.
“That’s okay. It’s sad.”
“The doctor said he needs to adjust my medication. I have bipolar disorder.”
“You take care of yourself,” I reply. “Maybe we can get coffee next Thursday.”
“Oh, I’d like that,” she says. “Will you pray for my brother?”
“I’ll pray for both of you,” I tell her, noticing the silver crucifix hanging on the otherwise stark white wall above her bed.
I hesitate before leaving. I want to let her know I have bipolar disorder too, and that when things get stressful or tragedy strikes, I empathize with the process of getting meds tweaked, but Ms. Robar likes to talk and soon all of the residents and staff would know.
Instead I say, “I was really sad when my dog died.”
“Oh, I love you. God bless you.”
The following week Ms. Robar is feeling better and we go for coffee. Steam rises from our mugs and she shares the story of a time when she was manic. “I had to go to the hospital. I was running around telling everyone I loved the sunshine in their souls.”
I take a sip of my coffee.
“And you know…” She pauses in thought. “Not everyone wants to hear that.
The times I have been manic I am also prone to recognizing the light in people too. There is no such thing as an enemy; I have only friends. Once I invited myself to go deep-sea fishing with a group of strangers in Florida, thinking after we returned to the dock that we were best friends.
When we return to the home, Ms. Robar kisses my cheek. I try not to look at the crumbs on the corner of her mouth or the black hairs sprouting from her chin.
A few weeks pass and suddenly it seems like overnight that Ms. Robar starts declining. Returning to work on a Monday I see Mrs. Quinn in the lobby. “Ms. Robar is moving to a nursing home,” she says. Before I can respond she continues talking, saying, “Did you know my son is a heart surgeon?”
“That’s great,” I reply, feeling a loss over the news. “You must be really proud.”
I visit Ms. Robar two weeks later at the nursing home. When she sees me, she beams. “Hi, Colleen!”
“Hello! I brought you something.” I hand her a small tube of lavender lotion and a coin with an angel embossed on it. She thanks me for the gifts, placing them in the side pocket of her wheelchair. She looks tired and doesn’t offer any kisses. A ray of afternoon sunlight fills the visiting room, illuminating dust particles.
The Activity Director walks in and introduces himself. He squeezes Ms. Robar’s shoulder, saying, “She’s like a breath of fresh air around here. You really enjoy singing the hymns, don’t you Ms. Robar?”
“I do,” she says.
I smile. The sunshine in her soul has dimmed a bit, but it’s not gone.