- Emily in the Ocean
On a snowy evening in December, Emily and I eat together in the dining room of her senior assisted-living facility. It’s cold outside, the first significant drop in a mild Minneapolis winter, and the room is set at 76 degrees.
“Do you see him?” Emily asks me.
I follow her gaze across the room. “The men at the table over there?”
“No, no, behind them.”
“I don’t think so.”
“He’s beautiful. So beautiful. In swim trunks diving off that giant board into the big pool underneath. Now he’s doing a back dive.” The man flips and climbs, she says, before flipping again.
I look around the dining room. Everyone wears sweaters and scarves, despite the warm room. They sit in groups of four or six, eating and sipping water—and occasionally wine—as they catch up on their grandkids and the politics of the senior home. No one seems aware that an Olympic diver is practicing in the corner.
This is the second time I have met with Emily, but the first time that we have been alone. I have never worked in elder care before, though I have spent time with the fragile and sick. After my father’s many unsuccessful surgeries for stage IV lung cancer and the chemo that followed, I pleaded with him to take just another bite of food, another sip of milk. Before I began my work with Emily, I met with her daughter to discuss my responsibilities: I would help Emily keep in contact with old friends through cards and letters, clean her apartment, take her for walks, and record her hallucinations in a [End Page 115] journal. Now, at dinner, I worry that I will offer to help at the wrong times. I don’t know when to scoot Emily closer to the table, when to offer to grab the butter for her, when to cut her food into smaller pieces, or when to give her time to eat in silence.
Emily’s spine collapsed years ago, so when she stands—as she did walking in—she folds over herself like pants on a hanger. Seated, she hunches close to the table, her face just above the plate when she eats. Because her illness, Lewy body dementia, has left her face slack, her left cheek droops. Yet, at 76 years old, she still looks beautiful, and when she smiles, she still looks young. Tonight she wears black stretch pants, slip-on leather shoes, and a hot pink zip-up sweatshirt. Her hair is silver at the roots and slightly blonde at the middle and ends, and she styles it wild and curly. She has blue eyes and rimless glasses, which are not visible when she walks, but which I can see at the table as she tilts her head toward me.
“He has a very nice figure,” Emily says of the man on the diving board.
“What do you think he’s doing here?” The men in the corner return our stares.
“I don’t know. It seems like he’s showing off.”
Eventually, the chiseled man disappears, and I am unsure how the hallucination ends—just as I am unsure how it begins. Weeks later I will sense that Emily has filled in the missing narrative gaps that these visions create. Throughout the first night when I express wonder at what she sees, she always has an explanation as to why this thing has occurred in this moment. The fluffy white rabbits that run by our feet smell gravy and are begging for scraps. The little girls who dance in pink tutus are preparing for their upcoming performance, and they want Emily to watch their careful and balanced spins.
But I have yet to hear the details of a vision’s conclusion. Perhaps the beautiful and naked man wrapped himself in a blue towel, slipped his feet into flip-flops, and closed the pool cover for the night. Or perhaps, mid–triple back flip, he just ceased to exist, and where there was once the expansive turquoise of the tiled pool floor and a body slicing through the water...