“Good morning Esme, how are you today?” said Jim, his voice bright and cheery. He looked into her face for a glimmer of recognition, but saw only cold mistrust.
“I'm fine, thank you very much,” said Esme loudly, peering up at him. “But, who are you? And what do you want?”
There were six patients at Whitman Park Aged Care Home, including Esme, whose religious affiliation was listed as “Presbyterian”. It was Jim’s right, and duty, as the local Presbyterian minister, to visit them each week. Jim did his visiting on Thursday mornings. It suited him as well as any other time. The old fogies that kept track of days and times appreciated the routine, and it made no difference to the others.
And then there was Esme. She had her good days and her bad days, but overall, Esme's dementia was a case of steady decline. On a good day she showed a vague sense of having met Jim before. It didn't help for him to insist that he had known her his whole life. Her responses to such notions were belligerent, and often violent.
After introducing himself as the minister, Jim won her affection with some licorice all-sorts. It was a cheap trick, but he always used it, because it worked.
“These are lovely,” she said. “I can’t say I’ve had them before, but they are just lovely.”
Esme told Jim she’d had a terrible night's sleep. “Those young people in the flat downstairs had their music on so loud, the whole night long,” she said. Her hands trembled as she spoke. “Not that I call it music. Bang, bang, bang! That's all it is. Noise. That's what it is: just noise. Something should be done about it. Someone should do something.” She dabbed at the edge of her mouth with a handkerchief.
Jim blinked. He was still not immune to the things that she could say. Whitman Park was a single-story complex, flat on the ground; there was no ‘downstairs’. He bit his lip and swallowed and prayed, quietly in his mind, for strength.
“I'm sorry to hear that Esme,” he said. “Tell you what: I'll have a good stern talk with them about it on my way home. I’ll make sure that it doesn't happen again. How does that sound?”
Esme smiled. Her glasses glinted as she sat up in her chair. “Oh, would you? Would you really?”
“Sure,” said Jim as he got up. He felt claustrophobic.
Esme asked him to stay a while longer. “You've only just got here.”
But Jim had to leave. He couldn’t make himself stay. He retreated, shuffling backwards through the door, and waved as he left. Esme stayed in her armchair, watching him go, looking bewildered.
Jim marched quickly through the corridors of Whitman Park, out into the fresh air, and towards his car. He leaned against the car and took deep breaths to calm himself down. He took a tissue from his pocket and wiped the tears from his face.
He still wasn’t sure if he had the faith or the strength it took to be a minister. They hadn't trained him for this sort of thing at the college, and God felt farther away than ever.
Visiting Esme was killing him. He did it because it was what he had promised to do, and to be, but he wished he was someone else. He wished that Esme would hurry up and die. Take her soon, Lord, please, he prayed, She doesn’t know me. She doesn’t even know her own son.