by Tony Daly

Certified Nursing Assistant Cathy Swanson watched Kenneth Thomas’s eyes flicker between the conscious world and wherever his mind spent most of its time. Every day she’d worked at Hidden Oaks Retirement Villa, she had made the 92 year-old the final check on her rounds. It was always a quick stop. Nothing changed. He just sat in his wheelchair, staring at an old black and white picture of his younger self. Often drooling and muttering incoherently as she checked his blood pressure and respirations.

He looked so happy in the photo, smiling and thrusting a whicker doll at the cameraman. It was so different from the distant, glazed-over look he usually wore. Young Sergeant Thomas was flanked by a soldier, who was making a fist at the cameraman, and by another, who was blowing a kiss into the sky. Cathy nicknamed them Knuckles, Lips, and Dolls. She laughed when she imagined them getting ribbed by the other soldiers for their nicknames.

As much as she was drawn to the picture, what first caught her attention was the gilded frame. On it twin dragons chased each other, reminding Cathy of Yin and Yang and their eternal struggle for balance. She wondered if Mr. Thomas was having his own internal battle. Perhaps that’s why he seemed to be at peace staring at his younger self.

Every day Cathy asked Mr. Thomas why the picture was so special. He never responded, but she prayed one day he would. Maybe then, she could find out where his mind traveled.

Today, when she asked the question, Mr. Thomas’s ancient eyes focused on her for a split second and a shadow of a smile crept across his lips. Amazed, she watched his shaking hand slowly reach out, as if asking for the picture. “Yes," Cathy whispered to herself and handed Mr. Thomas the frame. To him, she asked, “How are you feeling today?”

Mr. Thomas’s excited eyes didn’t leave her, as he let the picture fall to the floor.

“Oh, I’m sorry," she said, jumping to her feet. “I’ll clean it.’’

Frantically looking for something to use to sweep up the mess, Cathy heard a gravelly voice croak, “top drawer."

“He spoke," she thought. He hadn’t spoken to someone for years! Cathy opened the top drawer of Mr. Thomas’s dresser and forgot about the broken frame when she saw the whicker doll from the photo. She was excited by their sudden progress and wanted to keep going. She spun, laughed and held the doll out to Mr. Thomas, as he had been when the picture was taken.

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