One thing all nursing homes have in common is that no one really wants to be there—not the residents, not the employees, and not the visitors. It’s hard to imagine anything especially cheering or life-affirming happening in a nursing home, no matter how well it’s marketed. Novelist Todd Johnson doesn’t shy away from this desolation in The Sweet By and By, but he also shows how those at life’s end can still find friendship and meaning in their days.
Margaret, one of the residents in a North Carolina nursing home, is sound of mind but physically ailing. She is quite aware of the absurdity of some of the social activities planned for the residents. On July 4, she notes: “It’s too hot for a picnic. I’m positive that this must violate the Health Department’s standard for what you can make old people do in rest homes. Just because it’s the Fourth of July, some people may want to go sit out there and be eaten alive by flies while they’re trying to gnaw on a hamburger bun, but not I.” Like many residents, Margaret is angry at being forced to leave her real life behind, at days filled with television, fake celebrations, and quick visits from her daughter. But her days are enlivened nonetheless by exchanging spirited put-downs with her nurse Lorraine and by offering a kind of emotional protection to fellow resident Bernice, a woman barely lucid, weighed down from the grief of losing her son. Bernice carries around a toy monkey named Mister Benny and often seems to be in a world of her own: “Bernice strolls over with Mr. Benny on one arm and the other waving out to the side like she’s in a beauty contest. … She’s gazing around the landscape like she’s on the Biltmore Estate. ‘Hello there,’ she twitters, ‘we are so glad you could come today. Welcome.’ She obviously thinks this is her party, or maybe Mr. Benny’s.”
Both Margaret and Bernice are protected and cared for by their nurse, Lorraine, a woman who sees her work as not just a job, but an actual calling. Lorraine’s daughter April accurately describes her mother’s work: “She sees the biggest part of her job as helping to hold the threads of a life together, savoring anything at all that can be used to sew something lasting. Determinedly, she will stitch meaning into the fabric of a being, creating, for an old and lonely soul, a protective garment, for a time, against the chill of loss, forgetting, and being forgotten.” But Lorraine is not just an angel of mercy. Her repartee with Margaret and her friend Althea provide a great deal of the humor in the novel. When Lorraine goes to visit Margaret in the hospital during her final visit, Margaret wants to see if she’s gotten fat. Lorraine’s reply: “Fat enough to sit on top of you if you can’t behave yourself.”
Then there’s Rhonda, who takes a part-time job at the nursing home to make some extra money. Rhonda has no calling to care for the elderly; she just wants the paycheck to fund her party-girl life. In fact, living with a critical grandmother is enough to put her off old people forever. But there’s something about Margaret and Bernice, their interest and belief in her, that start making her take herself a little more seriously and begin to believe she might actually be capable of more than her grandmother believes.
Johnson has written a beautiful story of friendship and meaning. It will be the rare soul who can make it through this novel without tears—tears of both heartbreak and admiration for these characters who fight for meaning and dignity until the very last breath.
Todd Johnson will read from The Sweet By and By at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Memphis on April 13 at 6 p.m.