Is the Third Floor Still There?

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“I LIVE ON THE third floor,” Diane tells me as I dump a box of dominoes on the table. But she’s not completely sure about that. Her window, she tells me, looks over a farm and a wheat field. Then with wide eyes she whispers to me, “I hope my room will be the same as it was this morning.”

Our conversation is a five-minute loop that’s always circling back to the third floor, back to Diane not knowing where she is. We eat ice cream and drink the generic-brand root beer Sharon carted in, and Diane continues changing her mind about her room. Sometimes she asks me, “Are we on the third floor?” Sometimes she tells me she lives with her sister, Rosemary, in Harlington, and then she recites Rosemary’s exact address and phone number, clinging to those seven digits like they’re a life preserver.

“What floor do I live on?” she asks.

“I think you live on the third floor,” I say, trying to reassure her even though I know my words won’t pierce the fog around her mind.

Sometimes with a quiet panic in her eyes, she just admits it: “I don’t know where I live.” And almost as an afterthought, she adds, “I don’t want to be alone.”

THE FIRST TIME I went to the university’s chapel service, the organ sounded so big it gave me goose bumps. Majestic is the word for it, I guess. The choir sat at my right, facing me, a warm wave of harmony. To my left, a tone-deaf earth and environmental sciences major was doing her best to take me down with her. Never sing next to a drowning person, I told myself. I have enough trouble treading water as it is.

During the Lord’s Prayer, I was the only one who said “trespasses” instead of “sins.”

Like the God of my childhood, the chaplain sported a green stole and a shiny bald head—but no spittle. His cool clear words echoed off the back wall as he told us we all want to give up our lives to something bigger than ourselves, no matter what the cost. Then the blood-shed-for-me was burning warm in the back of my throat, and we were singing again, the choir sweet and perfect, me just good enough, and the girl beside me adding her own special harmony, just the way God made her. All of us, one body, one voice.

I’m not scared of heaven anymore. When Dante emerged from the Inferno and journeyed up into the stars, he didn’t find himself floating in nothingness. He found himself gazing at the God whose sphere encircled all the others. He found the universe wrapped in God. And so for me, believing in God has become like gazing at the stars. They’re something I could never touch, but on the clear nights, when I look up, they’re always shining down on me like fingers from heaven, and when my bubble pops, that’s where I’ll land.

The sun’s shining through the window in the nursing home’s community room.

“I don’t think anybody lives on the third floor,” Diane tells me as she studies the table for a moment and then slides another domino in place. She connects seven green dots to nine purple ones. I choose not to point out her error and take a sip of root beer.

“I hope my room will be the same as it was this morning,” she says again.

“I’m sure it’s still up there,” I say softly as I slide another domino into place.

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