Death / Lit

LIT: The Nurse

This piece is one part of a collection of stories called Amelia.

I was very young then and my hands still trembled when I poured ice water into cups by the beds of sleeping old men and even worse when I had to take a temperature or insert an IV. All of my memories of Amelia play back in fits and starts, just the way that she talked to me. She liked her hospital bed cranked all the way up, completely straight-backed, so she could look at everyone. The doctor said she should relax, recline, rest more, but she scoffed.

“I am a pianist. I hate slouching.”

Looking at her gnarled tree-root hands it was hard to tell if she’d ever been anything but an old woman. She was my patient for nine months, much less time than some. I wonder now if I remember her because of her stories, or her sickness, or if I remember her because she was the first patient of mine who died. It’s a funny thing, at homes like that, because everyone sort of goes there to die—it’s like watching a movie when you already know the ending. People come here when no one can take care of them anymore. Amelia was a strange case because she checked herself in, very calmly, very rationally; she came alone. There were no tearful goodbyes, no adult son or daughter to be left feeling split between guilt and relief. I was standing at the nurse’s station just before leaving, drinking cold coffee in a foam cup, when she approached. Her hair was frizzy and dark gray and she was thin and small in her long coat. She smelled like cigarette smoke.

“I’d like to check myself in, please. Thank you.”

It was 7:45 in the morning and I’d done the night shift, midnight to 8 AM, and I was tired. I was looking forward to taking the bus home past the elementary school, which would just be filling up, and collapsing on my fold-out couch until the afternoon. They always gave the new nurses the shifts no one else wanted. She stared at me, not rudely but with a sort of even gaze, like she was examining me. It made me uncomfortable. I gave her the form.

“On this line just write why you’re here,” I showed her. She filled in “dementia,” her handwriting looping in a beautiful calligraphy. She waited while I readied a room, ignoring the fact that it was past 8:15 now. My sore feet and red eyes could wait for this woman, for some reason. I fluffed the pillow. When I brought her to the room she didn’t seem particularly pleased or displeased. She just ran her eyes over the space, the cinder block walls painted chalky white, the glossy tile floors, the armchairs that were brought in to make the rooms “homier.” We may have had bookshelves and armchairs and plants now, but we still had EKGs and IV hooks and paddles in the corner of each room, just in case. Everyone knew where they really were. She flopped her one bag down on the bed, and sat in the uncomfortable armchair, staring out the window at the parking lot.

On the bus, I didn’t notice when we passed the school, and when I got home, I lay on the fold-out couch but didn’t sleep.

We became friends because I worked the night shift and she didn’t sleep. For Amelia, sun-downing meant smoking cigarette after cigarette out the window of her room. I never told her not to because I always thought at her age, what does it really matter? She told me stories, little snippets of her life. Sometimes I tried to put them together: there were recurring characters in her stories but their chronology was hard to tell, and so was hers. I’d been trying to keep a sort of record of her stories but they were so jumbled, so jumping in time, sometimes contradictory. Sometimes I gave up caring if what she was saying was true and just let the idea of her words wash over me; the idea of her life, of any life. She kept me awake. In the wee hours of the night shift I returned to her room in between rounds of checking on other patients, all asleep, some snoring, some monitored continuously by a glowing EKG machine. She kept her pianist’s posture in bed and I sat in the armchair, next to the plastic potted palm.

I moved to Las Vegas once; I lived with a boy there. He was younger than me and sometimes I think he worshipped me. Sometimes we would get drunk and he’d tell me I was beautiful, an angel or an alien, that he could see the meaning of the whole world in my body. He didn’t even notice how skinny I was. He was just as skinny, anyway.

“What happened to him?”

He made me a necklace out of glass beads on a very thin wire. It was purple. I lost it at the beach, to the ocean waves. I’ve lost a lot of things to the ocean. But this ocean was in California and the boy wasn’t around anymore. It was just me and I drank mojitos on the sand. No, you were there, weren’t you?

“Yes, I remember.” When we first started talking, I tried my best to bring her back to reality, to “snap her out of it.” I tried to remind her who she was, who I was, where we both were. “Amelia,” I’d say firmly but with care, “I am not that person. I’m Michelle, I’m your nurse. You’re in a nursing home.” This only seemed to get her upset; she’d attempt to find the words to express her frustration but she couldn’t. She’d just gape a few times, fish-like, and then go quiet, apart from the occasional angry mumbling. And, even if she couldn’t remember what it was we’d just discussed, she seemed to remember the trace of anger toward me like the lasting print of a hand slapped on her skin, sore for hours even after the initial sting.

So, now, I agreed. Wherever Amelia went, I went; whoever she wanted me to be, I was. I somewhat enjoyed it, actually; she was usually happy to be around the me-she- thought-I-was. I’d been a childhood friend (Sharona) and I’d been her daughter (also Amelia) who had a daughter of her own. I played men as well: her father, sometimes ex- lovers. I’d been her piano student, and she’d lectured me about the necessity of practicing scales and stretching my fingers. Take a rubber band and wrap it around your thumb and pinky, making sure it stretches across your whole hand. Then clench your fist before opening your hand as far as you can, and as far as the rubber band will let you. This will build up muscle. And don’t forget to practice your arpeggios.

So this time, again, I played along. “Yes, I remember.”

You were there too, but you didn’t want to come out to the beach. You said it was too windy and you didn’t like the sand; it got stuck in all the wrong places. I told you I knew about windy, sad places and that this was a wonderful place but you stayed at the house. Or no, it was a tent. We were still traveling then.

“Oh yes, the tent. Where were we set up that time?” I’d learned to adopt the effortlessly questioning tone of an old friend who asks about shared memories only to confirm their own experience. If I seemed too interrogative she’d get nervous. I’d heard the tent stories before; it seemed that Amelia had stayed in tents in many places but I hadn’t found out why. I wondered about my role in this one—male or female? Friend or lover?

Right off of Monterey, when you could still do that, just set up a tent in a field or on a shore without anyone bothering you. No one was worried about owning anything, about keeping it for themselves, because there was so much of everything. So much space and land and sky and water. I felt like I could live completely on sky, just drinking it in, nourished by the sun like a plant.

I took out my notebook and wrote down “Monterey, CA, after Las Vegas.” This followed lists of other places, sometimes placed in time only in relation to other times, sometimes connected with a year, or with Amelia’s age. I’d write it all down and when I got home before I slept I’d sit on the edge of the sofa bed and scour my notes, trying to see if anything fit. I hadn’t learned much, but I was obsessed. A piece of Amelia was lodged under my skin like a splinter and I couldn’t get it out.

At the time I had a boyfriend who lived nearby. Mark was the afternoon janitor at the school across the street from me and often he’d come over after his shift and we’d make love before I had to leave for work. He’d stay on the sofa bed while I cooked myself eggs and toast and we’d talk about things. I talked about Amelia a lot. And on the good days, Mark was still there in the morning when I got home, sunlight from the curtainless window streaming over his  naked form twisted up in the sheets. Letting him sleep, I’d pull the kitchen stool over to the sunny window and drink a glass of milk and go over my notes. When he woke up he’d smile at me, his hair all sticking straight up like a child, and try to convince me to come back to bed.

“Tonight Amelia talked about living in Georgia. She said it was summer but none of the crops were growing because this crazy vine had taken over everything.”

I lived in a rented room then, in a house with a farmer and his wife and their daughter. I taught the daughter piano and did a little cooking and cleaning in exchange for the room. When I left it was because the farmer demanded rent and I didn’t have any money, which he knew. He was upset because the kudzu had completely devastated his tobacco plants and he was looking at going into massive debt. And, also, because his wife was in love with me, and she came into my room after dinner before returning to bed with him.

“I wonder if what she says is true. Or if it’s all sort of like a waking dream, just little pieces of your subconscious showing up when and how they feel like it.”

He shrugged. “Who knows.” And then he got up and came over to me, kissing my shoulders and my forehead. “I’ve gotta get going.”

Sometimes, I told Amelia my stories. I talked about Mark, how I doubted we were going further than my sofa bed but how it had been nice to have him around, to have someone around. A warm body in the bed. I told her about my childhood in Chicago, about my parents and driving in our beat-up old car every summer up to Wisconsin with all the windows open. My grandparents lived in Wisconsin.

Melia, don’t waste your time with a man like that. Never be with someone because you’re afraid of being by yourself or being with yourself—being alone is not the same as being lonely. I’d’ve figured that as my daughter, you’d know how to be alone; I never had a man waiting for me when I got home. I never worried about it. It’s easier without it.

Or, We’re going to Wisconsin next. We have all summer to get down to Las Vegas, where it’ll be warm. After Wisconsin it’ll be Montana. You should come with us.

Or sometimes, surprisingly, Michelle, why do you work nights? Why do you sit and talk to me? I’m old and I’m losing it, Michelle. Sometimes it’s suddenly daytime and I’m on the patio out back and I have no idea how I got there or what I did for the last eight hours. You’re young, and you’re beautiful. Leave the boyfriend. Quit your job. Stop spending all your time talking to crazy old people about the lives they’ve already lived and live yours. It was always reassuring when she knew it was me; sometimes I was afraid she never remembered me, that I was just a canvas for her mixed-up thoughts and memories. But, occasionally, she surprised me. She was always more harsh with me when she remembered who I was.

“Amelia recognized me,” I told Mark, leaving out the part where she told me to leave him. He nodded, standing next to me as I washed dishes. “She’s done so much traveling. Don’t you wish you could travel like that?”

“I don’t know. I think I’m okay right here.” He moved behind me and squeezed my shoulders before gathering his clothes from the couch. I’m not, I thought. I’m not okay right here.

When, after nine months, Amelia got sick, no one was shocked. She’d been smoking for years and her lungs were weak; the pneumonia had an easy time of settling in with a hacking, wet cough. The garbage can next to her bed was full of tissues coated in the phlegm she’d been coughing up and spitting out. She was short of breath and even more confused than she had been previously. She clasped her bony fingers around my arm when I adjusted her IV and added morphine to make her more comfortable.

Excuse me, where is my mother? I really wish my mother could be here. Is she working? Is my father on the trolley?

Amelia herself had told me how her parents died years ago—her mother caught in their burning family home, her father of a heart attack after moving to New Mexico. But she had no recollection of these things now, especially as her fever slowly climbed.

“I’m sorry, Amelia, it looks like your parents can’t be here today. Is there anyone else I can call for you?” She looked at me blankly with the expression that I had learned meant her mind was switching gears—I could practically see it happening behind her eyes. And her eyes were the one thing that got me, every time—even at her age, her eyes stayed extremely youthful, like two green-grey stones set in her wrinkled, pursed face. She said nothing, but I wasn’t sure if it was because she couldn’t grasp my question or because she didn’t have anyone she wanted me to call.

Amelia died on the night shift; sometimes I think she was waiting for me. The fluid in her lungs had gotten quite aggressive and the infection had spread to other parts of her body through her blood; the sepsis caused her to vomit throughout the day, a task that proved extremely difficult for someone who already couldn’t breathe. She was drowning in her own body. The night she died, the doctors were watching her closely, but she was a DNR—do not resuscitate, she had written it in her will years ago. The eye kept on her was more out of a sense of curious patience than of doctorly concern.

She sat up in bed, same as always, slowly wheezing around her breathing tube. I sat diligently in my chair next to her bed, and she squeezed my hand.

I’m going to die, Michelle.

“I know.”

Thank you for making me comfortable. Then silence.

She stopped breathing a few minutes later, and when the machines hooked up to her would not stop beeping I unplugged them all. The doctor sent me home early but there was no bus, so I walked as the sun rose. When I reached my apartment Mark was there, stretched out selfishly across the bed, and I lay down next to him. I thought of a tent on the California shore and I cried. He didn’t wake up. That was the last morning we spent together.

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Alecia is a logophile and a library bandit wanted in several states. In addition to feminist rants, she also writes essays, short stories, bad poetry, recipes and very detailed to-do lists. She currently resides in a little blue cabin in Woodstock with one fiance, one Dachshund and one pleasantly plump cat. Find her tweeting @alecialynn.

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3 thoughts on “LIT: The Nurse

  1. Pingback: LIT: The Friend | LUNA LUNA

    • thank you! it was inspired in small parts by my mom’s experience as a nurse (she gets very emotionally attached to her patients) but is mostly fictional. it’s funny you ask actually because i wrote it a while ago, and my sister now is a nurse’s assistant at a nursing home and this is so close to her life, which i never could have known then.

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