Monday, March 30

“Melody. Hi. As I was saying to Alec, I know it sounds weird, and silly, and I don’t deserve it. But I would come back and finish my shift. If you’d let me.”

A pause. “Um … no. I think I’ll just report you for abandonment.”

“OK.”

“Have a nice day.”

“OK.”

Friday, March 27

Last night, Jack died. Paul says it happened around nine. The shift was almost over. He entered the room to drain Jack’s catheter bag, saw him in bed unresponsive. Felt along the soft of his inner wrist for a radial pulse, his neck for the carotid. Alerted the nurse on the hall, who arrived and performed CPR.

It is a couple hours into my shift when I learn all of this. Casually, because Paul and I, the nurse who tried resuscitating Jack, are relaxing in the East nurse’s station. Word is spreading Jack’s daughter is in his room, devastated.

Everything was fine, says Paul. Jack looked good, his regular self, that afternoon during his bath. He ate all of his dinner. At bedtime, the nurse gave pills. By nine, his roommate Glen asleep in the other bed, Jack’s heart had gone quiet.

Word travels from down the hall his daughter is asking for something to pack with. Boxes. There is a brief scramble in the nurse’s station, all of us hunting, eager to help. Melody, the Director, is also in the hall, searching with us. There are no boxes anywhere. A nurse suggests garbage bags. I feel my brain somersault behind my eyes.

Melody gestures for me to follow her. We go to the kitchen, find three medium-sized boxes. She roots around in the walk-in pantry for more. With the aid of a food service worker, we find another usable, large box marked Frito Lay. The leftover, single-serving bags of chips are dumped onto the wire shelf. I see the oil stains on the inside of the cardboard and another sensation of being upside down, topsy-turvy and wrong, comes over me.

I am walking to deliver the boxes, joined by the nurse from last night who tried to save a life. Light conversation, laughter on cue. “That just didn’t seem right,” I say, referring to the suggestion we use trash bags to gather Jack’s belongings. “Kinda sends the wrong message, don’t you think?”

The nurse agrees, chuckles.

Wednesday, March 25

The hall lights are down, soft glows amid shadows. There is a cozy atmosphere in the East nurse’s station tonight. We are all hanging out. An hour before ten and most residents are in bed, asleep. The charting we do, as aides, is done. The nurses have finished hydration sheets, logged I/Os, voice recorded their reports for evening shift. Will soon count, pass along their workload to a night nurse. Jolene and I are lounging in chairs, legs crossed, sleepy grins on our faces, when the call board sounds. High tone, low tone. Slow and persistent, like a doorbell. Wild Bill calling. He wants to go to bed. We rise, stretch the aches out of our backs. Walk to his room.

“You’re one hot mess in this bed, sweetheart,” says Jolene. “Look at you all the way down there. We’re gonna have to scoot you up.”

Wild Bill is slouched in bed, tangled in the sheets. The head of the mattress raised thirty degrees. His head and pillow a good twelve inches down from where they should be. Twisted at the waist. Withered legs bent rigid, as usual. He is wearing sweat pants, another cowboy dress shirt from his collection. For a time, before undressing him any further, we play. Jolene lays her hands on his belly, side. His armpit, left nipple. Wherever skin shows. Wild Bill howls with laughter.

“Whatsit they say. Cold hands …”

“Cold hands, warm heart,” says Jolene.

“That’s it.”

“You’re my baby.” Jolene smiles down on him, pure, beautiful. “But we’re gonna have a hell of a time taking off that shirt.”

Wild Bill’s limited arm mobility, she means. I haven’t yet read the fat binder containing his past medical history, diagnoses, so I don’t fully understand Jolene’s comment. But I have dressed and undressed Wild Bill enough to know rigor mortis seems to have set early, in his joints. He can’t straighten his legs without pain. Placing a Hoyer sling, rolling him onto his side for pericare, or to dress, is always awkward.

Wild Bill’s left arm slides out of the sleeve easy enough, which surprises Jolene. She passes the rest of the dress shirt behind his back, around to me. Patiently, I slide out his right arm, mindful of his bruised, papery skin. The undershirt pulls off over his head. Jolene and I take opposite sides of the pad beneath his hips, clutch it like a draw sheet. He needs to be raised, she says, joking that on a count of three we’re going to put his head through the wall. Wild Bill grins. Somehow, I get the feeling it wouldn’t be the first time.

Before the gown, we play again. Jolene lays her cold hands on Wild Bill’s naked chest, teases him amid bright laughter. Warm hearts all around.

Monday, March 23

I am seated at Glen’s elbow, feeding him dinner. I raise the glass of fruit juice to his lips, watch the knot in his throat swing up and down. Sometimes it doesn’t move. A red pool of juice forms on his curled bottom lip. Sometimes, when he opens his mouth, a stream of drool floods the crease between his cheek and chin, drips onto the bib. Across the table, a nurse from agency, a middle-aged woman named Helen, is feeding Glen’s roommate. Occasionally, she gives simple stern orders. Mother and baby. She is quiet to me, but I can feel her glances. The weight of her appraisal.

Glen eats his potatoes and gravy, pureed peas, the tan lump of mystery meat. Getting him to drink his thickened juice, milk, and water is more difficult. Sometimes the knot swings. Sometimes his face drips, and dark clouds form on the bib. I push fluids until he will not drink anymore. By then it is almost seven. Dinner is winding down. I rise from the table, help other aides wheel residents to their rooms. Stand by and assist when a new person asks for direction. Commiserate with regulars, those with confused, exasperated looks on their faces.

The dining room is mostly clear when I return and find Helen with Glen. She is standing over him, the cup in her hand tilted on his lip, two-thirds gone. The other cups for juice and milk hold only foggy traces of leftover fluid. See. Glen will eat everything, she announces to the room.

Something in her tone makes me feel small. Like I failed. By now I’m used to it. The tics of my co-workers. The overall atmosphere. Quietly, I move on. Spend the remainder of my shift helping residents into gowns, beds. During the drive home, on a black stretch of highway, my foot loses control. The accelerator feels soft under my shoe, a spongy thing too easily mashed into the floor. The car hurtles thirty, forty over the limit before street lights whip by again, and I get control.

Saturday, March 21

Early in my shift, while delivering new linens, the nurse from day shift pulls me aside, says I have to fill out an incident report. One of the residents from C hall, an elderly woman named Beatrice, has a bruise on her ankle. We speculate about the injury, what could have happened. There is no indication of abuse. Still, we find ourselves professing ignorance to each other. We go to C hall, to visit Beatrice, so I can see the bruise for myself.

“It’s just something we have to do,” says the nurse, about the need for the incident report. Later, she shows me the paper for the first time. Goes down through the sheet line by line, coaches me on what to say and where. Every aide and nurse who has recently worked C hall, cared for Beatrice, must complete the form, she says.

The bruise is on the outside of Beatrice’s right ankle. The skin is off color, dark, mottled purple. But from where I’m standing, it is the bruise on the inside of the same ankle that catches my eye. Similar in size, but not as fresh. The skin murky, yellowed.

“And this one?” I point to the inside of Beatrice’s ankle.

The nurse is surprised. “Huh. I didn’t even see that one.”

We linger in the room while another nurse arrives and learns of our discovery. The three of us hunched before Beatrice in her recliner, concerned looks on our faces. The old woman’s naked calf in our blue, searching hands.

Friday, March 20

Quarter to nine. The halls are finally quiet. Most of the residents are in bed. Just a couple more to put down for the night. The boys, we sometimes call them. The boys who like to stay up late, in their rooms, watching TV from their wheelchairs.

Jolene and I had worked hard all day. Our backs hurt. There was a mandatory hour-long meeting for all nurses and aides at shift change, 2 PM, when I first arrived. Since then, Jolene and I had been running. She was convinced we were behind. After awhile, her body language, pace, the grim, tight expression on her face, convinced me. Around seven, I looked at my watch, and we realized we might have overreacted. By then most of the work was done, and it didn’t matter.

We are in Wild Bill’s room, undressing him, when Jolene says, “Bill, your shoes are on backward.”

“What?” Wild Bill grins.

“Yeah,” says Jolene. No sly joke this time. “Your shoes are on the wrong feet.”

Wild Bill laughs. Jolene and I laugh too. “Well, who did that?”

I think back to the meeting. Seeing Kayla there. Our feeble attempts at conversation. How she seemed too busy today, not interested in talking. How the sense of rejection had been rotting me from the inside out all day.

Jolene and Wild Bill and I continue laughing about the backward shoes. Never said, but we all already knew who did it.

Wednesday, March 18

Taped to the front of the paper towel dispenser in Wild Bill’s room is a photograph of a young man. The picture is old, yellowed, the edges torn jagged like it came from a newspaper article. The young man is shirtless, broad-shouldered. A sturdy, thick frame. Hands on his hips, grinning easy as if someone outside the frame just told a crude joke. The background is unclear. Maybe a field, the mouth of a jungle waiting in the hot, hazy distance, maybe a construction site.

Tuesday, March 17

Beverley, Beverley, whose stomach would not sleep

Eight thirty, Don comes to the nurse’s station in the east wing. He wants to know if there are any aides available who can help Beverley into the shower room, to use the toilet there. For the past five hours she has been having diarrhea, he says. It is too hard wheeling herself in and out of the tiny bathroom in her room. Don stands stooped, his hard-worn hands on the grips of the wheelchair where Beverley, his wife, slouches. She is staring down at her lap, doesn’t look anywhere else. Her gray hair, slept to wisps, needs brushing.