I wrote this story for a creative writing class in college. I was eager to find it and share with you this tribute to my Home Support clients. They are very courageous, beautiful people. To protect my client’s identity I used random initials to name them.
It is seven am when I enter J’s house. The hall is quiet and dark. I can hear her soft breathing from the bedroom. The noisy tap does not cause her to stir as I wash my hands.
I tiptoe to the bed and gently shake the sleeping lady’s shoulder. There is a rustle as the blankets are pushed back and two eyes peer at me. Her brow wrinkles as J tries to remember me. I am one of the many faces in the revolving door of home support workers. She slowly rolls to the side of the bed and prepares for the task ahead of her. Feet planted on the floor, she rocks back and forth warming up for the great stand. On the first try her knees buckle and she lands back in the soft pillows.
“Whoops!” J giggles. “It’s hard getting my feet going in the morning.” I appreciate her light heartedness.
J reaches out her frail hand and grasps the iron pole. Her eyes are steady and focused like an olympic athlete. On her third attempt, J slowly rises onto her bare feet criss crossed with bright blue veins.
The first challenge is completed, J pushs her walker towards the bathroom for her sponge bath. She knows the routine well. White cloth for the face, pink cloth for the body.
With one hand J. clings to the sink to support her wobbly stance.
I notice the shades of purple and yellow on her arms. Battle wounds marking her encounters with the hard tile floor.
As I fasten the buttons on her blouse, J reaches up to touch her neck. “Oh, I forgot…”
“… the lifeline.” I finish her sentence and grab the small, plastic gadget hanging on the wall. One push of the button sound sthe alarm for help when needed. This is a necklace that we can’t afford to forget.
It hadn’t been long since I found J lying on the carpet in the living room where she had been closing the blinds. I ran towards her with a pounding heart. Someone had forgotten the lifeline that morning.
J. simply smiled at my panic, “I knew that someone would be coming soon for dinner.” J’s confidence greatly encouraged me but we had to be so careful.
J has tea every morning with an egg on toast. Her bright kitchen provides continual entertainment through the big picture windows overlooking the town marina. Out in the bay white and and rainbow coloured sailboats decorate the vast stretch of sea. An SUV moves down the boardwalk with a motor boat trailing behind. Shiny cars race up the hill to the town center. A horn blows as a dare-devil pedestrian runs in front of a black pick up truck. Every morning brings a new story at the ocean side theatre and J, as an engaged audience member, responds with laughter and commentary.
“It’s awfully windy for those sailors today. Oh, look at the little girl playing in the puddles. Isn’t she a darling, her mother won’t be happy about the mud on her fancy dress.”
All too soon the show ends. I prepare to leave and J transfers to her recliner for the day. For the next several hours, her only company will be the 2D characters from television land and stories from a pile of magazines on the coffee table. By evening she doesn’t remember any of it.
Once or twice a year, relatives from out of town will pay a visit or call on the phone. Many of J’s friends have passed away. The ones who are still alive are held in their own homes with dwindling strength and aching joints.
Suddenly, J’s eyes widen as she grasps for her walker. “I have to go…!” I reach out my hand and we retrace our steps to the bathroom. I can hear her gasps of air as she urges her body to move faster. “Hurry, hurry!” Three more steps.
“Almost there.” I can see the pink shower curtain and frilly white towels.
“Made it!” Another challenge overcome.
If I am not pressed for time at the end of the shift, J and I will chat. I share about trips to China and hopes for the future. J. doesn’t speak of her dreams. Dreams belong to the smooth, youthful faces printed in black and white. A woman with J’s eyes and curly hair beams up at me from on top of the dresser. Her face shines with eagerness as she looks out at the world. Beside her, a handsome man leans comfortably against his classic automobile.
“Is that your husband J? You both look beautiful!” J peers at the pictures with squinting eyes. Her curls have transformed into wisps of snow coloured hair sticking out between patches of pink skin. Her cheeks, once smooth and round as fresh plums, lie as wrinkled paper against her bones.
“Yes, that was a long time ago.” She says with a sigh.
Dreams belong to the colourful grandchildren and great grandchildren plastered on the walls. J’s face glows as she brags about her granddaughter’s university education and her beautiful new son. We wonder about their future, their hopes. We don’t talk about J’s future.
When I see J’s bare feet I wonder, does she dream of running through the ocean breakers and feeling the sand between her toes? When Frank Sinatra croons from the stereo does she dream of gliding across a shiny wooden floor in the arms of her lover? As I try to vocalize my thoughts the questions freeze in my throat. I am afraid of hurting her. Dreams are swallowed up by the everyday realities of lifelines, bathrooms and arthritis.
The summer that I met J, I also cared for a man named R. His walls were decorated with certificates proclaiming his generosity and commitment to local hospital charities. Beside the certificates is a picture of a grateful little girl holding brand new crutches. On a side table a younger R stands beside his son with a 30 pound salmon. Their grins are almost as big as the prize they caught. Decades ago R flew in the airforce and lived to tell the tale. Now he is bedridden. Every day he flies a couple of feet to the commode while dangling from a mechanical lift.
R’s son is outside in the garage polishing a shiny black automobile with a veteran’s plate. His big salmon grin is replaced with a tired nod as he waves me in. At 5 o clock dinner is served. R’s son comes in and raises his eyebrows at his father. “You better eat all your food this time. I don’t want it to go to waste.” R nods meekly and reaches for his fork.
I punch R’s multicoloured tablets into a glass and set it on the table. “Here’s your medicine.” I chirp.
Minutes pass. R lays with his hands folded and looks at me, his eyelids fluttering with sleepiness. Did he hear me? I pick up the cup and hold it out to him. No response.
The son joins my urging, “Come on Dad, take your pills”. His wife vainly pushes the pills against R’s closed lips. I wait with my pen to sign the dotted line in the record book. What will I do if he doesn’t take them? Call the supervisor? Panic rises in my stomach. I would mark down “refusal” and “non-compliant” as a warning to other staff. Why doesn’t he obey? It would make life a lot simpler.
No warnings were necessary when at last R swallowed the pills. I breathed a sigh of relief. My job was done and now I could settle down with a good book. Between chapters I peeked up at the man beside me. His lips were trembling and his chest rose with a big sigh.
“No freedom. No choice. I’m a prisoner in my own home. Pills, pills, pills is that all you’re going to give me?”
Excuses rose up in my mind, “you need pills, they’re for your health”, but all that came out of my mouth was a sputtering mumble.
What did R want? Did I even know? What were his dreams? Did I care? Did anyone care?
For the first time, I really looked at the man lying in front of me. His eyes, blue as the forget-me-nots painted on a nearby teacup were cradled in long, blond lashes. They were eyes that would have caused girls to stop mid-step and have a second look. His legs stuck out like twigs under a teal hospital gown. At one time, they were strong branches carrying R across town and country. Legs that once kicked balls across the lawn to his little boy, now lay motionless against the white sheet.
“I’m sorry R.”
He silently stretched his hand over the bed rail. I reached back and touched his soft pink skin. R’s fingers laced through mine in a firm grip, send a message of life, of feelings.
Whenever I entered R’s room again he would stretched out his hand. Hours would pass by on the ticking clock in the corner as we sat talking or simply being together in silence. The pills sat on patiently on the table. Every day from four to five we watched ‘Stargate: SG1″. At five minutes to four we began to count down the minutes to the opening credits.
“What do you think is going to happen in this episode?” I would ask. R smiled back with anticipation. When the armor clad warriors triumphed over enemies of the universe we were jubilant. Family feuds and stressful work vanished for the moment as we cheered on our heroes.
R’s son and his wife often joined us around the television. One day his son held out a blue can, “how about a beer Dad?” R’s eyes brightened and his head lifted from the pillow. The grins returned as the two men sipped amber liquid and thought about salmon and sunshine.
When evening’s shadows came the tv was turned off and the family migrated to the living room. Soft nature music played on the stereo as I bathed R’s feet in warm water and covered them with lotion, caressing the calloused skin. At ten o clock, with a satin sheet tucked under his bright clean chin, R gave a little sigh, “I feel good”.
After being waitlisted for several months, a bed opened up for R in Extended Care. It was time to say good bye. What did I say to this man who, with few words, had shown me so much of himself? Inside his worn out body there was a heart filled with dreams.
I squeezed his hand and turned to leave.
“I love you.” His voice rang out in a strong sweet sound.