CHRIS: my Queen of ordinary
Met on April 21, 2002, Written April 22, 2002
Last night I went to volunteer for a few hours in the palliative care unit at the hospital. I’ve been doing this now for a month or so — volunteering to care for the terminally ill. I work in the unit where the people either come to manage pain, but usually where they come to die. I’m always skittish when I arrive. I feel like I’m invading the most private moment of a family’s life. Usually, I wish I could shrink into a tiny ball and just disappear — roll out the crack of a door and be gone.
As soon as I arrive, I empty the soiled laundry. I open the bins lined against the wall. The smell is sharp, and I am immediately sobered by it. The smell of sickness. It’s not a sad smell, and it’s not disgusting. It’s a slap in the face that yells, “Wake up! There are sick people here!”
I take them into the laundry room where there is a chute. I open the door of the chute and lift the bag up and push it into the hole. I lean in and listen as the bag falls ten stories. It is a violent, awful sound. I always close the door before it hits the end. So, I don’t know what it sounds like when it hits bottom.
I walk into the bathroom and I wash my hands slowly. I remember at training when they told us that you should wash your hands for the duration it would take to sing Happy Birthday. So, I hum it under my breath then look at myself in the mirror, wishing that more time would have passed than ten minutes.
I walk out to the nurses’ station. They are all bustling around, so I jump in. “Is there anything i can do?” They send me for narcotics. I ride the elevator down to 9 and pick them up. As I ride back up, I visualize every person I see accosting me for the morphine drips and heavy drugs I’m carrying in my hands. I’m pretty much innocence on legs.
I come back and sit in the nurses’ station. They pretend I am not there, and I prefer this. I’d rather feel superfluous than be a burden. I wander to the kitchen. The smell of scorching coffee is thick in the air. I am overjoyed for a task and, even though it is 7 at night, I make a pot.
Bea, a nurse, finds me. “Can you come and sit with a patient? Her name is Chris. She is deaf and blind and actively dying. She has no family or friends and I think she might like a hand to hold on to.
“Sure,” I say. My voice is far too cheery.
I walk in and Bea leans over Chris. She yells down to her face, “Chris, it’s Bea. Gen is here to stay with you for a bit.” Then Bea moves away for me to come near. I don’t want to yell at Chris like that so I just stand next to her bed. Bea leaves.
After the awkwardness settles, I take Chris’s hand. Her fingers are purple. It looks like her whole hand is bruised. But my Grandma is starting to get spots like that on her hands — big, purple spots that look like the blood is dripping under her skin. Her head is tilted back far. She has no teeth, so her bottom lip is stretched tight across her gums. She is wearing thick glasses with a big pad to protect the bridge of her nose. Her eyes are open and she is staring at the ceiling transfixed. She is taking in short little bursts of breath, and I can see her heart beating through her shirt. I can see her heart moving inside her body.
I hold her hand loosely, thumbing down her skin which is so soft and delicate it feels like tissue paper. I lean down towards her face, and all the sudden, I’m talking to her. I feel sort of foolish, and I just kind of whisper cliche things that are supposedly comforting. I know she’s deaf and can’t really hear me, but I do it anyway — hoping, despite evidence.
I am close to her now and can smell her sickness. I don’t know what she has.
I lean back up and just concentrate on her hand, massaging it and holding it. Bea comes back to change the dressings on her back. I look stiff and unsettled. I wonder if Bea thinks I am useless. I help her change the dressing and follow her out to the nurses’ station.
Bea has brought us all cookies from the deli. They are cinnamon gingersnaps. They are delicious. I have to eat them a bit a time because I keep smelling sickness on me. I don’t want to eat that smell. But I want to feel normal again. I’m calmed, briefly, by the bright lights and the sound of the ice machine in the nurses’ station.
There is a woman wailing down the hall. It makes me really tense.
I bustle around with errands for the next hour or so and then stop in on my way out to say goodbye to Chris. I go over to the other side of the bed and take her hand. I look down and notice she has chipped nail polish on the bottom half of her fingernails. It is the color of a Barbie convertible. Bright pink. Slut pink. This surge of joy rushes through my body like a current of electricity, and I laugh.
What a marvelous act of vanity. I wonder about her adventures through the 20th century. How many times did she make love? When did she decide to stop wearing hats? Why did she live in Chicago? Did she go to the theatre? Was she the type of woman who sat on benches in parks and accosted strangers with idle conversation?
I love that pink nail polish.
Then I leave to go see a movie with Craig. I get into the car and announce to him that I think I’m getting a stye in my eye. “Oh,” he says. We park and walk to the bookstore. I want to look at all the books with awards on them. He points out all the books with sexual innuendo on the covers. We walk to the theatre and eat popcorn and gasp together at the climax of the movie. We drive to my house and sit on the dirty carpet in the living room. I hold my Marge and teach Craig how to clip his nails. We go to bed.
Now I am here, drinking coffee and putting it down for history in my thoughts. The air in my lungs feels thick. My lips are chapped from kissing. My hair falls in awkward waves down my face. And I am so right in this world today.