Don't Curse the Nurse!

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For Your Consideration

Dear Blog family,

I am about to send the piece below off into the wild world of critics/ lovers of fiction. First I am going to drop it here. You’re family. I’m thinking you’ll help me one way or another; a sweet comment, a personal reflection, and possibly a nudge out the door

 

Reshuffling

Image via wikihow.com

                   “Start over!”

                   “No.” I know what is coming, a declaration that we have missing cards, she has one too many, or something like that.

                   Callie pauses and purses her lips. I ignore her. It’s hard to do when your Canasta opponent is a bald-headed- ten- year- old wearing bright orange pajamas and Donald Duck slippers. Last year it was Goofy slippers, just like a pair I’ve had since I was a kid. I told her about them, and we’ve been friends ever since.

                   As I watch her face, I can see Callie picking her next words. She’s eying me, waiting to see if I’ll crack. I get more comfortable among the bunched up blankets and sort my cards.

                   “I don’t think you shuffled well enough.” Callie says in her naturally squeaky voice.

                   I give her my I’m not messing around look.

                   “It’s Canasta sweetie. You’re gonna have all sorts of matches no matter what. Now wrap your tiny paws around your cards, and lay your melds on the table here.”

                   Callie gives me a harrumph and a bugged-eyed look before redirecting her attention.

                   For Callie, I normally would reshuffle the deck, but I’m planning to meet friends after work, and if I want to get out on time, I can’t dawdle. One person in the group is an old friend — to be more exact, a hot guy that I regret casting aside. I’ve been dateless for four long months.

                   Callie slaps the bedside table with her hand so the stacked cards tumble sideways. I can’t help smiling. When Callie’s trying to be obnoxious, she just gets cuter and cuter.

                   “Temper, Callie.”

                   While she’s straightening out the deck, I start to lay a row down, but I’m distracted by a flash of purple on the inside of Callie’s right arm — the beginnings of a bruise right in the bend of her elbow. Around the edges it’s pink and green.

                   “What the…?” I reach for her wrist, but she’s already snaked her arm back under the blanket.

                   “Why didn’t they use your port, Callie?”

I point to the spot below her collar bone where the quarter size implant protrudes from under her skin.

                   “My Chlorambucil was still running and they said they didn’t have time to come back.”

                   The way medical jargon tumbles out of her mouth — for a second I forget she’s only ten.

                   “Call me next time, O.K?” I say it casually. I don’t want to be overbearing. Callie’s parents are major helicopters, hovering over every single staffer. Callie confided that she finds it embarrassing.

                   When I was twelve, I had Mono and was in the hospital for six weeks with my mother making everyone nervous.

                   I get it.

                   We resume playing.

                   Swish-swish. Thump-thump.

                   The speed of our card slaps gives our game a hip-hop rhythm. With each card I pull, Callie adds body moves by bending at the elbow and drawing her fanned out deck to her chin.

                   We pull and discard as fast as we can until there are two in the deck, Callie’s got three, I’ve got four, and it’s my turn to draw. She’s wiggling around on her bottom and singing before I get the card in my hand.

                   “I’m gonna win. I’m gonna win,” Callie chants.

                   I drag one of the two remaining cards slowly toward me and hold it to my chest before looking. With a deliberate “hmm,” then an “ah,” I add it to the pair of fours in my hand and with a grin, lay the threesome on the table. “I win,” I announce.

                   Callie responds by sticking her tongue out at me and scrunching up her nose. I’m thinking about what I want to wear tonight.

                   Then she leans over and grabs my forearms. My resolve crumbles.

                   “Please. One more round. Come on Aubrey. You’ve only been here, like, like, twenty minutes,” she whines.

                   I resettle at the foot of her bed and deal new cards.

                   Soon the tempo of card slaps and swooshes returns until Callie’s oversized Kidoozie clock alarms.

                   It’s 3:00 pm.

                   I snap my head up and put my cards down. “Callie, I have to go.”

                   “But the game?”

                   I think the crestfallen look on her face is a little much, a tactic she uses. Guilt creeps up from my subconscious but I push it away. Tonight is too important. Callie’s too young to understand. Jumping up from the bed and walking towards the door, I talk fast. “I’ll see your tomorrow. If I win again, I get your slippers!” I hike up my scrubs belligerently, mocking the threat. Callie smiles and I know we’re okay. I run over, give her a quick hug, and leave.

                   A lab tech passes me in the doorway and I think about Callie’s bruised arm, but I want to get ready. I’ll leave it for tomorrow.

 

 

Everyone I pass is quiet. Not I haven’t had my coffee quiet, but the kind of quiet that demand immediate pause. I quicken my pace and reach the unit just as housekeeping walks out of room 467.

                   Callie’s room.

                   “…clot…pulmonary artery…,”I hear, and then nothing but the ocean pounding in my ears. Thirty minutes later, I sit on the bathroom floor. My boss gives me the day off, but by the time I’m in my car, I’ve decided to transfer.

***

Adult Oncology. Three months. I do overtime in the radiation lab. If I learn the medicines, I’ll fit in, I think. It’s not working. When I’m in a patient’s room and his grandchildren are there, I feel displaced, like an outsider.

                   I set up a meeting with my old manager.

***

                   “Hi, I’m Aubrey. I’ll be your nurse today.”

                   The twelve-year- old sitting cross-legged on the bed has a deck of cards in her hand. She has an Osteosarcoma and will have surgery in two days.

                   “Playing Solitaire, huh.” The triggered memory shakes me.

                   “Yeah, but I’d like to have someone to play with. You could fix that.” She says it to me matter-of-fact. I avoid eye contact. I don’t want her to see my eyes getting red.

                   “Can I sit and talk to you while you play?”

                   “Sure. Wanna play Crazy Eights with me?”

                   “Sure.” It’s only one word, but it sticks in my throat.

                   I just stare. She probably thinks I’m nuts. “Yes” might be moving forward or back, I don’t know which.

                   She cups the deck in her left hand, then grabbing a handful in her right, I watch her position her thumbs to fan out the cards. They fall with a dull thwack when she arches the piles back between her thumb and index finger.

                   “That wasn’t very good.” She lets out a sigh of exasperation and pushes the cards to where I sit gingerly at the edge of her bed. “Here. You do it.”

                   I miss Callie.

                   “No, I think you should do it.” I pick up the cards and place them back in front of her.

                   “Split the deck and try again.”

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Lights Out ( a short story)

LIGHTS OUT

Rain hits the window like paint pellets, sharp splats followed by fat circles of water that distort and gray the lines on the pavement in front of me. I’ve been traveling this road weekly for the last two months, and each time the stretch seems longer.

“Watch the road! My God! Do you have your lights on?”

“Yes Mom, they’re on.”

“When we get to the doctor’s, make sure you tuck in your shirt and put on some lipstick.” She emphasizes the word lipstick by puckering her mouth and puffing her cheeks.

I focus on my breathing and keeping the car at maximum speed without hydroplaning into a ditch. My mother, Veronica, is short of breath from her brief exchange with me. She sniffs in oxygen from the tube that connects her to the cylinder behind the seat.

That, along with her wheelchair, takes up all the space in the back of my Volvo. Every time I shift, the soft spot of my elbow hits the pressure valve on the propped up tank. My hands stay gripped to the wheel until I see the green roof of the doctor’s office. Then, I take the side street fast enough to make her slide over towards the door. But, after I brake and twist to unbuckle my seatbelt, I feel a twinge of guilt for my speedway exit into the parking lot. My mom is looking at me with a soft gaze, the first sign that her memory has lapsed again.

“Who are you again? Where are we?”

“Mom, it’s me, your daughter. You live with me.”

This woman, whose chronically impaired lungs are now invaded by cancerous cells, pats my arm with affection.  It was only yesterday that she let out a long series of expletives and pushed over the aluminum walker I asked her to use in the house. She ended her tantrum by telling me what a piss poor housekeeper I was.

I get out of the car and walk to her side with an umbrella in hand. The steps she has taken from the door to the wheelchair leave her winded and her chest heaves up and down. I step in closer to offer my arm and she clutches it as she pivots and sits.

“Remember Mom? Your doctor’s appointment.”  When I squat down to put her feet on the pedals her pupils brighten and her brow relaxes.

“Oh, that’s right.”

“Here, let me button your coat.”  After getting her comfortable, we roll into the office and with a nod from the receptionist, right into an exam room. After her doctor looks at x-rays, he confirms what I suspect, the cancer has spread.  Her clothes hang loose, her skin has become oddly colored, and when I look in on her at night, sometimes seconds go by before I see her chest rise.

I am trying to focus on what he is saying, but it’s difficult to listen. She is pulling on the edge of my frayed sweater, fingering the places that have begun to pill. “Mom!” I push her hand away, but she tugs at my shirt again.

With the tip of her tongue behind her teeth, she makes the sucking sounds I’ve heard since my teen years when I carried an extra ten pounds of baby fat and failed to make the cheerleading squad. I put her wrinkled hand back in her lap and speak in the modulated voice I reserve for these visits. “Mom, please, the doctor is talking.” I turn my attention back to him.

“Aggressive treatment for your mom would be risky at this point. Her lung capacity and tidal volume would…”

While he talks, my eyes dart around the room.  It’s the same one we were in the last time; the lilac painted walls, the plastic flowers crammed into the ceramic vase by the sink. I remember thinking how cheap they looked and wondering why the town’s only Oncologist couldn’t afford anything better. But, I can’t complain.  Last October he removed a tumor from her lung and got her out of the nursing home in six weeks. Today he is not speaking as confidently. He’s using phrases like “in the case of an emergency” and “comfort measures”.

“It’s up to you to decide how to proceed.  I see from our records that you have power of attorney.” While handing me a stack of papers and forms, he explains options in a practiced, impartial tone. Chemotherapy.  Radiation. Parenteral nutrition. Resuscitative efforts. The last paper has large type across the top, Do Not Resuscitate, with the first letter of each word bolded and underlined. I know what it means without having to read the content.

Do nothing.

I pull it to the top and look at him through narrowed eyes. Doing nothing has never been considered good enough. Crap, what I have done has never been good enough. He gives me a pat on the shoulder and an almost sincere smile. Kneeling low so he is eye to eye with Mom, he praises her efforts and pats her on the hand.

“You’re a sweet lady Veronica.”

If only he knew.

When we leave the rain has stopped and I push her wheelchair through a shallow puddle.

“That man, he looked like Tyrone Powers.”

I murmur absentmindedly and let her bump through a gouged area on the pavement. “Yeah, he’s handsome.”

She is quiet on the way back, only fidgets with her limp curls and slaps my hand when I reach to turn on the radio. Once home, I help her change into night clothes and bring a heated dinner to her room. The running oxygen hisses in the background of the game show Wheel of Fortune.  I am almost out the door when she clears her throat and calls me in a scratchy voice.

“That man we saw…”

“Yes Mom.”

“He’s out of your league. You’ll never get a man the way you look.”

She lets out a snort and turns her attention back to the contestant picking out vowels.

I shut her door and walk toward my bedroom on the other side of the kitchen. As I pass through, I stop to sign the DNR forms on the counter. Then I turn off the lights.

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Queen For a Day – The Middle ( tomorrow is the end)

See, Beulah hated wearing the adult diapers Claire ordered to be put on her every morning. She said they create an “unsightly” bulge in her hips and “real ladies don’t wear diapers”.  Beulah had no shame about her vanity, was proud of the abundant coif of curls at her neckline and told at least two people a day how she had been the Clarksville parade queen three years straight.  It went hand in hand with her flirtatious personality.  She was cordial to the other female residents, but when men were around, residents or visitors, she pulled out her beauty queen persona and peacocked until the compliments flowed. She would start with her southern twang; draw her words out slowly, as if she had syrup on her lips, and bat away imaginary pieces of dust with her eyelashes. Then she would touch her face with her fingertips, draw attention to her unusually youthful looking skin, and giggle at every comment, no matter how mundane.

On the occasions when staff was transporting Beulah to the gym for therapies, she rolled through the hallways with her head held comically high and a quad cane swinging from her right hand. Beulah’s senses were intact and her wit was sharp, so staff had tried to respect her wishes, and wearing regular underpants was a big one, but she was wetting the bed at night. Hours on moist sheets had made Beulah’s butt cheeks bright pink with tiny blisters waiting to pop. The first time staff placed the adult diapers on Beulah, she expressed her dissatisfaction in a way that was far from ladylike. Beulah was so argumentative that Claire repeatedly had to sequester her from areas where any family was visiting. Beulah’s exclamations were sprinkled generously with profanities that would make a man blush.

Claire got up slowly from the bench were she had been sitting and trying to get rid of the pale yellow shoes stains. Only one thought went through her mind,

I’m going to get that old lady to buy me new shoes. She has damaged my property!

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