by Karen Devaney
As my car sputtered into the nearest garage spewing whitish gray smoke, I knew I was doomed for another week of nursing nightmares. I’d have to jam my latest manuscript back into the file labeled “edits” don my scrubs and stethoscope and fly to the nearest hospital resurrecting Nurse Noelle. Being a registered nurse desperate for cash reminded me that my life resembled that of a scullery maid. By definition a scullery maid’s duties included– “the most physical and demanding tasks.” Hoisting obese patients and giving enemas to clear came to mind. A scullery maid also was responsible for cleaning and scouring various areas—does armpits and anuses count?
The mechanic whirled me back into reality when he announced my car needed a new tube here, a radiator there, and some other outrageously priced part that I couldn’t afford. I tuned out and called the office for work.
By seven am the following morning, after taking a bus laden with perfume and various body odors, I found myself stranded on the scariest floor yet; the transplant unit at St. George. St George was known for their influx of organs coming and going like a fish market bustling with the latest fresh catch. The place was impacted with patients desperate for livers or kidneys or new bionic feet of some sort. As far as my eyes could see there were swollen scrotums, distended abdomens, and general zombie like folks scattered about.
“Miss Shay, you need to get back to your room—we’ll be in to help you after report.” Zelda, the night nurse said with a strong southern twang that made me think of grits and ham hocks.
“I’m not going back to that prison cell. You people have tortured me long enough. I have fled the sea of despair and arrived on this godforsaken island. I will not…” Miss Shay was screaming as she punched her fists towards the heavens like a holy preacher delivering a sermon to his heathen flock.
“Now, now— She’s yours,” Zelda leaned in to inform me as if I’d won an honorable mention in a poetry contest. Her apostle like tone irritated every cell in my body. “She’s harmless, you know–just utterly out of her blessed little mind.” Zelda patted my shoulder as she waddled over to escort Miss Shay back to her room. Her enormous derriere bounced like two yoga balls colliding into one another.
I was petrified to hear report on my other five patients.. I contemplated leaving before Zelda returned. I figured with those buoyant butt cheeks, it may take a while. I could walk briskly to the bathroom and climb out of the window; except that this was the sixth floor. As I turned to further assess my escape, Zelda grabbed my elbow and shoved me back to my seat. She must have sensed my urgency.
“AL righty, Miss Shay’s fine—ya’ll know she’s from a homeless shelter–isn’t used to being confined. Oh, and she’s an opiate abuser and hasn’t had a bowel movement in 4 days—so we dosed her up with milk of mag.”
“You hoo, Noelle?” It was Frank, another nurse looking to unload his patients. He waved his hand as if he were a host at Applebee’s.
“You have my patients—come on girl let me get outta here.”
“Fire away.” I said trying to sound sympathetic.
“They’re not too bad a group.” Frank said with a semi-smirk. “So Jake in room 632, he is waiting for a new liver, hoping it gets here before he checks out—if you know what I mean. He’s got Hep C, a real sweet guy, fairly independent. “Frank droned on about Jakes medications, which seemed like an endless stream of consciousness.
Okay and last but not least you have Mr. Jong—oh dear!” Frank flopped his cheat sheet on his lap and looked at me with empathy. His cheeks scrunched as if he had just sucked on a lemon.
Mr. Jong was a seventy-three year old who had never been sick a day in his life—he was the model human. Worked out, ate a vegetarian diet, didn’t smoke, drank a little red wine, loved people and had a hefty sense of humor. His diagnosis– terminal liver and pancreatic cancer. He was given a two-week to two month sentence.
Have a good night sweetie.” Frank waved as he sashayed to the elevators.
Mr. Jong—, who insisted I call him Jim, was my favorite. He had a broad smile that recruited his entire face and I found the edges of my mouth lifting involuntarily. His dark eyes belied his playful spirit; he laughed easily and had one story after another that lifted my mood and gave me reason to reflect on being joyful despite the darkest of circumstances.
“Noelle, I have to tell you—you are a good nurse—better than Frank and he’s pretty good.”
“I thought you said you’ve never been in the hospital before. How do you know a good nurse from a bad one?’ I jokingly said after giving Jim an injection that had little to do with curing cancer.
“I know good nurses—good nurses laugh at my jokes!” Jim chuckled. “You’re the first person to ask me how I felt about the cancer. My wife, Dotty—she was my one and only love, two years ago—she died of the cancer. Maybe we’ll be in a new wing together soon—you know?” Jim said as he pointed to the ceiling. “My daughter wants me to take the chemo—I don’t want to. Not that I’m eager to kick the can, I just don’t want all that crap in my body—rather slip out the back door still able to stand.” Jim said.
“I understand.” I said.
At the end of the shift, Jim shared a poignant story with me that, I couldn’t seem to shake:
“It was 1951 when I saw Dotty, my wife for the first time. She was Italian you know—beautiful dark skin, red lips. My parents never accepted her, especially my mother. You know why Noelle? Her beautiful olive color—she wasn’t Japanese. When my father died and my mother was alone—Dotty insisted we build a granny unit for her. When my mother fell ill, it was Dotty who cared for her. One day, my mother says to me, ‘Jun, I make mistake. Dotty—good girl—I tell daddy soon.’ She died within that week. The following month Dotty was diagnosed with the cancer.
Barely able to answer, I touched his arm and shook my head. I fled the room claiming another patient needed my immediate attention. I raced to the bathroom to collect myself. Locked in the burnt yellow stall contemplating on the old porcelain toilet, I realized I had experienced a story of unbridled love that survived death.
Jim was discharged the next day and he promised to stay in touch. A few months later, I read of his passing. I put on a Sinatra song—and smiled knowing that Jun and Dotty would dance for eternity. And at that moment—I was grateful my heap of a car had needed repairs that day.
Karen Devaney is the author of “Juliana’s Truth” a recent novel due for publication in Italy and ‘Meanderings: A Collection of Poetic Verse’ available at Diversion Press. Karen recently relocated from the San Francisco Bay area to Philadelphia. Besides teaching creative writing and workshops, Karen also teaches Afro/Brazilian dance and loves yoga and cycling. Learn more about Karen at www.redroom.com/member/karendevaney. Karen can also be found on Facebook. [subscribe2]