5/06/2005

Cookie...A Rant

On her good days, Cookie is up when I arrive, sitting in her wheelchair and smiling. "I have so many blessings," she says. She gestures to the wall across from the foot of her bed, plastered with photographs of her children and grandchildren. "Whenever I feel lonely, I look at that wall, and then I don't feel so bad. I am so blessed."

I look at the pictures with her and listen as she tells the stories. "That's Mike. He plays soccer in California. He's getting married in December to the loveliest girl." She rolls slowly to the next photograph. Her son smiles out at us from maybe twenty years ago. His hand rests on the shoulder of a beautiful, clear-eyed, girl. They are in love and happy; frozen forever in that one perfect moment.

"That's Bill and Virginia," Cookie recites. "She died. I don't know what it was. She was so sick. That girl didn't want to die. I never saw anybody fight so hard. She rolled from one end of the bed to the other. The pain was so awful. It broke my heart. I don't think Bill ever recovered. You know he never married." I listen to the familiar litany, feeling the comfort she gets from repeating the same words over and over.

Cookie rolls her chair slowly to the far end of the wall and points to an old black and white 8x10 photograph of a young woman on roller skates. Behind her, row after row of desks fill a huge room. Men and women seated behind the desks seem not to notice the pretty girl in white shorts and a fitted, white blouse.

"That's me," Cookie says. She is so proud. "I worked there for 10 years. I went in with my girlfriend but I wasn't looking for work. She was the one applying for a job but the man doing the hiring looked right past her and said 'Can you skate?' I said yes and the next thing I knew, I was working there!"

Cookie can't remember five minutes ago, but she remembers every detail of her family's lives. Sometimes her nurse hands her a cup with her pills in it and a glass of water and Cookie forgets what to do with the pretty colored dots in the tiny paper cup. She pours juice on her cereal and drinks the milk, but she remembers that I bring her freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

"I've been waiting for you," she says. "It's so nice of you to drop by."

Cookie knows she can't remember. Sometimes she smiles, lifts a hand and says, "I don't know if Mary's coming for lunch or not. I call her and she tells me, but, oh well, I just don't know! I tell her, well, if you're coming I'll see you and if you don't, I won't!" She chuckles and says "That's just how it is!"

But some days I find Cookie in her room looking mildly annoyed. "I was upset about something and now I'm upset because I can't remember what it was!" I shake my head. "I hate when that happens!" I say. We look at the picture wall and munch cookies and eventually her confused feeling goes away.

We started her on a medicine designed to help her remember and for awhile I thought it was helping.

A week ago, as I was leaving, I hugged her neck goodbye. "See you next week," I said. Cookie leaned back in her chair and stared up into my face.

"I love you," she said. "I really do."

I hugged her a little tighter, felt the frail bird-like bones, smelled the sweet talc old lady scent and said, "Oh, Cookie, I love you too!" Because I do love her, because how could I not love Cookie?

This week I missed her on Tuesday. She was upstairs in the hair salon. But on Thursday I baked cookies and saved my visit with her for last. I walked up and saw a new expression on Cookie's face, a look I couldn't identify. Her pale pink complexion was mottled with red bumps. When I leaned down to smile at her I saw her red-rimmed eyes and was surprised to see tears spilling onto her wrinkled cheeks.

"Honey, what's wrong?" I kept my voice soft and low as I knelt down in front of her to take both of her hands in mine.

Cookie looked into my face but it felt as if she wasn't even seeing me.

"I need to go to the bathroom," she began in a slow, halting voice. She seemed to focus harder on my face, wrestling with what she needed to say or confess and perhaps feeling it was safe to tell me because she knew somewhere in her forgotten memory that I was familiar.

"I need to go to the bathroom," she said softly, "and I don't know who I am."

I felt my heart break. I squeezed her hand gently, looked into her eyes and said, "Oh, sweetheart! You are Cookie, Elizabeth Robbins, and we will get you to the bathroom right now."

When I knew she'd heard me, I walked to the nurses' station and found her nurse,Tammy.

"I've never seen Cookie like this," I said after she'd called an aide to help.

Tammy shrugged, her attention already back on the cart before her. "Oh well, she gets like that a lot."

I stood there looking at Tammy, willing her to come back, to pay attention, to remember who I was, who her patient was, what her responsibility was, to know how awful it is to feel lost and alone and uncared for...But Tammy was gone, moving on to the next patient and leaving me to stand there staring after her.

I turned and walked the short distance back to Cookie's room. The aide was helping Cookie into the restroom, gently reassuring her as the pair moved slowly forward.

"I brought you a cookie," I said, realizing even as I said the words that Cookie wouldn't see me, or hear the words or even understand them. "I'll just leave it on your bedside table," I added, as my voice trailed off into an ineffectual whisper.

I left the building, heading for lunch between my two nursing homes. Inside my chest I felt sobs crashing against my ribs, looking for a way out and finally subsiding as I sat across from my friends, listening to their stories. They know by now not to ask when I say it is a bad day at the home. Instead they talk over my mood, waiting until I catch up and join them, not taking my mood personally. I still have another home to visit. I can't go there. I can't stay in Cookie's room. I can't make her better today. Somewhere I know I can't make her better ever and yet, I will continue to try because I can't not try.

I leave my buddies and drive across town, thinking about running away, remembering I have two boys I love too much to leave and knowing that even if I did run away to Panama City to become a waitress in a Waffle House, I would still manage to drag every sad story out of every lost cause customer because I just can't help myself.

I pull up in front of the second nursing home and sit in my car staring up at the low-slung brick building. I reach for the phone to call my best friend and remember that she is in Florida taking care of her daughter in law who has had a double mastectomy. I miss her.

Finally, I take a deep breath and leave the car. I am thinking of who I need to see and what they are needing when I open the door and step inside the building, blinking to adjust my eyes from bright sunlight to low interior fluorescent lighting.

"Hey, Baby! Come here you good looking woman!"

Wayland, blue ball cap perched on top of his head, wheelchair rolling up in front of me.

I smile. Wayland thinks I'm his girlfriend.

"Hey, baby, what''re you doin'?" I say, flirting with him.

"Just waiting on you baby! Doggone, you look fine!" He says...And then farts, long, slow, juicy and continuously...All the while telling me how good I look and asking when we're going to go riding in his Cadillac convertible.

Wendell is shameless and I love him for it.

I try not to inhale, try not to laugh and say, "Oh baby, that sounds good to me! I've gotta go put this bag down first. I'll be back around in a little bit!"

I pat his shoulder and walk off down the hallway before I gasp for air. I walk into the social work office, sling my backpack down into a chair and pull out my clipboard.

This afternoon I will be Wendell's girlfriend, Miss Annie's little girl, Walter's wife and Elsie's defender. I will listen to an overworked activity director bitch, fight with a surly CNA that I suspect is mean to her patients and tell another nurse that what she did that morning mattered in the life of a little old man who'd lost the will to live. I will cajole, hug, sing, cry and tease. I will be their defender when they are unable to speak for themselves. I will sit, silently bearing witness as my patients recount the days of their lives, fitting them into some semblance of order before they leave. I will be the one to hold the stories, to remember and honor the wisdom that has gone before. I will laugh and cry and have my heart broken over and over again. I will wake up in the middle of the night, worrying about them like I worry about my boys. I will be there when their children no longer visit. I will be the one to see how much they miss their babies and I will go home and treasure mine.

And when my heart is breaking, I will take a deep breath and realize that all wonderful gifts come at a price.

But I don't think I will ever stop fighting or being angry...at a culture that doesn't value its elderly, at the children who forget their parents, at the profit-driven companies who don't pay a living wage to their staffs, who look the other way when patients are abused or say "Oh, well, that's just how it is!"

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