Tuesdays in the Nursing Home- Believing


He is a small man now, his back bowed by age and the effort it takes draw oxygen in to his failing lungs. Until today, I’d never seen Clyde’s health bother him. On any other day, he is up, smiling and speaking to everyone he passes as he wheels his walker around the nursing home. An oxygen tank sits in the white wire basket attached to the front of his cart.

Nothing gets Clyde down.  He stopped me once and said “You know, if my wife had lived this would’ve been our 70th anniversary.” 

I put my hand on his arm, uncertain what to say- do I congratulate him or offer condolences? I settled for a bit of both. 

He smiled, told me the secret to his long marriage was keeping his mouth shut, and wheeled along down the hallway.

Today he wouldn’t leave his room and hadn’t eaten for over 24 hours.  A clear plastic mask covered his mouth and nose as he fumbled to open a packet of sugar and empty it into his coffee.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he cried.  His frail bones felt hollow as I stroked his back.  “I don’t know where I am. I don’t know what I’m doing. There were 13 of us, now there’s but 3.”  He looked at me for an instant, his eyes searching my face. “My sister died yesterday. Now’s there’s only three.”

His hands shook harder.  Packet after packet of sugar and creamer spilled into the cup and were hastily stirred with his fork.  He tasted, sipping like a tiny bird, in quick, shaky bursts.  More sugar. More creamer.  “I can’t eat,” he said, tearing up pieces of bread and tossing them into his Cream of Chicken soup.  “I just can’t,” he said, spooning the soup into his mouth like a starving man. 

The vanilla wafers were next.  He ate them all, sweeping the crumbs off his tray, into his hand and then tossing them into his mouth.

“Are you afraid of dying?” I asked finally.  No answer.  He dodged me, darting down a dark mental alleyway and putting up a smokescreen.  “We weren’t that close.  She was only two years older than me. Two years!”

But was he afraid of dying?  No answer.

“What will happen if I die? Who will look after everyone?” he asked, his voice breaking.

I am a slow study.  “Are you afraid?” I asked.

Then, “Are you worried?”

“Eh, worried? No, I’m not worried. Well, I might be. But I don’t know what for. If it’s time it’s time.”

“Do you think you’re dying?” I ask.

“No, no.  Couldn’t do anything about it if I were.  When God calls you…” 

The rapid-fire denials suddenly stopped. His eyes filled with tears. A drop of coffee dripped unnoticed from his chin, splashing on the home-sewn, light blue and red-striped bib he had absently thrown across his lap. 

“What if I’ve done something wrong in my life?” he asked, trembling. “What if I said something to someone and they were offended and I didn’t know it? What will God think? What will he say?”

I stroked his arm, circled his bony back with the palm of my hand and tried to reassure him.  The woman in the room across the hallway watched us curiously, her hearing far keener than my patient’s.  When I caught her eye, she waggled three fingers at me in a casual, to-ta-loo salute.

Clyde was trying not to cry by picking up his soup and drinking from the bowl, abandoning any attempt at using his spoon.  He was in a frenzy, panicked by the thought of being snatched by God before he could eat or explain or live enough to be ready.

“Yesterday I got down on my knees and begged him to forgive me if I’ve harmed anyone or done something wrong I didn’t know about.”

I looked around his room at the proudly displayed posters of his cherished Yankees.  I am a Phillies fan.

I held my friend, trying my best to reassure him, wishing I knew a way to soothe without shouting. 

These are the times when I long for a magic pill or a wand or a letter of guarantee from God stating death and the process of dying will not be scary or frightening and that there is indeed a Heaven.  Furthermore, the letter would inform Clyde that he’s definitely “In” and that Heaven is truly much more wonderful than anything he’s been told.

I don’t have that kind of power. 

This time is one of the rare times I walk down the hallway, worried about Clyde’s panic and breathlessness, and tell his nurse to give him the morphine his doctor has ordered for times like these.

A half an hour later, the nurse stops me.  “That rascal!” she says.  “I told him if he had the morphine, he had to promise not to get out of bed or he’d fall.”

My eyes widen.

“Yep,” she says nodding. “I walked in just in time to catch him.  And do you

know what that rascal said?”

I shook my head, too pleased to hear Clyde had been elevated from panicked to rascal status to care.

“He lay back in my arms, smiled up at me and asked ‘Who was that pretty lady come in and talked to me? I sure did like her!’ Pays no mind to the fact he could’ve broken a bone disobeying me.  Just wants to talk about the pretty lady. Can you believe it?!” the nurse demanded.

No, I couldn’t.  But then, it doesn’t matter what I do or don’t believe.

Faith it seems, is very much in the eyes of the beholder. 


1 comment:

Beth said...

This is a wonderful essay, Nancy. Very moving and well-written---thank you.

I can't speak for God, of course, but I think it's very likely He'd welcome Clyde with open arms.