“Hon, could you get me a cup a coffee?” asks the voice behind the curtain.
It’s a remarkably strong one for someone with end-stage lung disease. Unlike Dad, whose voice has practically disappeared, Everett, with his southern accent and old-school politeness, can put his needs out there. I don’t mind. I’ve noticed he doesn’t get many visitors.
I poke my head around the curtain. He’s bedridden and I’ve never seen him in any position other than the one he is in today: on his back with a pillow under his knees, torso propped to 45 degrees. A camo baseball cap with an American flag pinned above the bill shades his eyes. He says the fluorescent light hurts them.
“Oh, I’m sorry, hon. I thought it was the nurse,” he says. Sometimes, his voice is so clear, his conversation so normal, it’s easy to forget that his doctor has certified him “terminal within six months.”
I happened to be there the day two Air Force women visited Everett. I was sitting in a wheelchair, talking to Dad propped up there in his bed by the wall. Between the beds, the oxygen machines and the nightstands, the wheelchair is the only place to sit. Through the curtain I heard Everett tell them he was from South Carolina (hence, the accent.) Then the women revealed the official turn of events when one of them said, “We want to thank you for your service to our country.”
Very little ever happens between these pink-papered walls. Between these white polyester curtains that separate lives ticking off their remaining days amid the click and hum of machines. Between yesterday and tomorrow.
Beige trays of ice-cream-scooped rice and meatloaf with a side of green beans come and go. Tepid mounds of sameness. Untouched. Dad prefers a grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of instant cocoa if I’m here at mealtime to request it for him. He has been a patient here for more than a year now, and I put away my revulsion over the food a long time ago. Along with my anger at knowing that no one brings him a grilled cheese if one of us is not there. Feelings are checked at the door upon stepping into this altered state of being. Otherwise, you will drown.
I opened the curtain to join in on Everett’s event. Turning my chair to face him, I scooted sideways so Dad could see him, too. Between the noise of the machines and poor hearing, Dad lives in a fuzzy world now. But we would witness Everett’s honor, if only by sight. You do what you can. They pinned the flag on his hat and a mass swelled behind my eyes like a purple cloud. I get this a lot at the nursing home: this feeling that a tidal wave is trying to overtake me. So far, I’ve managed to outrun it.
At the end of the presentation, Dad and I, Everett’s wife Sharon, who really is in a wheelchair, and the two Air Force personnel clapped. Mr. Hobson, who lives in the bed by the door, remained silent with his curtain closed. He never participates in anything. But we five were more than adequate witnesses for Everett’s accomplishment.
Sharon only comes to visit when she can line up someone to transport her and her chair, which seems to be about once a week. I sometimes hear her crying softly and on those times I’m thankful for the curtain and the mechanical hum. I was grateful for the chance to honor Everett, even though I don’t know him well. I do know he likes coffee and that fluorescent light hurts his eyes.
This morning he is taking a break from his oxygen mask. He looks like a scruffy old buzzard perched there with his head tilted back, thin, beaklike nose and stubbled chin jutting over a protruding Adam’s apple. It crosses my mind that he is slowly becoming that carrion bird that waits to consume him and fly away. Heavy times breed these kinds of thoughts. Heavy times and hours spent at Dad’s bedside with nothing to do. Dad was never one to play cards, and his television is so close to the ceiling that it hurts our necks to look up at it for very long.
“That’s okay, Everett. I’ll go get you a cup of coffee,” I say as cheerfully as I can. He is stranded on his perch and he might as well be on an island waiting for a passing ship.
“Oh, thanks, hon. I appreciate it,” he replies. I’ll bet he used to be someone’s good neighbor, I think, waving and saying good morning and always keeping his yard mowed. Sometimes it’s hard that he’s so nice, and it’s those times that my cloud throbs like a bursting heart. In any case, the deal in this neighborhood is that we all keep an upbeat tone. Most of us, anyway.
Why can’t he be crabby and mean like Mr. Hobson, who yelled at me the one and only time I asked him to turn down his TV? Milly, the aide, told me recently that he told her one day that she could kiss his black ass. Apparently, she’d left him on the toilet too long. Still, it’s hard to feel sorry for him. Once, when Sharon was there with Everett and our curtain was open, I asked her how old she thought Mr. Hobson was. He seemed too young to be in a nursing home and it was something to gossip about over our invisible fence.
“Well, it’s hard to tell,” she said, reaching over from her wheelchair to grasp Everett’s hand.
Then she leaned in and lowered her voice.
“As Everett always says, fat and black don’t crack.”
I’d never heard that expression and decided it must be a Southern-ism from his youth. I didn’t judge him for it; that was not up to me. He stirred under his hat when she spoke. Everett has ears like a fox.
One day, without thinking, I walked in waving a Hershey bar. “Dad, I brought you a candy bar,” I announced as I walked by Everett in the middle bed. He seemed to be asleep, although sometimes it’s hard to be sure since you can’t see his eyes. We keep a Hershey bar in Dad’s nightstand and I’d noticed last time that it was almost gone. Most days, he likes to get up and go in his wheelchair to the dining room for lunch. If I’m there, I push him back to his room and sit on his bed, open the nightstand drawer and retrieve his partially eaten chocolate bar. This man who once had a photographic memory now has macular degeneration and can’t see what’s in his drawer.
I hold up the half-wrapped brown bar and he holds up a thumb and index finger to indicate a small piece, never a large one like I’d want if I were 96. I break off a stamped rectangle and hand it carefully to him, making sure he has a solid grip before I let go. (We’ve dropped a couple of them.) He puts it on his tongue and savors it. “Mmmmm, that’s good,” he says, in a voice that I swear has shrunk since he arrived here. I follow up with a Kleenex and his Chapstick, in that order. No more handing him the nippers followed by antiseptic gel when he castrates the calves in the corral, no more rasp while he shoes the horses. No more holding the flashlight at just the right angle while he tightens a spark plug under the hood of the truck. A nursing home reduces a person’s life to portable acts and small rhythms––if you can’t fit them into this confining cell, you have to let them go. The chocolate is our ritual now.
Like I said, Everett has ears like a fox.
“Chocolate? Does somebody have chocolate?”
I cringed behind the curtain and felt bad for not responding. But I’d never seen him eating candy or anything other than the food from the kitchen. One time I tried to share a grilled cheese with him and Milly said he couldn’t have it. It’s possible he doesn’t swallow well anymore. Plus, I don’t know if he is diabetic and I don’t want to do him in before his time. Both of these men have to have their pills ground up in applesauce. My father does, however, still do well with a small piece of soft brown chocolate. And one more thing: I’ve learned not to bring him one of those fancy dark bars. Forget it. Dad is a Hershey man.
Christmas was coming and I stopped at the nurses’ station in the hallway to ask if Everett could have chocolate.
“Sure,” they said. “He doesn’t have any dietary restrictions.”
So I vowed to bring him some and wished I’d asked sooner. A week before Christmas, I put a shiny green, Christmas-tree-shaped box of Godiva truffles on his food table while he slept, along with a card from which Burl Ives would sing Have A Holly Jolly Christmas when he opened it. He seemed like the Burl Ives type. That day, my brother and sister and I arrived at the same time. That didn’t happen often, as we tried to spread out our visits. But it was the holidays and Dad wouldn’t be with us for our normal celebration. I gave him a card that sang Santa Claus Is Coming To Town and he thanked me and fell asleep. Two days later, on Sunday morning, we got the call that he was dying.
For the next three days and nights, from the other side of the curtain, Everett silently witnessed our coming and going, our discussions with the nurses about morphine and oxygen, our last words with our dad.
After he was gone, we returned to thank everyone and say good-bye. When we stepped in to speak to Everett, he had moved into Dad’s bed by the wall. I have to admit it was a better spot, and Everett was good at asking for what he wanted. We filed in alongside his bed and thanked him for being a good roommate. He agreed with us that Dad was in a better place now and said he’d prayed for him, his clear voice cracking as he fumbled with the bill of his hat. I couldn’t see his eyes, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t dry.
Then we turned and walked out, past Mr. Hobson in his bed by the door, down the long hall past the nurses at their pill wagons, past the reception desk and out the front door for the last time.
It was right then that the flood finally caught hold of me. It wasn’t the grief that I had been holding at bay, but a wave of relief, lifting me on its crest until my heart rained.