My father was there to meet me. On this particular day, my patient had died. I had quite lost patience with the man as I fed him his lunch. I’d always tried to call my patients by name and to listen patiently to their requests, but Mr. Jones was the one famous for yelling at both the staff and the volunteers, and so the “teenage me” had adopted the attitude that I certainly wasn’t going to let him upset “the mature me,” just because he was fussing over his food. My patient, however, had then begun to cough.
The hospital’s gleaming stone steps led down onto the drive and then out over an expanse of green lawn. They led down to my father waiting in the car. I usually walked home after my shift as a candy striper. Half the time, I’d feel tired and as if I truly was just an awkward sixteen-year-old girl who couldn’t keep her slip from bunching up underneath her uniform. The other half, I’d feel good and as if I certainly was the sixteen-year-old woman destined to become a nurse. In the way of girls in those days, I considered serving the sick a proper destiny and a calling.
Though I hadn’t been aware of it earlier in the day, the head nurse must have called my home. My father had also come to pick me up when, a few years back, President John F. Kennedy had been shot. This act became a great source of wonderment to all of my friends later on in life—that there were fathers who did things like that.
Mr. Jones was a large man with white hair. A strong man. I’d have thought his blue eyes handsome if he’d had a smile in them once in a while. Mr. Jones coughed again. Hard. And here was spittle. He cursed at me. (I’d already learned that nursing as not all wearing white uniforms and saving lives. Not like all those Florence Nightingale images one got from somewhere.)
So all right, Mr. Difficult didn’t like his mashed peas, I smiled at him. We’d try the potatoes instead. After all, everyone likes potatoes. The man grabbed at my hand. Mr. Jones clawed at me.
Then another patient, not my own, a gaunt old man with thin arms, began to yell and wave from his bed across the hall. “You’re killin’ him in there! Don’t think I don’t see you! You’re killin’ him with that stuff in there!”
Before I’d gone off duty and then walked out to spot our car, the head nurse had made sure to explain to me that my patient, Mr. Robert Jones, had died of a heart attack. I had kept my eyes on her as she talked—a slim young woman in glasses, a nurse like I’d surely be one day, so young and serious. “He had nothing in his throat, honey. It was a massive heart attack, and he was gasping for air.” She’d taken me by the shoulders. “It couldn’t be helped. These things happen. There was nothing you could do.”
My patient’s face had gone dark red, almost purple, and so I’d tried to give him some water. I had wished he’d just stop struggling so, fighting me who was so obviously trying to help! Finally, I’d seen Mr. Jones’ face go completely ashen, and then I knew to go for the nurse. Finally, I knew.
The other older man, not my patient, from across the hall had screamed at me then, “You’ve killed him! That’s all. He’s gone, and you killed him!” An orderly finally had to rush in to quiet the man.
Hospital rooms can be so small. As if there’s not enough room for everybody and everything, that big bed with silver railings and all those tubes and trays. Then my patient, Mr. Jones, himself, was so big. Such a strong man, I’d always thought. The slim and serious head nurse had come into the room too. Then a doctor with stethoscope and orderlies. Then machinery.
They tried to resuscitate Mr. Jones while I watched from the corner. I remember the squeaking wheels of the machine, the ripping of the hospital gown, and the thud of a hand on a bare chest. I knew the man was dead though.
Of course, I had the rest of my nursely duties to perform. The nurse had said I could go on home if I liked, but I’d wanted to finish my shift. After all, I had reasoned, I had all my other patients to feed still. A proud adolescent, I proceeded.
The nurse, meanwhile, was being very careful on this particular afternoon to let me know what they were doing with my patient’s body, his things, and she let me know when she had called the family, the mortician. The doctor had stopped me in the hall to say something to me about the heart just being a muscle, and so I had felt called upon to tell him about my experiences in high school biology class, dissecting frogs.
I even stopped in to see that other patient before I left to go home, that one who’d been yelling at me. He was a very old man and barely in charge of his senses, and he seemed glad enough then of my company. I learned his name was Mr. Gleason, Arthur Gleason. He asked me if I’d sit and talk with him. I did. He wanted to tell me a dirty joke. I let him.
Meanwhile, orderlies were cleaning the room across the hall. Mr. Robert Jones former room.
Then finally, my shift was over. I walked out of the hospital into the early summer evening. The sun was still bright and hot. I saw our family car parked directly at the bottom of the steps. Yes, someone evidently had called my home.
When President Kennedy had been shot, I’d been just a child. I’d gotten a little afraid at the time, because if my father was coming to pick me up at school, this meant then that things were serious. The state of the world in general must be getting out of hand. Of course, my father had always wanted to know his children’s opinions on politics and things though, and that whole particular affair had seemed sort of beautiful. What with the widow and children, the funeral on T.V. So beautiful and sad.
I had not thought I’d cared all that much for the patient who’d just died though. Mr. Jones had been mean to everyone even on a good day after all, and the nurse had informed me that he had no close family really. Surely then, no one would miss him? This was my thinking, but it confused me then that as soon as I stepped into the cool darkness of our family car, I began to cry.
A man had lain helpless in front of me, and helpless, I had watched him die. It was my first time, and it had not been like on television. Death had not been beautiful, not like in funerals, neat and impersonal. Mr. Jones’ hand had left marks on my bare arm. I’d wake up bruised tomorrow.
I can’t remember what my father said to me on this particular afternoon. My tall, handsome father who worked in an office and who always wore white shirts and dark ties. Could this have been the first time he mentioned to me this service overseas in World War II, his best friend nicknamed Buzz Bomb? Buzz as in a bomb that everyone knew was overhead, buzz as in a bomb that dropped suddenly out of blue air, buzz as in the type of bomb his young friend so feared. So funny to have a friend nicknamed Buzz Bomb! Buzz as in a bomb that one day dropped from blue sky right into London, England, and then not so funny not to have a friend anymore. A crater had loomed instead.
Or was it that afternoon that my father chose to speak to me about my ailing grandparents, the problems he and my mother were having in caring for them? His own parents who, family legend had it, had pushed and pushed my father, insisted he study so he could get out and away from the coal mines, the falling ore and black dust, the black dust which ate its way into your body and into your lungs, the dust from which my grandparents, themselves, had come.
I don’t know. I can’t remember exactly what my father said that particular afternoon. Too much of me growing up and out and away in the meantime. And in that time, it also came about that not all women grew up to be nurses or teachers anymore. No, some grew up to work their own way into executive offices or political campaigns, and much like their fathers perhaps, to wear dark suits with white blouses and scarves, as opposed to ties. I just can’t remember now what my dignified, but at the moment, but trying so hard not to be, father said to his awkward, but trying so hard not to be, daughter.
I do remember it was summer then and the sun had seemed harsh. Light glinted white and sharp off the stone steps of the hospital as I imagined it would off of gravestones. In one afternoon, the world around me, life itself had taken on a new dimension.
I don’t remember any advice my father, now gone on before me, might have given. I do remember I stepped with false bravado into the deep shade of the car. I do remember he was there to meet me.