She heard above her the thump of Jack jerking his walker to the bathroom.
Then the thud.
Even before the Parkinson’s, Jack nightly wrestled demons that twisted him in his sheets and hurtled him out of bed grunting and shouting. At first the shouting scared her. She would start up, heart pounding, go upstairs and try to wake him. When she succeeded, he would describe his fight with the bear–or the devil–even announce triumphantly, “I won!” Now she only got up when he fell. Once he had gyrated so that he lay pinioned in the sheets like a mummy.
Tonight’s crash was across the hall, in the bathroom. Jack lay wedged in a heap between walker and tub. Urine puddled around him. That was to be expected. But this time there was blood, too–on his hands, streaked along his jaw and chin, strung like a crimson border on the white tiles. His eyes were open, the bathtub inches in front of his face. Breathing, yes, thank God, in, out, but still, oddly composed.
“Jack, what happened?” No response. “Are you hurt?” A moan-sound like sleep-words. Anne snatched towels from the closet, steadying herself for a pumping artery. The blood had spread as though from a critical source, but a check through the wispy hair on his scalp, the stubble of his beard, the loose white skin on his neck revealed no terrifying gapes. His little finger squirted blood: bone showed. Taping a tight compress to the finger staunched the blood flow, Anne searched again. It was hard to believe all that blood was just from a finger.
She tried to heave Jack off the floor by the armpits but couldn’t get enough momentum. She propped him against the tub, tugged his arms and hugged low to slide enough support under him so he could wobble back to his bed. She dressed him in fresh pajamas. “Do you know what happened, Jack?”
“No.” That was all, just “no,” as if it were a simple question and there had been no groaning, no cut, no struggle to be propped, walked, bedded, cleaned. Conscious but not conscious.
The visiting nurse arrived the next morning. Anne came up from her office to watch her change the bandage. “Oh, yes,” she said with an intake of breath. “Look, it’s cut to the bone. It definitely needs stitches. You’ll want to go to the emergency room.”
Want to go to the emergency room? That would take hours. Anne imagined the pages of her work assignment flying untended into the trash. When would she ever be able to work a full day without interruption? She’d relished the freedom of freelance editing at home—but it was starting to look like freedom to care for Jack instead of earning her living.
Anne helped Jack dress, struggle down the stairs, maneuver the walker out of the house. She folded him into the seat and wedged the walker into the car. The hospital was in an area unfamiliar to Anne, a deceptive labyrinth requiring one way circuits counter to the direction she wanted to go. Hospital construction forced parking too far for Jack to walk. She unpacked him, deposited him in the lobby, parked and returned to escort him to the emergency room. Rattling gurneys, coughs, paging calls, feverish sighs filled the waiting room.
“What’s all this fuss?’ asked Jack. “I want to go home.” Desperate cases filled the waiting room. “I want to go home,” he repeated. After two hours, Anne agreed: they repeated their voyage in reverse.
Jack’s care worker arrived that afternoon. Her surge of gratefulness for his arrival brought tears to Anne’s eyes. She wanted to have Alfie pat her and tell her everything would be all right, but she stifled her frenzy and asked him to check the finger. “I changed the bandage,” he reported after he’d bathed and shaved Jack. “It just won’t do, him not having it stitched.” “I can’t face the emergency room again,” she told Archie. “Call the agency then,” he replied. “See if the doctor’ll come.”
Jack hadn’t left the bedroom level of the house since he fell. Loose change and old TV guides lay everywhere. Shirts and pants he’d never be able to retrieve draped the chairs. If she started by straightening his bedding, Anne thought, she might be able to convince him to let her tidy up before the doctor came. Tidying affronted him; it always had.
The Odd Couple: Anne and Jack. Almost ten years now since she and Jack had moved together into the split-level ranch she’d rented out after her divorce. At first she lived with Jack in his gloomy duplex. He stacked gummy dishes in his own greasy sink, festooned his own furniture with clothes and it didn’t bother her. She had her own room with a door.
They got along. That’s what counted. That and the break in rent while she went back to school and got back on her feet. When Anne’s renters moved, Jack bought half the ranch house from Anne and they moved out of the dingy duplex into her former home, with its bright space and the garden she’d missed more than anything in her divorce.
But when they’d moved to the house, the relationship had tilted. Jack, in his late seventies then, took the occasional engineering contract and spent his free time drinking beer. He’d never cleaned up after himself, not for years. Dishes? They could wait. Anne would come upstairs from working all day, in from mowing, home from shopping, back from a trip, anytime, and feel she’d re-entered the days of their duplex living. Only she had all the work –and half the house. It wasn’t fair! She obsessed over how to approach him on sharing bills, strategizing how to counter his resistance. She would gather her courage and speak her mind. He’d give her his fish-eye stare. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he’d say.
“I’ve got to get downstairs,” said Jack.
“That’s okay, I’ll bring breakfast up here,” she replied. ”It’s no big deal if the doctor comes upstairs.”
“No,” he said, “No. My papers, I have to see my papers.” He had perched himself on the edge of the bed. The walker rattled from his trembling as he pulled it closer. He grunted from the effort to stand. Purple bruises showed down his leg, dark as the ones on his face.
“Can’t I bring you what you need?”
“Nnooo. Help me get downstairs. My will, I have to see my will.” His voice shook. He spoke slowly, as he did now from the effects of the Parkinson’s, but it seemed he was spelling it out so she would understand reason and stop obstructing him. Anne steadied him along into the hall, held his side while he inched down the stairs and escorted him over to the dining table, his default office.
At the table, Jack shuffled his papers.
“I need a pencil. I’ve got to write down the answer.”
“I finally got it. I’ve been wrestling all night with it. This guy needs my help figuring out the gear ratio for his project.”
“Jack, do you know where you are?”
“I’ve got to write it down. It’s a tricky solution.”
“Do you know where you are?”
“Where am I?”
“You’re home, Jack. You’re not working any more.”
Doctor Mellon’s visit bolstered Anne. It saved her another enervating trip with Jack, but better yet, he listened to her worries. As he tied the last knot in the finger stitches, Dr. Mellon asked, “Jack, do you have a will?” Lucid now, Jack answered, “Yeah, I do. The Kid here, she gets my half of the house.”
Anne felt a surge of affection for her uncle. That will had not come easy. It raised his hackles for anyone to suggest he change anything. Jack’s refusal to recognize his age and precarious health combined with his lifetime preference to postpone all decisions meant that he had delayed going to a lawyer to deed his half of the house to her, a promise he’d made when they’d moved. She had tiptoed her way through two years of efforts to get him to get around to adding the agreement to the will so she was grateful that he had finally done it.
Jack had saved Anne. When she was thirteen and her father remarried soon after her mother’s death, Jack had arranged for her to move in with her grandparents, far from the stepmother who wanted her gone. He had stayed by her as her father drifted away. He’d been the one to take her to the hospital when she’d had that bad acid trip, never saying anything to make her feel more foolish than she already felt. “Never mind, Kid,” he’d said. “You’re okay now. It’s kind of like the war: you just have to get on with what you have to do. Just move on.” Jack and Anne were family. They watched over each other’s relationships, shared holidays and never missed a chance to gorge on oysters and beer. “I wouldn’t want to be married to him,” Anne would tell her friends, “but he’s great company.”
“Did I ever tell you…” he would start, over a platter of briny Malpeques. They’d sit on the sunny garden patio, oyster knives in hand, and after they gulped down the first dozen, they’d settle back and Jack would begin one of his tales. “We’d just taken off with a full bomb load when the starboard engine exploded. We had a hell of a time getting back to base. The rear gunner thought I knew what I was doing when we flew through a quarry as we lost altitude, but since we always flew at night, I never even knew there was a quarry opening up to the sea at the end of the runway! Raise a beer to dumb luck.”
That night after the doctor’s visit, the sound from overhead that woke Anne was no crash, nor the fight-the-devil shouting. Jack was near the window calling out, scolding.
“Hey! Hey! You there! Cut it out! You hear?”
The streetlight illuminated Jack’s form by the window. He stood propped on his walker.
“Jack! What’s going on?”
“Those kids out there! Vandals! Nothing but trouble.”
“Where?” She conjured an image of boys lurking by the streetlight, waiting to soap the windows or tip the mailbox. She scanned the shadows, but she knew. “I don’t see anything, Jack.”
“Over there, see? By the neighbor’s bushes…some one should call their mothers! I can’t. I’m in some kind of glue here. See? My feet are stuck.”
Anne looked to the puddle circling Jack. He’d taken at last to wearing a diaper to bed, but he must have tried to urinate outside its edges. At least he had an instinct he should stay still. Anne supposed it could be cause for gratitude that she only had to rise at four a.m. to clean and settle Jack down again by sun-up without having to strain to pick him up or call the rescue squad.
It didn’t do much good to go back to bed. He’s seeing things that aren’t there, she thought. Could it really be the Parkinson’s? What about a head injury from the fall? A slow bleed in his brain? But who’s to know if it’s just his night fugues getting worse? Who’s to really know what he hit when he fell?
She felt like she’d already put in a day’s work when she called the visiting nurse’s office. She got through on the first try—what luck! “Should he be looked at?” Anne asked. She wondered why she thanked the nurse for being told to call the case worker. And why she should feel it was a kindness of fate the caseworker called within the hour. “Oh, my, yes,” replied the caseworker. “An injury from a fall sometimes might not show up right away in an older person. Let’s get him a CAT scan.”
Jack had to be dressed, packed, his documents collected for hospital admission. The ambulance arrived at the set time. Two attendants helped Jack inch to down the stairs and over the outside stone steps. Easy for two, thought Anne.
The admission nurse notified Anne that Jack had arrived but there was a wait. Anne called an hour later: he was still waiting. A unit clerk called: it was unclear whether the hospital could perform the scan. A social worker called: Jack would be transferred to Taylor General Hospital.
The process started over.
Anne poured herself a double Irish Whiskey. She was falling behind in her work. She yearned for time to herself. She was in her 60s; she wanted to not feel exhausted, to have days where she could choose appealing activities or even idleness, not a tower of tasks that she continually had to order and re-order according to levels of urgency. She wanted to be able to travel, but Jack refused to have an attendant when she was gone…much less one routinely. “We manage just fine,” he insisted. She didn’t know how to fight him. Anne finished her drink and went to bed early.
The telephone? At one in the morning? He was dying from inter-cranial bleeding! What else could happen at such an hour? “This is Dr. Altamonte, resident neurosurgeon at Taylor General.”
“We’ve just finished the scan. There’s no sign of injury from a fall, mainly signs consistent with Parkinson’s. He’ll be discharged tomorrow.”
You’re calling now to tell me this in the middle of the night, she thinks. It was so quiet. I thought I would sleep at last. How can he possibly come home? He’s in no shape. I can’t do this!
“Yes, yes, thank you for calling, Doctor. I’m glad to know he wasn’t injured in his fall.” It’s true, she was glad. She hadn’t known until now how guilty she’d felt yesterday. But back home?
The telephone rang again. She woke amazed to find that she’d gone back to sleep after knotting skeins of unanswerable questions. The clock read 7 am. She told the social worker, yes, Jack had seen things that weren’t there; yes she would come right in.
It came upon her on her way to the hospital—how could she miss it? It was the DTs! Delirium Tremens. Jack wasn’t the angry young hot-head he used to be, swearing and fighting, but an old man who waited until 5 pm to drink quietly until bedtime. Every day. Day in, day out. Unless he couldn’t get downstairs, like this past week. It was withdrawal. This could kill him.
Jack’s hallucinations worsened. He was moved to a unit with specialists, nurses, assistants, therapists, dietician, a pharmacist–a service feast after years of famine. Be careful, Anne told herself, you haven’t got him a place to go after this, don’t get your hopes up.
As though a stopper had been pulled on her subconscious, Anne began to dream vividly every night. She had an unnerving dream of still being married to Jerome, in which she managed at last to say, “But I’ve already learned this lesson!” This seemed to be her life: she always had some lesson to learn. But what? That this was just how life is, that’s all? At least she’d learned not to try stick a reason on everything that happened, to just keep moving on to what to do next.
Living with Jack had helped Anne loosen up. Jack didn’t analyze: he named. Troublesome people got pegged with wicked wit: his mother was “The Gorgon,” his nosey neighbor “The Peeper, her ex “The Spoiler.” Jerome would have chided her, “That’s a terrible to talk that way.” But Jack made her laugh.
Jack was stabilized, transferred to a new unit. Anne spent a lot of time at the hospital working with the changing social workers, each starting over, adding new confusions. First placement choice was the Veterans’ Home, but the wait meant two interim ones would have to be selected.
“The Salvation Army and St. Patrick’s are two we want,” Anne told this fourth social worker.
“Just not Stanton Manor, eh?” Jack insisted. “Not where my mother died. It’s not living, it’s living hell.”
Anne upped her nightly dose of Irish Whiskey. Her most recent dreams were vivid, accompanied by distress and guilt–Jack coming home and moving all the furniture around the house trying to find a place to be comfortable–the house turning into chaos with furniture upside down and blocking the doors. She couldn’t shake the anxiety it provoked.
On her way out to go the hospital a month into Jack’s stay, Anne heard the phone ring. She missed it but there was no message. She called Jack. “Have you heard?” he asked. “What?” “I’m being moved Monday.” “Where to?” “Stanton Manor.” “What? The one place you didn’t want to go?” “Yeah. I know. I’ll die like mother, like a dog. So what’re you gonna do?” She could see him shrugging in the face of the inevitable.
She felt sick. Jacks’ mother—her grandmother—had been placed in Stanton Manor when she could no longer live at Anne’s. There was no redemption to her days in the seedy nursing home full of cramped rooms, lime green plaster peeling from the walls, frail elderly hanging from their wheelchairs in various states of unattended slumps. “How do you feel?’ she whispered.
“Awful,” he said, “like I’ve been kicked in the teeth.”
Anne tracked down Jack’s fifth social worker. She could overhear her, this Rhetta, blonde ringlets to her shoulders, making telephone arrangements for Jack’s transfer. Steady, she told herself, steady. One had to be careful about unexpected repercussions from overemotional outbursts. I will work to be clear, not upset. But she’d spent two afternoons with the previous social worker discussing pros and cons, had ranked the choices after visiting the homes…if there never was a choice, why did they waste all that time? They must plug in the patient into the next free bed any where, never mind what the previous worker had set up.
“You didn’t even notify the family,” Anne said. “I did call. This morning. There was no answer,” replied Rhetta. “But you didn’t leave a message!” Anne struggled to muffle the shrillness of her desperation. “Besides,” added Rhetta, “your uncle is competent. He agreed to it.” Of course he would, Anne thought. He’s terrified; he’s trying so hard to cooperate. He’s been moved four times and hasn’t had any choice yet, why would he now? “So who made the final decision?” Anne asked. The placement coordinator, she was told.
She went to see the placement coordinator. Yes, the hospital did take the first bed. Yes, there was an option to decline, but then Jack would be assigned a room not covered by insurance. “There’s nothing you can do,” confirmed the coordinator. “Then why didn’t you tell me that in the first place?” Anne asked. “It would have saved me a lot of time and energy!” Careful, she cautioned herself, you’re starting to shout; it won’t do.
Jack was baffled. He’d done what he was told to, like a good boy thought Anne, and all he got was misery. “I heard the people are nice there, Jack, and the care’s probably just fine,” she tried to assure him. “I’ll help get you set up there.” Anne knew there were 350 residents and one nurse per floor. But what did that really tell you?
She wanted to weep. He’d be better off at home after all, she thought to herself. She couldn’t shake her guilt. “Maybe I can come home and wait,” Jack said in his call to her on Sunday. How cruel it was to refuse. But how could it be? Anne felt queasy. Sand was being sucked out from under her feet. Where would she land? “Let’s talk tomorrow,” she said, so close to the impulse to say yes that sweat beaded her forehead.
Unanswered questions swirled like Harpies around her. Lists, she would make lists. Maybe lists would help undo the knots in her stomach. She’d have to talk yet another social worker, find the care he could get, the cost. She would have to get back to the VA to confirm he was on a waiting list. Would they fund some home care? Could they even find such a worker? How would it work? She was no nurse and couldn’t serve as one, or even as a regular aide—she had to work, she had to maintain the house—and start getting a decent night’s sleep. What would happen at home to cover gaps in personal care? What did he actually need for toileting? How could a wheelchair fit? “I’d stay in my room,” he assured her. Make a list, she told herself, make a list. Go over it with the social worker.
She switched from Irish Whisky, much too easy to sip all night, to beer. The first beer was good, the next one delicious.
That Monday she packed the car with TV, telephone, writing material, power bars, hooks, hammers, measuring tape and lugged all the boxes to his room at Stanton Manor. It was small, the bed in the wrong place for the cable connection. She called the cable company, phone company, changed the bell cord. The phone line was connected to the name of a previous resident, dead after a short stay. There were no wheelchairs with footrests, only the one reserved for emergency use by the front door. He couldn’t lift his legs off the floor: there’d be no getting outside.
After overseeing permissions for immunizations, flu vaccinations, laxatives, and directives on power of attorney and resuscitation, she left exhausted. The room was on the ninth floor near the two noisy elevators, with a wheelchair traffic jam of coughing residents. “Goddamn!” shouted a wild-eyed man to tiny slumped woman, “Don’t back your wheelchair into me, can’t you see where you’re going?” Oh my God, she told herself, they’re the Wandering Dead.
At home, Anne lit a fire and sat by herself. She too felt kicked in the teeth. We all tried to do our best, she told herself, we did everything, but the last step failed. We have to start all over. He’s stopped fighting. What’s the use? She couldn’t tell him that. “Keep saying it’s for the interim,” she recited. Where was the VA in this, why weren’t they supporting him?
At this point in her life she knew it was just life. Younger, she would have been so much more frantic. It’s about me doing the right thing. Him, too. Like when he went off to war. He just wanted to do the right thing. He’s being so good, he’s not complaining, he’s a good man. He only wants to know how long he’ll have to wait. “Wonder if I’ll go bonkers or croak here first?” he said. “No one here’s ‘compos mentis’.”
If the state of the residents demoralized Jack, the food galvanized him to action. Meals came in variations of mixtures. “I don’t know what the hell it is. Peelings over rice,” he said. He wanted a refrigerator. Right away. “Can you arrange to be ready to go, Jack?’ Anne asked. She hadn’t expected him to be dressed, already in his overcoat and sitting in a wheel chair in the lobby waiting for her.
The wheelchair, of course, was the one that didn’t fold. Anne approached the desk clerk and asked, “May I use the wheel chair that’s behind the desk?” The girl raised a quizzical eyebrow, as if this were a novel request. “It’s for here. ‘S for emergencies.” “But this one doesn’t fold,” Anne explained. She foresaw the routine: each time she made the request, she would start anew, always uphill. This seemed to be insufficiently convincing, so she added, “I need to use the folding wheelchair so I can put it in the car.” “I dunno,” the girl replied. “I don’t have say-so.” Pause. Anne asked the obvious, “Is there someone I can ask?” “Mebbe a charge nurse.” The charge nurse was located. She arrived via the working elevator and approached the desk. “Yes?” she asked. “This chair don’t fold,” the girl reported, pointing to Jack, color rising in his cheeks from the time spent in the warm lobby in his overcoat. “It don’t fold?” echoed the charge nurse. Blank your face, Anne told herself. Act respectful. Calm voice. “Yes. I’d like to take my uncle out and we need permission to use a wheel chair I can fold into the car.” “Well, go ask in admissions,” instructed the nurse, not hiding her own irritation at being disrupted for her routine. The folding wheelchair was released.
The VA had no record of Jack’s application. This meant tracking down the new case manager and the person who was supposed to have submitted it. Just life? This was too much. She began her letter to the Veteran’s Administration on November 11, Remembrance Day.
“My uncle, Jack Kelley, is a veteran. He was a Wellington bomber pilot. He went to Malta, one of the most bombed places in Europe, undergoing at least 10 bombing raids a day. He flew night after night, on bombing raids to North Africa and Sicily. He never thought he would make it home.
He’s been brave and done the right thing – he always did. But he’s not fighting any more. He is discouraged, tired, worn down by the whole experience and process. He wonders what was the use of being brave and what was the use of fighting. How long does he have to wait? It’s like being in the war – he doesn’t know when it’s going to be over or will he die before he gets to the Veterans’? My uncle fought for our country, we’re fighting for him – but it’s not enough for a vet. I think he deserves better.”
The VA admitted Jack within a week. He regained his spirit. When Anne suggested an oyster celebration at her house, he grinned, “Four dozen! I’ll buy.”
Getting Jack to the house was arduous for both of them. Anne wondered whether she could ever have him over again. But her reward came: she had back the witty man who’d been her good friend for so long. Jack had told her how the bombing crews were reluctant to dwell on the all too-frequent catastrophic runs, the sooner forgotten the better, he’d say. He was relishing the attention at the Veteran’s Home now, and ready to put the Stanton Manor placement out of his mind. He’d been showered, shaved, and carefully dressed for this celebration, hair slicked back. Anne shucked his oysters for him and he slowly lifted each one, not spilling any precious liquid, savoring each mouthful of beer to follow. They were drinking Fin du Monde beer, named after the legend of the woodsmen’s pact made with the devil to go home. The yeasty aroma reminded Anne of their patio afternoons. “Did I ever tell you,” he began, “about the time on Malta when my co-pilot and I were strolling in Valletta?” Of course he had, but Jack’s pleasure in repeating it was her delight.
“The main topic was food, what we’d order if it was available. Food was scarce. Rations were cut in half. There were lots of little cafés that had been closed a long time. But one was open. A woman and her daughter were sweeping it out. We talked about the war, how it had changed their lives and ours. I asked where we could get a beer. The reply was instant: ‘Get us a parachute and we’ll get you a dozen beers.’ So the next afternoon, I arrived with my co-pilot and my chute. I told the copilot that if I ever needed a chute, I’d go down hanging on to him and would release the instant my feet hit the water. He agreed. It was the only way to get the beer, so it had to be done! Later we saw the ladies again. They showed us a photograph of the daughter in her wedding dress. It was made out of my silk parachute, trimmed with Maltese lace—it was beautiful!”
“What a time we have, eh, Kid?” Jack said on the way back to the VA. “It’s been a great ride with you.” Anne felt happy, more than beer and oysters happy, boundlessly happy that Jack was in the right place and that she was, too, grateful that she’d persisted so long to find him proper care, that they could laugh together again. She wheeled him to his room and kissed him goodnight, alerting the staff that he was ready for bed.
During the night the home called. Jack had passed away.
She couldn’t comprehend. “But I was with him last night. He was fine! Feeling good, happy. We had a great time; he really enjoyed himself. There was nothing wrong!”
But it was so. “Sometimes after they’ve been through a lot of stress and things have calmed down, an elderly person’s system just lets go,” said the unit nurse. “We’re so very sorry. We all liked your Uncle Jack. He was in excellent spirits last night, talking about oysters, and talking about a photo he wished he had, something about a wedding dress…”
Anne sat up in bed in her quiet house. Jack’s words washed over her. Laughter’s an important part of life, Kid. Some things we bear in life might lead us to tears. Life can make you laugh or cry. Smile, Kid. Raise a beer.
Susan Connors is a retired social worker now spending some of her time writing short stories. Her stories have appeared in The MacGuffin, The Storyteller, The Copperfield Review, Wisconsin Academy Review, Nevada, Rosebud and Best of Rosebud 2001.
© 2010, Susan Connors