I see it in your eyes – no need to put it into words. Words kill, falsify what is there, raw in front of us. Or is that just the liquor talking?
Yes, I know. “How cliché, the drunken artiste eaten up with his post-teen angst.” But those are words, and words kill what comes before words and what persists after they fade into the land of wasted breath and spilled ink. Maybe there's a reason why I choose to drink today, just as there may be a reason I did it yesterday and the day before. Maybe the reason has more to do with life than with words and memorized formulas that tell me my choices are either signs of worthlessness or some inane expression of Romantic rebellion.
Maybe I don't have a reason for doing this but more no reason not to.
Is that judgment there in your glances? Are you certain you can weigh me in the balance and find me wanting just because you see me here, unshaved, my eyes dark and swollen working on drink after drink and smoking this cheap cigar like "common scum"?
Are you so certain there is such a thing as “common scum?”
I read somewhere once a legend that says there are a certain fixed number of special people in the world, special souls sent here by God to watch over things, do good things and that it is their presence and theirs alone that holds creation together and keeps us from totally destroying ourselves. Except these souls don't know they are the chosen ones. That's the catch – maybe it could be you or me. With our action or inaction, we could undo creation and we don't even know it.
I don't want the burden. I don't want it anymore.
The dead come talk to me in my dreams and tell me it's ok, I did well enough. Others just look at me with blank stares while others are more accusatory. The stench of feces and urine and the dead, slimy odor of corruption from the bedsores is in the air. And when I wake up, it's there too, all the time. The burden of the reek. And the guilt.
My first day working at the nursing home – that was three years ago now. I needed money for college, and it was about the only place hiring. Minimum wage, but it was a job where I could work weekends and have the week off to go to school. The first day – I was a floor worker, a male nursing assistant. The only other men working there were two nurses and a pharmacist. Women ran everything else. Why? People say women are more caring than men. Maybe they are; but the real reason they predominated the home was because they had to accept lower wages than a man would.
You could almost divide them into two groups – the veterans who had seen it all, done it all, endured all for years, and the initiates, young girls usually with little education who were forced into the job by circumstance. It was the home or McDonald's or the yarn mill, and the mill wasn't hiring and the shifts available at McDonald's were hard. Little did they know that the home was far more difficult, regardless. Most wound up quitting and were replaced by a constant stream of girls just like them.
Some of the young girls were innocent – this was their baptism into the acid of life; most of them were country, had grown up hard, poor, dropped out of high school to work and stop being poor only to begin to find the only work available was the kind that keeps you poor. I looked at them with my own young eyes – I am a man, I found many of them alluring and a couple even charming in this or that way. But, as you see, I am not a handsome man, and I have always been an outsider here. Charming the local girls into an affair was always a waste of time and effort – I was just too strange for them. They were looking for romance and love and a man who could provide for the children they wanted to have as quickly as possible. That was the thing I could see: them poor, married to a young, poor guy, a trailer full of children who would grow up to repeat the cycle.
But my first day I wasn't paying attention to these girls, their curves, their soft hair, and weary, wonderful eyes. That was later, when I started dreaming of escape. That day, I was thrown headlong into Hell, a soldier jumping off the landing craft and running up a beach under fire watching people blown to bits, screaming all around him, heart in his mouth wondering when it would be him dying. Except, in my case, it was all in slow motion. Not the slow motion of a Peckinpah film, but the slow motion of watching people age and die right in front of you, moaning and screeching, or silent, unconscious.
There were no words for it. The veterans all laughed and kept giving me things to do they knew were embarrassing for me. Things I'd wind up doing every time I walked through the door from then on. The stench already had my head reeling, but was branded into my memory because of my primary job: cleaning wet feces off people, changing the urine-soaked mattress pads from beneath them, sometimes changing out the entire bed and learning the ritual of how to do the corners on the sheets so they wouldn't come loose.
I also learned why almost all of the veterans had back problems: you had to lift the people to change their beds. And few of the patients could help, victims of stroke, in the final stages of Alzheimer's, eaten alive by cancer or bedsores. Some were combative and swung at you, screamed, tried to pinch and tear the meat off your arms.
Most of the patients were women, very old, and some were fully conscious but could not talk--that, or they mumbled incoherently. They would see me come into the room and tears would leak from their eyes, and they would whimper pitifully. I was a man and, before they were placed here, the only men that had seen them naked were their husbands and the doctor that had delivered their children. Here I was, a man, a stranger, looking on the naked body of an elderly woman, religious, brought up in a certain way, cleaning her private areas off, moving her around all while she was crying. Giving her a bath while some of the veterans smirked. In her mind, I was violating her as badly as if I'd raped her.
It turned my stomach, and I felt as guilty as a rapist ought to. I still do. And yet, I've done this job for three years. Because I began to feel responsible for some of the people? Because it's the only job I can do? Because – because I have no good reason other than I've been sucked into something unspeakable and I can't see how to get out or wash the filth off of my hands or get this horrible odor out of my hair and clothes, out my nostrils, out of my dreams? This odor of death and humanity, of what it means, at the end, to be human?
But all of that is words. Words are what we lie with.
It was 3 A.M. December of my first year, and I'd gone to working third shift for a couple of weeks to make money while I was on break – a random night, nothing special or important. And that was what got me in the end, that it was nothing special, nothing important. A nurse told us that a woman in her 90s was probably dying, her vitals were bad. The veterans – only vets were working – shrugged. It was a nursing home, someone was always dying. Besides, this woman had no family and had been in the bed, unresponsive, unconscious for 14 years, stiff as a corpse. But I had never seen someone die except in films and felt the need to do something. So I went into the room with the nurse and stood by her bed.
“Can't we do anything?” I asked.
“No. She's impacted, been that way for days.”
I looked at the woman's face surrounded by silky, silver hair. She had probably outlived everyone in her family before falling asleep. I couldn't imagine what sort of life she may have had, whom she might have loved and who loved her, what sort of things she cared for. She was young once, I thought, as young as I am right now, and what was it all about? Dying alone in a room with two strangers watching? Dying of constipation? Because that's what an impaction is, severe constipation. Usually you give an enema for it or, worse comes to worse, you put on a rubber glove and dig it out with your fingers.
“What about … an enema or something?”
The nurse shook his head.
“Too much stress. We've already given her multiple doses of laxative. Nothing. Her body's shutting down the rest of the way. She's been dying a little at a time for 14 years – body's just worn out.”
Dying a little at a time. For 14 years. No, I thought, it started 90-something years ago when she was born. Her whole life was spent ‘dying a little at a time,' building to this moment when … what? How would it be? In the movies, there was always music and tender, touching scenes, or scenes of agony, drama. But here, there was nothing except the nurse and me and the sounds of the veterans out in the hall snickering and gossiping, getting ready to go on smoke break. Otherwise, it was quiet.
And then she stopped breathing. The nurse put his hand beneath her nose, then checked her pulse. Dead. She had died right in front of me, and I hadn't even seen it – there was nothing to see. One minute, breathing, the next, not breathing. Is that all the difference there is between living and dying, breathing one minute, not breathing the next?
It was absurd. I didn't even feel anything except tired. I thought that I ought to feel something – someone should feel something when someone leaves the Earth permanently, but here she was, a shadow and a shadow of a shadow, swallowed by the shadows. Where did she go? Did she go anywhere, or was that it? Shouldn't someone care? Is that really all it boils down to, this nothingness?
At this point in my life, I've seen a number of people die – I've seen some go like that lady did, no poetry in it, just plain death; I've seen some die after a tremendous struggle, suffocating and terrified; I've seen heart attacks and strokes. I've seen dozens of people at breakfast look at the empty chair where someone they all knew had sat the day before but then died overnight, and I've watched their eyes, watched them wondering when it would be their turn. And everyone gets to have a turn.
Including me. Including you. But that's just words, isn't it? What matters is the burden, the questions, the ones you don't get answers for. And no amount of talk will get you one step closer to them than you were when you started. Maybe words even move you further away.
Yes, I am going to have another drink. There is no escape – that really isn't the point. The point is … I'm not sure what the point is, if you want the truth.
Neither are you. I can see it in your eyes.
Richard Van Ingram
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