When I was 14, I worked in a convalescent hospital.
I was too young to legally work, but the word about town was that St. Catherine’s was so desperate for Candy Stripers that they would look the other way. All of my friends jumped on this opportunity, and the best part of that job was that we were all together.
I remember the staff asking me for my social security number, and I had no idea what that was. “I’ll have to call you back,” I told them, then ran to ask my big sister. “Just make it up,” she counseled me. “It’s three numbers, then two, then four.” Her words were reassuring, and I got the job.
My friends were all hired as Candy Stripers, and wore red and white striped pinafores, like candy canes. Candy Stripers were underage girls hired to attend to all of the patient’s needs. To me, the name “Candy Striper” and the duties they performed had a ring of prostitution about it, and I didn’t like the idea at all. Not to mention, I have always been squeamish about nursing. I don’t have that nurture bone that makes it palatable to clean up feces and sponge bodies; and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it.
So instead, I asked if I could work in the kitchen. And I was the only person who did.
I’ll never forget my first day of work. I was met at the door with a time card, and was shown how to “punch in.” It was very mechanical; the whir of the machine as it spit out my card with a blue ink time stamp upon it. It felt robotic. I felt robotic.
The smell was overwhelming. It was a noxious odor that was a combination of medicine and vomit; cleanser and urine. I was led down the hall to sign my paperwork, and I was suddenly accosted by a patient; an elderly lady who was sneering and hissing at me as I walked by. Suddenly she grabbed the back of my collar and pulled me toward her. She stood there posed like a fragile gorilla; arms outstretched as if about to pounce, exposed white legs covered in blue veins, her mouth angry. “For you, my dear,” she said in a guttural malevolent way, and then she squatted over my shoes and urinated.
I’m not sure if I was more horrified or terrified.
“The bathroom is right there,” said the nurse who was leading me toward my destination. “You can clean your shoes.” She was so matter-of-fact, that I wanted to scream, is that all I get? That woman peed on me! I wanted sympathy; but there would be none of that.
I rounded the corner to the bathroom and was stopped by another elderly woman in the hallway. “Last payment on the welfare check,” she told me. I nodded impatiently, and she continued. “Yep, it’s the very last payment. The LAST payment of the welfare check.” In the coming months, I would learn that this was all she said. Over and over. All day long.
Once my shoes were clean and my paperwork signed, which included my false social security number, I was led to the kitchen. I was introduced to my boss; a very tidy woman, with pert lips and a perpetually tight neck. She was a nutritionist; and she went on to instruct me on how to prepare the food. Before each meal, the carts would be wheeled into the kitchen, which were bright silver and all metal. The carts were bunk bed style, and came with about fifty trays per cart in rows which went about as high as I could reach. On each tray was a patient’s name, their food requests, requirements and restrictions. Each meal I would aid her in preparation; the regular patients got things like meatloaf, mash potatoes and frozen peas. A few could even request wine with their dinner, which was served in tiny wine bottles with a plastic wine glass. But many patients couldn’t eat this or that, and we had to prepare a variety of dishes. The worst were the Mechanical Soft patients, who could only drink liquid. For those patients, I would normally just throw the meatloaf, mashed potatoes and peas in a blender and serve it to them as a meaty milkshake.
My other job was to wash the dishes. I would stand before the industrialized size stainless steel sinks, and a steady stream of trays would come toward me, moving on a conveyer belt. Each plate was capped off with a white marbled plastic lid. I would remove the lid, wash that and the plate under hot water, and then put it into a big washer that would slide it through like a car wash. It was hot, and I would always sweat as I performed this particular task. I didn’t so much mind doing the dishes, but the patients would often leave me little surprises under the white marbled lids. A pile of feces was their favorite gift to me. But a pool of vomit was an equally popular donation.
When I finished with the dishes, I would have to count all the trays, and if I was short, I’d have to roam the hospital and look for them. I remember entering one woman’s room, and I was pleased when I spotted the one missing tray and the white marbled lid on her bed stand. “Good evening Mrs. Wilson,” I said, as I walked in to retrieve it.
“Good evening,” she said in a wicked voice that made me shudder. Then she pulled up her white nightgown, and began extracting bits of salad from her vagina and tossing it in my direction. She was screaming pejoratives as she did this; it was like a scene from the Exorcist. I ran from that room as if I was a soldier running from shrapnel, ducking the pellets that were flung toward my head and the few that landed square on my cheek.
I thought of it like an insane asylum. And I hated every single second of every single day there.
But I had it easy compared to my friends, who were forced to deal with the patients all day long, as well as wash the bodies of the dead, and prepare them for pick up. My best friend begged me to stay in the room with her the first time she did it; as she was so frightened. I’ll never forget the thud as she turned the dead man over to wash him, and revealed his back which looked like raw red meat, and was covered in bruises, scabs and blood. “HE’S ROTTING!” I almost choked. The smell was putrid. “WHAT IS THAT?” I screamed. But she knew what it was, as part of her job was to give sponge baths, and had seen them regularly.
“Bed sores,” she whispered. I was often educated during my tenure there. And the sound of ambulances in the parking lot was the lullaby by which I worked.
There were three levels of patients there. Group One consisted of patients who were almost comatose; sitting in wheel chairs or lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, and without any recognition of the world around them. We rarely needed to tend to them at all; only the doctors and nurses fed and bathed them. Group Two were the patients that the Candy Stripers and I would deal with the most; the ones who hid salad in their crotch and like to urinate on young girl’s shoes. They were by far the most difficult, and it was a regular occurrence to see one of the Candy Stripers in the lunch room in tears.
But it was Group Three that broke my heart every single day.
The patients in Group Three, to me, didn’t look as if they belonged there. They looked like someone’s jolly grandmother or grandfather; wise and lucid, laughing with crinkly eyes that would light up anyone’s soul. Whether it would through circumstance or poverty, the reason they lived there I never knew. And most disturbing to me, was that few of them ever had visitors from the outside; and it would always be a big deal if they did. “Mrs. White is having her daughter here today,” I would be told. “Put some flowers on her tray, would you?” It always made me happy when the visitors came, but these occasions were rare.
Group Three would dine in the dining hall, which was right outside the kitchen where I spent most of my day.
It was Christmas Eve and I’d been forced to work. I remember being resentful, and I had done everything humanly possible to be excused. I would need to work until 9 p.m., and would miss many of the festive Eve traditions that my family would do at home. But the management made it clear; either work that day, or lose my job. So I went.
I remember that the dinner was a little more special that evening. The nutritionist and I roasted many turkeys in the gigantic ovens, and I was busy preparing stuffing and cranberry sauce. They had piped Christmas Carols through the entire building, and I was singing as I worked; and I was determined to still find my spirit in a situation that was less than optimal for me. We had dozens of pecan pies ordered; and they came in piles in big pink boxes. This wouldn’t be so bad, I thought to myself.
I remember swinging open the two sided kitchen doors and running into the dining room to set the table. I saw around the corner the community room, and I smiled to myself as I took in a moment to drink in the Christmas tree that the staff had put there. But it wasn’t the tree that kept my attention; rather it was the sight I saw below the tree.
I saw two of the Group Three patients sitting in their wheel chairs in front of the tree, holding hands. I had never seen any physical interaction between the patients whatsoever; and the sight of it held me spellbound and curious.
I dropped the pile of napkins I was carrying and walked over to where they sat. They were both smiling broadly; their eyes crinkling like Santa Claus; and they were holding hands so tight that their fingers were red.
“Merry Christmas,” I said, tapping the man quickly on his hand.
“Merry Christmas, my dear!” he answered enthusiastically. “And what a magical night it is!” I looked around at the gray room, and breathed in the familiar rancid smell, and could barely muster a smile. I couldn’t fathom how this man could be happy; not in the situation that he was in.
“Yes, it is,” I answered weakly.
“And I’ve got my best girl at my side,” he said, squeezing and shaking the woman’s hand in the air. “And she’s my Christmas Sugar Plum.” With all of his might, he struggled and leaned toward her and kissed her on the lips. He was shaking almost violently as he did so. She giggled like a girl and laid her head on his shoulder. “Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to sit next to Mrs. Roth at supper,” he continued. “And it was love at first sight, I tell you. Love at first sight.”
“Oh, you do go on, Mr. Jenkins,” the woman giggled, snuggling into his white issued nightgown.
“I’ll shout it to the rooftops Mrs. Roth!” he yelled, and then laughed so robust he could have been Santa Claus himself. I smiled but neither of them were looking at me; they only had eyes for each other. Without a sound, I went back into the dining room and continued setting the table.
But it wasn’t the last I’d hear from Mr. Jenkins that evening.
I was preparing the trays for Group Three which be served in the dining room that evening. I always had to check each patient’s card, which spelled out their meal requests and restrictions, to make certain they were given what they wanted, and were not given what they couldn’t have. On Mr. Jenkins card, under the category for alcohol, he had circled the word “wine” in thick red felt pen, about a dozen times, until the circle of urgent red took up half the card. And as if that wasn’t enough, there was a big red arrow pointing to the circle. Just to make sure I wouldn’t miss it. It made me laugh.
But I was sad, too, as Mr. Jenkins was not allowed any alcohol in his diet. “Mr. Jenkins is requesting wine tonight,” I said to the nutritionist.
“Well, he knows he’s not allowed alcohol. That is the worst possible thing for his condition. Go out and tell him that he can’t have any,” she instructed me.
I walked despondently out of the kitchen and back to the Christmas tree where the happy couple still sat. I didn’t want to interrupt them again.
“Mr. Jenkins,” I said. “Sorry to disturb you. But you requested wine tonight and that is not on your diet. I just wanted to let you know we can’t give it to you.”
I never expected what came next.
He lingered for a few seconds more on his lady’s blushing face, and then turned to me with a look that meant business.
“I want you to listen to me, dear, are you listening?” he said. His eyes pierced into mine.
“I’m 86 years old. I have no living family or children. It is Christmas Eve. I am dying. I am in love. Are you listening?”
Then he motioned for me to come closer. He beckoned me with one bony finger, and continued to beckon me until my ear was right to his mouth. “So, if I want some god damn wine, I’ll have some god damn wine, do you hear me?”
“I understand,” I answered. “But I’m not allowed. I can’t.”
He took his hand and gripped my arm as tight as he could. “You CAN,” he said sternly. There was a pause. Then he whispered, with as much passion as I’ve ever heard in my life, “Please.” I stood up and stared into his eyes for several seconds. There was a world of conversation held captive in that stare; a monument of understanding.
That night, I told my boss that Mrs. Roth and Mr. Jenkins had requested to eat in the courtyard alone, rather than dine with the other patients in the Dining Hall. “They’ll freeze,” my boss said, in an annoyed tone. “But I don’t have time to argue. Take a couple of T.V. trays, will you, and wheel them out?”
Her annoyance at this request was like looking in a mirror, and my soul filled with guilt and remorse at how I had felt about these people since I began work there. They weren’t people to me. They were just problems.
I chastised myself for my heartlessness. But just as quickly, I began to forgive myself. I knew I had distanced myself from feeling compassion, because down deep the entire place was more depressing than I had tools to bear. It wasn’t that I couldn’t feel; the problem was, I felt too much. And it was time to give myself permission to feel.
That night I wheeled Mrs. Roth and Mr. Jenkins to the chilly courtyard, which was strung up with Christmas lights. “You two will have dinner out here tonight, okay?” I said as I grabbed several blankets from the linen closet and draped them over both of them, so they were snuggled in together. They nodded enthusiastically.
Then I brought them their trays and their roast turkey. I had carried the trays right from the kitchen, so there was no wine on the trays. When I put the trays down, Mr. Jenkins just stared at them. His disappointment was so palatable that it brought a lump to my throat. He looked up at me with eyes that screamed his anguish; eyes which asked me why. “I’ll be right back Mr. Jenkins,” was all I needed to say. I gave him a knowing look. He didn’t need to speak, he only nodded and smiled.
I went back to the dining room and grabbed a full carafe of wine off one of the tables, along with two plastic wine glasses.
I hurried down the hall, as if I was a burglar escaping the scene of a crime. My heart was in my throat as I rushed past the nurse’s station, carrying the carafe as low as I could so no one would see.
When I reached the courtyard, they were kissing. I felt my eyes fill with tears, and I waited for them to finish. I placed the wine carafe and glasses between the wheel chairs, beneath the blankets. “My shift is over, I’m going home. I hope you have a merry evening,” I said, winking at Mr. Jenkins.
“Indeed we shall,” he said winking back. And then in a whisper he mouthed the words, “thank you.”
When I walked out that evening, I worried for a moment, wondering what would happen when the inevitable discovery of the wine carafe occurred later that evening. I tried to comfort myself with the notion that perhaps it wouldn’t be noticed; that it would just be swept up with the rest of the dirty dishes, and carried into the kitchen without raising an eyebrow. But I also worried that when the wine carafe was found, I would be found out as well, and I would lose my job. But the worry only lasted a moment.
I walked out of the hospital and stared into a night sky filled with Christmas stars. And suddenly I didn’t care. It had all been worth it.
It was a Silent Night that night. All was calm, and all was very bright.
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