This mortal coil


We’re all gathered by the nurse’s station, during a lull right before shift change. The nurse is charting, and another aide and I are doing our paperwork while we can. We’re chatting about mundane things–the latest movies, the books we’re reading, but soon we cycle back to the nursing home. There’s a whole world of conversation here and we’re around people who get it, so we talk shop. We complain about the unfairness, we vent about the frustrations.
We mourn the dead and grieve for the living.

“Don’t get me wrong,” the other aide says. “I’m sorry she’s gone, but I’m also…not? Is that wrong?”
The nurse sighs. “She’s not in pain anymore,” she says finally. “Better place, yeah?”
We all share a grim look–in a nursing home, this is not a platitude. No matter what you believe about death or life after it, we’ve all seen that point when almost anything is better than the pain our resident is in. When death is a relief, a release.
My fellow aide drops her gaze to the desk; her fingers trace out patterns on its slightly sticky surface. “Worst part is that she was with-it, you know?” she adds, tapping her other hand against her head. “Checked in for it all.”
“Alert and oriented through it all,” the nurse agrees. “Mind as sharp as a whip, body falling apart on her.”

I fiddle with my pen for a long moment.
“I wouldn’t want that,” I say at last. “Don’t want to be stuck in bed, but able to remember when it was me running through the halls. I’d rather lose my mind than have all the lights on upstairs while my body betrays me.”
“Be like Mrs.___,” the nurse says. “Cheerfully oblivious. I can see you being her when you get old, May.”
“Stealing everyone’s shoes and shoving them up your shirt,” the other aide chimes in with a giggle.
“Remember that one newbie aide?” I grin. “She was so freaked out, came tearing down the hall yelling for the nurse-‘She’s got a freaking giant mass on her breast! I think it’s cancer!'”
The nurse collapses into her charting, her laughter escaping in hysterical snorts around the precisely worded notes. Our laughter turns bittersweet as we remember that Cheerfully Oblivious is dead too.

After all, we might have our preferences, but that’s no guarantee that life will oblige us. Which one will I be? Will it be my mind or my body that betrays me first? Death and disease come in many flavors…which kind is waiting for me?
These are the questions I’d rather not ask–the questions I can’t avoid. I’m in the wrong field for ignoring my own mortality.

I shake off the hysteria and go back to my paperwork. “At least I’ll keep the staff entertained when I lose my mind. I’m gonna be so crazy that I’ll scare off half their newbies.”
The nurse and other aide exchange a look. “It’s always the quiet ones,” they sigh.

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