Loud voices dragged me kicking and screaming from my sleep; the first solid night’s rest that I’d had in a month. A peaceful sleep is the one thing I’ve got left and they’re hell bent on robbing me of even that.
My muscles groaned as I rolled over to look at my clock. 7:00 AM. The day people were coming in. I wondered briefly who was on shift before deciding that it didn’t really matter.
“Same shit. Different day. That’s the story of my life these past three years, since I lost my wife. Since I lost my everything.” I thought as I closed my eyes, hoping for twenty more minutes of peace. No such luck.
“HEYYYYYYY BUDDY!!!! Good morning! Today is going to be AWESOME. You and I are going to hit the ground RUNNING. The world won’t know what HIT it! It’s time to rock and roll!”…Great. It’s the weird one. She must have had a triple espresso today. I squeezed my eyes shut as she opened the blinds, knowing damn well it wasn’t going to fool her.
“I know you’re awake, pal.” Sigh.
“It is too damn early for you,” I grumbled. She raised her eyebrow, made sure the door was closed and took out her phone.
“Maybe. But it’s NEVER too early for Hendrix,” she declared as the first strains of All Along the Watchtower filtered through my ears. Well, I couldn’t argue with her taste in music. I watched as she jumped up on the empty bed (They haven’t paired me with a nut job roommate yet, thank God for small favors) and began to dramatically sing along. Badly. You gotta admire her creativity.
“Get DOWN, you fool, before you get yourself fired. FINE. Give me twenty minutes to get my bearings and I’ll be up there for breakfast.”
“Deal!” She leaped down and out the door she went. I try to keep in mind that none of this is her fault. She’s one of the good ones. In another life, she could have been my daughter or my friend, but in this reality, she’s another person telling me what to do, even if she does think it’s for my own good.
I headed into my cramped bathroom, pulled on my robe and splashed water on my face, hoping to clear away the residual fog from last night’s medication cocktail. I remember when drugs used to be fun. If only they knew the life I used to live. Before I got married. Had kids. Got sick. Lost my wife. Lost my kids. Lost my health. Lost…well, just lost.
“When did you become an old man?” I asked my reflection. If I squinted my eyes and looked through the wrinkles, I could see remnants of the man I once was. A ghost from the past, hardly relevant in today’s world, where speed is what counts and the old and sick relics are left; carrion for the vultures. I shook my head and tried to shake that imagery as I headed out the door of my sanctuary into the noisy, overly bright hall.
“Get your walker!” There she was again, somehow able to see through the enormous stack of towels she was carrying as she ran down the hall.
“No running in the hall!” I retorted.
“Fair enough!” She stopped abruptly, tripping over her shoelaces and the stack of towels flew in every direction. I heard her curse under her breath and couldn’t stop myself from laughing. She’s a pain in the ass, but she does make the hall more entertaining.
“Maybe YOU should get a walker,” I told her. She looked at me ruefully.
“First point goes to you. Well played, sir,” she said as she picked up the towels. It’s a little game we have. Who can be the biggest smart ass. I usually win. With age comes wisdom.
“Ah come on, kid. Escort an old man to breakfast. Maybe a cup of that decaf crap you call coffee would do me some good.”
Breakfast. Rubbery, slightly cold eggs. Grits. Bacon, always underdone. Chaos and noise, everyone demanding everything. Nothing peaceful about it. After breakfast, more meds, then a shower. The same. Every day is the same Goddamn day. I just wanted to escape to my room. I want to lay down and not be bothered.
We are the invisible people. Congestive heart failure in room 102. Diabetic in 104. COPD, TED hose, two person transfer. We are known by our needs and diagnosis rather than our names and stories. Hello. My name is stage 3 lung cancer. My name is do not resuscitate. My name is dying.
I laid down and pulled the cheap, rough comforter up to my chin. You would think they would know that we old people are cold natured and offer thicker blankets. I debated pulling the call bell, but I wanted to be alone more than I wanted an extra blanket. I was in pain. Always in pain. I’d gotten used to it, like an old familiar friend that you never wanted in the first place but after a while, you can’t imagine life without.
I was awoken from my uneasy rest by a soft, persistent tapping on my door. Jesus, what do they want now?
“WHAT?!” I shouted. She walked in; the weird one, the annoyingly optimistic one.
“The new activity lady wants to know if you want to play bingo.”
“Do I strike you as a bingo player?” I snapped.
“No. But she insisted that I come and ask anyway. Besides, the winner gets a prize.”
“Trip to Vegas?”
“No, a lovely gardening hat with plastic flowers for the ladies and a t-shirt that reads gone fishin’ for the guys,” she paused, “…I didn’t say they were GOOD prizes.” Something must have cracked in me then. I started laughing. The ABSURDITY of it all; not just the prizes but the very idea that THIS was how I was going to spend the end of my days…in a loony bin being told when to eat and playing bingo for the most ridiculous prizes possible, being visited by my kids maybe one more time before I shuffle off to whatever comes next because it was “too hard” for them to see me like this…it was…it was OBSCENE. Suddenly, to my horror, my laughter turned to tears. I was WEEPING for Godsake. Tears and snot flowed freely down my face as I took deep sobbing breaths and tried to regain control.
The weird girl handed me a tissue and sat quietly on the empty bed next to me. She let me cry. At no point did she try to calm me or convince me that everything would be fine. She did not minimize my pain. She just sat there and waited. In that moment, I hated and loved her. I hated that she was witnessing my fear and weakness. I hated her for seeing my pain, but I loved her for those very same reasons too; for seeing me in a moment of raw, uncontrollable honesty.
“I just miss everything so much. I miss my wife. I miss my kids. I miss…myself. I go over it in my head, what could I have done differently. What could I have done better? I don’t want to die alone.” By then I was whispering, afraid that someone else would hear; afraid she would judge me…afraid. After a long moment of silence, she came over tentatively reached for my hand and said,
“I am so sorry that you’re hurting. I can’t imagine the strength it must take for you to face the day and I’m sorry that your kids are missing the opportunity to see how brave their dad really is. It’s a decision they will come to regret, I imagine. I can’t do much to erase your pain, but I will make you a promise: You will never be alone. I will walk with you step by step; the good days and the bad. You aren’t alone. You’re my friend, whether you like it or not.” She squeezed my hand gently and headed toward the door. There were call bells ringing and she had to go, but I knew she would be back. For the first time, I realized that I took a lot of comfort from that.
“Hey, kid…thanks”. She smiled back at me.
“Anytime. Besides, I can’t let you win the smart ass award. I’ve got some catching up to do!” she said as she left the room, quietly closing the door behind her.
“In your dreams, kid,” I thought, smiling to myself as I slowly drifted back to sleep.