Maybe it was my own sense of foreboding, of what I was thinking, but the first thing that hit me on Tuesday afternoon was the air – it was warm, oppressively warm, and scented with a combination of cleaning materials and air fresheners. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell but I felt there were other odours lurking. I signed the guestbook and tried to make small talk with the receptionist. We touched briefly on the weather, our respective kids and the road works in the town and then I headed past the desk down the corridor for the social room. Some of the less mobile residents would be there, waiting for lunch.
Nursing homes are places of death and the dying, unlike the ones you see in the movies. In the movies, the elderly stroll upright through the sun speckled gardens, perhaps holding the hand of a pig-tailed grandchild or carrying painting easels under tanned arms. The jangle of mellow jazz can be heard from the piano in the music room where a grey haired man in a feathered cap glides from side to side – other residents dance gracefully on the wooden floor. In these fantastical institutions the aged are content, unburdened by worries and wise after a life well spent. And they certainly don’t need to fear harm at the hands of staff or the occasional visitor. The reality is sometimes a little different.
I walked past rows of open doors on either side without glancing into any of the bedrooms. The same low croaking voice that I had heard a hundred times from Room 142 drifted onto the corridor but I kept walking. In front of me, two of the nursing staff pushed trolleys laden with trays of food around the corner and into the social room. I followed them and glanced at the sea of grey heads.
A cheery nurse looked up smiling, “Good man Gerry, we’ll put you on the payroll yet.” She reached for a tray of food.
“Are you making me work again?” I quipped, as she handed me the tray. I often fed Frank, it gave me a sense of purpose and filled the vacuum where conversation used to be.
“Frank had been sick over the weekend, a pretty nasty chest infection, we put him back into bed after breakfast,” a young care assistant called over. “He’s just tired out, poor crater’. Nearly hacked up a lung earlier. He’s on antibiotics.”
I held the tray close to my lower chest hoping to counteract my shaking hands and I turned towards Frank’s room in the far wing.
I barely remember my father but there’s a grainy black and white picture of him and big Frank giving us piggy back rides through the garden. Frank had been a constant presence in our home growing up and he supported my mother, his sister, through all the challenging years that followed Dad’s death. He was a kind, funny giant of a man and I remember asking him why he never married any of his lady friends. He smiled wistfully and replied, “I wanted the bird, but I never liked the cage she came with.”
Now as he lay before me on the bed, pale skin and gaunt of face, it occurred to me that a cage of sorts had finally caught him in its trap. He’d been dying for five years. First the mind. Then the mobility. The other limbs slowly stiffened and seized. Over this period his voice slowly lowered and trailed to an incoherent whisper. About 6 months ago, nothing except groans. At every stage I had asked myself how much more punishment the big-hearted giant would have to endure.
It was agony to watch and today Frank seemed even more vulnerable than when I had last seen him, just five days before. But it was his eyes that really pierced my soul – they seemed to flash with recognition any time I sat down near him or when I spoke. Right now his dark green pupils seemed to be crying out for me to do something, to help him end the misery. For years I had considered his plight and asked myself what if anything I could do. Finally, I had made a decision to help, if help is even an appropriate word in the circumstances.
I had concluded that I would coincide my visits with meal times which was when the medicine was administered. Frank was on a strong dose of anticoagulants to prevent further heart attacks – he had suffered two in quick succession before he retired from his job at the timber mill. Since the dispensing nurses regularly entrusted me to give the medication I could simply dispose of the tablets and let nature take it’s course. It was by no means a fool proof plan but on the other hand I couldn’t risk a prison sentence.
I closed the bedroom door, clipped a blue plastic bib around Frank’s neck and set to work cutting up the beef slices into edible portions. I felt a certain dishonesty in plotting his death on the one hand while on the other hand starting to feed him his dinner. I blanked out conflicting thoughts and tried to reestablish the pattern of pseudo interaction that had become so common over the preceding months.
“Did I hear you had an infection?” I stopped cutting momentarily to put on a CD – Irish country music, his favourite. “Ye seem to be breathing the best now anyhow. Frank we’re going to try a bit of dinner? What do you say?”
He never said anything but he always ate, his chewing reflex was strong. Today he seemed quite listless as I prepared the meal. So I took the controller for the electric bed and raised the back up into a more upright position and gently turned him to face me.
“Is that better? Frank, we need to get you a few more albums, I’m getting sick of hearing about Big Tom’s Log Cabin.”
I raised the first forkful up to his lips, nudging them apart gently. His mouth opened and I placed the food in. I could hear some of the staff calling up the corridor and heard the double doors swinging closed. “Ok, ready for some meat? Christ, this stuff looks better than what we got served up in Macklin’s the other night. The old chef left them apparently.”
The CD began skipping and I was delighted to have an excuse to switch on the television, anything that might distract my thoughts. “Let’s get a bit of news Frankie, see what this lunatic in the White House is doing now.” Next fork full. I was facing the screen when Frank suddenly jerked upwards and wheezed abruptly.
Nothing for a moment. Then he jerked again and this time his chest seemed to spasm – it had to be his heart – then just as suddenly his eyes widened and the veins on his neck became more noticeable – no, it wasn’t his heart, he was choking. In those few split seconds of panic I switched off the volume on the television and stood upright, looking down as his mouth opened and closed in a strange circular motion. I realized I hadn’t noticed if he was swallowing or merely pushing the food to the sides of his mouth. How many mouthfuls had that been? Three? Four? The meat, the beef, it was tough enough. Christ.
I pulled him forward abruptly, scattered the pillows from behind him and prepared to administer a blow to the back. I raised my hand but his eye caught mine and I hesitated. He pushed his shoulders backwards into the bed behind him. He held my gaze – his face a deep angry red and turning almost purple at the fringes. He made some pained gurgles and heaved upwards but nothing dislodged. I made to pull him forward again but I swear his eyes flashed a wicked warning and I sat back down, hairs standing on the back of my neck.
I turned away from his eyes, a thousand voices shouting in my mind. On screen, the newsreader silently mouthed the words of the news, her lips seemed to hold a slight smile throughout.
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