Dedicated to Mary, and the souls she helped whose bodies would not cooperate with their minds.
Wan sunlight filed the courtyard with a strange clarity that seemed to unveil the beauty of the world. For a few moments everything was golden, and traced in patterns wonderfully definite of blue, tan, green; the rosy pink flowers became impassioned by the glowering sun. All was glorious.
Juliet turned to the sun and lifted her hand. By covering that one painful spot she could look with wonder at the liquid fire that was the sky. Soon the mottled gold was transmuted to copper, and then cooling iron, and then nothing; only the afterglow reflected in the clouds, fading slowing to the faintest purple.
Heaving an inaudible sigh, Juliet continued on her way through the courtyard, making haste toward the heavy gray building that lay beyond. In thick, black type, the words “Westerly Hospice of Olympia” were printed on the side, almost as if some giant typewriter had been placed alongside the building, and the letters thumped out. It made an imposing presence, and captured the colors of the sunset beautifully; for a moment, it was charming, looking like an easel left on the grounds by an absent-minded painter.
Juliet leaned her weight against the solid glass doors that led inward, and was greeted by a rush of warm air. The buildings’ exhalation distinctly helped Juliet set her mind not he task at hand, and with a resolute step she entered the building.
Inside, the decorations had not the dreamy romanticism of a northwestern sunset. Rather, they were in the main bare, white walls which bore the presence of an occasional work of modern art with seeming indulgence.
The visitors and patients seated in the main waiting room did not take notice of her arrival, absorbed as they were in concerns too immediate to allow for distraction.
The lighting was well apportioned to the pleasing abundance of open space found everywhere. In the walkways, the waiting rooms, the area behind the reception desk: it all gave the impression of having enough room; and this was a trait Juliet much appreciated.
They were all, each of them, engaged in some different occupation, such as thumbing through a magazine or playing Klondike, but really the engagement was at a deeper level, and this outward show was only symbolic. As Juliet passed her eyes over the crowd of expectant family and friends – as most of them were – she hoped for some one of them to look up, to allow her a sense of contact with this “other side” of the whole affair. But no one paused in their reading or cards to wonder who this visitor from outside might be : their main concern was the footsteps they might soon hear coming from within.
Juliet walked to the reception area and took her day-chart from a hook on the inside wall. It listed off the expected names, with room numbers and needs in a separate column. She read off each name mentally before beginning the rounds, as if to prepare for the task ahead. There were twelves names, covering in their scope all manner of nationalities and backgrounds. Her favorite name was Mrs. Mary Trudot. Fifth on the list, as she read the name, she was reminded of the dear woman of room 134 who had lost all ability to move the larger muscles in her body. Mostly eye blinking, jaw movement, some crude manual dexterity were all that was left to her.
Others on the list had similarly difficult afflictions. Some could speak, but of memories that were disjoint and disconnected; those that were trapped within an immobile body sometimes possessed great clarity of mind; others had deteriorated inwardly as well as out, and these at least lost some consciousness of their suffering.
Juliet walked to the reception area and stopped. She paused to take in all the people, the sounds, the looks on her co-worker’s faces. Juliet had been working as a staff assistant since the beginning of the summer, earning a little money while in college. Mainly her job involved changing linen, feeding and bathing the patients, and providing a variety of other care activities.
Most of the patients in the Hospice were not curable. They had been brought there by their families to receive the kind of core they needed before retreating from this dream of sorrow – the only thing we know to call “life”. Some hoped their loved one would find a better existence; others only wanted the pain to come to an end.
It was the job of Juliet and others to ease the transition for these souls, many of whom had lost all contact with the world around them. Others only appeared lost.
Juliet opened the dividing door and entered the reception area. Her friend and co-worker Anna was just finishing filling out a form.
“Hey Jules! Welcome to July third, Hospice-style. You ready for the run?”
Juliet looked at her with mirthful, energetic eyes. “You bet. Ready to do my little bit of good in the world. Are there any changes from yesterday?” She asked this question with a moment of trepidation, for a positive answer was typically not a positive thing at all.
“Nope, nope. All’s the same. Don’t know if that’s really good or bad, but at least it’s easy to deal with.” Anna smiled a pleasant, congenial smile, then turned to speak to an elderly woman who had walked up to the desk.
Juliet touched Anna gently on the shoulder and took her workchart from a hook on the wall. The names were the same, and their needs nearly so. The greatest difficulty was bathing, or assisting with the toilet. Outside of this, the emotional demands were always greater than the physical.
She pushed open the dividing door that separated Anna and her from the sea of concerned faces standing behind the desk, or sitting in the waiting room. Everyone wore the same general look of concern as if they were all part of some greater entity, trading places over the course of the day, individual cells in a large body of woe and worry.
She walked further into the building, toward the ward rooms. The amplified perception of space was still everywhere preserved, giving the inhabitants of the structure an impression of largess. In actual fact, it was only a single story building with a basement, occupying not too much space. But due to its calculated grandeur, it was somehow more than just a simple thing of brick and glass, but now an institution, a place with a title, a place with a reason to be.
The hallways were pure white: white light,s white carpet. The wall art was sparse here. Only the illusion of space, and white. Then a doctor’s face would appear, gesturing a look of greeting; or her face would be captured by some figure on a chart, the legs moving independently down the hall.
When Juliet reached a door numbered “A14”, she stopped. This was her first stop for the evening. Inside, an oddly contorted figure was sitting near a television set, making movements that were obviously in response to something happening on the program.
“How are you feeling, Mr. Edwards?” Juliet called out. “Is everything as it should be?”
Daniel John Edwards, commander of two divisions during the worlds most engulfing war, turned his silvery head. Its still graceful cranium revolved upon a leathery, wilted stalk of spotted flesh. The body then followed: upper torso first, then abdomen: shaking in tremors that communicated themselves to the head with an enfeebling violence. Clearly the effort was making them worse.
“Please don’t get up, Mr. Edwards” cooed Juliet, in her most accommodating voice, “It’s only me, your sunset nurse. Aren’t the colors beautiful?”
The tumbling head now began a series of movements that ultimately lead to an orientation towards the window. The last colors of warmth were just receding. A fabric, now of magic, now of night, was being draped over the sky. As he looked on, his tremors somewhat calmer, Daniel seemed to pause on a certain part of the sky, where the remnants of a crimson red were interlaced with magenta and burgundy. The shape was though a mad artist had left his easel, leaning there up against the mountains. And then his chest heaved, and a series of shudders turned him back to face the T.V.
“Mr. EDwards, we have your favorite dessert this evening! A creamy, vanilla bean custard. But first we have to get down these mashed carrots and potatoes. Just think of what a wonderful thing it will lead to, though!”
His eyes were fixed in the same direction as his skull, as though he had lost the ability to move them independently. That skull was still focused in the direction of the television set.
Juliet fixed a tray onto the chair containing Daniel Edwards, and set out an array of white, orange and cream colored foods. While not turned, David was fairly still, and it was no trouble to fill his mouth wit food, which he then dutifully swallowed.
As she placed each bite in his mouth, Juliet would wonder at the face of this old soldier from the war. She had learned, by asking, what the previous lives of these people she cared for had been like. Beneath the covering of age and illness, she tried to imagine what Daniel had been like, standing powerful and proud on the bridge of a mammoth destroyer. The seas had parted before him, and men had given their lives in obedience to his command. Now that commander was rolling around mashed nutrients on his tongue, presumably trying to capture some sense of flavor – or perhaps it was difficult to swallow.
“Does it taste good, Mr. Edwards?”
The extra shudders that followed this question, she could not decide if they were related. And as she thought it might be far too insulting to this hero from her childhood to keep repeating a question that a parent might as a child, she turned her focus back to the food, and administering the next bite.
When those were done, and he had been bathed, and cleaned, and laid back into the bed, Juliet looked again at his faraway eyes, caught somewhere between his face and the ceiling.
“Good night, Mr. Edwards. It was a pleasure to be of help.”
His trembling eyes drew closed, and Juliet tucked the sheets around him. Then she stood, and turning the light off, was able to watch the magnificent stars that had gathered outside when no one was looking.
When Juliet reached the door that bore the number “A28”, she paused. This was her most difficult charge. She took in a breath and reached for the door handle, not sure whether this visit would resemble all of those past. But this washer duty, and she was determined to bear it with equanimity.
The room behind that door was in chaotic disarray.