I remember the very old, thin, papery skin hanging on angular bones. So pale you could see the veins snake along his arm. Wrinkles. Hair frizzing and flying in white wisps around his head. Brown age spots on his arms and face and back. Two hands gripping his walker with hairy white knuckles, fingers taut on each handle, not letting go. Knobby knees shaking but legs stable on the ground, feet in hospital-issue, gray slipper sock. Wheezing as he stood there, like the 100-pack year smoker I knew he was. Hospital gown flapping open in the back. Wide open.
I approached Mr. J cautiously. It was only my second day on the unit. I was green with a capital G. And young, so young and so inexperienced. And here was this partially dressed man, a good seven decades older than me, in the hallway. “Are you alright sir? Do you need to sit down? Let’s get you a chair to sit.”
Hack. Cough. Wheeze. Wheeze. Sharp, dark eyes under hairy caterpillar eyebrows whipped around to look at me. To assess. The caterpillars drew together and he took my measure. “Are you a nurse?” Wheeeeze. Wheeeeze. Cough. The caterpillars wiggled a little. The knees shook.
“Uh… no sir. A nursing assistant. Sir, I’m going to tie your gown in the back. It’s ummmm, open.” Cautiously I walked around to the bare back side to take care of the business of modesty. Modesty first, then a chair, I thought. I can do this.
“No!” Mr. J barked sharply, then wheezed again. Then coughed. “Untied it for a reason. Don’t meddle.” The caterpillars came together and he glared at me from beneath them.
Oh goodness. Why? Why would he do that? On purpose? I look around for help, anyone. Anyone else besides me. “Errrrm sir, why… why did you untie your gown? And why are you standing in the middle of the hallway? May I help you back to your room now?” Regroup. If we can’t tackle modesty we can work on safety!
“No.” He barked and wheezed at me again. The hairy caterpillars rested together again, then separated. He paused. He appraised. “Perhaps you can get me a nurse…” The eyes under the caterpillars look hopeful. Cough. Wheeze. Wobble.
“Sure sir, I can do that, but let’s get you back to bed first.”
Again, he barks, “No. I need a nurse, here in the hallway.” He looks around, everyone rushing this way and that. No one pausing. The caterpillars look at me again. “They’re all too fast though.” He whispers the last part on a wheeze. “Too fast,” the words are so quiet and small the second time I barely hear them. I step closer.
He sounds defeated. A little sad. The caterpillars droop at the edges.
Again I try, still not quite understanding. “Sir, let’s get back to your room and I will find your nurse. We can talk…”
“No. You are not listening girl. You are not a nurse. I need a nurse. I can’t go home until I get a nurse.”
I am confused and it must clearly show on my face. He sighs. The caterpillars rise up and his eyes appraise, sparkle, then look sad. “I can’t go home until I catch a nurse. And I can’t catch one because they never stop moving. Nurse Ratchet over there…” He nods the caterpillars towards the charge nurse who is leaning against the counter, watching us. Cough. Wheeze. “Nurse Iron Balls says I can’t go home until I get out of bed and catch a nurse. You are not a nurse. So. No, you cannot take me back to bed. I have to catch a nurse. I want to go home.” Cough. Wheeze. Wobble. Wheeze.
And then I see him. Behind the caterpillars and open gown and the wheezing and coughing and the shaky legs and the papery white skin and the wispy white hair. His pride. His strength. His resolve. He has untied his gown and stood in the middle of the one of the busiest halls in the hospital. He is going to catch a nurse. And he is going to go home.