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The Carousel (Large Print)
Chapter One: Della
Estelle Gifford. There were no family or friends at her side,
only us employees. As many times as I have experienced such
lonely passings I still do not understand how, with so many
people on this planet, so many die alone.
MICHAEL KEDDINGTON'S JOURNAL
ARCADIA CARE FACILITY. OGDEN, UTAH.
There was a moon that night, a pale crescent that hung low above the canyon and shone weakly into the dying woman's window. Della's was not a spectacular death, if any death can be described as spectacular. She made several attempts to blow out a flameless birthday candle, then reclined in her bed, rubbed the translucent skin of her liver spot-flecked forehead, and mumbled something about Errol Flynn. Twenty minutes later she gasped twice, then died.
There was no family present at her passing, just the three of us, all paid to be there: Sharon Holt, Brent Griffin, and myself, sitting around her in that dimly lit fourteen-foot square. Sharon was the nurse on duty and I was glad for that. Sharon knew death — more so than any of us. In her twenty-year tenure as a hospice nurse Sharon had eased the passage of the dying hundreds of times, holding their hands and administering pain relief as they took their final breaths. Likely more times than she could remember, except I would wager that she could remember; could put a name to each resident, maybe even the time their vitals failed. She was as compassionate as an angel. "No one dies alone," she would say, and she saw to it that no one on her watch did unless a resident stole off in their sleep. I was grateful that she had been at Esther's side when she passed away.
Without word Sharon pressed her index finger over Della's wrist, then placed a stethoscope to her chest, straining to hear a heartbeat. Then she checked her watch and recorded the time. It was Brent who was the first to break the silence.
"She died on her birthday."
Brent's comment was meant as a joke. I shook my head. Sharon ignored him completely, something she did instinctively.
It was no great coincidence that Della died on her birthday, as every day was Della's birthday. As dementia had conquered her ninety-six-year-old mind, two things took root and refused to be extricated — the first was that every day she woke to her birthday. Della didn't actually remember the date of her birthday or even the current day — just that it was the day.
In truth, we didn't know what day Della's birthday was. A quick glance at her resident record would have enlightened us, but no one ever bothered to do it. Some delusions, even in the clear-minded, are best left unchallenged.
We had a candle, Della's candle, that we would put into her dessert each day at suppertime, be it yellow cake or a green square of gelatin. I once saw it stuck into a scoop of mashed potatoes. It didn't matter to Della.
Because of her oxygen tank, fire was not allowed near her, so one candle lasted indefinitely. The eternal flameless. Each evening one of us would take Della her meal with the candle affixed, delivered with a hasty verse of "Happy Birthday," and Della would beam and sometimes join in, her voice as inconstant as a cell phone in a mountain pass. Then she would smile and clap her hands together and say in a quavering voice, "Thank you for remembering."
"Thirty today, Della?"
At this she would bring her hand to her chest and laugh as hysterically as her frail frame allowed. When the last of her chuckles had subsided, we would ask, "Is Errol going to make it this year?" She would suddenly frown and say, "No, Errol is in Hollywood. He's making another picture-show, you know. He won't be coming today."
That was the other peculiar aspect of Della's dementia. She believed she and Errol Flynn had been married for thirty-something years. In all that time he never once made it to her birthday. Sometimes she'd cuss him out, but she'd as quickly forgive him, vocally reminding all present (even ifit was only herself) that it is a husband's role to provide and Errol was a fine provider and had many fans that proved a considerable distraction. "One must take the bad with the good," she would say.
A newly hired orderly (I don't remember her name; she didn't last long) once took it on herself to correct Della's delusion. She informed Della that Errol Flynn was not her husband and had been married to three women in all, fathering children with each of them. Also that he had died thirty years previous. At first Della would not hear the heresy, but after several weeks, the orderly apparently had some success in convincing her. Della became sullen and despondent. After a week of this I decided that I couldn't bear it any longer and went in and told her that she had been lied to by a jealous orderly who was angry because Errol refused to sign an autograph for her the last time he came by. I told her that Errol had called with his regrets for missing her birthday, but would be in town soon and wanted her to save him some cake if it wasn't too much trouble. She was happy again after that.
I was genuinely saddened at Della's passing. Sharon, as resident nurse, pronounced Della dead, then phoned the house physician and obtained a release for the body while Brent and I gave her a bed bath and changed her gown. About an hour later two men from the mortuary arrived. They carted her body off enclosed in a faux velvet bag on a gurney. We saw to it that such things were done as discreetly as possible. A death caused a curious reaction at the Arcadia, a peculiar combination of melancholy and envy. At times roommates of the departed became morose and refused to eat and we would have to put them on special watch.
I stripped the sheets from Della's bed. In the morning, housekeeping would sterilize the room in preparation for its next tenant. The Arcadia was only a thirty-bed facility and there was always someone waiting to get in.
It was nearly eleven o'clock and the home slept. The common-area lights were dimmed or turned off, and the hallways were lit by exit signs and staggered fluorescents.
Night is not especially kind to the elderly infirm. In the quiet darkness they would often wake disoriented or afraid. Some would shout out for someone to help them or call for a long-deceased spouse. Some would groan incessantly. Though I was used to it, I remember my first night shift. I thought the place sounded like a haunted house. It would scare children, I thought. Some adults too.
Most of the residents went to bed around seven-thirty, after dinner, though some of them did not wait to finish their meals before falling asleep. We would wheel them up from the dining room and lift them into their beds.
The most notable exception to the bedtime routine was Hazel. Hazel was as nocturnal as a possum. She had been a pharmacist for more than fifty years and was programmed for the graveyard shift. Dressed in overalls and white canvas sneakers, she would push her aluminum walker up and down the halls, inevitably settling at the nurses' station. She believed that she was more employee than resident and would refer to the other residents as "them crazy old farts" with deliberate self-distancing.
At least once a night she'd talk about her sons (They grew up mean. It was her own fault; she never disciplined them), ask to check on her money in the Arcadia's safe to be sure someone hadn't absconded with it — an event she fully expected — or ask for a case-by-case review of the residents' medicine charts. When we were not at the station she would sit near the counter where she would watch the call light board with the intensity of a Tijuana cabdriver eyeing a traffic light. The moment a light would blink she would start shouting, "Hey, isn't someone going to get that?! Don't neglect them. Do I have to do everything around here?"
Though Hazel was our most consistent night walker, she was not our only one. There was Eva. At least twice a week Eva would wake from a sound sleep and make for the exit, intent on walking home. Our explanation that New Jersey is an intolerably long walk from Utah could not dissuade her in the least. Though she moved slowly and rarely got past the nurses' station, one night she slipped off unnoticed. She was discovered by a motorist a block down the canyon in her nightgown. We installed an alarm on the stairwell door the next day.
Then there was "Buzzsaw Raymond." Raymond had sleep apnea which triggered the loudest snores I had ever heard. Snores that could wake even Brent. Raymond burned through roommates nearly as fast as we could move them in. It was a problem that vexed the Arcadia's greatest minds until one of the CNAs thought to move Howard in with Raymond and solved the problem. Howard was deaf.
My coworker, Brent Griffin, was another hallmark of the night shift. Hiring Brent ("the Griff," he called himself) was an act of desperation on the part of the Arcadia. Like most care facilities for the elderly, the Arcadia had a high rate of employee turnover. Brent had been hired on a month before my return, during a drought of applicants — a decision Helen, the Arcadia's director, questioned or rued each and every day of his employment. He had been assigned with Sharon and me to the second floor, and Helen still occasionally apologized to me for that. Brent was lazy, and though there were times all of us wanted to beat him, he was also amusing, which is worth something on a night shift.
Brent was a caricature of sorts, a man barely afloat in the murky waters of male self-doubt, forever bent on proving his manhood, usually with stereotypical manifestations of machismo. He had long sideburns and a scraggly bush of hair on his chin which he thought was cool. His weekly tales of female conquest, which he shared with any and all who would endure them — including the less coherent residents — were, when believable, more pathetic than inspiring. Sharon once called him "a man who had been pantsed one too many times in high school."
Ten minutes to eleven I found Brent in the break room. He was sprawled out on the couch, his eyes were closed, and one leg stuck straight out, propped up by the couch's arm. It hadn't been difficult guessing where to find him. Brent worked the usual night shift, from six to two, and despite his schedule, he never really cut back his daily activities, which we all paid for in the later hours of his shift.
I shook his foot. "Wake up, Brent."
One eyelid lifted above a grimace. "What?" he said groggily.
"I need you to finish the west wing."
"Huh?" He looked up at me. "I thought you were doing it."
"I'm off early tonight."
He groaned. "Is someone else coming in?"
"Not until midnight." Just like every night for the last two months, I thought.
He took an exaggerated breath then lifted himself to a sitting position. "Yeah, I'll do it." When he gained more consciousness he asked, "You workin' tomorrow?"
"No. I've got the day off. Faye leaves Saturday."
"I finally met her the other night. She was looking for you. Wish she was looking for me. Don't get mad or nothing, 'cause I didn't know she was yours, but I made a move on her. Laid down one of the Griff's sweetest lines."
I could only imagine it. The whole of Brent's five-foot-six, hundred-and-twenty-five-pound frame leaning against the front counter emphasizing each syllable of his come-on with a tilt of his head or raised eyebrow, "Hey, baby, ain't it a shame. All those curves and me with no brakes." It was probably all Faye could do to not burst out in laughter. Or beat him senseless. I grinned at the thought of it.
"...where's she off to?"
"Baltimore. She's studying medicine at Johns Hopkins."
Brent's mouth pursed. "Johns Hopkins. Man, I'm hanging out at the wrong bars. Those looks and a paycheck. How long will she be gone?"
"Four long years."
"Gotta be hating that, man. You guys like engaged?"
"No," I lied. "We're promised."
"Whoa. That's like four years of celibacy. Or sneaking around. Guys like us have our seeds to sow."
I cringed at being lumped into the same category as Brent.
"...'course that blade cuts both ways," he continued. "You can bet all those slicky-boy doctors are gonna be working her like a bad leg. You can't trust doctors. They're all just in it for the money and the chicks."
"I don't think Faye's in it for either."
"If that babe were mine she wouldn't be going nowhere."
"Probably why she isn't yours," I said.
He bobbed his head as he stood, though I doubt he knew what I meant. Brent was more stupid than malicious.
"Why ain't you with her tonight?"
"Her girlfriends are throwing her a party. Girls-only deal."
"Oh," he said, bending the word as if he knew something about such functions that I didn't.
I watched him saunter over to the coffee machine in slow motion and knew there would be residents neglected. "I'll finish the first half of the hall before I go," I said.
Brent took his coffee and sat back into the couch, his legs spread apart and his head back. "No problem, man."
Copyright © 2000 by Richard Paul Evans
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