It is six a.m. and I have just found a dead body.
I have just arrived for my shift and I am going through the process of room checks, door-to-door like a bible salesman, popping my head into each to make sure all is well. One of the last doors, I go inside, knowing the woman there is likely to be awake - she is permanently bed-bound and watches her television all day, typically tuned to TLC or HGTV, watching a show about addictions or house-flipping, or possibly a crime procedural.
We often have the same exchange in the mornings:
"Good morning!" I say, too chipper. She turns her head the inch or so that paralysis allows her. To her left, there are pictures of baby animals - puppies and goats and elephants, the species doesn't matter, as long as they are small, she will stare lovingly at the images. On her calendar, she enjoyed the image of a kitten so thoroughly that it remained August in her room for months.
"Where have you been?" she asks, mock-grouchy, and I step into her field of vision.
"Bad." she says, and furrows her heavy eyebrows.
"You know it." I say, and point towards her feet, "Want me to jump on your bed?"
She gives this question almost zero consideration.
"Go for it."
I perch myself on the very edge of her bed, my feet against the ground, and bounce just enough to shift the entire frame, causing her to wiggle slightly on the spot, an instant of vibrating motion that always makes her begrudgingly smile.
"You nut." she says.
She is in her seventies and has essentially adopted every person who has come into her life, raising her own children, her sister's children, her children's friends, her grandchildren. She often took in stray animals and raised them as well and when she was hospitalized for many, many months, she referred to a number of the nurses there as her children too. After a time, she was moved to long-term care and was devastated to be away from the people she had come to know, but as always, she had adapted, come to know the people in her new location, and decided they were also her children.
In spite of her profoundly deteriorated physical condition - one that requires a number of machines to keep her life comfortable and a constant rotation of intravenous medications - she is mentally sharp. Save for the occasional moments of confusion, she engages in deep conversation and it often scathingly witty. She dislikes when I am gone for any length of time, as she has become accustomed to my presence.
"I'm back on Wednesday." I say to her, once.
"Wednesday." she repeats, I nod.
"That's two days from now."
"Two days." she says. I move to leave, "Wait." she says, and I wait. Sometimes it takes a while for her to formulate her response, she gets stuck like a record under its needle, her mind skipping until she gets back to the place she was in, "Do me a favour."
"Okay." I say.
"Take my hand out from under the sheets."
I do. Only one of them functions, so I know which one she means - the thumb and forefinger still move, though the arm they are attached to does not, it is permanently stiff.
"Okay." she says, "Now take my hand."
"Yes." I say, holding her arm up slightly.
"And slap yourself with it." she says, in the most serious voice she can muster.
We stare at each other. We break into smiles at the same time and then laugh so hard we cry.
It is six a.m. and I have just found a dead body. A week prior, while in her room, she gives me a puzzled look.
"What's wrong?" I ask.
"I need to go." she says.
"Home." she says.
"You live here." I say.
"I need to get to the car." she says, and my stomach drops. Transit.
I am standing in her room, it is six a.m., and she has left us. She is still there, in bed, but she is not there anymore. My too-chipper good morning
peters off halfway through and I am left standing still and quiet in the dark room. The trash can is full of crumpled tissues, there are empty pizza boxes, a dozen paper coffee cups, a few extra pillows on the chairs, the signs of a family that has been there all night.
I step out into the hallway and a tired night shift nurse that I have never met regards me the way one might regard a decorative plant - her gaze has mostly skipped past me and deemed me irrelevant.
"When did she go?" I ask.
I point towards the room.
"When did she go?" I repeat, and she sighs.
"I don't know. I don't remember. I have too much to do right now."
This happens sometimes. There are so many staff members, so many shifts, so many rotations that things get lost in the fray, and then one day you step into the room of a person you have known for five years only to find they are gone, and no one said a thing. No one knew to say something. I breathe down something hot in my chest that I recognize later as anger. I manage a wan smile.
"Bad night?" I ask, and the nurse's thin shoulders fold down and inwards like she is trying to make herself small enough to fit between the tiles, and she nods tiredly. This job is draining, there are bags under her eyes, her scrubs are rumpled. I begin to head back to the meeting room, and she speaks up behind me.
"By the way, you're short-staffed today."
I drop my head for a moment. I continue down the hall. A patient, still in her floral night gown, shuffles up to me and looks up imploringly, gesturing widely like she is in a stage show, and she speaks Hungarian, begins to cry. I take her hand mid-gesture and we go into the meeting room together, she sits with all the nurses at the table as we have our morning meeting. At the end, I say:
"She passed away last night."
Looks of devastation flit across every face. Collectively, everyone rises and they go to her room. They say goodbye. One of them, who has done the job almost thirty years, begins to cry.
The day moves on. A co-worker gets a phone call that her partner has been hospitalized, she goes home. Another is struck down by a stomach virus and is sent home. We are at half the staff we need and desperately trying to keep up, but we hit our stride as we always do, and by eleven, we have managed all of our work - somehow, we have managed.
It was a co-worker's birthday the previous day. I have brought in a cake for her. Students are with us and we all surprise her and sing happy birthday and a patient is in the room with us when it happens, thinking it is her birthday and smiling broadly. I portion out the cake and the funeral home has finally arrived. A student asks to 'see it happen'. I inhale. I exhale. This is a good learning experience.
We watch her go, taken away on a velvet-lined stretcher.
Her family arrives after, separately, one-by-one. Her neice is first, a stocky woman who was always by her aunt's side, she wears sunglasses inside and smells distinctly of coffee that day, and she grabs me and pulls me close:
"You were her favourite." she says.
"She was my favourite." I reply, "We aren't even supposed to have those."
Her son comes later. He is six-foot-two, a man with a white goatee and a shaved head, perpetually wearing cargo shorts and flip flops, regardless of how cold the weather becomes. Wordlessly, he goes down the hall. After a while, I follow and find him sitting in the empty room, his head in his hands. I stand beside him, my hip beside his shoulder, I place my hand on his back. Suddenly he is grabbing me around the waist, his face is buried into my ribcage, and he is wailing like a child, the dam broken, his enormous hands clutching my scrub top.
"Thank you." he says, "Sorry."
He repeats this several times, again and again, until he regains his composure. When he pulls away, there is a wet imprint of his face on my side and he is embarrassed.
"I'm sorry for having a breakdown." he says.
"If there's ever a time to have a breakdown, it's when you lose your mother." I reply.
At the end of the shift, the students are sitting at the meeting table, closing their day. Soon they will be doing the job I am doing. They all look up at me, with my scrubs wet on one side, with my rumpled pants and my tired face, like the nurse at six a.m.
"The cake was really good." one says.