Friday, November 21, 2008


The room smells of roses, disinfectant and urine. It was obviously used as a study prior to its current incarnation as a sick room, a room in which to die and bring a life to a gentle denouement.

The wooden shelves that cover two complete walls are filled with books of poetry, fiction, history, art, architecture, and a few select biographies. The windows, covered with crystal-clear plastic to keep out the bitter Nova Scotian winds, look out onto a dry plain of snow, bare trees and lonely winter grass.

A woodstove in the corner burns with seasoned oak, birch and cherry harvested several years ago in the forest over the distant hill, trees that the dying man himself selected, felled, transported, split and stacked with the willing help of family, neighbors and friends.

His desk, a large roll-top affair adorned with one of those green-shaded lamps one might see in a New England antique shop, stands closed, quiet, and unproductive. Once the center of furious activity----writing, bill-paying, calculating and contemplation, it is now a relic of a life that has reached its pinnacle and is inexorably sliding towards death.

Where once the file cabinets and large bureau were covered with the detritus of an active intellectual and physical life, most every surface is now adorned with bottles of saline, syringes, clean towels, liquid soap, hand sanitizer, catheter supplies, morphine.

Laying beneath a set of blue flannel sheets and a thick comforter gifted to him last Christmas by his daughter-in-law, he listens for sounds of life downstairs. This second floor is unbearably quiet, and he tires of the tip-toeing and whispering that seem to be de rigeur as the family comes to grip with the inevitability of his demise. He had asked them to stop being so careful, to fill the house with sounds of life and laughter, but a funereal pall has fallen over the house, and he has succumbed to his family’s overarching discomfiture with this wholly natural process. He yearns for his grandchildren to come back for another visit, assuring him with noise and the confirmation that life will certainly go on without him.

Too tired to talk or write, he simply lays in his bed, allowing the home health aides to turn him every few hours to prevent bed sores. His eyes ache when the lights are too bright, but he feels unnervingly lonely in the dark. When his wife lights candles each evening at dusk, the room fills with a comforting glow that lulls him to sleep, and the CD player soothingly spins Satie, Chopin, and Debussy.

Despite occasional nausea, he waits for the smells of soup and coffee and baking bread from the large kitchen on the first floor. These smells, although sometimes irritating, simultaneously fill him with a sweetly sad longing for a life on the wane. No longer eating and taking only minute sips of water or ginger ale, food is now like a dream, a fading memory awoken by the wafting odors that curl around the staircase like smoke, snake through the hallway, and send finger-like tendrils to caress him in his narcotic reverie.

He feels his breath slowing, knowing full well that the hours are coming to a close, that the proverbial clock has run its course. He would like to hold on for the weekend, for family members to return, but he feels himself fading, the physiological blinds being drawn against his will. His thoughts are more frequently jumbled, and the line between waking and sleeping becomes increasingly blurred. Voices move across his consciousness, memories fade in and out, and he can no longer necessarily maintain awareness of whether his grandmother sitting quietly in the corner of the room knitting an afghan is any less real than the nurse taking his blood pressure.

Yes, the weekend would be a good time to go, with family around and the grandchildren playing at the foot of the bed. But he feels the cords releasing, the tension lessening, and the willingness to leave growing by the hour. Is it now? Is this the moment? Or how about now?

He feels himself carried into a nebulous moment of forgetfulness and calm violet light. The windows are illuminated, and the bed seems to be adrift in a field of snow.

(c) 2009 NurseKeith

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Six Word Story #4

My mind---undisciplined animal, running amok.


There is a myth that Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write the best story he could write using only six words. His response to the challenge: "For sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Belgian Swimming Pool

The vast room
resembles an American prison:
like “The Shawshank Redemption” (with water).
Three stories of small changing rooms
wrapping around three sides of the cavernous space.
Even my Dutch friend recognizes the architectural design
so often seen in movies-----
a strange association.

An American abroad,
I swim in my lane
only to realize that anyone can enter
and swim along with me;
We Americans don’t like to share---
We like to “own” our lane in the pool—if only for thirty minutes,
just as we own everything else that we touch
(or at least think we do).

I acquiesce to the cultural norm---
socialist swimming at the heart
of Europe’s geopolitical capital.

Meanwhile, rambunctious children carelessly
enter my lane.
I graze or bump into their gangly arms and legs
as I crawl (Australian-style),
half-blind behind foggy goggles
towards the shallow end
where I turn, and
continue my communal recreation.

A swimming pool
complete with a café (of course)
wood-paneling, beer, and marble-topped bar and tables---
comfortable, civilized, and thoughtful.

I could be converted---
I could give up my oh-so-American coveting
of this and of that;
“My lane” would become “our lane”
and we would revel
in the pleasures (and occasional discomfiture)
of expatriation.

(c) 2008 NurseKeith

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Of Death and Shoes

His shoes line the floor of the closet, never having moved since the day when he took his last breath in the rented hospital bed that was set up in the study on the second floor.

In a small wooden box in the back corner of the closet, various tins of shoe polish sit in a jumble, together with several brushes, cloths, and other classically masculine tools of footwear ablution. And even though the word ablution generally refers to the ceremonial washing of one’s body---or parts thereof---it can also be inferred to represent the act of cleaning sacred containers, and for his fastidious and proud self, the thoughtful care of shoes was indeed a sacred act.

Those shoes, so illustrative of his lifelong desire for both order and elegant conveyance, are a manifestation of how he approached the physical world and the objects that he esteemed. Like everything else in his life, these utilitarian vessels were well cared for, clean, and thoughtfully placed in an order which must have made perfect sense to the author of their arrangement.

There are the dress shoes, brown and black, so common to older gentlemen of his generation. There is one pair of white patent leather loafers that one might see on a septuagenarian Floridian on the way to the country club for a game of bridge. Further back towards the wall, one will also find leather Totes, those relatively inexpensive faux leather boots lined with artificial black fur that can be easily slipped on during winter nights when there is wet snow on the ground and a trash can to be rolled to the curb after nightfall.

Even though he would rarely wear them in public, several pairs of sneakers also live among their footwear brethren. Grass-stained and obviously used for household chores, these two pairs of tennis shoes still convey a sense of his neatness, his clinging to order, and his utter sense of propriety in that they were never worn beyond the confines of the house or yard, except of course for a few rushed trips to Home Depot or the local hardware store on a Saturday afternoon.

Last but not least, his beloved slippers sit on the right side of the closet in a most convenient place for easy access and use. Embossed with the image of his feet—like his own personal Shroud of Turin---these two pairs of footwear speak of cozy winter afternoons in front of the TV, hot chocolate in hand, his beloved wife at his side. The newer pair, less worn yet obviously loved and cared for, were the last things he wore on his gouty feet. Three days before his death, he made his final trip to the bathroom wearing this particular pair, assisted by the home health aide sent by the hospice agency providing his end-of-life care.

These brown slippers, purchased at JC Penney’s just two months prior to his diagnosis, were so warm and comfortable, and it brought tears to his eyes as he shuffled to the bathroom, realizing that he would most likely never wear them again. In fact, it was clear to him on that day as he was painfully but gently guided to the toilet, that he would return to that cursed hospital bed and assuredly never leave it.

Bedbound and wasting, eschewing all solid foods and taking only sips of water or ginger ale, the simple comforts of slippers, scarves, gloves and cozy jackets were like wispy details of a once active life now inexorably slipping through his weakening fingers.

(c) 2008 NurseKeith

Friday, November 7, 2008

If I Could Tell the Story

If I could tell the story, I would say goodbye. If I was able to relive those moments, I would return to that white clapboard house with the green shingles, door with peeling white paint, and lonely, swinging gate. I would enter as if I belonged, and I would say goodbye.

Yes, I would enter through that white door, listening for the familiar sound of the creaking hinges that seemed always to speak regretfully of neglect and squandered opportunity. I would proceed down that dark hallway, hands guiding me in the dim light, oak floorboards creaking beneath my feet.

Entering her room, I would tiptoe towards her bed, listening for the telltale sound of her soft, even breathing. Quietly sliding one of her straight-backed and ubiquitously uncomfortable chairs to the side of the bed, I would reach across, place my hand over hers, and watch silently as her abdomen rose and fell with the tide of her breath. I would make note of her long fingers, delicate hands, and fluttering eyelids, and I would see her jugular vein pulsing in her neck like a living metronome.

Then the clock on the wall would strike the hour as it has for decades. Her eyes would open slowly, adjusting to the late afternoon light. We would regard one another with compassion and grace, and all would again be well.

(c) 2008 NurseKeith

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Six Word Story #3

I couldn't meditate. Made some coffee.


There is a myth that Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write the best story he could write using only six words. His response to the challenge: "For sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn."

Saturday, November 1, 2008

At The Door

“What did you expect, showing up here unannounced like this?” She holds the screen door open just enough to allow me to smell the wet odors of corned beef and cabbage wafting towards me from deep inside the dark house behind her.

“Well, I was just hoping-----” I begin, but am immediately cut off before finishing my lame attempt at an explanation.

“Hoping what?” She grimaces, rolls her eyes, and gazes somewhere above my head, only occasionally meeting my gaze.

A dog barks in the yard next door and I think I hear a baby crying.

“He doesn’t want to see you. Never will.” She begins to close the screen door, but I grab it with my hand and prevent her from doing so.

“Has he really said that?” I ask. “Does he really not want to see me? Or is he just afraid that I’ll judge him and lecture him about how wrong it was that he did what he did?” I immediately worry that it seems like I mistrust her. And I guess I do.

She looks at me sternly. “He worries about what everyone thinks, and he can’t bear to face anyone. He’s always in that room of his, and getting him to even eat once a day isn’t easy.” Her eyes begin to well with tears and she relaxes her grip on the door, opening it slightly as she leans against it for support.

“Well, if he doesn’t want to see me, I understand.” I look her squarely in the eye. “Will you please tell him that I don’t judge him, that I’m not mad, and I just want to offer my support? He doesn’t even have to call me.”

“Look, honey. You’re a nice girl, and I know he likes you and that you’re his friend. And it’s nice of you to come all this way. He just isn’t ready for visitors.” Her eyes are dry now, but softer and kinder, like she has finally let her guard down.

“I don’t care about the distance. It's a really nice day, and I stopped at the flea market and bought a few things.” I point to a shopping bag on the ground next to my feet.

“This is a care package for him. I’d really appreciate it if you’d give it to him. There’s some really delicious cranberry-walnut bread and strawberry jam that I bought at the market. I know he likes that kind of thing with his tea.” I bend down and hand the bag to her. She opens the screen door wider and accepts the white bag, looping three fingers through the rope handles.

“I’m sorry I was so stern with you when you first knocked on the door, honey. It’s been a very difficult week for us all, and his father and I are about at our wits’ end.” She puts the bag down inside the door and steps out onto the front steps and stands next to me, her hands on the black iron railing. She lets the screen door close behind her. She smells like a combination of furniture polish and cabbage.

“So many people say the stupidest things, and I can’t even face our church community. Suicide isn’t looked on very favorably by the church, you know, and having all those people stare at me like I’m the most pitiable mother in the world is more than I can take.” Her face flushes with anger now. “It’s pathetic.”

“Well, I know how much he loves you and your husband,” I respond, and touch her arm with my fingers. “He always speaks so highly of you, especially in the last few years. “He would always tell me how he couldn’t let a Saturday go by without calling you, even when he was in Seattle.”

“I know. He’s a good boy. Always was. But what do I do with him now?” She crosses her arms and sighs. She blinks away a few tears.

“Just love him. Be patient. Be gentle. Give him time.”

We watch a small girl, perhaps eight years old, struggling to walk what looks like a six-month-old Lab down the street. The dog is intent and the girl trails along behind, the leash taut with the dog’s strength and fervor for life. The girl looks up at us, smiles and then tries to wave, but the dog jerks her along and she flails like a marionette. We both laugh.

“Well, dear, why don’t you come in for some tea, and maybe he’ll hear your voice and come down to see you. It’s not a crime that you came to see him, and maybe a familiar face will do him so good. He’s so far from his friends and the city, and he wouldn’t dream of calling any of his old high school friends right now.”

“I’d like that very much. As long as I’m not imposing.”

“Not at all. If you like corned beef and cabbage, we’ll feed you before your start your long drive back. My husband will be home soon.”

“Thanks. That’s not really necessary, but I won't say no. I love corned beef.”

We enter the house and walk down the hall towards the kitchen. As I cast a glance up the stairs, he is standing there at the top, smiling from ear to ear.

(c) 2008 NurseKeith

The Stew

The stew boils on the stove, the aroma of onion, garlic and a hint of cumin wafting through the house. The dog, sleeping under the table, twitches in the sleep-drenched excitement of the chase.

Outside, birds call and make their way through the trees, oblivious to the very human occupations of cooking and setting the table, perhaps slightly disturbed by the clattering of plates and silverware below.

In another pot next to the stew, rice slowly simmers, its dry graininess slowly absorbing the heated water, expanding to the plump texture so familiar the world over.

Perhaps at this moment, in pots throughout the world, fragrant stews and pots of rice simmer in preparation for the nourishment of their human authors and their families. Perhaps under other tables, other dogs chase rabbits through dreamscapes of lush foliage and soft grass.

Stew speaks of comfort.

(c) 2008 NurseKeith