I tried to ignore the demanding voice as its echo chased me down the hallway, the reflected sound bearing an uncanny likeness to the wail of police sirens as it bounced against the walls.
I turned, seeing that the only person in the hallway was “Myrtle”, a long time resident of the geriatric ward in the hospital in which I was working. She was a slender woman in her later years, now bound to a wheelchair. Time had taken its toll on her ability to walk with ease. She had deep green eyes, almost the color of jade, and short gray hair that I liked to imagine was once caramel brown and flowing.
She had one hand on the door frame, the skin covering it, almost transparent, an intricate pattern of blue veins underneath weaving around and through each other, until they disappeared, finding refuge in the less opaque tissue of her arm. She wore a sky blue sweater over a white blouse, and navy blue slacks, her legs crossed daintily at the ankles. I also liked to imagine her smile, as I had never seen it before. She spent the majority of her time complaining about one thing or another, and had, I was convinced, forgotten how to smile.
I stood there for a few moments, praying wholeheartedly to a deity I wasn’t even sure I believed in, she was talking to an imaginary friend or another nurse and not to me. Myrtle was well known by the others to be outspoken and rude, and I, being only a student, had never encountered her thus far. After confirming that I, in fact, was the only one around besides Myrtle, I pointed to myself, and mouthed one word that she appeared to understand.
“Yes you,” She answered, laying on the sarcasm as if it was peanut butter, and I, a
“Can I get something for you, Myrtle?” I asked softly.
“No you can’t get something for me.” She snarled.
“Then what can I do for you?”
“You can help me into bed. IF you think you can manage it.”
I grabbed the handles of her wheelchair, the metal cold against my palms as it rolled easily into the small room. Myrtle’s roommate, Vicki, was sleeping in a blue chair on the other side, snoring softly, a line of drool drizzling down her chin, falling on her white sweater and soaking in quickly, like raindrops in the snow. As I locked the wheels on the chair, I took a deep breath, the smell of stale urine burning my nostrils as I inhaled.
“Alright, Myrtle, are you ready?” I questioned cautiously.
“As ready as I’m ever going to be. Will you raise the bed up?” She growled.
I walked to the foot of the bed, fishing around near the floor for the remote. I lifted up the rough, blue, hospital issue blanket, looking around hopelessly for the buttons. After a few minutes of watching me look for something I obviously wasn’t going to find, she sighed impatiently and I stood up. Myrtle stared at me in awe, an awkward silence swirling around us like a dust storm in the desert. Finally, she spoke up.
“Are you stupid?” She demanded, a serious expression painted all over her face.
“Well…” I began, but was cut off when she spoke again.
“Don’t they teach you ANYTHING at that school?” she fumed.
“Well, these are…” I protested, but to no avail.
“They should pay me to tell you where the remote is. Obviously those teachers aren’t doing their job.”
“It’s up there, at the head of the bed. And the arrow that points up is the one you need to push.”
You listen here you old bag, I’m doing my best and you’re damn lucky I don’t push the up arrow until you’re bed becomes part of the ceiling.
Without saying a word, I raised the bed, and pulled back the covers, turning back to her a few moments later. As I helped her into bed, the only sound in the room was Vicki’s gurgling snore. Pulling up her blankets, I promised to wake her for dinner as I turned off the lights and walked back to the nurses’ station, dread stealing my mind, twisting my stomach into tight knots as I thought about getting Myrtle up for dinner. Sitting down at the nurses’ station, I picked up a pencil and twirled it between my thumb and index finger, wandering off in a forest of my own thoughts.
The sound of a familiar voiced sucked me out of my thought vortex and back to reality, back to the nurses’ station and the smell of urine that hung heavy in the stale, hospital air. The nurse that was supervising me pointed down the long hallway to a lit call light over a room toward the end, room 132, Myrtle’s room. After giving a nod of acknowledgement, I stood and made my way to the down the hall, knocking softly on the door when I got there.
“Myrtle?” I whispered, still lost somewhere between nervous and mortified.
“Come in,” came a familiar voice, the odd echo, making me feel as if I was standing at the mouth of a cave.
I went into the room quietly, peering around the corner, only to find Myrtle perched on the side of the bed, waiting impatiently for assistance. I got her back into her chair and made the bed without saying anything to her, the silence filling the room saying more than either of us had said to each other all day. I handed her the glasses I had put on her nightstand, and took a red, fine toothed comb from a top drawer.
“Do you want me to comb your hair, Myrtle?” I inquired, palming the comb in my right hand. She nodded, saying nothing, a smile creeping its way across her face as I ran the comb through her coarse, gray hair. After I had styled Myrtle’s hair to her liking, I turned her around so she could look in the mirror. I saw myself in her then, as her reflection stared back at us both, her cloudy, green eyes warning me of everything I could become, and her smile, playing devil’s advocate to it all, reminded me of something I had read in a book once. Music from another room drifted through the wall and drowned out the thickening silence. The lyrics floated through my mind slowly, as I imagined myself in sixty years, someone standing behind me as I look in the mirror, smiling, my toothless grin generating a chuckle because someone took a chance, and found the good in me.
“Are you going to let me eat or what?” Myrtle’s voice jerked me from my moment of introspection.
I shook my head and chuckled, the lopsided grin plastered on her face, worth all the insults I had endured that day. As I pushed her down the corridor, something I had learned in grade school interrupted my thoughts: “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and strong, because someday in life, you will have been all of these.”
Life is a masquerade; we cross paths with many people, some we befriend, some we only tolerate, but still we must remember that for one person, there may be many masks.