I met an old woman this week and I can't get her out of my head. Perhaps I just need to get her on paper (or electronic digital format, as the case may be.)
We were in the emergency room at Mercy Hospital for 4 or 5 hours that day. Connie was having some tests, presenting symptoms of a cranky gall bladder or something. Turned out to be damaged muscles and floating rib, painful but best case scenario with no surgical intervention required. This winter has been a lesson for us. Despite our active lifestyles, healthy living and regular exercise we don't bounce anymore. At our ages, when we overdo it, we pay for it. We break.
We watched the EMTs wheel her into the room across the hall and transfer her to the hospital bed . She was experiencing pain in her right hip and could not get comfortable. The nurses worked with her for awhile before leaving her alone. She struggled to find a comfortable spot and we could hear her cries and whimpers as she wormed herself onto her left side and into the crack between the mattress and the bedrail bars. For a while she was quiet.
"Cold... I'm so cold," she cried.
I looked up and down the hall for a nurse. Finding none, I began walking around the ward collecting blankets which I layered on her. She looked up at me and I could see the angry red welt on her forehead from pressing her face into the bars so I padded the bars with a towel.
"Is that better?" I asked. She couldn't hear me so I leaned closer to her and asked again. "Yes, it's better. But my hip..."
She had sparse white hair and no upper teeth. She was thin and afraid.
I stayed for awhile and listened to her talking to no one about her husband, long dead, about how much he loved her. I listened to her cry because she was not able to give him the children they both so wanted. She slipped in and out of reality. Perhaps the nurses had given her pain medication. Perhaps she was dancing with dementia.
I pushed the red call button and retreated back to Connie's room to wait for a nurse to come. No one came. I didn't get it. She began to cry again.
I remember so many, many occasions being with our mother in hospitals and nursing homes when mom would suddenly begin tending some random older person or child. She never turned away from human suffering or animals either, for that matter. She never explained or asked permission. She was our role model and I see her unspoken lessons reflected so often in my sisters as they tend to whoever lives down the street or crosses their path.
I walked into her room and leaned down to speak with her, perhaps take her mind off her pain.
"How old are you, darlin," I smiled.
She met my gaze and said, "I don't know... but I do know it's been 46 years since I've had sex."
I couldn't contain my laughter. "That's a long time, darlin," I grinned.
"It is a long time... and that's why I'm talking about it," she smiled a toothless grin.
"What is your name?" I asked.
"Marian ( or Miriam). I was born in 26. My eye doctor doesn't believe me."
"Well, you will be 90 next year. That's a long time, too." I said. I pulled up some pictures on my cell phone of our grandson and our dog Sam and showed them to her. She had trouble seeing them.
"I don't have children. I have no one," she whimpered.
I stroked her hair and smiled at her. "I'm so sorry for your pain, Mariam. I'm so sorry."
The look in her eyes from receiving a touch and human compassion froze me. I had seen that look in my dogs eyes earlier that week when we put him down. A softness, a resignation, mixed with fear and incredible love. We both cried.
I tried to pull her off the bars, but was unable, with my broken arm. She needed attention. I walked out of the ward into the main ER. There was trauma and drama everywhere. No wonder the nurses didn't respond. They were hanging bags of blood, attending to broken, suffering people. No one paid any attention to me. But Miriam had been patient for long enough. I raised my voice over the din.
"The woman in 17 is in distress!"
Three nurses turned and gazed at me. One of them headed down the corridor. Mission accomplished.
She returned with a big orderly and wrestled Miriam out of the crack and into the center of the bed. Perhaps they gave her more pain meds. After they left, I walked over and stroked her hair until she fell asleep. Connie was discharged shortly thereafter. Her attending nurse wept as she watched us across the hall. She told Connie "I wish we could take the time to tend to our patients like they deserve, but the job is so frantic sometimes. You have to grow a shell to the suffering or you couldn't do this work." God bless the medical professions.
Mom, you taught us well. Step up. Speak up. Do what you can do. We are all just trying to follow in your footsteps.
Growing old ain't for sissies. Sending light and love, Miriam. Can't get you out of my heart.