I work private duty for a woman who is quadriplegic. I have lifted the dead weight of her, warm and alive though she is, twenty times a day for the last five years. As I squat and bend at the knee to reach under her armpits and lift her from wheelchair to shower chair she says, “I’m dying.
She says this at least once a shift and I believe her. She’s not prone to melodrama and working for her is a constant reminder that we are all dying. We’re the same age, pushing sixty. Right or wrong, I assume my own death is several decades away. The fact that she’s on the fast track to life’s last milestone becomes more obvious every time I work with her.
“Life is annoying, but dying really agitates me. Think I have a year?” she asks.
“Maybe,” I grunt, noncommittal, not because I have no idea how much time she has, which I don’t, but because I don’t want to get into it right now. I can lift her by myself because she is small and her braces aren’t heavy, but it’s not easy. She’s sloping sideways, strapped in the shower chair, precarious and wet. I can’t coordinate the shower hose, wash cloth, her slippery naked body, and make a stab at the date of her demise at the same time.
She has MS and the degenerative progress of the disease seems to be accelerating. Her goal is to live out the year so the State won’t take the house she’s signed over to her oldest son, Todd. To live out a year seems a reasonable goal that I have no idea if she’ll make. I have a goal of my own, which is to get her safely washed and dressed before talking about funeral arrangements which is where the “I’m dying,” comment usually leads.
During her bath, she asks, “Do me a favor?” She says it in a way that lets me know the favor is going to be above and beyond usual nursing duties.
I don’t respond. The bath isn’t going well. We’re having quite a time stabilizing her on her shower chair. Today, for the first time, she can’t let go of the washcloth I’ve wrapped her fist around. She hasn’t been good at grasping without assistance for a long time. Now the skill of letting go is fading.
“Let go,” she yells at her own hand. Who can deny her right to be furious? First her legs, then her torso, then her right hand. For a long time she called her left hand her faithful southpaw. But she’s losing fine motor control in that hand, too, and she’s taking this betrayal hard. She’s also spastic. Her muscles tense without her permission.
She’s angry now and the anger triggers her spasticity. Without warning her legs go rigid, lifting the front legs of the shower chair right off the floor, which causes her upper body to strain at the straps that stabilize her torso.
“Allow yourself to emote,” she screams. She’s been going to a support group. Support group hasn’t impressed her, except for the emoting part. “Emote,” she demands. I hadn’t realized she was giving me an order.
I’m a savvy nurse and don’t argue with a quadriplegic woman whose shower chair straps aren’t holding her torso in place. “This sucks,” I yell and grimace with effort as I try to keep her safely seated and bend her board- straight legs at the same time. I push the chair against the front of the tub and use her rigid right leg as a brace to keep her from slipping onto the floor and to keep my own back from snapping.
“Ingenious,” she says sarcastically. I know the subtleties of her facial expression and tone well enough to know she’s not complaining about my care. She’s complaining about the rotten deal she got slammed with by the gene pool, a virus, a vitamin D deficiency, or whatever we’re blaming MS on these days.
If it was me, I’d be ranting directly at God. She doesn’t rant at God. She rants at her husband on occasion. Rarely, she rants at me.
“Do me a favor?” she repeats pointedly.
“What favor?” I frown and study her face. “You’ve got that look that screams ‘proceed with caution.’”
She thinks this is funny and laughs, which makes her leg push harder against the tub. “Ouch,’ she says. I bounce my hand against the tendon under her right knee so I can bend the knee and release the pressure against her big toe. That right toe gives her a lot of trouble. “Cut the damn thing off,” she says.
“The toe or the leg?”
“No,” I say. “They’d take my license.”
“You can have my license.” She’s a nurse, too. She hasn’t worked as a nurse for years, but she keeps up her license. I think I would do the same in her position. It’s something to say, “I’m a nurse.” People think it says something particular about you, like maybe you weren’t always quadriplegic, for example.
“Was cutting off a limb the favor?” I ask.
“No,” she says.
I’m feeling reckless. “Okay, what’s the favor?” Her torso and arms have been toweled dry and her sweater went on without a hitch. She’s not yet in her wheelchair, still seated in the shower chair, but safely out of the tub.
“When you’re standing in line at the wake, tell anyone who says, ‘At least she’s not suffering anymore,’ to go fuck their self.”
The f word is not a word I’ve heard her use before. Except for the occasional use of the word dick to describe really inconsiderate people, she counts on me to do the heavy lifting when it comes to swearing, considers it part of my job. Says I’ve got more time to repent.
I squat to towel off her legs, taking a moment to consider. “I can do that.”
She smirks. “You’re going to stand in the receiving line at the wake then?”
She’s been trying to get me to say I’ll greet people at her wake. I think this task is more appropriate for her son and husband. “Go fuck yourself,” I say.
She makes a snorting noise. Her snorts are usually delicate and doe-like. This one is wild boar. Her leg slams against my belly.
“Hey.” The wind is knocked out of me. I slide to the floor in front of her.
“Oh, God. Are you alright?” Her voice is panicked.
I have a big butt and know how to fall on it without hurting myself. When she sees that I’m okay, she snorts again, more lady-like this time.
I sit on the wet floor with one of her rigid legs on each side of me. “I’m taking a break,” I say.
“Mind if I join you?” She laughs again, exhaling wit and bitterness and compassion into the moist air of the bathroom. Her legs release slowly. Her toes come to rest beside my hips. Her support group would approve of all this healing laughter. A few good snorts could help with her goal of living out the year. My goal of getting her dressed before dealing with of the topic of death and dying was never realistic anyway.