After a grueling day of being yelled at by patients seeing gremlins and by nurses whose nerves were frayed by both patients and gremlins, it was peculiar to see a very old, frail, hunched over woman being brought in by the police. She looked like she might be about 120 years old, walked with a cane and had a minor hump in her back. Her dingy light blue robe trailed along the ground as her equally muted slippers scuffled along, and her grey hair was swept up in a chunky red hair band. But her smile lit up the room as she looked around at the barely controlled chaos of Behavioral Health Unit, Ward 1, Victor Valley Hospital’s crisis psychiatric ward.
“Good evening, officer. What brings you and this lovely lady in today?” I asked, as though it could be a perfectly good reason, like she was visiting a psychotic son.
“Mrs. Marsh, an eighty-six year old Caucasian female, decided that she wanted to kill her husband today, and he got scared enough to call us. So, we brought her in to keep them both safe. We’ve placed her on a 5150 hold, and now she’s all yours, little lady.” The rotund officer snapped his little notebook shut, smiled, patted Mrs. Marsh on the shoulder, and sauntered out the door, making me want to plant my own boot directly in his (too tightly encased) jiggling backside to help him out the heavy door. I knew that he had done it just because it was “easier” than sitting with them to figure out exactly what was going on. Imagine, putting this ancient specimen on a 5150 hold! That meant that she was “a danger to herself and others,” and might have to spend three days in this lockbox of loonies.
“Well, Mrs. Marsh, why don’t we get you checked in and as comfortable as
possible until the Doc can come see you, okay?”
“What is your name, dear? You know mine, but I don’t know yours. In my day,
that would have been considered rude.”
“My name? Oh, it’s Lisa, ma’am.” Most patients here didn’t even believe that I
was human, let alone ask me my name.
“Lisa? Why, isn’t that lovely. I like that, dear.”
She placed her hand on my arm and gave me the sweetest smile. Her skin was a bit like sandpaper that had been left in the rain and then allowed to dry in a barbeque, but somehow, it didn’t repel me as much as the touch of some of our other “guests” did.
“You look very imposing in that all black uniform, Lisa. Surely you aren’t a
“No, ma’am,” I said to her with a barely repressed sigh, “I’m one of two female security guards required here in the BHU. I’m just supposed to check you in, make sure you don’t have anything you could hurt yourself or anyone else with, take your shoe laces, which I see you don’t have on your slippers, and then get you comfy until one of the nurses or doctors can come talk to you.”
Do you know what Mrs. Marsh did then? She laughed like the place had erupted into a billion multi colored balloons, with the absolute delight of a child.
“How exciting this is! I’ve never been through something like this.” And with that she wobbled to her feet and said, “Well, let’s get started then. What would you like to do first?”
I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose. Normally, I would have to pat her down, looking for any random instrument of violence she might have on her, i.e. scissors, switchblade, lighter, handcuffs, crowbar, etc., take off her shoes, examine her cane, (again, to make sure there wasn’t a switchblade inside), take away her hair-band, and then bring the now fully degraded woman into the Unit. Most patients who came this way didn’t even know it was happening they were so far gone. But every once in a while we got one that was lucid enough to feel like a criminal as we checked them in for mental health issues, and this is often where the problems started.
I put my hand on Mrs. Marsh’s shoulder and said, “Well, ma’am, I’m afraid I have to take your hair-band away from you, because another patient may try to take it from you. And all I’m going to ask you is to keep a good hold of that cane, so that no one else can decide they need it more than you do. Sound good?” As if it sounded good.
She looked a bit startled for a moment, and then once again her face spread into a wide grin, showing old, yellow teeth under cracked, dry lips.
I unlocked the inner door to the Ward. Upon entering there was a cacophony of noise. Yelling, shouting, moaning, crying, hysterical laughter. One patient flew past us, his arms outstretched and yelling, “I’m on my way, Superman is coming, don’t worry!” Another rushed up to me and, pulling his hands away just before touching me, said, “Oh Lisa, I’m so glad you’re here. Please, please tell them to let me change rooms. There really are bacterial squids in my room. Please tell them!”
“Donnie, why don’t you go tell Nurse Susan that we have a new patient, so that she can come help me out. Then maybe I’ll talk to them about your room, okay?”
“Right-O, copper! Be right back!” Donnie rushed off, always glad to help.
“Right this way, Mrs. Marsh. If you’ll just come over to the check-in room, I can get you something to eat or drink, if you like.”
The check-in room was a brightly lit, bland little room the size of a large walk in closet. We had tried to have “happy thought” posters up, but various patients would invariably see shapes, pictures, or talking aliens in them and would freak out. So, no posters in BHU. Just pukey colored lime green walls, which could be hosed down in the event of some kind of fluid exchange, which happened about once a week.
Mrs. Marsh looked around in astonishment. But rather than seem upset or scared, she looked alternately bemused and delighted. We hobbled slowly into the check-in room, and she plopped gracelessly down into one of the plastic chairs.
“Can I get you anything, ma’am? Water, juice? Animal crackers?”
“No, dear, I’m fine, thank you. Now, I know why I’m here, but why are you here? I’m surprised to see a young woman like you working in a place like this.”
It would have been funny in any other place, sounding as it did like a pick-up line from a bar. But she seemed genuinely interested, so I gave her an honest answer, something I rarely did in this place.
“I’m a college student, ma’am. A friend of mine owns this security company, and she needed someone to work here. So,” I shrugged, “here I am.”
She looked at me for a long moment, a small smile on her chapped lips and then she said, “Well, I can see that although you may not be here for long, you probably make a real difference for the people in here.”
I gave her a wry smile, one I usually reserved for those in the Unit that had a sense of reality, and said, “Well, ma’am, a person always hopes to make a difference in life, right?”
At that moment, Susan, who happened to be my life partner and a brilliant BHU nurse, came in and stopped short upon seeing the elderly new arrival.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said, looking at me incredulously, and sounding just like every other jaded BHU nurse who assumed the patient was too far gone to understand her. “Alzheimer’s?”
“Certainly not, young lady,” replied Mrs. Marsh indignantly. “I tried to kill my husband.”
“Oh. I see. Well, then, lets get you all checked in, and then maybe officer Lisa here could take you to your room.”
I rolled my eyes at her. She knew how much I hated this job, and the term “officer” applied to me always made me cringe.
Mrs. Marsh looked up at me and winked, then held out her arm for the blood pressure cuff.
I heard a ruckus out in the main room, so I nodded at Susan and sprinted out into the rest of the Unit. I didn’t think that Mrs. Marsh posed any particular bodily threat to the nurse, other than perhaps her old person breath.
After dealing with two patients arguing over the superiority of aliens versus gremlins, (I told them both were awesome in their own way) I returned to Mrs. Marsh and found Susan wiping tears of laughter from her eyes.
“Room 2 is all we have open right now, Lisa. Would you mind taking Mrs. Marsh down there?”
I nodded, thinking that all I wanted at this moment was to go home. I was off in five minutes, and then I could go home, take a bath, and not worry about aliens, conspiracy theories, gremlins, squids, Superman or even sweet old ladies who tried to kill their husbands.
“Well, Mrs. Marsh, shall we? You didn’t have a bag when you came in, do you need a hospital gown to sleep in?”
Mrs. Marsh looked at me with a merry glint in her old grey eyes, and said, “Yes dear, thank you. And if you’ll just show me the way, I think I’d like to lay down now.”
“Right this way.” I held her arm so that if any of our more rowdy patients went zinging by looking for hidden microphones they wouldn’t knock her over.
I sat her on her bed in Room 2, a plain cot like thing without any springs or boards on it so that no one could take it apart and use it as a weapon, and she gave a small sigh of relief. I went and got her a gown and left her to her beauty rest.
On my way back to the nurses’ station to let them know I was leaving, my radio buzzed.
“Ward 1, on my way back. Why?”
“Chuck just called off for the night. Flu or something. You’re in for a double.”
“Negative. I need out of here. Find someone else.”
“Sorry, Lisa, there really isn’t anyone. I’ll ask the morning shift to come in early for you.”
“Great, thanks. How about asking them to come in eight hours early?”
“I’ll try for two. And I’ll have you come in two hours later tomorrow. Okay?”
“Guess it has to be, doesn’t it? Just make sure everyone knows just how nice I am, okay?”
“10-4. Have a good night.”
I sighed. Damn it! This meant I would likely work sixteen hours straight. I just wanted to soak in a hot bath, the kind that steams up the entire room, that’s almost too hot to stand and makes your skin glow pink. It was the only thing that made me feel like I could get this place off my skin.
I flopped down into the chair next to Susan’s in the nurses’ station. She looked up at me and said, “I’ll be ready to leave in about ten. I can’t wait to get out of here. I’m so glad I have the day off tomorrow. Why don’t you go check out now, and then we can leave the moment you’re ready?”
I stared back at my partner morosely. I couldn’t even get the words out of my mouth. This was the third time this month. Last time an out of control patient had kicked me in the head around two a.m., and when Sue had come in for her shift she had found me on a gurney with an ice pack on my head and a mild concussion.
“Not again, Leez. C’mon, this is becoming a joke. You can’t keep doing this to your body. Or me.”
“Do you think I want to stay here, Sue? I just want to relax in a fucking bath. And have a nice dinner with my partner. I don’t want to hang out here with people who can’t always tell if they have clothes on. But I can’t leave the Ward without anyone, either.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes, and then she gave a long, deep suffering sigh, as though she was the one being put out, and said, “Okay, I know. I just wish you would really consider quitting this damn place. I make enough to support us. And once you’re through school, you won’t have to do crappy jobs like this anymore. Sometimes I feel like you care more about this crazy place than you do about us.”
“We’ve already talked about this, Sue. I won’t have someone supporting me at twenty-two years old. That’s just wrong. And besides, I wouldn’t get to meet nice old ladies who try to kill their husbands.” I made an attempt at a joke, hoping it would stop the frustration between us.
“Do you know,” Susan said, filling out her final paperwork, “what she really did? Ask her tomorrow, it’ll sound better coming from her. I’m sure the Doc will cut her loose the moment he talks to her.” She took off her name badge so that she could feel like a “normal” hospital worker as she headed out to her car. “Now, my stubborn love, I’m going home. What time do you think you’ll be off?”
“I’ll probably still be here when you come in tomorrow. Will you bring me a bagel for breakfast?” I knew I was perilously close to whining, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for myself as my partner left to go snuggle up in a warm bed, away from Loonie Tunes Central, while I was left here to play go between because we had patients who were battling over whether Spiderman or Superman was the better superhero, and which one would be able to stop both global warming and the coup attempt on the president.
“Of course I will. With cream cheese, lightly toasted. I’ll even bring you a latte. I’m sure you’ll need it to make the drive home.”
“Thanks, babe.” I brushed her hand with mine, as we couldn’t show any other affection here, and she gave me that smile of hers that always melts my insides.
I unlocked and opened the door for her and watched her stroll down the long hallway, swinging her keys as she got to leave the funhouse behind.
I went back to the nurses’ station and flipped through the channels of the various security monitors posted around the place. Dinner had already been served, and the Unit was much quieter now. A few patients lounged in front of the old Black and White television set, which some of our youngest patients had heard of but never actually seen. I threw my feet up on the desk, opened a magazine, and decided to relax until I had to make my rounds in about an hour.
An hour or so later I was wandering through the now quiet Ward, listening to snores, squeaks and mumblings. Of any shift, night shift was often the best, because there was little to do and few patients awake and insisting they were related to Michael Jackson or Tina Turner. I glanced into rooms as I walked past, making sure no one was using bed sheets for anything other than sleeping.
I came to Room 2, and looking in I saw Mrs. Marsh sitting on the edge of the bed, staring out the double paned glass window the size of a shoebox.
“Hi,” I whispered to her. “Are you doing okay?”
She turned and looked at me over her shoulder, her slight hump obscuring her chin. “Yes, dear, I’m okay. Would it be possible to get something to eat and drink? I’m afraid I slept through dinner.”
“Sure, no problem. I’m afraid I can’t get you a full meal, but I can find you some crackers and fruit, I think.”
“That would be lovely. Would you help me out to the couch? I find I sleep better if I use my bed just for sleeping. No snacks, no television. Just sleep.”
I nodded and held out my arm for her. She was surprisingly strong and nearly pulled me down as she pulled herself up, using my arm for leverage. We slowly made our way out to the common room and I let her slip from my arm to the well worn couch. I brought her an apple, a banana, and some cheese and crackers, as well as a little carton of milk.
I perched on the arm of the sofa beside her and we sat in comfortable silence, my ears always tuned to any noise out of the ordinary, and Mrs. Marsh munching happily away on the soft banana.
“You know, I didn’t actually try to kill him,” she mumbled through her mushy banana mouth.
“I didn’t figure you did. But what did happen?”
“Well, you see, we’ve been married for sixty-two years. And for about sixty-one of them, I’ve been telling him to be quiet. He talks so loud! There’s nothing wrong with my hearing, I always tell him. Talk quieter! But he never listens to me, just keeps on talking so loud that it gives me an awful headache. I’ve had a headache for six decades. Well, I just couldn’t take it anymore. Sixty-two years, and I decided he would finally listen to me.”
Suddenly she was wiping her eyes, and I thought she was crying. But then I realized that she was laughing silently, so hard that her eyes were watering and her small, frail shoulders were shaking.
“So, I told him I was going to kill him. I yelled at him for probably the third or fourth time in sixty-two years. And I lifted my cane to hit him over the head with it. He just wouldn’t shut up!”
She had now dissolved into full laughter, and I couldn’t help but laugh along with her.
“Well, wouldn’t you know, the moment I tried to lift my cane, I went off balance and fell over. Just like that—right onto my rear end! Well, that old geezer, afraid I’d hurt myself, calls 911 and tells them I was trying to kill him and I fell over. So, they brought me here, I guess so that I wouldn’t try to hurt him again.” She shook her head and took a big bite of her apple, tears still slipping down her face. “It’s nice to have some peace and quiet, even for just a night.”
I raised an eyebrow, thinking that if this place was peace and quiet, I probably would have tried to kill the old man too.
But then she looked at me and said, quiet seriously, “But I love him, you know. Sixty-two years is probably, what, triple your lifetime, dear? We’ve made it through every obstacle, every depression, and always come through together. That’s what it’s about, right? Love. And, I must admit, I do miss him a bit. I can’t remember the last time I slept without him. My heart just doesn’t feel right.”
I put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “Well, I’m sure we’ll get you home to him tomorrow. But for tonight, why don’t you try and get some sleep?”
She winked at me and nodded, and I took her back to her room.
After doing my normal first shift rounds the next day, checking all the rooms and making sure that no one was in need of food, drinks, or restraints, I perched once again next to Mrs. Marsh, who had curled up on the couch. She looked almost childlike as she watched in wonder as various patients went by, flailing their arms, talking in “code,” or simply laughing manically. She smiled up at me and patted my knee.
“Hello, dear. How are you? Did you get any sleep?”
“Hello, ma’am. I got a bit, yes, thank you. How about you? Are you doing okay? I hear the doctor wants to keep you another day?”
“I suppose so. I spoke to my husband this morning, well, actually, we all spoke to my husband, since everyone here could hear him through the phone, he talks so loud. But anyway, yes, he’s going to try and come see me this afternoon. You know, dear, I do miss his voice. Not the volume of it, maybe, but his voice.”
“I can imagine.”
“We’ve always made one another the priority. Always.” She nodded her head abruptly for emphasis. “Ups and downs. Ins and outs. You just make it work, because that’s what love is.”
I smiled at her and thought back to my relationship with Sue.
We had been working together for about three months, with minor flirting over a patient whose head we were shaving due to a lice infestation. I was holding her legs down while Sue used the clippers on the patient’s head, since this one had already kicked another nurse in the stomach while trying to get away. I thought Susan had the sweetest, gentlest smile I had ever seen, and she later told me that she loved the way my eyes crinkled up when I smiled. We’d been together now for nearly three years, and I still thought she had the best smile in the world.
I started at the sounds of shouting and focused on the room in front of me. Two patients were playing tug of war with a banana, one alternately trying to use it as a microphone and a weapon, while the other just seemed to want to eat it. I sighed and glanced down at Mrs. Marsh, who had her head cocked to the side and a wide grin on her face as she watched the fracas.
“Excuse me, ma’am. If you need anything today, just yell for me, like everyone else does.”
But with new patients coming in and getting used to the sights, sounds and smells of the Ward, I didn’t get a chance to speak to Mrs. Marsh for the rest of my shift. I assumed that she was okay.
When I came in for my shift the next day, I was told that Mrs. Marsh had been transferred overnight to the ICU, in a different part of the hospital. When breakfast had come and gone and Mrs. Marsh had not shown up, the BHU nurse went to check on her. The tiny old woman was lying on her back, mouth open, wheezing, and she didn’t respond when the nurse tried to wake her.
I did my rounds quickly, checking on the patients who had enough energy to get them through this lifetime and the next, if not the sanity, and then let my security partner know I was going to ICU to ask about Mrs. Marsh. Although he looked at me questioningly, he just nodded and returned to his “Maxim Magazine for Men”.
On entering the ICU, I saw a slight, grizzled man sitting with his head propped on his fists in the waiting area. Since he was the only one there, I assumed it was the famous Mr. Marsh. I went to him and laid a hand on his arm, startling him out of his reverie. “Mr. Marsh?” He nodded. “My name is Lisa. I was here when your wife was brought into the Ward a few nights ago.”
He looked at me as though trying to put a puzzle together, and then he said, in a voice that came incongruously booming out of his hunched body, “Ah, yes. You’re the one that sat and talked to my wife yesterday. She told me when she came to for a little while last night that a young woman named Lisa had been kind to her. Thank you, dear. So few are kind to old people these days.”
Not knowing what else to say, I offered him something to drink, but he just shook his head and slid further down into the cold plastic chair.
“It could have been our last nights together, and I get her sent away. When you’re our age…If it was the last night of our lives together, I just won’t forgive myself. Will she forgive me, do you think? I called 911 because I thought she had hurt herself when she fell, not because I actually thought she’d hurt me. I didn’t mean for them to bring her here.” Although his voiced cracked, I was certain that everyone in the ICU as well as in the rest of the waiting room could hear his distress.
Mr. Marsh looked up at me with watery grey eyes, pleading for words of comfort, pleading for me to tell him that she was fine, that this hadn’t changed anything, hadn’t made her love him less, that she wouldn’t leave him this way. I sat down next to him and folded my hands in my lap.
“She told me last night how much she loves you, and that it’s been a great sixty-two years. I don’t know if you could get much more forgiveness than that, sir.”
He stared at me a moment, and then nodded. “It has been a great sixty-two years. I still want more. Without her, well, I think, maybe…Well, she’s what makes me, me.”
I lay in the bath that night, finally, and thought about life. I thought about the Marshes and their time together. I thought about age, dying, living, and loving. I thought about watching Mr. Marsh sit down next to his wife’s hospital bed, place his hand over hers, and silently start crying. When I left, she had not regained consciousness.
When Susan came home, she popped into the bathroom and gave me a kiss. I decided that no matter how many years we had together, they would be better spent, for both of us, if we tried to be happy. I held her soft hand with my bubble bath covered one, and told her that I was quitting my job so that I could get done with school. She smiled, gave me a peck on the head, and went to make dinner. I slipped deeper into the bathtub and closed my eyes, glad to have met Mrs. Marsh.