I’ve always enjoyed emotional confrontations in movies – Celie’s “The jail you planned for me is the one you’re gonna rot in!” avowal in The Color Purple, or Aurora’s “Give my daughter the shot!” moment in Terms of Endearment. These are the kind of cathartic, high drama scenes that are not only fun to watch, they’re fun to act out in your living room.
Late at night when you’re kinda drunk.
Scenes like this are considerably less fun, however, when you have to act them out in front of others.
In the middle of the day.
My mother has been sick for the past couple of months. Never one to do anything halfway (this is, after all, a woman who routinely ironed bedspreads and window treatments in the middle of the night), she compounded heart failure with a blood infection and pneumonia, turning what should have been a weeklong stay in the hospital into a triumphant, extended run in ICU, held over by popular demand.
The first time I saw her lying there in the hospital bed, so tiny and helpless, I wanted to cry (and not in some attractive, music-swelling, movie kind of way – more of the fetal position, sniveling in the corner variety). But I quickly realized that, as their only son, I needed to pull it together and be the strong one in this situation.
So I set to work trying to figure out how I could make the situation better. I sussed out who the good nurses were. I brought in lunch for my Dad, who was spending 14 hours a day there. I sent a maid to clean their house.
But nothing seemed like an important enough gesture for the woman who – although a little (or maybe a lot) crazy around the edges – had been my most ardent supporter my whole life.
Until the lunchtime incident.
At this point in her recovery, my mother’s daily “outing” consisted of being lifted from the bed into the easy chair next to the bed – a journey of some 36 inches, and one that required two nurses and a lot of praying. Because of the many tubes inserted into her, one of which was a morphine pump, Mother was not only extraordinarily weak but extraordinarily high. So standing up on her own was not even remotely an option, and the burden of her safety fell to the nurses.
Now, I have enormous respect for health care workers. Many of them are absolute angels of mercy, compassionate people with the patience of a hooker working a funeral home. (That’s supposed to be a compliment but I don’t know how to fix it.) And there were two in particular that I worshipped. Watching them was like watching Jesus. (Well, if Jesus wore a kitten blouse and made seriously crappy money for holding people’s lives in their hands.)
Both were, however, at lunch when Mother, exhausted from just sitting up and supremely stoned, decided she wanted to move from the chair back to the bed.
A new nurse came in – a middle-aged redhead who, although nice enough, didn’t seem to be high on the experience scale. (I think I saw her stabbing an orange and mumbling, “I think I’ve got it” before she came in.) She reached down and started to pick Mother up, alone, without even gauging how she was going to handle the five different tubes and cords attached to her.
I jumped up.
“Wait, do you need some help? Those tubes are gonna get –“
“Nah, I can do it. Come on, Elaine, clasp your hands around my neck.”
Mother whimpered, too weak to even lift her arms, much less support her body weight by holding on to this woman.
The nurse did a squat and, as if bench pressing an Olympic barbell, heaved my 98-pound Mother up to a semi-standing position. Mother whelped in pain. Immediately, the cords became tangled, and the nurse, unfazed, leaned Mother against the bed like a sack of potatoes in order to untangle them.
“Are you sure you don’t need some help?!” I hollered, as Mother began to crumple, her frame bending in half like a wilting flower.
“I got her,” she said calmly, more intent on the hoses and cords than on the bony, exhausted patient who was beginning to slip off the edge of the bed.
“She’s falling!” I yelled.
The nurse turned to see Mother sliding down. Grabbing at her in a vain attempt to halt her rapid descent to the tile floor, the nurse – who I’ll henceforth just refer to as Stupid – YANKED OUT one of the ¾” chest tubes that had been surgically inserted into Mother’s lungs.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mother screamed absolute bloody murder. This is a sound, I’d like to add, that I hope you never hear from anyone you love. Nurses came running from all corners of the ICU. It was, essentially, a Code Blue situation. I’ve never seen so many people descend on one room in my life.
Another nurse helped Stupid get Mother onto the bed, and Mother lay there, shrieking in pain, unable to get her breath.
I was enraged. “Get her morphine hooked back up!” (This IV had also been ripped out.)
“Oh, good idea,” Stupid replied.
A doctor flew into the room, quickly examining the hole where the tube had been.
“She needs extra morphine,” I said loudly, “and she needs it NOW.”
Give her two extra doses,” the doctor ordered.
“Can you give her a shot, too, maybe some kind of topical or something, where the tube was yanked out?” I added.
After a few minutes, and as the extra morphine kicked in, Mother began to calm down a bit, only moaning instead of shrieking. I, on the other hand, did not.
I marched out to the nurses’ station and found one of the nurses I loved, who had charged in when the screams began.
“I could kill somebody right about now,” I said to her, sotto voce. “But then, that nurse almost did it for me.”
“I’m so sorry,” the kindly nurse said. “She feels SO bad.”
“She SHOULD,” I replied. “Who tries to move someone like that singlehandedly?”
She patted my hand. I knew she couldn’t say too much, since there was potential liability involved.
“Can you give her a shot?” I said. “She’s really, really hurting.”
We repeated this process a second time, when Mother still complained of blinding pain, and the kindly nurse obliged with a round of pain pills.
And eventually, things calmed down, and Mother (courtesy of enough painkillers to fell a buffalo) went to sleep.
I, however, did not.
I marched out to the nurses’ station again, and found the head nurse, who looked as though she expected me to bitch slap her.
“Hi,” I said in my friendliest I’m-About-To-Rip-You-A-New-One voice. “I don’t want that woman in my mother’s room again. Ever.”
“I understand,” the head nurse said quietly. “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” I replied. “But I mean, EV-ER. Please.” I smiled in order to indicate that I wasn’t actually going to deck her or rip her hair out by the roots.
“I promise,” she replied.
“There are two other nurses that I love,” I said, handing her a slip of paper. “These are the only two women that I’d like taking care of her for the rest of the time she’s here.”
“You got it,” the head nurse said with an air of utter assurance. “If there’s anything else you need” – she handed me her card – “you come see me. Okay?”
I walked back in to find Mother sleeping soundly, everything reattached except the chest tube, which would have to be surgically reimplanted.
And I realized that I had just had a “Give my daughter the shot!” moment.
Those of you who read this blog regularly have ascertained that I do not relish confrontation. But I have also learned that, when push comes to shove, I’m not half bad at it. And I was glad that I was there when this happened. And glad that I could, in some tiny way, make a difference for my mother, if only in that moment.
But I gotta say – these scenes are a lot more fun with a bowl of popcorn and a movie screen.