Washer of the dead
Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, United States
Dead bodies were nothing new to Sarah Washington. As a registered nurse, she peacefully viewed the stunning poses of the dead at her first job, a suburban hospital that closed shortly after she was hired. God had chosen her, she was assured, as she closed the eyes of an infant with a rare genetic disorder; ministered to a mother of five, dead of the dread ovarian cancer; and prayed over a dying young black man who could have been her own son, a victim of a drive-by shooting in North Philadelphia. Their deaths only filled her with the wonder of life and her duty to be of service to her patients, dead or alive.
She felt she could serve her people best at Temple University Hospital, right in the heartland of black misery. She had applied for a nursing job three years earlier, had forgotten all about it, and was shocked when she received the “When can you start?” phone call. For six years she had worked at The Inglis House for the Disabled, a huge castle where people in wheelchairs came careening down the sidewalk or walked with oxygen tanks dragging, like old dogs, behind them, some with trachs snaking through their throats, having forgotten the taste of a ripe peach or a Mounds Bar.
|Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri 1591-1666), ‘Saint Sebastian
tended by Irene’ (1619), BOLOGNA, PINACOTECA NAZIONALE
“Lord have mercy on their souls,” Sarah would silently pray as she dispensed her special brand of kindness and healing hands upon these chosen people. She been taught by an older Muslim woman, Ajda, the proper way to wash the dead.
She washed the bodies, knowing that this was an honored tradition dating from ancient times. She felt like a priestess in her starched white uniform that hung to her ankles and a white turban Ajda had presented her.
The chief physician at Inglis approached her one day.
“Miss Sarah,” said Dr. Ron Abrams. “I don’t mean to get personal, but how can a young woman like you bear to work with such, uh, unsparingly tormented patients?”
“Dr. Abrams,” replied the dark-haired woman, placing a hand on his shoulder. “You should know this. It is a privilege to be able to serve our residents in such a way. It is the final act before their ascent to heaven.”
Dr. Abrams laughed. “I see,” said the balding well-dressed doctor who always wore a suit and a stunner of a necktie. Sarah loved the little gold earring in his left ear.
“Question for you, Dr. A,” said Sarah. “How long do you think our residents stay with us before moving on?”
“Hmm,” said the doctor, fingering his chin. “Eight years? Nine?”
“Yes, I’d say that’s about right,” she answered. “And you and I have the honor of ushering them out.”
He laughed and asked about a favorite patient.
“I’m off to see Adam now,” she said, bowing slightly, as a way of saying goodbye.
Adam Friedlander could barely speak now, his Parkinson’s disease having progressed slowly since the day he moved in. With his wicked sense of humor, he made his needs clear with pantomime, letting every woman he found attractive know this by outlining their body with his trembling hands. What a handsome man he was, folded like an accordion in his wheelchair. He was a sculptor famous in Philadelphia for his massive geometric pieces—he had been quoted in an article that was pinned up on an Inglis bulletin board, “I feel like the geometry is God-given”—but was destined to die since there was no cure for his dopamine-starved brain which, if truth be told, made him look like a dancing marionette.
Sarah was at Adam’s side at the hour of death, as were his mother, his sister Edwina, and other family members.
Sarah wheeled his lifeless body into the infirmary, closed the curtains, and carefully bathed his body in warm sudsy water, doing first one arm, then the other, while a white towel covered the rest of his body. She lovingly washed his face, with his long jaws, Jewish nose (his late father was Jewish), mostly white eyebrows, and then shampooed his sparse black and silver hair.
What a stallion of a man he had been, she thought, as she kissed his sweet-smelling cold cheek.
How sad she felt telling everyone at Inglis House she was leaving. They feted her grandly before she left for Temple University.
At home in the large house on Roosevelt Boulevard where she lived with her husband Richard, she carefully put away the letters and gifts the staff and the residents had given her. He must not find them. She was sipping on a cup of green tea when he walked in. Tall and handsome with a thick, upward-turning black mustache, he wore the brown uniform of a UPS driver.
“Hello, darling,” she said, smiling above her tea cup.
Smelling of sweat, he sat down at the table, stretched out his legs and stared at her, with his seemingly innocent black eyes.
“You know I didn’t want you quitting your job at English Home.”
“Yes, dear, I know,” she said.
“You know. What does that mean?”
He grabbed her tea cup—the red one she loved and had paid handsomely for—and threw it on the floor. Then laughed as he heard it shatter.
She arose from the table and went to the refrigerator.
He followed her, spun her around and slapped her across her face. She put her hand across her hot cheek, then turned around again to get the huge wooden salad bowl out of the middle shelf.
“Once a bitch, always a bitch,” he said, punching her stomach, hard, with a loud whoosh and then disappeared into the bedroom to change into his bathrobe. She vomited up part of her lunch into the sink.
Not a soul knew about his daily slapping or punching or pushing of his wife of ten years. Sarah believed her husband to be the good man she had married and that in time he would change.
She would meet many a battered woman when she started her job in the emergency room at Temple University Hospital in the black ghetto that was North Philadelphia. Sarah Washington herself was not a battered wife. It was out of the question. Richard simply got angry and couldn’t control his temper. He was not one of those angry men who put his hands around her neck and squeezed. Of course, there was the time he had flung her across their king-size bed, lifted up her long white nurse’s dress and forced himself inside her. It was simply a cry that he wanted more sex.
Sarah enjoyed chatting with her fellow nurses in the lunchroom at the hospital.
“Is it what you expected, Sarah?” asked Teresa.
“It is, it is,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to assist removing bullets from my fellow African-Americans,” she said.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” laughed Teresa.
“It’s true! And that Dr. Callahan is really something,” she said. “Never panics. Calm as a bowl of smooth grits.”
The two of them made plans to go out for breakfast some time when Sarah would introduce her to the glory of grits, especially when smothered with melted cheese.
Sarah soon arranged her schedule so she would work the night shift. That way, when she got home, Richard would be asleep. No more punching.
Her plan did not work.
“Bitch!” he said the moment she arrived home. “You can’t even keep your lawful wedded husband company at home.”
She tried to dodge when he aimed his huge black fist at her eye.
“Ohhhh!” she cried, dropping to the bedroom floor. “Richard, that hurt!” she said. “Don’t you know any better?”
“Show that to your new friends at the hospital.”
Teresa noticed. So did Sam, Dr. Callahan, and most of the ER staff.
“Talk to her,” said Callahan, to Teresa.
“I will,” said Teresa. “But you know it won’t do any good.”
Sarah had no idea how much a black eye hurt. She tried to put make-up over it, but simply touching the eye caused waves and waves of stinging pain. She would leave the ER and stand outside in the sun. Her old friend, Donny Rothbart, a relative of someone at Inglis, told her eye problems benefited by standing a few moments out in the sunshine. Letting herself out the side door, she stared into the sky, as Donny had suggested, but the moment she opened her eye—for just a second—it began to throb without cessation. She quickly closed it, turned around, and held her hand over her damaged eye.
“My God!” she thought, “what if I go blind in one eye and can’t work anymore.”
She needn’t have worried.
Her case load at Temple was very different than at Inglis.
“Man, I love it here,” she told Sam, a male nurse. “Such diversity!” One evening an ambulance brought in a patient who had had an organ transplant right there at Temple University Hospital, one of half a dozen hospitals in the Philadelphia area who did transplants. Susie Moore was a thirty-two-year-old white patient who’d had a heart transplant. Congenital heart disease killed her mother and was killing her until Dr. Yoshiya Toyoda and his team stitched in a new heart that everyone knew belonged to a fourteen year-old female drug addict. This was Susie’s fifth visit to the ER.
Dr. Toyoda was not there but Edmundowicz, the chief, and Choi, were there, standing over the unconscious Mrs. Moore.
“She’s not gonna make it,” said Edmundowicz, shaking his head.
“A shame. She’s got kids,” said Eric Choi, in his green scrubs. A brain scan had shown she was that worst of all things—brain dead. They all viewed it together. The dreaded flat line across the computer monitor.
They told Sarah and the other nurses to prepare her body for hibernation. Her organs, according to her written instructions, would be given to other people, who would live because Susie Moore had died.
On a warm spring evening when the red tulips were blooming outside the employee entrance of the hospital, a badly bruised man was brought in, victim of a vehicular collision.
It was night, the time when most accidents took place.
Sarah and a small group of nurses, with Dr. Kenneth Stamper in charge, gathered around the bruised and battered African-American man, whose UPS uniform was virtually torn from his body.
What was Richard doing out at this time of night, she wondered. Coming to spy on me?
She said not a word as they discovered the full extent of his injuries. “Hasn’t got a chance,” pronounced Dr. Stamper. “His internal bleeding will kill him . . .”
“Yes,” said nurse Hila looking at the clock in the ER, “two more minutes, Dr. Stamper?”
“Right. We’ve got to notify his next of kin to see if we can harvest his organs.”
Sarah cleared her throat.
“This man, Richard Washington, is my husband, and, yes, you have my permission to salvage his organs.”
Everyone looked at her. She was utterly calm in her long green scrubs, her mask, where drops of blood were spattered, and cap that kept every piece of her shoulder-length black hair inside.
“Thank you, Dear,” said Dr. Stamper. And then, “Let’s go!”
“If you don’t mind,” said Sarah, “when you’re finished, I’d like the honor of washing his body before he goes to the morgue.”
“Of course, Dear,” said Dr. Stamper, an older man who was known to have a spectacular garden, a way to relax after the grueling hours on his feet as a surgeon. In the summer, he brought in platters filled with his home-grown white raspberries and pieces of Ghirardelli chocolate.
Alone with her husband in a freezing-cold windowless room, Sarah stared down at his peaceful looking face. His heart and kidneys had been removed, and only the lower part of his liver was able to be salvaged.
As she bathed his body with sweet-smelling sudsy water, she began to sing a Negro spiritual she learned as a little girl. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”
“Richard, dear,” she said aloud. “You were sure a hateful bastard and I am glad you are dead. Now you’ll face the loving God who will decide what to do with you. As for me, I’m going to get my nails polished and my hair streaked, things you forbade me to do when you were alive. May you rot in hell, you black bastard.”
RUTH Z. DEMING a psychotherapist and winner of a Leeway Grant for Creative Nonfiction, writes fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry from her home in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, suburban Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in publications such as Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo and Mused Bella Donna. A mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group—for people and families affected by depression and bipolar disorder.
Highlighted in Frontispiece Fall 2015 – Volume 7, Issue 4