Guelph, Ontario, Canada
Photo by James Sullivan
The communities of health care and medicine are richly storied. For almost three decades, I have invited people in those communities to tell me their stories and they have been generous in their telling. A story told can be image-laden and many of those images become part of my own story. Three of them are below.
His big hands are tight with muscle. He rests them, palms up, on the shining counter and looks at his visitor with clear eyes, deep brown. The white dog, as small as a cat, rests quietly at the foot of his chair. Every time one of them moves, the dog glances up and then falls back into its doze. The hum of the fridge stops and starts, a dripping faucet taps the silence. Outside, the trees are bare against the star-sprinkled night, the cold light of the waning moon. The house is in shadows. Once in a while a car sweeps down the road outside, its headlights cutting the dark in the kitchen for the space of a breath.
He is straight-backed and trim, his shoulders broad under the sharp creases of a well-pressed blue plaid shirt. There is grey in his thick, black hair. Behind him are school photos of an awkward and innocent boy; they are held by daisy magnets to the white fridge door. The kitchen table in the dark corner is glass-topped and pristine. The visitor sees that daisies are a theme throughout the kitchen: the clock, salt and pepper shakers on the back of the stove, a border of trim along the bottom of the curtains in the window. She remembers the dog is named Daisy.
He sees her looking. “The wife loved daisies,” he explains, suddenly shy. “I keep them up for the boy.”
I will never forget her hair. When I meet her it is boy-short and as white as the snow outside the window. Her son shows me a photo of her, taken just a year ago at her 90th birthday party, and I see that her hair had then been long enough to pull back into a soft bun that rested at the base of her neck. Her son smiles at the memory. “She always loved her hair,” he says.
She knows we are talking about her, I think. She is looking at us, nodding as if she understands. Every once in a while her eyes close and she dozes for a couple of minutes. She is deaf as a stone, or just as good as; you have to lean in real close and talk right into her left ear for her to hear anything. She gets it, though, if you have patience, her son assures me. It just takes patience. And, maybe, it takes miles and miles of love. Maybe that is what was missing in the hospital.
She has been home for more than a week and, he tells me, she still has the pneumonia but it is easing. Her breathing is not too difficult. Every once in a while I hear her struggle to catch her breath and a deep cough rouses her. But there is some color in her cheeks, he is right about that, and she does not seem to have much of a fever.
“Being sick really knocked her down, she’s lost even more strength,” he tells me. He smiles sadly, “Well that and her hair.”
I glance at her again, a bird without its feathers.
His eyes are as clear as glass. “Well, when they sent her home from the hospital, it was so dirty that we couldn’t even wash it. We tried,” he goes on. “We really tried but you know it made her cry, all that scrubbing hurt so much. I couldn’t make her cry. So,” he motions to her, snoozing now in her wheelchair, “We cut it all off. It was that dirty.”
She stands in the tub with her father. She is dressed, he is not. He is sitting on a smooth old kitchen chair and smiling into the warm shower, soap running off of him. She can count the ladder of his ribs, he is that thin. His hair, what is left of it, stands straight up. “I’m quite a sight, eh darling?” he says. “Bet you never imagined your Dad like this.” She reaches and holds him under the arms just like the nurse at the home told her to do. She helps him crawl out of the shower. She catches sight of the two of them in the bathroom mirror.
“Two peas in a pod, Dad,” she says. “We look like two peas in a pod.” She dries him off with the softest towel she can find, pats baby powder all over him, just like the nurse did when he was in the home. He falls into a deep sleep when he is back in bed. She sits and watches him for a few minutes before getting up to do another load of laundry.
This is not a memory she wants to get rid of. This is one of her jewels.
LINDA E. CLARKE, MA, is a writer and performance storyteller. Her work in clinical ethics informs her particular interest in the personal stories within the cultures of medicine and health care. Her work has appeared in Ars Medica, The New Quarterly, Pulse, KevinMD and The Canadian Medical Assocation Journal. Some of her work, and the work of her students, has been broadcast on CBC Radio One. She is the co-author of In Two Voices a Patient and a Neurosurgeon Tell Their Story (Pottersfield Press, 2019).