This is a work of fiction. No bears were harmed in the creation of this story. Names and characters are purely the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
The steady paycheck more than makes up for the sight and smell of shit.
This is what I tell myself again and again when I’m running low on caffeine and patience. Assistant Charge Nurse on the second shift of the Dementia Wing of The Cove, a 150-bed skilled nursing facility, can be very demanding. Sometimes I'm tempted to throw all the medications on the floor and cry along with my little old ladies in their wheelchairs. It’s hard to hold on to your sanity when all thirty residents under your care are hollering for some relief or other and there’s no one around to help you. Damn, where’s everybody at? Other times, usually during the final hours of the shift, certified nursing assistants (CNA’s) disappear. Some go on smoke breaks, bathroom breaks, TV room breaks. One time I even caught an older CNA taking a nap inside a resident’s bathroom. Can’t say I blame her; with a ten to one patient-to-CN ratio, energy gets sapped dry fast among the staff.
Don’t judge me wrong; I love nursing (or is loved the right word?) I’m proud to wear the crisp, clean scrubs at the start of my shift, smelling like tropical breeze; I’m proud of the sharp-looking name badge hanging from my chest: ZORAIDA RN, it says, with my picture on the right side. But nursing school, a distant ten months ago, didn’t prepare me for this kind of work that required so much cleaning up and pill-pushing. It seemed all the patients care about are their round little pain pills. And it seemed as if every one of them were incontinent, and I’ve caught not a few of the more demented ones finger-painting their bedroom walls with their fecal matter.
The Cove Nursing & Rehabilitation Complex was my first employer straight out of nursing school. When I applied for a job here, I was impressed by the marble-floored lobby and fresh flowers in gigantic Chinese vases decorating the entrance. The Chief RN looked efficient and stress-free in her leather chair as she interviewed me about my clinical preparedness. Little did I know what was in store for me: violent residents needing to get restrained, neglect from families, short-staffed shifts, constant cleaning up, urine-soaked sheets; I had to learn quickly.
I started out loving my assignments at Reclaim Wing, where residents were just in for a few short weeks of rehabilitation, intending to return to their own domicile. As soon as I hit eight months, the Chief RN reassigned me to the Dementia wing. I've been working nights here for four months now and every day, I missed my independent little misses and dandies back at the Reclaim wing but most of all, I miss my easy-going workplace - the laughter, the gifts, and regular visits from residents’ families. The kind of 12-hour shift where a nurse can put her feet up and not have to run every freaking thirty minutes. Sometimes, the kitchen staff even brings in some ice cream or hot tea and we chitchat about random celebrities or our favorite patients.
I didn’t realize I had grown so attached to my little old ladies with their grey pompadours and Chantilly powder scent. My shifts on Dementia Wing were so trying that lately, I’ve been tempted to scan the classifieds for other job opportunities. Maybe home health nursing will be easier on my nerves.
The silence was suddenly broken by a piercing scream. It was Beulah, my 98-year-old resident screamer. I took off on a run and turned the corner to her room, my strides flying on white tiles. I prayed she won’t wake up the other residents. Then I’d really have shit-mageddon on my hands.
It was warm and musty inside Beulah’s room. Her roommate, Gerri, another blind and deaf nonagenarian, dozed contentedly in her own bed in the corner, thank God for small mercies.
“UUnnnhhh...! Unnnnnh! He came here! He came for me!”
Beulah handed me one of her stuffed teddy bears when I stepped near her bed. I tried not to gag on urine and deodorizer as the smell assaulted my nostrils. High above Beulah’s headboard sat a multitude of stuffed bears of varying sizes and colors, some newer than others.
“Please take care of my babies.”
Only an hour until my shift ends and this happens. I didn’t have time for one of Beulah’s screaming fits. Sundowning syndrome is very common among my residents who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, if not Parkinson’s. I surmised that my CNA was out on a break for the umpteenth time and the next RN is a floor away. I was the only staff on this ward. Somebody needs to get written up tomorrow, I was getting tired of being left alone to tend to everything.
“Beulah honey, what’s wrong?” She shook her head and cried in a piteous mewl.
“Open your eyes Beulah. It’s me, Zoraida. Can you tell me what happened?”
I reached out to wipe the tears from Beulah’s cheeks when out of the blue, she grabbed my hand and screamed, “He came for me! He came for me!”
“Now calm down Beulah. Calm down. Tell me who came for you, hon.” I eased off Beulah’s surprisingly strong fingers but she clamped down even harder. I gasped for air as I processed the pain on my wrist, again trying to pry her fingers off one by own. I felt a shiver down my spine as I looked at Beulah, wild-eyed and drooling. Her fine snowy hair was disarranged, lending a savage look to this little lady who looked all of her 98 years, bent down my time. The therapists once attempted to correct her posture by putting her on one of their devices – they called it a static standing box but it looked more like a torture device. The therapists gave up after two weeks. Thoracic hyperkyphosis, the rehab rats called it. For me, Beulah’s bones were just a victim of time.
“I’ve seen Jesus and he’s calling me home.”
Now her mood is starting to really scare me. “Beulah, go back to sleep honey.”
“No! You gotta listen! You people never listen!’
“I’m listening, Beu….”
“It’s my time! Jesus said he’s calling me home. You gotta take care of my babies! Take care of my babies!”
Beulah pushed her ratty brown bear with one missing eye closer to my face. The fuzz was missing on the bear’s head and the body was almost bald from a lot of washing. Maybe that’s how it lost its eye too.
“I will take care of your babies hon, don’t you worry. Now go to sleep.”
“You promise on Jesus’ name?”
It took only a few more minutes before Beulah finally settled down after I repeatedly reassured her that I will take good care of her various little stuffed teddy bears, her “babies.” I went back to my station and wrote an incident report about what transpired in Beulah’s room. My replacement nurse arrived a few minutes early so I was already backing out of the parking lot a few minutes after eleven.
I seem to have zoned out for a little while during the drive home, listening to soft late-night music. Waking myself up since I’m going to pass by a remote country road now where a lot of deer has been sighted, I reached forward to turn the volume up when a shadow in the back seat caught my eye. That seat was supposed to be empty as I always put my stuff in the front passenger seat. I kept my car spic and span, like any lady should. Keeping one eye on the dark open road, I glanced at the rear view mirror again, my curiosity peaked by the small, rounded shadow in the back seat. It was smallish, and the margins were a little fuzzy. The head bobbed up and down when the tires hit a little pothole. Wait a minute! That almost looked like a child’s toy….that’s a fuzzy little head…those straight projections are little arms. It almost looks like a stuffed teddy bear.
It looked like one of Beulah’s babies.
I tasted fear at the back of my mouth and started breathing fast. What the hell! How in hell…! How did it end up…? No. Impossible! It must be one of those jokers at work who heard my interlude with Beulah and sneaked out of the room with one of the old lady’s teddy bears there. But how did anybody get hold of my car key? We have storage lockers in our staff room and each one has a lock.
I felt a pounding start at the back of my head the more I thought about how the toy bear could have gotten at the back of my car.
This is too freaky to be a joke.
I stole another glance at the little teddy bear sitting serenely at the back of my car. The darkness in the backseat drew a smirk on its wooly round face, or perhaps that was my fear imprinting on the occipital lobe of my brain which controls my eyesight. Eyes on the bear, eyes back on the road. Swallow the lump in my throat. Throat is dry as a bone. Am I aspirating? Did my saliva go down the wrong pipe in my throat? I can’t breathe! Are my lungs filling up with fluid? I must quit thinking too much. I shouldn’t rationalize this fear with my medical training. It’s just a bear. It’s just a sick joke. I’m a prankster myself but surprisingly, I didn’t find this one funny in any way.
I sped up and attempted to get a hold of my emotions. I pushed fear aside.
Big friggin' deal. A teddy bear?! Haha!
I turned the radio up. The slow song didn’t alleviate my fear any so I scanned the airwaves until I heard a loud rock song by P!nk. I sang along to So What at the top of my voice, mangling the lyrics as I really didn’t know this song well.
My eyes stole to the backseat. Teddy’s still there.
You’re just a toy. You don’t scare me!
I didn’t realize I had spoken my thoughts aloud until the very end, and my voice warred with P!nk’s in a quest to be heard. My hands have been gripping the wheel for the last 3 miles since I glimpsed the bear’s shadow in the backseat. I pried one away and pointed to the backseat, noting that my fingers were shaking.
Hey bear! Hey listen, who put you in my ca…
So focused was I on talking to the bear in the backseat that I never noticed the 14-point buck on the road. I heard a loud crash and then... darkness.
I was running late in my shift the following day at work. Dang! I didn’t sign up to work on Saturday but here I am, covering for another nurse whose kid is sick. I felt an unfamiliar twinge in my sternum and calves. I rubbed my chest but found no relief, the soreness was more noticeable when I moved.
Hi Lori, sorry I’m late. I ran after Lori as she swung her purse by her shoulders and hied off to the parking lot. She never even looked me in the eye, just glanced in my general direction with her piercing blue eyes, fatigue drawing the corners of her mouth down.
Hey I tried to come as fast as I can, I really did. Come on Lori! At least I’m here.
Lori slammed her car door loudly and hightailed it home. I must have really pissed her off. I’m only forty minutes late, for goodness' sake. Well, more close to an hour after I had to hunt for a parking space. There was an unfamiliar fullness to the parking lot. This woman should get the thermometer out of her rectum, it’s making her septic.
More activity in my wing. I was surprised by the number of visitors today, some of them in some sort of uniform. They wouldn’t even move out of my way as I said my excuses, the shitheads. I saw three or four beautiful flower arrangement dotting the desks as I arrived at the Reclaim Wing’s nurses station and right smack in the middle of it sat my special screamer, Beulah. She smiled her toothless imitation of a greeting and I was reminded of a scarecrow as I tried not to stare at her open maw.
Hello honey. I didn’t know you’d come so soon.
I chuckled as I straightened the sheet around Beulah’s legs and tucked them in at the edges so her legs stay covered when she’s being wheeled somewhere.
That’s funny Beulah. You know I’m almost an hour late. I’m never late but there’s always a first time. Beulah’s wheelchair squeaked as she pushed on the floor with her leg, maneuvering to face me as we talked.
“You weren’t supposed to come so soon. I put you in charge to take care of my babies.”
For the first time, I noticed that Beulah was specially clean and neat today. She was dressed in her white sweater with the eyelets and the baby collar. Her pants were also white, spotless and well-pressed, which seldom happens with an incontinent resident. Little white shoes peeped under the hem of her pants. Her hair was shining in her head, brushed off to the side. Under the harsh lighting, I can almost see a halo.
“You’re here now. So who’s supposed to take care of my babies, huh?” I sensed a growing irritation as she talked, warning me that any escalation will lead to another incident like last night’s. She wasn’t just talking, she was hissing her words out.
Honey, you know your babies are safe. They’re on the shelf beside your bed. All your babies are just in your room. As I bent down to Beulah’s level, my chest exploded with the sharp pain that’s been bugging me earlier as I chased Lori. Funny I don’t remember having this much sternal pain as I drove over here.
“Impertinent girl. I shouldn’t have chosen you.” A wheedling tone, a sniff, watery eyes and I knew I’m in for another screaming shift.
“Who’s gonna…who’s gonna take care of my babies?” Her high-pitched wail added to the pounding in my head. Ugh, now I have a headache too.
“They’re all alone over there. All my babies!” Beulah continued her crying fit as I reflected on how shitty these two workdays have been. And this one hadn’t even really began yet.
Keewanee, my favorite CNA, came by to the station and left another flower arrangement on the counter.
Hi Kee, who are all these for?
She turned around without answering me and hurried right back to the huddle in staff and visitors in front of the bulletin board.
Shit! What a bitch! First Lori, now this no-good dumbass. What’s with all these people ignoring me today? At least Beulah talks to me, if you could call it that.
Still inconsolable, she sobbed in her blanket, crying about her babies in a voice that broke my heart.
Know what, honey? I’m gonna swing by the kitchen and get you some ice cream. D’you want that?
Her wizened face looked up to me for a second and then buried itself again in her hands.
“You don’t know yet, do you? You stupid little thing. You’re supposed to take care of my babies.”
Refusing to hear any more about her babies, I stood up and started for the kitchen. You’re getting that ice cream Beulah. I’m gonna get your fav’rite. Vanilla.
“I don’t care about ice cream. Stupid, stupid girl.”
I turned the corner to the Dietary Wing and saw that the memorial altar was festooned with flowers of all colors, some already wilted. Dang, somebody passed away last night? Let’s see who got the hell out of this place.
As I neared the memorial altar, I was overpowered by the smell of the roses, mums, carnations and other beauties. There is at least five standing wreaths here, plus so many smaller bouquets on the floor surrounding the floor. Candles, some melted to their wicks, also littered the floor at the bottom of the altar. Who among the residents is special enough to command such sympathy? Could it be Don, the former schoolteacher? I heard from fellow nurses he couldn’t get over this last out of pneumonia, he’ just so weak. Could it be Anita? She was a bigtime real-estate agent back in the day and at ninety, still received a lot of visitors especially after chemo treatments. Could it be…?
What the hell?
REST IN PEACE BEULAH. The sympathy card in the nearest wreath froze me on my feet. Is this another joke? Whoever was behind this better prepare for a toxic incident report. I’ll be at the Head Nurse’s office soon as I give Beulah her vanilla ice cream. Hmph! Imagine doing this to a helpless old lady suffering from dementia. What kind of sick people do I work with?
I looked to the altar and noticed there was another framed picture, a bigger one. It was tilted to the side and I had to walk closer to see who it was. In the fading light, I saw that it was a picture of a young girl. There’s something familiar about that picture. Wait, let me get closer.
The girl with the long dark hair stared at me with my own eyes.
fiction by lovelia horn