“Oh, dear, bread and beer, oh, dear, bread and beer,” A woman’s voice repeated monotonously from the room we passed.
“Never mind her,” said the nurse. “She has dementia.”
A freshman in high school, I’d decided my life calling would be in nursing. My brother’s girlfriend, a senior, also following that career path asked if I’d like to be a Red Cross Candy-Striper with her. With dreams of meeting our local hospital’s equivalent of TV’s Dr. Chad Everett, I said yes.
Melinda’s intent however was to spend our Saturday morning volunteer hours in the county nursing home. Gag me with a spoon. But she was the one who could drive and I had to go where she headed the car. Clad in our blue and white striped pinafores with the familiar Red Cross on the bib, we followed the director down shadowed dingy hallways.
I avoided inhaling deeply. Linens weren’t changed daily here.
“When the lunch trays come, please help deliver them to the patients. Some will need assistance eating. The nursing staff is short-handed,” the RN sighed. “County budget restraints. If you could help with feeding…”
My stomach turned as the food cart rumbled out from the kitchen. I tried to fix my mind on the countryside we’d driven through just minutes before—the sun showing off her spring colors so intense I could’ve spread them on toast. Instead the metal hotbox offered odors as dank and musty as week-old coffee grounds. Breathing through my mouth, I delivered a tray.
I dished mashed potatoes and finely ground beef into the toothless mouth of a bed-bound patient who never once opened her eyes. I marveled that she knew when to accept the next spoonful.
After lunch I asked at the nurses’ station for the next task and was instructed to refresh water pitchers. In the last room a woman sat hunched in her wheelchair. She watched as I poured stale water down the sink and ran fresh.
Her voice, low and scratchy, startled me, “I like your hair. Very pretty pulled up like that. Everyone said how lovely my hair was when my husband and me used to go dancing. I sure miss dancing but nobody dances in this place.”
I set the plastic water jug on her side table. She touched my arm with gnarled fingers.
“Would you brush my hair?” she asked. “I can’t get my arms up high enough anymore.”
My stomach turned again as I contemplated the tangled strands hanging greasily down her back. Her gray eyes, half-hooded by rice paper-thin lids, peered up at me reminding me of my grandma. I picked up the hairbrush and tentatively began the long strokes.
“Don’t worry about pulling too hard,” she encouraged me. “I’ve got a tough scalp. The Indians almost took it when I was knee-high to a grasshopper but the cavalry came just in time.”
I didn’t know whether to believe her or not.
Fifteen minutes later her hair lay smooth from scalp to waist. Even unwashed it looked much nicer. I wished I had something feminine and perky to accessorize with.
“You look pretty,” I said. “Do you have any barrettes or hairclips?”
“No,” She frowned and shook her head. “I know I don’t look pretty but what a sweet Candy-Striper you are to say so. And thank you for brushing my hair. The nurses just don’t have time for it.”
The next Saturday I hurried through the lunch tasks eager to play hairdresser. Gray light shone from under those hooded lids as soon as I entered her room.
“Tell me about the day the Indians came,” I suggested, pulling the brush through the gray thickness.
She chuckled, patting my arm. “I was just funning with you, honey. It’s how I amuse myself here, making up stories in my head. Don’t get many visitors and I can’t seem to get this durn wheelchair to move in the direction I want to go, so I’m pretty much it for the main attraction in this room’s entertainment.”
“You’re a tough act to follow!” I said. “And just as soon as I’ve gussied you up, I’m taking you on tour.” I reached into my pinafore pocket for the pink barrettes I’d purchased with my allowance.
We promenaded the hallways, my new friend’s sunshine smile offering sweetness thick enough to spread on several pieces of toast. I saw the wink one old gentleman gave her and County Infirmary’s twilight corridors seemed just a shade brighter.
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