As I slide my tray towards the cash, “Code Blue, Emergency” punctuates the hospital cafeteria’s clangs and chatter. How inconsiderate to interrupt my supper. “It’s your father.”
I have frequently wailed at television medical dramas for feeding viewers hollow hope by presenting three medical miracles each episode and thus inverting odds so that every casino patron wins the jackpot. Liar, liar! I know the medical team rarely resuscitates patients; but, my father is fifty and fit.
My apprehension grows as I approach a quiet room instead of one emitting the luminescent glow and monotone whirl of medical equipment. Daily tools (airway, IV, EKG pads) appear alien attached to Dad’s dusky body. My memories are syncopated by a strobe light alternating between numbing darkness and brief piercing light. Mom and I are both nurses. Instead of offering condolences, the supervisor ruminates about finding replacements for our shifts. “Shut up, I’ll work for both of them.”
I hold grief like a sapling humbled by freezing rain. My family physician says Dad’s death will make me a better nurse. I bend in half as I long to bend back time, stifling sobs into the sleeves of my scrubs. I’m already a great nurse; I want my father back.
Dementia has regressed Auntie to infancy. Each breath crackles as she sucks it through the lime green sludge of pneumonia invading her lungs. Her family does not want to “play God” by withholding resuscitation. I cannot convey the futility of this assault that resists rather than accepts God’s will for one who is already so ill. Words flee my reach like a startled flock of Canada geese flapping into flight. The family is equally at a loss when I ask them to tell me what Auntie wanted.
Dad died wearing his favourite green plaid shirt. Its fragrance of honeycombs and rabbit hatches mingles with the hospital’s antiseptic alcohol odour as the only tangible item in the room.
A thin crust of icy calm coats my deep-water grief when the next death occurs on my unit. Like a grandmother clock whose winding mechanism is broken beyond repair, the matriarch fails to take her next breath in a brief interlude when family members sleep. Even though the family knew grandmother was dying, I choose my words knowing the deep groove each one leaves in waxy memory heated by grief. I remove medical supplies, place a fresh orange speared with cloves in the room, change this matriarch from the standard-issue blue hospital gown into her rose-flowered flannel nightgown and wait to offer my condolences.
On Mom’s first day as a widow, wisps of snow whitewash the farm mirroring our monochrome ache. A neighbour’s red plaid coat cuts through our view. He lowers Dad’s flag to half-mast before returning to his chores. His simple act of acknowledgement provides a sharp contrast to many who glance away.
Daughters surround the unconscious elder like an aureolin halo as her blue limbs cool, her breath waxes and wanes. Because her physician deemed it premature to discuss “no resuscitation”, I’m obliged to start CPR when her heart stops. I landmark on the sternum to begin compressing; but, like a seized piston, cannot press down. I ask the daughters about allowing a natural death, invite them to touch their mother, talk to her. The geese land having found a safe pond.
Words begin as sounds, molecules of osculating air funnelled by the ear channel to rattle the ossicles and ripple across cochlear fluid on a journey to the temporal lobe. Here the brain treats words like puzzle pieces and assembles them into meaning. Grief taught me that, once assembled, those puzzle pieces can float me up into the atmosphere like a bouquet of helium balloons or tumble me to the ground and scatter as dangerous for me to collect as mercury.
I did not try to erase the words I heard following my father’s death; instead, I recorded their vibrations in my mitochondria. I use them as the scale to measure the density of my words so I can titrate each one to soothe rather than inflame as I guide people through grief on the path of least regret. Had my family physician said I could honour my father’s death by harvesting my grief to help others, I may have found my way sooner.
Kimberly Peterson’s experience as a nurse informs the themes of grief and joy which she explores. Her pieces have been or will be published in Poetry Breakfast, Drunk Monkeys, 3Element Review, Black Napkin, Byword, Generation Magazine and Room Magazine. She received honourable mention in Banister’s 32 annual contest.