Turn a Mirror Back in on Itself + A City Bound by the Corpse of the Habitual – Meg Tuite
February 9, 2018
A day with death is never a dead day. Possibly because I have sat with so many dying people in order to see how I fare. I am willing to take up the last oxygen and calm breathing of the soon-to-be-corpse and spurt my anxiety all over the sanctified room.
Don’t trust someone who volunteers with hospice. We come with agendas. Some have mothers or fathers or both who hate them and now want to find sweet empathy from some poor dying human stuck in a bed to absolve them of their self-hate and destruction. Some are missionaries coming in to wait for their time alone to pray or chant or place oil on the body, a Ganesh on the side table. So much the better if the dying is an agnostic. They have the chance to save a soul as easily as putting another dollar in the slots and see the odds pay off pronto. It’s a parade of the lonely, the controllers, the clean freaks joined in the tiny room with the tiny person in a tiny hospital bed wheeled in to give more comfort to the caregivers.
It’s one loaded cart when I tell someone that I work with hospice. The person’s head tilts and the lower lip reaches up to grasp the trembling upper one. I hear, ‘it is God’s work. Nothing tougher. You must be an angel. It’s a calling.’ If the person sees me shaking like a wind chime, well, all the better. Now it makes sense. I’m torn up over the dying. It’s not my anxiety from standing in line at a check-out counter listening to how saintly I’ve become. Or because I ran out of Valium and beer and can’t wait to get out of there and away from humans.
Some are dying faster than others and I prefer to spend time with the ones on their way out. The impacted sculpture of days without shit is dislodged with gloved fingers. Morphine plugs them up. I clean it out. A person doesn’t judge much when they are leaving this planet soon. The ones who have something to say about it are family and other caretakers. Fragility externalizes itself, leaking out of me. A mammal is a mammal is a mammal. Roadkill of the nervous system that keeps backing up over the carcass.
In the mirror my face rocks on its hinges. When another person’s face notices mine and we become undone, everything becomes shiftier. They think I’m guilty. I stole some jewelry or some heirloom from their mother, sister, father. Dying looks different from this side of the mirror.
Most things don’t change course. One lady has to have her newspaper in her lap by 6AM, even when she can’t read it anymore. She falls twice on the porch trying to find where the delivery guy throws it. She lays there for over a half an hour until someone sees her from across the street, gathers her up, and carries her tiny body inside. She clutches the newspaper to her chest. The act of spreading printed words across her lap is what opens her eyes at the same time every morning and sets her feet in motion.
A man forgets he’s in a wheelchair and when the wife leaves he gets up for a beer and falls face down on the tile. It takes me an hour to get him back in his wheelchair. He’s tall and heavy so our movements are sluggish and dragged out like German cinema. First I pull in his knees and tell him over and over to lift one leg up. He is face down and I have put a pillow under his head and turn his purpled face to the side. He is smiling and completely cooperative. It’s all a foreign language to both of us. Especially when he shits his pants and the act of getting one knee to stay steady is close to impossible. Somehow I get him kneeling and his hands on the armrests, then we count to three and hoist him together with all the adrenaline and fear between us to work with, until my guts are going to implode through the room. We’re sweating and shaking once he’s in his chair, but there’s still the act of getting him cleaned up and changed. I say fuck it and get us both a beer first. We toast. I set an extra one up next to his chair and all is well until I have to go to the bathroom. I get him another beer, pop it open and set it on the table next to him. “Don’t move,” I say. “Please just don’t move.” He smiles and waves his beer in the air. I’m running down the hallway to the john when I hear the smack. The sound of skin and bone meeting tile.
Another lady smokes with an oxygen concentrator in the room. The problem with this duo is that all the nitrogen is getting sucked out of the room by the oxygen so her cigarette is like a blur in less than a few seconds. Then she drops it on her pants, the polyester inhales it and she gets burns on her leg.
A slow draining of my phobias works its sedative through my system when I’m focused on someone else’s deal. I can get that guy in the chair and clean up his shit. I cut the pants off and put aloe vera and cold compresses on the woman’s burn. Alive isn’t wracked with tension in every moment. I miss all of these people. I used to count how many there were and write down their names. I was up to 49. They all have stories to tell and one thing I know how to do while shaking is listen. I listen.
A City Bound By the Corpse of the Habitual
The woman sat and watched him day after day. He was a disappearing act in the cafe they both went to and out on the streets of the city. Once a girl sat right on top of him, drank her coffee, made phone calls on her cell, read the newspaper and then left, without excusing herself or acknowledging him in any way.
He abided many things. He got to the cafe at nine each morning for months and the woman sat at a table nearby. He drank his coffee with two packets of sugar that he stirred in slow methodical swirls while he stared off into space. A space that appeared larger than banal meanderings or artifice. He wore what looked to be the same suit every day, though it had no stains or creases in it. Repetition not only distracted, but liberated her. She found a reason to get up earlier each morning.
After his coffee he took long walks down crowded streets with hands webbed together behind his back. Strangers stepped on his scuffed shoes. Crowds pummeled him on the streets. He never yelled, spoke to no one. Death hovered around him like a vaporous cape.
The woman loved him. She became hostile, charged through bodies to keep them from damaging him anymore than he already was. They smacked into her instead. On her days off, she sometimes walked backwards and stared at him. He was a philosopher or someone who had suffered much loss.
After almost a calendar of obsession, watching decay fester his eye sockets further into his skull and his rugged skin turn to gray stone she picked up her coffee and muffin and went to sit with him at his table. Bones swam inside his suit. Too much time had passed. Words about love and longing would be ridiculous.
At some point he looked over at her. He smiled. She didn’t mind that his lips were a memory and his teeth were brown as his beverage.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” he said.
Her heart was entombed in some kind of mausoleum, while expanding with each breath she took. He saw her.
“We have a lot to catch up on,” he said.
She nodded, buoyant with the potency of the moment.
The stench of food caught in aged crevices emanated when he spoke.
“Do you have a job?” he asked.
“I work at the hospital,” she said.
“What happens?” he asked.
“I read through medical records, shorthand the info, and file them away.”
“Sounds like childhood,” he said.
A group of four boys came up to their table talking and pushing each other. One sat on top of the man and another on top of her. The other two boys pulled up chairs. The one lodged in her lap was quite globular, but when eye-to-eye with the man she barely felt the weight of the boy.
The man looked straight through them and at her.
“You see it now, don’t you?” he asked. “Nothing is ever as uncomfortable as you imagine.”