CHAPTER ONE. OGDEN
His name was Ogden. He was 95. I was 10. In a valiant attempt to be a mother and to also make a living, my mother would bring Ogden to our house and sit him in the chair by the windows in the front living room. I remember that I didn’t want to sit in Ogden’s chair with its green velvety upholstery, after his visits. This reaction made me feel bad. I remember the feeling very well.
I was curious about Ogden, but also afraid. As he was old. His hair was white. He walked very slowly using a walker with wheels, needing the aid of my mother, his private duty nurse. My mother would joyfully announce to the household, “Come meet Ogden guys!,” making sure his legs were firmly against the chair as she sat him down. As he slowly, carefully sat I could sense his fear. I didn’t know then what made him so afraid, but now I know. I know now about the fear of falling when debilitated, and know the fine-tuned challenges of living in a body no longer in synch with your mind. The mind still thinks it knows the subtle balancing and everyday calculations of sitting in an unfamiliar chair. But this knowledge is no longer fully translated into the sequence and precision of normal movements. After you have fallen and felt your dignity crash to the floor after miscalculating this basic act, you face a bigger fear: your mortality. As a girl I could sense that fear in Ogden, it raised the fear in me–of what I did not know about life.
At 10 years old my mother was already teaching me the foundations of nursing. Since then, 25 years of nursing has exposed me 10,000 times to life and mortality in all its ways. To know not just the technical side of birth and healing, disease and dying, but in particular the human aspects: each person’s courage and frailties, generosities and foolishness—to know how we look after each other’s’ hopes and grief’s and hearts and not just their social security numbers intertwined with medical record numbers attached to insurance policies. To know these things, I’ve come to see, is the nurses job. To learn how to touch the passing humanity of a crash victim in the middle of the night, whose life bleeds from him while his unknowing family sleeps. To visit and pray with the shell shocked family, and to discuss at such a time of numbing pain their choice to use his organs to save others’ lives. To encourage the post-operative transplant patient, who has withstood years of agonizing waiting, to see if the new organ will be accepted. To find some way to add to the fading lives of terminal patients I’ve come to know dearly over many years of nursing them. It is the cycle of such experiences, repeated so many times over a nurse’s career, face to face, skin to skin, word to word, prayer to prayer, that has guided me from that time of my first fear of Ogden, this ageing human in my living room.
The fear I first felt towards Ogden awoke a curiosity. As my mother gingerly came and guided me to Ogden after settling him into the chair in our living room, her standing between us made me feel safe. As I stepped closer I could smell him… A mixture of soap and urine … He had lots of moles; crusty like on his face, as a child I remember thinking they resembled craters on the sides of his mouth… I touched my own mouth in response feeling a wonder of awe… thinking about what this aging process in life would make me look like someday … I remember wanting to touch the wrinkles on his face, the deep defined lines on the sides of his mouth. I remember thinking while watching and observing my mother, wiping his mouth with a tissue as he was constantly drooling, how can she do that?! It disgusted me to the point of almost gagging. Yet at the same time I felt happiness that someone—someone—was actually wiping the drool off of his face.
It was at this moment that I remember having some clarity as I looked into Ogden’s eyes. They were still, as blue and clear as they must have been when he himself was 10 years old. The sparkle of them! His eyes were the place where I could see into his youth, his personhood, and sense his soul. It was my first encounter with compassion for an elderly person, for this aging condition, about which I remained ignorant.
Witnessing his eyes, seeing the “Ogden” in him, awoke something in my growing mind as much as it stirred my sentiments. I was confused about this new ‘knowing’ I suddenly gained. But even at 10 I remember the sense that I was on to something. He was afraid of me too, as he suffered from dementia. He was in and out, though parts of his mental abilities were fully intact. The nurse, who stood there between us, my mother, my teacher, was the buffer between Ogden and the world that grew confusing to him. She was also connecting my heart and compassion to him, and to my future career. She was doing the work that nurses do…
Nurses are the angels who are the acting buffer in people’s lives, who reveal compassion and love, and understanding of life’s most real and most common and most extreme situations. The reality of being human with drool, snot and shit