I was crying. As warm water cascaded over the top of my head, I hit the light-blue tiles with the side of my fist.
And then again.
Which is when I felt John wrap his arms around me. I had not heard him enter our slender shower stall. I did not turn around, I just kept crying.
“Mari. I know. I know.”
He didn’t immediately say anything else. We just rocked back and forth while he hugged me and I kept crying, tears and water streaming down my face.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said in soft, almost mournful tones. “I told you a long time ago: you go to work, I’m going to be here every time, whenever you get back. I don’t care when, how long. I’m going to be right here. And I am not afraid of anything. I will always love you and hug you. Siempre abrazo.”
I used to joke with him: “Ah huh, where else you got to go? You write on your computer all day while I’m bandaging sores and shooting medicine and pain killers into patients.”
I knew it was cruel. He washes clothes. He cleans floors. He cooks. Whatever we need. Although sometimes I can’t help myself from venting, from taking stuff out on him, I feel bad… the next day, or even three or four days later. And I get angry with myself.
As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t shut down my feelings. I kept seeing her twisted face. I imagine it was his mother, or older sister, but not his wife; he was so young. I was briefly standing off to the side. I felt how the spasms of grief wracked her body, and I couldn’t do nothing but look. I couldn’t hug her or even talk to her. I heard her entreaties to God through the face mask she was required to don.
I’ve learn to accept patients dying–it took me a while to get used to it when I first started but eventually I did.
Never used to carry all this death home with me. But now this shit just bubbles up at odd moments.
I think what it is, is that in this killing season so many people die alone. Families and loved one kept separate, thick walls between them and the newly deceased. Not even glass windows.
And worse yet. No wakes. No funerals. Not that I usually go to any of them. But it must be hard. Recently there are so many people whom I was among the last to see them alive, to see them expire, to see their souls leave the earth.
Never before, used to be most of my patients got well, or at least well enough to leave the hospital. Now, when they come to me, they die.
And something in me dies with them.
Sometimes, too many times, when I should be relaxing, I keep having this weird vision. I am dead. Lying on a bed. And all my patients who preceded me in death are standing there looking down at my corpse. And none of us are saying anything. How could we? We are all dead. What could we say?
Soon–I don’t really know how soon–I sniffled, blew water out my nose, turned off the faucet, and then abruptly but gently pushed John away. I was as clean as I was going to get. He didn’t say anything, just looked at me through sad puppy eyes. I dried off with one of the fluffy, rose-colored bath towels we had purchased at the discount store on the highway not too far from the hospital. I know I should have better responded to his embrace but I was too tired.
I had used up all my daily allotment of being optimistic. All I wanted to do was sleep and so, without saying a single word, not even a soft sigh, I just walked away and crawled into bed.
* * * *
“I’m sorry about not talking last night. I just. . . I couldn’t. Didn’t.”
I looked at the steeping cup of red zinger tea that John fixed for me. Even though it was one of my favorite breakfast snacks, I didn’t feel like eating the lightly toasted bagel with cream cheese and lox placed on the maroon saucer atop the floral, cloth placemat in front of where I usually sit at our little dining table.
“You don’t have to talk. I mean, if you don’t feel like it.”
I didn’t say anything.
Five full minutes after I had erected a wall of silence, I looked up at the clock. It was about that time.
For a brief moment, a re-occuring thought sneaked into my mind: why am I doing this? Doing what? All of it. Any of it. Especially when treating those ill with the virus can so easily lead to your own illness. Your own death.
Being exposed to patients who’ve caught the virus–or did the virus catch them, maybe someone unknown passed it on, or worse yet they got it from their mama or someone they love–treating the virus is worse than playing Russian roulette with two bullets randomly placed in the six chambers. Regardless of the increasingly shitty odds, we try our best. We do no harm and hope each trigger pull ends up on an empty chamber.
Doctor, nurse, orderly, or housekeeper, what a revolting development our hospital profession leads to: helping others sometimes means harming yourself.
I wonder if my face betrayed my morbid thoughts. After a short while I furtively glanced over and caught John watching me out of the sides of his eyes. I guess he was afraid to face me full on. Maybe even scared to see me in my doomed soldier determination. I had to go. I looked away as though I was shy.
Funny, I wasn’t scared. I was angry.
The futility of my condition made me crazy, especially when I realized that what I really wanted was to stay home and get sexy busy with John. But I also really wanted to go do the work I knew needed to be done. I really wanted it all. A normal life–hell, what is normal anymore?–and a valiant life. Persevering on both the home-front and the battle-front?
“The world may be going to shit, but I’m still going to work,” I softly intoned to myself without fully facing John. Funny, I don’t feel like being no damn hero today. When did treating the sick become an act of heroism? Why?
“You know you don’t have to be superman, I mean superwoman.”
For the first time today I smiled, stood up, put both hands on either side of my hips, spread my legs in a buffalo stance, and acclaimed: “You’re right, but you’re wrong. I’m wonder woman. Don’t you see that big-ass ‘W’ on my chest. We all are a wonder.”
“And a butterfly,” John said, reaching out and touching the colorful broach I always wore pinned to my scrub top.
“Yes. That too.”
“You’ll be muy bonita after all these caterpillar days.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
I reached around him to pick up the car keys off the table and turned to start out the door. But then I stopped and pivoted back to face him.
“You know what?” I didn’t even wait for a response. I tilted my head upward and gave him a quick kiss. “I love you.”
I pulled my knit cap down securely on my head, walked to the door, and defiantly voiced my determination, but, this time, loudly enough for John to hear, I said “The world may be going to shit. But I’m going to work. I’ll see you when I get back.” I started to add, “if I don’t die first”. But I knew that last tag was too much for the average young lover to hear.
I scrambled to the front door and then firmly stepped into the inviting morning sunlight.