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Going to see Jesse
Short stories by David Satterlee (also included in: Honoring My Father: Coming to Terms).
|Life Will Get You in the End:|
Short Stories by David Satterlee
|Honoring My Father:|
Coming to Terms
I was writing and editing for a publishing company in St. George, Utah when they ran out of money to make full payroll. When I told my parents back in Missouri about the development, Mom got on the line and said, “David, we need you here.” My Uncle Ed was eighty-six and had just had hip replacement surgery. He was about to be released from the hospital; could I move back and take care of him in his home?
Providing home care develops a predictable and cadenced routine. Ed’s wife, my father’s sister, had dementia and was confined to “Pine Manor,” a nearby nursing home. I would take Ed to go to see Jessie most days. Going to see Jessie was an integral part of our Sisyphean life together. It was more than a routine; it was an obligatory rite, a necessary commemoration, like giving thanks before a meal or putting flowers on a grave.
Ed has been waiting to go see Jessie. He looks up, raises his voice a bit and asks: “You reckon we ought to go see Jessie?” I have been expecting this. It is 10:15 a.m. and Ed has finished his morning nap. He’s feeling pretty good today. He woke up sometime after 5:00 as usual this morning. I got up about 7:30 as usual, emptied my bladder, got dressed, emptied Ed’s piss can, washed my hands, and got his breakfast. Today we had hot oatmeal with fresh strawberry halves and a protein shake. We’ve got to use that stuff up before it goes bad. Ed bought a case of protein powder several years ago when he was still reading Prevention magazine. He seems to like the stuff. It is not too bad and, since I am a diabetic, it is good for me too.
Ed is sitting on the couch rubbing Doggie behind the ears. Doggie is some kind of mutt-terrier mix and devoted to Ed like I try to be devoted to Ed. I take a deep breath, lower my tone and bellow: “Well, I’ve still got some work to do downstairs and it’s almost lunch time. Let’s go after lunch.” Ed is a pushover. “Okay, I think I’ll go sit on the back porch.”
Ed has been waiting to go see Jessie. He looks up, raises his voice a bit and asks: “You reckon we ought to go see Jessie?” I have been expecting this. I go over to the couch and sit beside his right ear. “Sure, she ought to be just about finished with lunch. Let’s get your shoes on and go right now.” Ed beams. Lurching from the couch, Doggie presciently jumps out of his way. Ed shuffles down the hallway faster than usual. He is probably going to look for his hearing aid. I have about six minutes before he gives up, time enough to make a quick trip back downstairs to pack another eBay shipment. Back upstairs I grab his hearing aid from the side table, find Ed and ask, a shade too coyly, “Are you looking for this?” Ed reaches for the device and fits it to his ear. I’ll turn it on for him when we get to the nursing home. “Let’s go to the couch and I’ll help you with your shoes.”
We are going to see Jessie. It is mid-afternoon and Ed has been on the couch most of the day. “I think I’m comin’ down with something.” he said this morning. For breakfast he only wanted melon and tomato juice. He is not coming down with anything. He is just feeling all of his 87 years and starting to get some mild spells of vertigo. It is okay. I find some clean socks in his drawer and rediscover his favorite shoes under the lamp table. Kneeling in front of Ed, we silently and solemnly raise and dress each foot in order, then stand for a belt and jacket. I feel like a squire preparing his knight for jousting. I think of a lance as I get his cane before he has to make a quest for it.
Ed takes his time on the stairs. They have been known to try to buck him off. I drive. After letting Ed drive once, he somehow lost his set of keys and never found them again. His trusty Oldsmobile shows the marks of some inexact parking; the passenger side mirror is actually held on with bailing wire. The bumper was branded by something very sturdy. Excelsior Springs is a small town and the drive is only a few minutes. Mom and Dad picked a nursing home for Jessie that was nearer Ed than them. It was a rational choice.
Ed is already out at the car. He is barefoot and not going anywhere. The trunk is open and he is looking through it. I find the trunk open every now and again. I am pretty sure he once put something valuable in the car and he is still trying to find it. Lord knows, I have looked for whatever it is in vain. Ed is a hider. I do not think he remembers that there are still a small stack hundred dollar bills behind a wooden ruler screwed to a stud in the hot water heater closet. Dad thinks that he bought gold several years ago and buried it in the back yard. I found a diamond ring in the hydraulic juicer basket and an eyeglass case of jewelry between the mattresses in Jessie’s old room when I moved in there. She must have been a hider too.
Ed took pretty good care of Jessie while he could. She gradually lost her mind. Jessie still hears voices from heaven when the central heat kicks on. Mom once stopped her from cutting her own ear off. Jessie took to wandering around the neighborhood in the middle of the night, going up to other homes and demanding to know what those damn people were doing in her house. I removed the lock from the outside of her door when I moved into the room. Ed might forget who was in there; he’d never hear me pounding to get out.
I go out to the car with everything he will need. It’s time to go see Jessie. He looks kind of embarrassed, but he sits on the edge of the passenger seat while I finish dressing him and neither of us says a word.
If you saw Pine Manor from the air, it would look like a shabby, squared-off figure eight. We park near the side entrance with the covered walk because it is raining like someone almost turned the watering hose off, but not quite. I run around to open the passenger door, help him rise to a standing position, and wait while he reaches back in for his cane. I cradle his left elbow as we carefully totter across the concrete pad to the door. I hold the door open and his shuffle quickens as he crosses the threshold. Jessie is inside.
We nod to the accounting lady in her office and she peers over her glasses right back. We round a corner and immediately confront double doors that block the hallway. Ed waits, not quite patiently, while I reach overhead and punch in the entry code. The code is “1234” in both directions. Nobody without business inside really wants to break in and nobody who belongs inside has the wits to get out. We peek in for Jessie as we go past her room. Thelma, her roommate, is lying in bed staring at the ceiling. We keep on going to the commons area. I know what happens next and so does the shift nursing attendant, who looks up to watch. Jessie is slumped forward in her wheelchair. Her eyes are not completely closed but she is not looking at anything either. Ed moves around to face her and watches tentatively for a few moments. Reaching forward, he shakes her shoulder. “Jessie. Jessie!” Jessie looks up puzzled but her attention fixes on the man’s face and recognition dawns. The sun suddenly erupts from behind the clouds. The angels sing and the most enraptured smile in the universe fills the room. “Why, ED!”
Jessie is still eating lunch. She likes lunch and usually feeds herself. A large towel is draped across her lap. Ed spies the empty seat next to her. An attendant and I glance at each other. This is not such a good idea. Still, she has finished a fair portion and will not starve. We tacitly conspire to just let it go. “Well, ED!” Her spoon disappears somewhere and they are holding each other’s arm. “Jessie, I thought I’d come and see you.” “Oh Ed, I don’t like this hotel. Are you taking me home?” “Now Jessie, that’s not such a good idea.” It’s time for some deft redirection. I pipe up with, “Doggie is still doing fine.” Jessie fixes me with a brief penetrating stare that is somewhere between hostility and bewilderment. This is a pretty reliable cue for Ed who asks no one in particular, “’you know where Doggie got his name?” He waits while I cock my head inquisitively and raise an eyebrow. I’ll move up to his right ear if I have to, and try to avoid being a distraction to the other diners. “Well, I’ve had four dogs in a row and I’ve named them all Doggie!” Ed is quite amused with himself. He waits for my appreciative smile. This is not news to Jessie, but she does not remember hearing it recently and just contributes her own quirky little grin. “Well,” I say, addressing Jessie, “what would he call a pet opossum?” She concentrates, frowning a little, while she considers this fresh absurdity. She finally looks up and critically but sincerely inquires: “What kind of pet would a ‘possum make?” I give the answer that I always give, “A greasy one.” It is mildly humorous but she decides that she is not completely amused. She glances back at me dismissively, probably wondering who this idiot is. I’m her favorite nephew.
Mom and Dad drive up to Ed’s every second Wednesday. We all go to see Jessie together and then Dad treats us to a restaurant dinner. Jessie is Dad’s little sister and it seems like Ed must have been his best friend. Jessie isn’t paying much attention to anything today. She’s leaning listlessly over the side of her wheelchair. Dad shakes her shoulder first. Jessie looks up slowly, gives him a sweet smile and just says, “Oh, Bill.” Ed shuffles around and displaces Dad. “Oh, Eddie, I love you so much.” She is still smiling as she rests her head back on her shoulder.
We’re going to stay for at least an hour; we always do. Sometimes Jessie will feel like seeing us if we wait for a while. We sit in a tight circle of chairs just talking about this and that. Thelma walks slowly by, dropping well-formed turds down the leg of her pajamas. It is good that they seem to be getting enough fiber here. I raise a hand casually to get the attention of an attendant and point to the trail on the floor. She rolls her eyes, leverages herself up, tells someone in the office to go clean Thelma, and grabs some paper towels and a mop.
I excuse myself and head to the bathroom myself. Passing through the “oriented but physically challenged” ward, Bob Karner, maybe not so completely oriented, is chirping and hooting in his room again. Lord, I would not want to have the room across the hall from him. I pause briefly to share a greeting with Just Ted. “Just Ted” is a little joke we made the first day we met. Just Ted is just fine except that he has to have a wheelchair to get around, as well as additional help to do just about everything else. The flesh of his massive belly has lost all tone. It pours over the front of his chair between his wide-spread legs. It hangs almost pendulously from under his robe. It has a foot-square bandage taped to the bottom to avoid friction damage when it drags the floor. You just try not to stare.
Jessie is having a shower. It takes two attendants to get the job done. You can hear Jessie all down the wing. She is screaming and fighting; she seems to think that they are there to drown her. Ed and Jessie belong to a very conservative and mild-mannered Christian faith. Jessie is cursing with not-so-recently acquired proficiency. Ed can hear the commotion but I do not think he catches the details. I wonder if he would be surprised. He just sits there waiting tolerantly, but looking mildly discomfited.
I move closer and ask a question that has become a niggling curiosity. “Ed, you like to come see Jessie every day. Why do you feel so strongly about that?” I have blundered. Ed is from that generation of old men that hold their troubles privately and just stoically tough them out. They certainly don’t talk freely about their feelings. He hesitates and glances at me. I’m not only family, but I see him at his best and worst every day. Ed takes a short breath and just says it. “I was a conscientious objector in World War II and I was sentenced to the prison farm in Leavenworth, Kansas. Your dad and I were there together. Jessie got a job cleaning houses in Kansas City so that she could catch the buses every weekend to visit me. She never missed. Now it’s my turn.” I nod my head once quickly and look away. We just sit for now. Her shower will be over soon, so we will just wait to see Jessie.
Ed and I went to see Jessie most days. It was more than a routine. It was to live in testimony that “Ed loves Jessie and Jessie loves her Eddie.” He honored her memory, and faithfully comforted her in those few precious minutes of timeless present that they could share.
Several years have passed. Ed had to go to live at Pine Manor himself. He was not put in Jessie’s ward but they let him visit her sometimes. I moved to Iowa and got married. Jessie weakened, developed pneumonia, and died.
After that, Ed did not like to be disturbed much in his room. Sometimes, when Dad visited and patted him awake, Ed would smile weakly, close his eyes again, and just lay his head back down. Eventually, Ed died too. I believe this to the core of my soul: waking and sleeping, and in his last breath, Ed was still waiting to go see Jessie.