An old man facing death struggles with racism and acceptance.
| REMAINS OF THE DAY
Winner, Writer's Cramp 2021-07-14
Based in part on experiences during my father's final days.
"Who the hell are you?" Carlton Sundberg growled at the nurse entering his room.
"Good evening! I am Serena, and I am your good nurse for your time here."
"You're black. Get out. Don't want a black nurse."
"Oooh, listen to the old man! Hey, close your eyes, I be no color at all. Want some water"?
He ignored her, turned his eyes to the ceiling. After a few minutes, he demanded, "Where the hell am I, anyway?"
"Well, you are not in Hell, for sure. Not now, anyway. You are in the Santa Maria Hospice. Here, I put the water by your bed, okay?"
"Hospice. Right. Damn Dr. Ghopi, said I'm dying. Never trust a Paki. Lying brown towel-heads."
Serena sat in the chair by his bed. "Hey, it's a tough thing to hear. I know, it's hard. One day you're young and full of piss and vinegar as they say, an' you turn around and you're here in this bed. It's hard, it's hard."
"It's goddam shit, is what it is!" The old man struggled to sit up, leaning towards the water.
"Yes, for sure it is." She helped him, held the straw to his lips, then eased him back down to the bed. He had taken only a few sips.
"How long have I been here, anyway? Things are a bit fuzzy."
"Been a week. I been looking after you the whole time, an' every day you say, 'Get out! Don't want a black nurse!'. An' every evening shift I am here to help you. I think you are stuck with me."
"Oh. Oh! Oooh!" He paled and writhed. Serena quickly checked his morphine drip and put the bolus device in his hand. He fumbled briefly with the control, then sighed and relaxed as the extra dose hit him. His breathing slowed, an effect of the drug.
"A bad one, yes?" She wiped his brow with a damp cloth, straightened his bedding. Poor man, so skinny, his arms and legs like sticks under the sheet, his face a skull of skin over bone.
"Bad," he agreed. "Cancer sucks."
"Can't argue about that. Your kids gonna come in tomorrow?"
"Pah. Don't want 'em. They come, they sit, they talk. All the time thinking what they'll do with my money after I go."
"You know, you are carrying a load of bitter there. You can't be mad at the disease, so you be mad at your kids. You think?"
The old man lay still, glaring at the ceiling. Yeah, thought Serena, mebbe so. Serena checked his vitals, made notes on her pad. She cleared up the remains of his dinner -- he had not eaten anything--and set it by the door for collection.
Sundberg stirred, and she went back to her chair. "When Ghopi told me, cancer, I didn't believe it. Made me so damn mad!" She was not surprised at the outburst.
"Nobody wants to believe it. We all be angry, we hear something like that."
"Bad, spread all over. Gave me a month, maybe two. Still didn't believe it. Figured the pain was just old age."
Serena nodded. They had been over these issues during the week past - his denial, his anger, his attempts to bribe or bargain with fate, Serena's skin color. He had stubbornly refused to talk to the counsellor or any of the pastors at the hospice.
"I'm tired," he complained. "I think I've just lived too damn long. And what was the point of it all? Nothing. My Betty gone, 50 years in the blink of an eye and she's gone. Kids grown and gone. Can barely feed myself. Dribble like a baby when I do. Can't get out of bed. Need help to take a leak."
"But, hey, when you do you have this beautiful black babe to hold it. You are one lucky fella, yes?"
He gave a dry chuckle, then fell asleep. Serena checked his monitor and drip, then returned his dinner tray to the kitchen. Next, at the nursing station, she updated his chart, then called the contacts in his file, his son and daughter. "I am concerned about your father," she explained. "He is not in pain, but he is eating and drinking almost nothing, and you have seen how much weight he has lost. He is sleeping most of the time now. Dr. Ghopal has said the disease is progressing quickly and that you should come tonight if you can."
When she next she checked Sundberg, she found him awake but confused.
"Who the hell are you?" he demanded. She noticed what she thought might be the hint of a grin at one corner of his mouth.
"I am Serena, and I am your good black nurse for your time here. You want some water?"
"Thanks. Never actually knew any black folks. You're okay." She helped him to sit and sip. Again, he took only a small amount then slumped against her arm. She eased him to the bed.
"Thank you." He looked over at her. "Serena, I'm dying," he whispered. "Never thought it would happen. Only yesterday I was overseas, drinking Guinness in the local with my squadron. Just yesterday I was home from the war and marrying Betty. Where did it all go? How did my life pass so quickly? Now I'm here in death's parking lot, waiting to kick off. But I guess we all gotta go some time."
"That is so. It may be hard to face, but it is so."
"When the time comes, I want to go like...." The thought unspoken, he slept again. His respiration and heart rate slowed. Serena wrote details on her notepad.
I hope his children come soon. I hope they can be with him for whatever remains of the day.