Flecks of Humanity
The dirty white of the walls had always depressed Gisela, but the building was old; she understood that. It had been built in the early 1900?s, on the highest peak in the county, and had been dubbed Pestilence Hill. It was one of the first tuberculosis institutions in the state, but as cases of TB waned, it had been consigned to the Department of Corrections as a prison infirmary.
The end of her shift was nearing. It was so hot inside, almost ninety degrees; she would welcome the cold that would greet her when she stepped outside ? a whole new atmosphere complete with fresh air. She was sweaty from changing bed linens and hanging IV’s.
She would check Mr. Bugg’s vitals one more time before leaving. The last time she had gone into his room, his 02 sats had dropped to sixty-five.
“You old coot, you’re not going to die on my shift,” she had groused at him. “You, always causing me trouble, all of the time!” But he hadn’t heard. He had slipped beyond the walls of prison into coma, earlier in the day. He hadn’t been shipped out to the hospital because of his Do Not Resuscitate status.
“Did the social worker notify his family?” she had asked Nurse Brown.
Brown had looked at the German lady with compassion. She knew that what she would tell Gisela would razor past her tough and gruff facade.
“Gisela, there isn’t an emergency notify on his visitors list. If he does have family, they’ve probably disowned him.”
Gisela shook her head. “He told me he had a daughter. Didn’t anyone call his daughter?”
Brown shrugged. “There was nobody to call.”
“Ah, well.” That was the way of it. She had turned back to the dingy hallway to carry out her duties.
Gisela could understand why Bugg’s family would desert him. He had done a horrible thing, and he was a hateful old SOB. But she wouldn’t put up with his garbage. She had shifted his attitude months ago, the day she had met him. It had been her first day on the job. Brown and the other nurses were making jokes about initiation.
“We’re going to throw you into the deep end of the pool! You get to bathe Bugg, room 2304. Want an officer to go with you?”
Not wanting them to think she was afraid, she had declined the offer.
“Okay, but don’t say we didn’t ask!”
He was sitting on the edge of the bed, didn’t look too sickly, his gray hair wiry and wild. She knew he was a cancer patient who had refused chemo. When she entered the room, he looked at her, cold and expressionless.
“Don’t touch me. I didn't ask you to come in here, damn it!” he roared. Take your soap and water and get the hell out. Get out!”
She clutched the basin tight against her to keep her fingers from trembling.
“Mr. Bugg, I don’t curse at people, and you better not curse at me if you don’t want to be written up. Don’t make me call the officer.” Warning was issued; inside, she was shaking.
“And what do you think will happen if you write me up? The'll throw me in seg, maybe pepper spray me. Lady, I’m dyin’. I don’t give a @#%$ if you write me up.” And then he laughed at her. Laughed!
Something sparked inside of her, spitting mad. Did he think she was here out of the goodness of her heart? No way was she going to be talked to like that by anybody. “Listen, you — you can sit here in your own stink if you want, I don’t care! But you’re keeping me from doing my job, and that pisses me off.” She had banged the basin down onthe side table, had splashed water onto the floor. “Take off your pajama top.”
Bugg’s eyes had gotten as round as silver dollars. He wasn’t used to being challenged by the nursing assistants. Usually, all it took was a growl and they packed up their gear and almost ran from the room. This one had spunk. There was a chance he could respect her.
“Lady,” he said, then laughed. “You just cursed at me. I could file a grievance against you up for that.”
Gisela hadn’t cracked a smile or shown fear. She looked at him, stone faced, one hand on her hip, her shoes wet from the spilled water. “I’m waiting, Mr. Bugg.”
“You've got fire. I’ll say that much for you.” He was unbuttoning his pajama top.
“Yeah, and I’ll burn you, too.” Funny, how anger made a person braver. “Do we understand each other?”
“Yes, lady, we do.”
After that, Bugg hadn’t allowed anyone but Gisela to bathe him or change his bed linens. Not that anyone else wanted to. And he had begun talking to her about his life, his regrets.
“You know, they almost paroled me to a nursing home. I’m glad they didn’t. I don’t know why anybody would want to help me after the things I’ve done. I do know why God wouldn’t have mercy on me,and why I’m dyin’ so slow with so much pain. I didn’t show mercy. I didn’t show mercy.”
And while she bathed him, he retreated into himself and his past. She didn’t have words with which to respond; she just listened. In here, you never knew how much of what an inmate said to you was true, or if you were being conned. With Bugg, she knew the dilemma of detached compassion. She would not, could not get emotionally involved. If she had met him on the street, there would be no friendship. She would be afraid. She wasn’t his friend. Couldn’t be. She was an employee, here to do a job.
“Sometimes, lady, it dawns on me that I’ve been locked up these past twenty years to keep society safe from an old murderer. That isn’t much of a punishment. I get three squares a day, a place to lay my head at night, and enough pills to almost kill the pain. I’m finding that God’s retribution is a hell of a lot worse than anything man can dish out. I reckon I deserve everything He’s spooning my way."He never spoke directly of remorse, Gisela noted. Always, his musings were about the punishment he was enduring now, and his acceptance of it.
Two months after she first met Bugg, she was called into the supervisor?s office. It was painted the same drab white as the rest of the building, dressed with ivy from the greenhouse. The supervisor nodded for Gisela to have a seat.
“Gisela, there has been concern expressed about your friendship with Mr. Bugg,” she began. “I trust you remember policy. We can’t get involved with these men, dying or not. You do understand what I’m saying, don’t you?”
Gisela’s face went blank. What was the woman talking about? Then it struck her to her toes with the force of a lightning bolt. How dare they! Sure, she had straddled the line between compassion and detachment. It was a damned hard thing to do, but they all had done it. It came with the job.
“Mrs. Adams, I don’t have friendship with Bugg. I treat him with the same respect I give everybody else here, staff or prisoner. He talks to me. I can handle him better than any of the other assistants, that’s all.”
Mrs. Adams nodded. “I’m glad to hear that. And you know the disease process is making him weaker, so he won’t be able to make as much of a fuss. It might be a good idea to distance yourself a little, let one of the others take over for awhile.” Then, in a lower tone, “You know how people watch, Gisela. You know how they talk. Save yourself the trouble.”
She couldn’t afford to risk her job. Gisela bit back the retort that rose from inside of her and choked out, “Yes ma’am.”
Bugg hadn’t taken kindly to the change in his care. He turned the basin over on one assistant, kicked at another, and was put in segregation. He stayed there for three days before he was transferred to an outside hospital for pain management. When he finally came back, he signed to be admitted to hospice.
Gisela was working the day he returned. Brown handed her his change of clothes and said, “He’s all yours! Nobody else wants him.” And Brown had laughed a huge laugh.
“Thanks for taking him on, Gisela. Everyone else is refusing.”
Gisela shook her head. Let them talk now! She went to the door of the hospice room.
“What kind of trouble have you been making now, Mr.Bugg?” she almost smiled.
He jerked to face her. His eyes were more sunken, his thin body a mere ripple under the sheets. My God, how he’s gone down so quickly, she thought.
“Where the hell have you been?” he rasped. “There ain’t another spitfire in this whole hospital who knows how to give me a bath.”
“That’s because you won't let them. You should be ashamed of yourself." There was reproach in her voice. “Always causing trouble.”
Bugg’s laugh was thin, like his body. “I got a whole lot more to be ashamed of than that, lady.”
And while she bathed him, he talked.
“The chaplain just left. I reckon that’s a bad sign, that the chaplain would come see me. It means I don’t have much longer.”
“You don’t know that, Mr. Bugg.” She looked at his wasted limbs, and knew the truth. Soon, Bugg wouldn’t be confined to these dim walls.
“Oh, I’m not afraid. Death doesn’t scare me, lady. It’ll be a big relief. I won’t hurt no more. It’s what happens after death that scares me. I’ve been thinking about Hell. Wonder if that’s the next big step for me.”
“Did you talk to the chaplain about that?”
“No. He wants to save my soul. I told him I don’t have one.”
She helped him into the chair and stripped the bed. “Everyone has a soul, Mr. Bugg.”
“Maybe. If I don’t, I won’t have to worry about Hell, will I?”
He was quiet while she smoothed fresh sheets. When she turned to him again, his face was creased with pain.
“I am sorry, you know. I can’t change it now, though.”
Gisela nodded. She knew what he meant.
“I wonder if I would be so sorry if I weren’t dyin’. I don’t know, lady. I just don’t know.”
“Mr. Bugg, are you different now than you were back then?” She shouldn’t ask, but she felt he had more to say. Perhaps this was God showing mercy, she wasn’t sure.
“I might be. Never had a chance to find out. Who knows, if I were out, I might have done it again. Like I said, I don’t know.” He was retreating again.
“Could you ask the nurse to bring me my pain pills? I need my pain pills.”
She saw the shine in his eyes before he closed them and rolled his head toward the window. He would be furious if he knew she had seen. Big, bad Bugg, reduced to crying.
“Sure, I’ll go tell her now.”
“Hey, lady,” he stopped her, still facing the window.
“You made me feel human again. As near to normal as I’ve felt in more than twenty years. You never judged me. Thanks.”
She took a deep breath, turned the light off and relayed his request for pain meds.
That was weeks ago. Bugg hadn’t spoken much since then, and now he would never speak again.
It was 10:30, almost time to go. She noticed the paint was peeling in the hallway, showing small patches of the blue it used to be. Mrs. Adams was supervisor on the house again tonight, and she called out to Gisela.
“Are you going to take Bugg’s vitals again before you go?”
She pushed open the door of the hospice room. He was even less a ripple under the sheet, his respirations shallow and labored. One breath, then a pause. When she came in tomorrow night, Bugg would be gone, his body stored in a morgue until someone claimed it - if they claimed it. And then another old prisoner would transfer in to take his place. There was always another one.
She reported back to Brown, who charted the vitals.
“I’m out of here, good night.”
“Night, Gisela, drive safely.”
She gathered her coat and purse and headed for the stairwell. The lights were turned down, and the flaking walls seemed even drearier. She had forgotten to mention the blue patches. Ah, let them stay for a while longer. They were like little flecks of humanity from another time, masked over by that dirty, indifferent white.
She stopped on the stairwell. Damn it, damn it! Always causing me trouble. She went back to where Bugg lay, all alone,dying, and she took the seat beside his bed.
One breath, then a pause. He had trusted her; she would wait. Another breath, and a longer pause. She laid a hand on his thin arm. It was the humane thing to do.
“It’s okay, Mr. Bugg, it’s almost over.”
Did he find the answers to the questions that tortured him? Perhaps he had made peace with the God who had meted out the ultimate punishment. Who knew? Perhaps he had lived hell on earth and had paid his dues, and his soul would find forgiveness. He was moving beyond man. What happened now was between Bugg and a Higher Power.
Another pause. A nurse came in to check him.
“It won't be long,” she told Gisela kindly.
“My conscience won’t let me leave him to die alone,” she explained, as if she had to.
“I know.” Her co-worker pulled a chair in from the nurse’s station, and sat with her while she kept vigil.
Twenty minutes later, Bugg exhaled one last time. Gisela waited for the pause to end, but it didn’t. She held his wrist. No pulse.
“Better notify the doctor,” she told the nurse. “I believe Mr. Bugg is gone.”
The room swam in front of her eyes. She patted his shoulder, and gathered her coat again. She walked through the halls, suddenly too bright, then down the stairs, quickly. Outside, she took a deep breath of fresh air, and traded the heat of the building for the iciness of the night.