Aug. 2, 2013: The fall of sparrows, by Brenton Phillips

August 2, 2013 by

WEB-032610BrentPhillips“Morning!  Housekeeping!”  I said, disengaging my dry mop from the holder clip on the cart. The greeting was a formality because the old lady never said anything, never opened her eyes, not once in the four days since her admittance. There really had been nothing to clean in her room, none of the usual daily detritus like straw wrappers, plastic cups and the ubiquitous Kleenexes that patients and visitors lost track of and left on the floor or used for bad basketball shots at the wastebasket. There probably weren’t many germs to kill.

The old lady lay in the same position every day — arrow-straight, mouth slack, hands folded as if in perpetual prayer. So many elderly patients fell asleep with their hands that way. Come to think of it, I often lie with my hands folded the same way when I am sick. Was it really a prayerful attitude, or just a natural and therefore comfortable position for the hands? Maybe a rehearsal for the final layout in the casket.  Maybe all three.

Life seemed absent in the room as I watched the old lady’s face. The bird-skinny chest rose and fell almost imperceptibly, a soft undulation like a curtain stirred by a passing body. I resisted the temptation to clap my hands in front of the face or to shout “Hey!” Every few minutes the open mouth convulsed, drawing in a lungful of air, as if she had been crucified on the bed. Soft cloth restraints had been tied to the bedrails in case they were needed, but I couldn’t imagine the frail figure gathering enough strength for an escape. She seemed resigned to the bed as though it were a cross. The heavy blanket covering her like a shroud was a sufficient restraint.

I soaked a cleaning cloth in a small pail of water mixed with anti-bacterial chemicals and ran it over the chrome-plated arm that suspended a six-inch TV.  The TV could be swung inches away from the patient’s face. I was always bumping my head against the TVs. The nurses hated them, too. Some of them still wore the old-fashioned hats I always thought gave them dignity and authority, and the arm constantly knocked the hats askew. As I swung the TV back toward the wall, I noticed the old lady’s name in the ward secretary’s cursive on a pale green strip of thin cardboard in the holder above her: Georgie Burr 122A. Strange how it seemed like a tombstone above her head, without birth or death dates.

As far as I could tell, the only visitors to her room were the nurses who checked her vitals every now and then and myself. Visitors in other rooms inevitably left signs of their presence — the Kleenexes, a Coke can in the trash, an extra magazine brought from the waiting room, ashes on the floor from a cigarette. But the room was always just as I left it the day before.

On the fifth day, I decided I would try to talk directly to Georgie Burr. I had read somewhere that people in a coma could hear people addressing them, even though they couldn’t respond. However, when I checked the room cleaning schedule at the nurse’s station, I saw that 122A was to be stripped and given a full scrub-down. Pushing my cart down the hall, I ran into an RN.

“Did the lady in 122A go?”

“Yes, but not home. She died in the night.” The nurse continued down the hall.

“Anyone ever visit her?”

“Not that I know of. She apparently didn’t have family. Just us.”

As I stripped the bed of linens and placed them into a plastic garbage bag, I looked at the name above the headboard. I washed the bed, the bedside table, the closet, the shelf, even the visitor’s chair no visitors had sat in. Changed the trash bags that held no trash. Cleaned the bathroom, the sink she never used, the toilet she never sat on. I took the bedpan and the full plastic water pitcher and threw them into the trash bag on the cart. I went to the linen closet for fresh sheets, washcloth and towel for the next patient. Checked the paper towel holder and the soap dispenser. Swept and mopped the floor.

As my last act, I pulled Georgia Burr’s name tag from its slot, but instead of wadding it up, I paused.

“I may be the last person alive on this earth who’ll remember her.”

I know this sounds theatrical and pretentious, but that was what I thought. Because the lady was so old, it was conceivable that she had outlived all her family and friends.

That evening I scanned the obituary page in the Dodge City Daily Globe for her name. She had only a few lines. Her age, 101. The fact that she had died on this day at Dodge City Regional Hospital. Funeral arrangements pending. Nothing about survivors.  If there were friends or relatives who had gone before her, I hoped she was with them now. I thought, “When I die, maybe any memory of her on this planet goes with me. The nurses may remember her, as well as the Good Samaritan Nursing Home staff, but they all see so many old people how could they possibly remember them all?”

In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus speaks of how the fall of sparrows doesn’t go unnoticed. I thought of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” in which the title character “was buried along with her name.” I folded the thin strip with her name and put it in my billfold.

That was 30 years ago.

Every now and then I take the strip with her name from an old shoebox and look at it.


— Brenton Phillips chairs the English-Communications Department at Cloud County Community College.



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