It was late on Sunday night, Mother’s Day, which had already seemed endless, when Henrietta, the chaplain on call for the hospital, received a page to visit the patient in Room 204, where Birdie, an elderly Pima Indian woman in the end stages of diabetic kidney failure, took up both of the room’s beds. With her own 400-plus pounds and all the dialysis equipment, she needed a double room all to herself. She had been airlifted from her reservation in Arizona to receive a liver transplant at UCLA Medical Center. Shortly after she arrived, though, her condition deteriorated. She lost her place on the transplant list, and thus her last chance at life. Since Birdie wasn’t medically stable enough to be flown back home, she would have to die here in the hospital.
The sole surviving member of her family, Birdie received no outside visitors and soon began entertaining the hospital staff as if she were there for a twenty-four-hour slumber party. She was a delightful storyteller and compassionate listener, but only a stalwart few managed to stay in her room longer than a couple minutes. The smell of her rotting body had become unbearable.
Henrietta put two drops of citrus oil underneath each nostril and rubbed more into her palms before she walked in. She rested her hand on Birdie’s shoulder and glanced at her face. Birdie’s liver was failing, and the jaundice had mixed with the dark magenta undertones of her skin, giving it a purple sheen. Her sightless eyes were open wide, staring straight ahead, the opaque irises and pupils spilling into the yellow-whites. Birdie’s pupils, unable to take in any light, somehow managed to reflect light outward, flashing in strobelike blinks. In the dark of the room, the rest of her body also glowed, wide and flat, wrapped in white gauze, splayed on the jumbo-size metal serving tray of the two linked gurneys.
Henrietta started visiting Birdie soon after she had gone blind, three months now, trying to provide comfort. The visits were always on Sunday afternoons, when Henrietta was still dressed in her church clothes and kitten heel pumps, so Birdie usually heard her coming down the hallway. But today she had stayed home from church and was wearing moccasins, and Birdie had not heard her walk into the room. She put her hands, webbed by bandages into oversize paws, over her face when Henrietta touched her.
“I’m sorry, Birdie, did I wake you up?”
“I just had the most wonderful dream, Henny!” Birdie said. “I was standing on my tiptoes again, looking up at a tall, handsome man. That was the best part.”
“Tell me more,” Henrietta whispered. “Tell me more about your dream, sweetie.”
“Well, you’ll love this one, Henny-girl. Big, old me was wearing a size-four dress and high-heeled red shoes, and we were ghost dancing. Don’t recall his face, but I could see his hands, big and strong. I could see his hands close around my waist. Now can you just imagine that?”
Heartbreaker Jay, 2007
Mixed media on linen
Feb 16, 04:51 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
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