Katherine sings softly along to the radio of her 1988 Volkswagen. You know that she’s half crazy, but that’s why you want to be there. The song is “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen, and it is one of her favorites. She takes the long way to work, down the number 7 side road, over the wooden bridge and past what remains of an old stone church. It is October and the scenery is beautiful this time of year. Katherine is a pretty woman in her early thirties and work is Maxville Manor, an old age home buried in the farmlands of Eastern Ontario.
She brings coffee from Tim Hortons for her co-workers. There are three other full-timers in the morning - Samantha, Mary, and Stephen. Katherine is the newest so the responsibility of bringing the coffee is hers. They all enjoy these 15 minutes or so before work but they try not to let it show. Instead, they chat and gossip about people from town and make jokes about the celebrity couple plastered all over a glossy tabloid someone has bought from the grocery store. Katherine does more listening than talking, inserting quick lines here and there to keep the conversation alive. When the coffee is finished, there will be a glance at a wristwatch, sometimes a sigh, and then the nurses will go to work.
The Manor is separated into two main wings. One is designated as a retirement home, the other a hospital where the people who have lost their minds are cared for. The two wings are connected by a large sitting room where residents from the former will come to have tea and play cards. Katherine always stops to chat.
“How are you, Mr. O’Brien?”
“Mornin’ Ms. Morrison.”
“How are the Davidsons doing today?”
She addresses the residents with dignity, ensuring they know they have her respect and care willfully. This is not an easy job and it does not pay well either, but Katherine does not let it show. The residents love her like a daughter for that.
“Beautiful day out there, eh?” Katherine will offer.
“Oh, just wonderful, Katherine,” the old women reply. Absolutely, the old men sagely nod. A hard life of farming has guaranteed these men the position of authority regarding what constitutes a beautiful day from one that may only be considered so-so. They are usually quiet but whenever they feel like talking Katherine is more than happy to listen. She nods in agreement when they talk about what the lack of rain will mean for the harvest and shakes her head in solidarity when they talk about how poorly the federal government is treating its farmers. This part of the job requires only patience. The more difficult part of the day, of the job, is taking care of the residents in the opposite wing, where people have lost their minds.
Katherine opens the heavy door at the end of the hall and waits for it to lock behind her; the legitimate fear exists that the patients might hurt themselves if they were able to wander off. She offers a genuine smile to the lady working at the desk but receives only a quick and distracted raised hand of acknowledgment in return. The lady at the desk is checking her e-mail. Katherine picks up the chart, softly humming “Suzanne” to herself, and notes that Joseph is next in line for her care.
Joseph is 6’4” and can no longer speak a word of understandable English. Before coming to the Manor he had been taken care of by his wife of 62 years. They had been married as teenagers and came to Canada from Hungary shortly afterward. His wife had died earlier in the year. She fell down the stairs and broke her hip, leaving her unable to take care of Joseph any longer. The children had grown up and the man she had spent her life with was beyond her care, so she passed away. Katherine learned this from the family members who occasionally come to visit from Cornwall.
It is not easy for them to see Joseph and Katherine knows this. She can tell that they are a little afraid to be where they are, and of what they are about to see.
Katherine walks over to them and tells them a funny story about Joseph. About the time he hid the birthday cake of another resident in his room under his bed. She tells this story with so much warmth that the family members find themselves smiling and look at Joseph with familiarity again. Then they tell Katherine a story about Joseph. His son, Michael, quietly informs Katherine that he has been known to steal other people’s birthday cakes before. Katherine puts her hands on her hips and looks at Joseph in shock and everybody laughs. The laughter between Katherine and the family will pass on to Joseph because such joy is infectious. He gives a perplexed smile and his eyes sparkle at his son’s laugh, remembering the sound. The family smiles at Katherine in gratitude for giving them a piece of what they came for. Then they leave and Katherine goes back to work.
Sometimes Joseph shits himself, but Katherine never loses her patience. She will remove the soiled clothes and wrap them in large plastic bags to be picked up and washed later. Then she will take Joseph into the bathroom and wash his old body. This is when Joseph mistakes Katherine for his wife. “Theresa,” he will say. “Theresa.” Her name is the only word he still pronounces clearly. When he realizes his mistake he will push her away out of embarrassment. This breaks Katherine’s heart every time.
“We all make mistakes,” she says.
Then she dresses her patient and helps him into his wheel chair. She walks Joseph down the hall, offering a warm smile for the co-workers or volunteers she comes across, leaving Joseph in front of the big window where he can get some sun, watch the fields, and chase his stream of consciousness. Katherine then goes back to the woman checking her e-mail to find out what patient is to be looked after next.
Like most workers of whom empathy is required, there are those who have become so accustomed to the sadness surrounding them they have become numb. They do their job well, with precision, but put none of their selves into the job. They are insulated by efficiency. Katherine never wants to become like them. When she finishes her shift she washes her hands and changes her clothes and makes one more round of the wing. “I will see you tomorrow, Ms Phillips. Good-bye Joseph.”
Every Thursday, the nurses will go out to a little dinner at a nearby restaurant after work. But today is Tuesday, so Katherine just says goodbye to them and gets in her small car and drives home to her small apartment. Her cat, an orange tabby called Pumpkin, is the only one waiting for her but he is always happy to see her.
“Miss me, honey?” she asks. And Pumpkin did. He purrs loudly and rubs against her leg as Katherine moves around the kitchen to fix dinner.
She eats in the living room in front of the television with her feet up. News, game shows, sitcoms, dramas, news. Every night is much the same, often ending with Katherine and Pumpkin falling asleep on the couch together. He’ll be dreamy with the food in his belly, and Katherine stoned from the powerful anti-depressants she has stolen from work.
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