Jane, the substitute help from the Agency, tells the old woman that her mother is in the ICU with blood clots in her legs when she arrives for her one-hour shift in the evening. It takes ten steps to move her husband, the old man, from the wheelchair to the hospital bed in their bedroom. The steam engine breathing starts in the wheelchair and builds up speed as his head falls back on the pillow. The exertion causes his oxygen to drop to 78. The pillow is fluffed just so, the hospital bed raised at a forty-five degree angle, and another pillow is positioned at the foot of the bed to drain the edema. Blankets are swaddled around the old man’s feet and now he looks like a merman.
“There is no protective sheet,” he cries out to Jane.
The old lady is thankful that even though every breath is a struggle, his mind is more alert than hers.
“But you don’t need a protective sheet. You never have an accident,” Jane says.
“No, I must have the protective sheet,” he insists. This must be how he was as a child, before she knew him, the old woman thinks: a mutinous five year old. But now she is too old to care for a child.
The old woman and Jane struggle to put the protective sheet under the old man’s buttocks. Jane tugs on one side, the old lady on the other. First they flatten the hospital bed. Then they edge the sheet under buttocks as he turns from one bony hip gasping for breath to the other before giving up in exhaustion. The plastic sheet is only halfway up the bed.
“Never mind, it will straighten up in your sleep,” Jane says. She is watching the clock and has to visit her mother in the hospital.
At nine o’clock, the Alexa device announces in a pleasant girlish voice, “It’s time to take your meds.”
The old man takes his night time medicine and Xanax. After half an hour, the steam engine breathing tapers off.
In the middle of the night, the old woman is woken up by a moan and heavy breathing.
“Do you want the urinal?” she asks.
“I can’t reach it,” he says in the dark.
She forgot to put it within easy reach on the bedside table. She switches on the table lamp and rises from her twin bed to hand him the urinal.
“I wet the bed.” The urine spills out of the urinal and his pajamas are wet and warm. He swears in the dark.
She murmurs, “Never mind. These things happen.”
“I knew when Jane said I didn’t need the protective sheet that something like this would happen.”
“Don’t be illogical. This has nothing to do with what Jane said.” The old woman is the logical one now, the woman of action; the anxiety-free, brave one. She does not think of what will happen afterwards when she will be all alone.
“Now you have to clean up the mess.” His voice is tearful.
“Can it wait till tomorrow?” she asks.
“No!” he says, shuddering.
“What has our life come to?” he murmurs.
“Your illness is idiopathic, remember?” the old lady says firmly. “Nobody knows what caused it. It’s not your fault.”
“But you are not in my skin. You don’t know what I am going through.”
That, the old woman had to admit, made all the difference.
“It’s okay.” She yanks the sheet protector from under him and tears the sides of the paper pullups with her fingers. She removes the nightclothes and tosses them into the laundry hamper. She bunches the used pullup into a grocery bag and ties a knot and throws it into a corner. The bedsheet is sufficiently dry and can wait till the morning.
The old man turns to Alexa. “Alexa, what is the time?”
In her girlish voice Alexa replies, “The time is now two am.”
He takes half a Xanax and a few minutes later he says “Sorry! How much trouble I am giving you. Who has cursed us in this manner?”
“You are a science teacher — how can you talk about curses? This is the trajectory of human life. We get old, sometimes the body fails, and there is illness. And if people curse, do you think the curses do not rebound on them?”
The sun is streaming through the blinds when Lana, the regular helper arrives. “Did you miss me?” she asks the old man.
“Yes!” the old woman calls from the study, where she is reading the Times on the computer.
“What a mess Jane left. Plastic bag strewn on the floor!” Lana rolls her eyes. “What happened?”
“Actually, he had an accident in the middle of the night,” the old woman said.
After giving the old man a sponge bath, Lana pops into the study. She draws a vertical line down her cheek with a finger to mimic tears. She whispers to the old lady, “He was crying. He was saying, ‘One person. How much she has to put up with it.’” The old woman knew they were also tears of humiliation, helplessness, but she was so moved that she forgot to enter her husband’s daily weight into the spreadsheet. Her heart melts into a puddle. It was as if they were traveling through a valley of desolation when, lo and behold, her eyes had lit upon a sunny patch of pretty flowers.
Basking in the old man’s appreciation, the old woman thinks of Jane’s mother in the ICU and sends a silent blessing to those in sickness. She thinks how fortunate she is that the agency sent her Lana and Jane, and how if it were not for her husband’s illness, she would have forever remained in the dark about the goodness of ordinary people.
Ravi Shenoy’s work has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review, Sugar Mule, Chicago Tribune, The Copperfield Review, Cooper House Review. She has twice won awards for her short stories in India Currents. She is book reviewer for Library Journal and book review editor for Jaggery. She lives in Naperville, Illinois.
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