“Forty-four beats a minute! Is your pulse always that low?”
The thermometer under my tongue was preventing my speech, so I just opened my eyes wide and shrugged my shoulders. She studied me for a moment, adjusted her glasses, then made a few more notes. I looked at the orange digital numbers on that little machine that nurses wheel around.
I smiled to myself, suddenly smug over my slow heart, as though this was my accomplishment for the day. In truth, I had done absolutely nothing to be proud of. All I did was remove my jacket so she could cuff my bicep. The ego will find anything to be prideful over. But hey, I’ll take what I can get. I indulged, and did a little internal touchdown dance with the toes hidden inside my socks.
Her long, spindly fingers dance on the black keyboard like a mad organist composing. She was in her 50’s, but there was no ring. Relieved of the weighty burden of a gold band, and a diamond, her fingers were free to move fast. No nail polish either. Her fingers, pure and natural, contrasted harshly with the mechanical, outdated computer keys. The keys stood very tall, like a miniature diorama of a city. Lifeless black buildings all in rows and columns. With a single letter painted on the roof, like the “H” of a helicopter landing pad. It was as though these tiny buildings wanted to rise higher into the sky, and she was beating them down with giant rapid finger taps.
Secretly, I was wishing she would speak again. She had the most wonderful southern draw. Most people around these parts have it—warm words that slip sweetly toward the end of the sentence. Like a pad of butter sliding down the kernels of a hot corn cob.
She unclamped my finger from the alligator clip—the one with the red light inside its throat, and removed the thermometer from under my tongue.
“Having a good morning?”
“Just got my ID to become a volunteer.”
“That’s sweet of you, honey. You know where you’ll be volunteerin?”
“Clinical psychology. I’m starting a meditation group for other vets.”
Turning to the screen, she pinched her bottom lip between her teeth. The remnants of a small cold sore lingered at corner of her mouth. I immediately had a flash of all the days she’d examined it in her bathroom mirror—leaning over the sink to get a better look. Her hair, still wet from the shower, wrapped up in a pink towel atop her head. Like a dollop of pink cake icing. Instantly, I felt more connected to her humanness, her greater truths.
“In the past week, have you felt down or depressed?”
“No.” She tapped on her keyboard.
“Have you had nightmares?”
“Some.” More tapping.
“Were you deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq after September 2001?”
“How many deployments?”
“Have you, or a vehicle you were in, been in an explosion like a IED or a landmine?”
“Did you suffer a Traumatic Brain Injury?”
“Do you have thoughts of suicide?”
“No.” I liked the sound of that. It felt good. The answer rang pure in my mind like an Easter church bell. A vibration buzzed the center of my forehead. I felt an incredible peace—one that required no smile.
There had been a time not long ago when suicide was a regular thought. Now, it was a strange, distant place to which the mind could not find its path back.
As she continued the survey, I could see her—the way she was fully herself without beguiling. She was not pretty in the conventional sense. Her hair was dry, and had been recently permed—a concept it was clearly fighting, passive aggressively. But she was kind and attentive and aware. Something about her being was very fresh and real.
A young leaf, viewed from underneath, will glow a vibrant bright green. Its veins standing out like the bones of a green ribcage. Between those ribs, one finds the pure electric green flesh of the leaf. Observation of such pure, translucent life—illuminated by the morning sun—has a cleansing effect. No one would sell individual upturned leaves because their value is overlooked. But they are just as beautiful, if not more beautiful, than a flower.
A world of only pretty flowers would be an offense to the eyes. It would be painful to look at. The way that staring at pixels on a screen always leaves one feeling sapped of energy. The intoxicating colors promising peace never but never once providing peace. Green leaves are needed to balance the shock of a flower’s color.
Moreover, a leaf will long outlive the fleeting flower. Indeed, it is the leaf that provides the energy for the flower’s existence. A flower is beautiful for a moment, then droops into ugliness. A leaf changes color, stoically. Then takes flight in the autumn wind.
In this way, the nurse with the long fingers was not pretty. She was something entirely separate from pretty. She was life giving.
Her eyes were crisp mocha, the light morning roast. They smiled from behind oval lenses framed in muted silver. There was a white speck of dust on the left lens, the length of a sand grain. It corkscrewed like a cavatappi noodle. It was so minutely small, if it were even one atom thinner, it would run the risk of slipping back into the realm of the unmanifested. Allowing my gaze to move through her glass lenses—monumentally thick in comparison—I studies her eyes.
I pay very close attention to eyes now. Sometimes, I find that the clarity of one’s eyes speaks to the clarity of their mind. A steady mind will have steady eyes. A mind carrying a heavy burden of thought may have clouded eyes or eyes that dart about, avoiding the gaze of others. Nurse Naomi had the eyes of a nun. Unobstructed. Deep. Emitting as much light as they absorbed.
She had finished her litany of questions, but she was still doing an incredible amount of typing. I imagined what she was writing.
Is the patient still sitting in the chair next to my desk? Yes. Is the patient positioned in such a way that I can see him, but he cannot see my screen? Yes. Jeans? Blue. Does he have a small or big crotch bulge? Average. Wrist watch? Silver with leather strap. Expensive? Mmmm… Somewhat. Sneakers? Cheap. Jacket? Blue. Ball cap? Blue with Montana patch. Did he bring a book or phone or both? Both. What’s the book about? It is the Jataka Tales; Past Life Stories of the Buddha. Does he sit with eyes open or closed? Open. What are his eyes doing? They are, oh! They’re lookin’ at me. Oh, no…now they’re looking at the dust on the bottom of the wheelie digital coatrack read-out thing. Is he bothered by the dust? No, he finds it interesting. Why? Because he is fascinated with the fact…no… backspace backspace delete. He is fascinated with the truth, that no matter how hard we try to keep things clean and tidy, nature turns everything to dust. Oh! Now his eyes are closed. Backspace backspace delete. Does he look peaceful? Yes. Is he meditating? Yes. Well, that’s…backspace backspace delete…
“Alright! Finally,” she tapped the last key with conviction. “The front desk keeps messaging me on here! Maybe you should make a meditation class for nurses,” she laughed.
This VA Hospital was rated one of the top in the country, and I could see why. As I moved from one room to the next—nurse, doctor, front desk, pharmacy tech, to lab—I was guided with southern smiles and “ya-know-where-you’re-goin?” by a total of 12 people, all women. Every man I saw was a vet. A couple of the younger guys wore shirts with slogans; Join the marines, travel to exotic distant lands, meet exciting unusual people, and kill them. Another guy had a black t-shirt with an ISIS Hunting Permit emblazoned across his chiseled chest.
The older veterans sported ballcaps with their medals sewn on the front. Vietnam usually. I like the ones with embroidered battleships. The oldest men were pushed in chairs by their wives or daughters or sons. I imagined what they did back then. Where they went. The endless sun, the taste of salty ocean.
“Yes ma’am!” I stood up. The elderly lab technician in the white coat waved at me.
“Come on back!” She smiled.
I rattled it off as she unrolled the freshly printed stickers for the blood vials.
“That’s you alright! Ok, let’s see here…” She began to grab vials with purple tops, green tops, orange tops, yellow tops. Twelve in total.
“How are you feelin’ this morning young man?”
“Think I’m about to be feeling a lot lighter.”
She chuckled and pated my arm.
“And you? How’s your day going?”
“Peachy. I’m retired, and I just do this for fun really. It’s good to know where you’re supposed to be, is what I always say. Qnd I love talkin to you veterans.” She tightened the blue rubber band around my bicep. Her name was May. “Like the month,” she said.
“Sounds like you got it pretty good, May.”
She agreed with a wink that sparkled under the fluorescent lights.
“You got plans for the weekend?” I asked.
“I do! It’s my grandson’s seventh birthday.” Her smile waned briefly, “and the anniversary of my mother’s death.” She absentmindedly stroked the vein in the crook of my arm like she was petting the head of a just-born puppy.
“On the same exact day,” I said.
May nodded, unsheathing the silvery intravenous catheter. There was a sharp pinch, quickly turning cool as metal and plastic slid into my arm.
“Was it recently?”
“Oh no. Long time ago. She was just forty-seven. Died right there on the softball field. Heart attack.” She cycled the vials with ease, filling each. “I always say Benjamin is like a gift from my mother. She knew I was sufferin, so she gave me Benji.”
“Benjamin is your grandson?”
“Yes. I’ve been blessed with some sweet babies. Benjamin, Tessa, Michael, Melissa, Jeffery, Hank—but we call him Tray—Joseph, Jimmy, Janell, and Elizabeth. But Benji, he’s my favorite.” She blushed and glanced up at me. “I know they say you shouldn’t have favorites, but I just don’t think that’s how life really works. Good book says God loved David above all else, so seems like he had some favorites too,” she laughed.
She continued to fly through her family tree at a dizzying pace. Names after names flowed from her lips. While she spoke, the image of that family tree blossomed in my mind—fresh and green and growing. I imagined the roots of that tree sinking their fingers deeper into rich soil. When she sighed and said, “but he’s dead now,” or, “she passed last winter,” I imagined a leaf turning yellow, then orange, then red. Then I watched as the wind pulled it into the sky—making room for a new green bud.
Each name uttered caused a different sense of joy to fill our small section of the blood lab, like a splash of mountain water. It was peculiar. I was losing blood but I was being refilled with something warmer, more invigorating.
I studied her. Short wispy, red hair; a style popular with the more senior church crowd. The sweetest smile. Her lips expertly lined and colored a warm peach.
May paused for a moment, as though suddenly caught up in a memory that wouldn’t be denied.
“One minute she was shielding her eyes from the sun with her mitt, trying to catch a pop fly. Next minute she was lyin’ in the grass.” She wiped her brow with the back of her forearm. “Afterwards…well, I was just 8 years old but I knew she wasn’t lookin for that ball. She was lookin to heaven. I hope she saw God’s arm reachin down to scoop her up.” May capped one vile and unscrewed another.
As she spoke more about her late mother and Benji, a white heat began to expand across my forehead, vibrating softly toward my temples. It subsided there, and the hair on the back of my neck stood. I closed my eyes, observing the strange surge of energy coursing through my body.
“Almost done,” she smiled. “You have a peace to you, young man. Like still water. Anyone ever tell you that?”
“Thank you, May. That means a lot to me.”
“Strangest thing,” she said, tugging on the end of the blue rubber strap, releasing it.
“My sweet baby Benji is calm like that too. Refused to cry when he was born. Just looked at everyone with those big blue eyes like he’d been here a thousand times before.” She stared off into space for a moment. I thought she was looking at that red box where they put needles and sharp things, but she wasn’t.
Her gaze spanned lifetimes.
“My mama…she was the same way, so calm and beautiful and peaceful. Daddy always said she was just shy of perfect because she had a birthmark on her chest. Just a little star right above her heart, that God must have put there so he could tell her apart from the angels, is what he always told me.”
She pressed a pad of gauze and pulled the catheter from my vein. “Put pressure here.”
I obliged, feeling the gentle pulse of my life ticking away beneath my fingertips, like seconds dropping from the hands of the clock on the wall behind her.
She began to carefully stow away her supplies. “Then my Benji comes, all these years later. And the first time he’s in my arms lookin up at me, so perfect and new, I spot that little star just above his heart.”
The expansion in my forehead narrowed to a sharp point between my eyes, then shattered, sending a shiver down my spine that reverberated out my fingers and toes.
We sat there for a moment, smiling at one another. Neither of us saying a word.
She patted my hand. “Well, I expect we all find our way back home sooner or later. Don’t we?”