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Authors: Stephen P. Kiernan

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BOOK: The Hummingbird
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I saw that Cheryl had pulled one of the dining chairs into the entry. Rising from the seat, she held a finger to her lips.

“What’s up?” I whispered.

“We had a rough night last night.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

She motioned me into the living room, where she recapped the previous eight hours. “He just got grouchier and grouchier.”

I scanned her notes on his chart. “For this one, that sounds normal.”

“Way worse. Shouting at the television, at me, at his own body. I came in and he was jabbing himself in the side with one of the remotes. Look—” She went to the kitchen counter, bringing back a remote controller. The plastic casing was split. “It was like he was trying to stab his own kidney.”

“Ouch. How much pain medicine did you give him?”

“He declined everything. He said lucidity was his only strength. Also that he did not trust me.”

“Cheryl, he doesn’t trust any of us.” I turned the cracked device over in my hand. Broken pencils, broken remotes, that kind of a morning. “Does he have any notion of what’s ahead?”

Cheryl peered at me over her glasses. “Who would have told him?”

“Someone must have. I mean he has already given explicit orders against more diagnostic testing. He did that in writing when Timmy was here.”

Cheryl took the remote and tapped it against her chin. “We don’t need tests to know what the situation here is, do we?”

“Not really. So what did you do?”

“I tried to reason with him. It was clear he was in tremendous pain. About two hours ago, he finally gave in. Like he’d set a goal of sunrise? It was a miserable haul until then, poor guy. I gave him a good dose, and now he’s getting a deep break. If lucidity is one of his values, though, that’s far from ideal. If we could just convince him to let us get ahead of it . . .”

“I’m with you,” I said. “And there’s my goal for the day.”

“I don’t know.” Cheryl smirked. “With what it took to get that pain under control, I hope you brought something to read. He’ll be out for a while.”

Barclay Reed snoozed till afternoon, waking with a bundle of needs. Because he’d slept with his mouth open, he was desperately thirsty. I refilled his jug and brought a fresh straw. He sucked and gulped, the whole time keeping his eyes trained on me. I suspect the Professor intended to appear intimidating; actually, he looked like a little boy. I offered to wipe his gums with glycerin too, to re-establish decent pH and moisture levels. But once I’d prepared the swab, he snatched it from me and did the job himself.

Although the task was less strenuous than brushing his teeth, it left him depleted. I took the stick from his lax fingers and tossed it in the trash.

The morphine had corked the Professor’s digestion, too. I gave him a mild laxative and heated some apple-onion soup I’d brought earlier. Then I spoon-fed him, his arms flaccid on the bed while he gulped and swallowed and opened his mouth for more. When I set the bowl aside, perhaps to prove he had the strength, he lifted one hand to scratch his chin. Instantly he frowned at me, hard, with his whole face.

“What is it?” I said. “What do you need?”

“Someone here that I can trust.”

I didn’t blink. “To perform what task?”

“Nurse Birch, I am a highly credentialed scholar. I have a PhD, and thirty-one years with tenure. I’ve published nine books, each one recognized for its depth, substance, and historical import.”

“Yes, I know. Very impressive.”

“Yet look at me.”

“I’d say your color is pretty good for the night you just had.”

“Not my color, blast it.” He bugged his eyes at me in disbelief. “My whiskers. I am not some pseudo-scholar, hiding his ignorance behind the costume sagacity of a beard. I am accustomed to impeccability. Today, between my fatigue and that contemptible dullard medicine your night witch forced upon me, I lack the stamina to maintain a proper appearance.”

It was true. He had a white scruff on his neck and face, though to me it didn’t look bad. “Would you like me to shave you?”

“Nurse Birch, would I like to swim in a river filled with crocodiles? Of course not. But if it is the only way to reach the other side?”

“You could wait till someone else comes, someone you place more confidence in.”

“And risk a colleague or former student visiting and finding me like this? Unacceptable.”

I was about to say that he did not seem to have guests of that kind, or visitors at all, when I realized how cruel it would sound. “Professor Reed, here’s what I’d like to suggest. How about if I shave you, and you coach me all the way? Every step, and we’ll do it just the way you like.”

He narrowed his eyes at me.

I smiled. “I suspect you might even enjoy giving me instruction.”

“Bah. You annoy me, Nurse Birch. But what alternative do I have?”

He was fussy, and I loved it. We spent easily five minutes getting the water in the sink to the proper temperature—which I thought was just shy of scalding but he praised as ideal. I locked his wheelchair in front of the mirror and watched him stretch to see his reflection, while I rolled up my sleeves and placed towels on his chest to shield him from the wet.

The Professor used an old-fashioned brush and a bar of bay-scented shaving soap. Fortunately, his razor was normal. He barked at me to shape his sideburns identically; they had to be perfect before I could move on to anywhere else. I did just as he commanded.

Over the next few minutes, though, the atmosphere changed. As I proceeded down his face, and across, he couldn’t speak or I might cut him. And I was bent close, concentrating. Inch by inch down the length of his frame, Barclay Reed began to relax. Maybe it was the hot water, the humid room, or maybe the simple experience of allowing someone to care for him.

The feelings were mutual. For me, there was the gratification of providing an intimate service without compromising his dignity. It was not just a bit of hygienic care; it was also a meeting place. By the time he raised his chin so I could shave his throat, the Professor was calm and still.

When I had finished, I razored over everything again, drained the soapy water, and washed his whiskers from the sides of the sink. He remained quiet the whole time. I was in no mood to break the spell. I toweled his face dry and set his shaving kit exactly where it had been beforehand.

“Where did you learn to do that?” he said at last.

“I used to shave my husband. I did it for years.”

“Every day?”

“If we weren’t in a hurry.”

“Your concentration revealed something, however.” Barclay Reed assessed his reflection, turning his face this way and that. “You don’t do it anymore.”

I continued drying my hands. “How do you know that?”

He ignored my question. “What happened?”

I drew back one step. He wanted to walk on personal ground.

It seemed that the Professor had softened the slightest bit, his eyes one degree less pinched. Also he had shown concern for me, which I hadn’t expected. I hesitated. I wanted the moment to last. Then I relaxed the professionalism an inch, almost the way he had lowered the newspaper a day before. “He had to go away for a while. When he came back, he didn’t want me to shave him anymore.”

“Nonsense. It is a great pleasure to be shaved. Where did he go to learn such foolishness?”

“To war,” I said. “He went away to war.”

The Professor moved his chin in a circle, stretching his neck as though he wore a too-tight tie. “A dark place to obtain an education. Nonetheless, I would imagine any husband who survived a war would want his wife to shave him more than ever.”

Ouch. But I nodded. “So you would think.”

“That change is quite articulate about your overall situation.”

I didn’t answer.

“Yes. Diminished intimacy. Reduced contact. Perhaps loneliness.”

I sat there, thinking: See if I ever lower my guard with you again, mister.

The Professor cleared his throat. “Do something with me, Nurse Birch.”

“Excuse me?”

“Anything. I have missed an entire morning and some of the afternoon, out of the frustratingly small supply remaining to me. I’m desperate to do something so the day is not an entire waste.”

I roused myself. This patient had just caused me pain, speaking about Michael with such accuracy. But the situation in this house was not about me; providing hospice care was always about the patient. Also I happened to know exactly where we could go.

through the garden without bogging down or harming the plants. He raised a hand to stop me when we reached the azaleas, which were at their peak: abundant, pink, and fragrant.

The Professor scowled. “Don’t you find them shameful?”

“Should I?”

“They are so flagrant. So unapologetic.”

“That’s how they attract bees, though. They have to be showy to survive.”

“If only there were an analogous opportunity for me,” he said. “I would willingly perfume myself and wear pink if that would prolong my life.”

I chuckled. “Actually, a few things could make a difference. In how long you live and how well you live. If you want, I can tell you about them.”

“If I want.” He folded his hands in his lap. I was standing behind him, holding the wheelchair handles, so I could not see his face. “What I want, Nurse Birch, is to know what will occur. Likely you know as much about death as I do about the Pacific Theater in 1942.”

“I doubt that, Professor Reed.”

“Don’t patronize me. I am asking for something important.” He pointed at a little wrought-iron bench in the garden. “Sit there, please, and tell me in plain language.”

The bench was painted dark glossy green. I sat leaning forward, forearms on my thighs, putting our faces on the same level. “Ask away.”

He cleared his throat. “My prognosis, please. The unvarnished truth.”

Barclay Reed had gone to that place right away. I read it to mean that he was prepared to hear everything. “You have kidney cancer with multiple metastases. The five-year survival rate is five percent.”

“I presume the process is irreversible?”


I expected a reaction, but the Professor only nodded. “Continue.”

“Well. You may experience more pain, worse than last night, because there are bones involved.” I slowed because I was nearing the crux. “Last night you declined help for your symptoms, which is your prerogative. But I urge you to reconsider.” I stood, stepping toward him. “For many patients—”

“Halt right there. No drama, Nurse Birch. Just give me the prognosis.”

“All right.” I went back to the bench. The stones beneath were coated with moss. I looked at his profile, the large old man’s nose, his stubborn jaw. “What else would you like to know?”

“A great deal.” The Professor bent forward, his face inches from the pink blossoms. He took a noisy sniff. “For now, tell me this: What goes last?”

“What do you mean?”

He blew on the petals, which fluttered from his breath. I thought, what ideal circumstances for this conversation. When it is time to hear some of life’s hardest news, who would not want his face surrounded by flowers?

“At present, I am enjoying a floral scent. My sense of smell and my appreciation of it prove that I remain a sentient being. At some point I will cease to be sentient. What will be the last part of Barclay Reed to go?”

“Oh, I see. The ears go last. Research indicates that hearing functions till the very end. Which creates an important opportunity, actually. If there is something you’d like to be hearing, a favorite piece of music, or—”

“Ha.” He sat back. “I know precisely what I would like to hear at the end.”

“What is it? I can make sure that happens for you.”

He scoffed. “Impossible.”

“It’s not, though. I’ve done that many times. Especially with music.”

“I said it is impossible.”

I knew better than to push. Another day.

Meanwhile the Professor ran his hands up and down the chair arms. “How long will all of this take?”

I dug my thumbnail into the bench’s metal scrollwork. “It’s hard to predict.”

“Nurse Birch, you are weakest when you are evasive.”

“I’m not evading anything. Each person is different.”

“Your best estimate, then.”

“Anywhere from four weeks to ten.”

“What? The oncologist told me six months at a minimum.”

“Oncologists know lots of things that I don’t,” I said. “But they are notoriously over-optimistic. Maybe he wanted to give you hope.”

“Hope?” The Professor sneered. “To a dying man, hope is a cruel lie.”

“No sir,” I said. “There are many kinds of hope. You can hope to live longer. You can hope to complete unfinished business, professional or financial. Or spiritual.”

His frown was instantaneous. “Oh please.”

“Well,” I persisted. “You can hope to minimize your suffering.”

“You keep bringing that up,” he said, leaning into the azaleas again. “Why?”

“I want you to consider preemptive analgesia.”


“If a nerve gets energized, it takes more medicine to quiet it. But if you act before the problem starts, it requires less dosage. You can still function.”

BOOK: The Hummingbird
12.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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