Saturday, January 17, 2015

Saturday Musings, 17 January 2015

Good morning,

As I made my coffee this morning not in the coffee maker but in a French press, with water poured from a tea kettle, I thought about the first cup of coffee that I drank for purposes of staying awake.  A long time ago it was; in a turreted building in North St. Louis County, St. Vincent De Paul Psychiatric Hospital. And I am taken back to that time, as I nibble half of a half of a gluten-free bagel with sunflower seed butter here in Kansas City.  I close my eyes and I am seventeen again, and a ward clerk on 3-South.

The head nurse on my floor, Sister Kenneth Anne, stands in front of me in a starched white habit with its small modern collar.  Her smooth face and arched eyebrows regard me as I transcribe orders.  I don't know what she wants; I feel a shudder run through my body.  I cast my glance around to see if I have done something to displease her.  Then she says, in her dry unruffled voice, "Have you had your break?" and I feel my stomach unknot. 

I shake my head.  She gestures toward the half-open Dutch door and tells me that I had better go now, we're expecting several admissions in the afternoon.  I put my pen down on the table and stand, smoothing the stiff polyester of the uniform that I wear as a clerk on the acute ward.  It's ugly,  pale blue but made from indestructible fabric that  hides the female form.  I don't care.  I'm stick-thin and look awful in it.  I haven't yet begun to fill out, something I won't do for several years and then only when a Brown recluse spider bites me, sends me to bed with prednisone for company, and I start to fill out in places that will disturb me. 

But then, in 1972, I look boyish.  My long hair is braided and wrapped around my skull.  I have no hips, no bosom, no curves.  And the uniform, which does not bend, renders me even more flat and unappealing.  

I take myself down the hallway and let myself out the door with a fat key on a laden ring.  I walk the dingy corridor to the old elevator and descend to the floor where the break area is located in a large, high-ceilinged hall.  I slot some coins in a machine, get a diet soda and a packet of peanut butter crackers, and sit at a table far in the back of the huge room.  Clusters of nurses come into the area and sit together with their packed lunches.  They pay me no attention.  I pass the twenty minutes in solitude and then drop the plastic wrapper of my crackers into a trash bin and go to the third floor, letting myself in, walking past the dining room where a few lethargic patients still linger over lunch.

When I get back to the nurse's station, Sister Kenneth Anne stands with Dr. Craig, the head psychiatrist.  Big-boned, ginger-haired, Irish, Dr. Craig flirts unabashedly with everyone: Me, the nuns, the patients.  As I enter the station, he drops his loose frame into the closest swivel chair and pulls a pile of papers towards him.  He scribbles orders, glances at records, shrugs and mutters while Sister Kenneth Anne stands unmoving and I busy myself straightening the supply cabinet, since the doctor is at my station in my chair, writing at my desk with my pen.  A fact that all three of us know but no-one mentions.

When Dr. Craig has finished writing admission orders for one of the new patients he turns his eyes towards me.  I squirm under his gaze.  I feel Sister Kenneth Anne's poie stiffen, as she continues to stand placidly just a few feet from the doctor.  The three of us maintain our positions.    Finally Dr. Craig carelessly tosses my pen on the table and pulls his frame upright, brushes past me in the narrow space, and tosses a glance over his shoulder at the silent nun.  "Good luck with this one," he tells her; and neither of us is quite sure who he means.  Then he exits and we watch  him walk unseeing down the long hallway to the ward's exit.

Sister Kenneth Anne says nothing but she shakes her head, a small motion but plain enough for me to see.  She lifts the orders from the table and hands them to me, bends down and swipes the chair with a tissue before she gestures for me to sit.  I am afraid to smile.

Just then, before I can take my place and start working on the new admission, a cry rises and we rush into form.  Sister Kenneth Anne heads to the door and says, with urgent authority, "Call the code," and I do so, Code red 3 South, over the phone to the operator who echoes it through the entire building.  The crew comes running.

I see the team rush into the dining room and do my part:  I lock down the station, secure the little medicine room, and monitor the phone.  Through the glass I watch the commotion until it subsides.  When everything has calmed, Sister Kenneth Anne comes back to the nursing station, her face passive, the only sign of the struggle in which she's engaged being a slight tremble in her upper lip.  She goes to the back counter, takes two Styrofoam cups down from the shelf above, and dispenses thick black sludge from the twenty-cup pot into each one.  She moves towards me, hands me one of the cups, and says, "Those people are crazy out there.  You better stay alert."

I drink, feeling the burn as the liquid passes down my throat and into my stomach.  We stand, Sister Kenneth Anne and I, behind the locked door, while the patients of 3 South settle back into their comfortable, crazy routine.

My coffee cools on the place mat beside the small table on which I write.  Its fragrance wafts towards me.  I think about how to describe the scent of coffee; I have no words for it.  I wonder whether Sister Kenneth Anne lives in some retirement community somewhere; but realize that she would be in her nineties by now, or maybe older; probably she has died.  I lift the blue ceramic cup from which I drink my coffee most mornings, the one Trudy gave me.  I raise it, heavenward, in a silent salute to the woman who got me started on this most pleasant addiction:  A woman who glared daggers at a lecherous doctor and held the hands of patients intent on doing themselves harm; with equal aplomb.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.