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Author of three books, Jean Baur’s first two books are career books, and her most recent book, “Joy Unleashed: The Story of Bella, the Unlikely Therapy Dog”, is in its third printing. Jean has had short stories and poems published in a wide range of literary journals and she recently won first prize from Mystic Seaport for her poem about the Mystic River. She spent the past year as a volunteer reader for Ploughshares–an amazing education.


Trigger Warning

I didn’t know the name of the medication. Or why they were on it. Or anything at all really about old people. Or sick ones. It was the mid-60s and I was a college student with a job for the summer in a facility with a poetic name–a name that had nothing to do with the lives imprisoned there. The Seasons. It took me less than a week to figure out that there was only one season–the dead of winter or more accurately, hell.

I don’t remember now how I got hired, but my job was to do whatever the staff wanted, although I didn’t have to change diapers or strip soiled bedding off the sagging beds or clean up vomit. I fetched things, followed the staff around like an obedient dog, and tried to make a difference. Take Mrs. C., for example, who was tied to her chair and had a long face like a Basset Hound. She couldn’t remember my name, so she called me “Sweetie.”

“Oh, Sweetie,” she’d crow the moment she saw me.

“Good morning, Mrs. C.”

“Come get… here.”

I did.

“Can you get me out of this thing?”

That’s not the way she said it. She said: “Can you…I have to….don’t…you know…hurts. Off.”

That’s the way she talked.

I felt like Hansel and Gretel lost in a deep woods, following bread crumbs. I put my hand on her shoulder and tested her restraints. They were tight but not too tight.

“These keep you from falling down. Falling off your chair.”

Her eyes glazed over.


Then the tears came. Big ones sliding down the caverns of her cheeks.

I looked around to see if any staff were nearby but was surrounded by a wasteland of slumped bodies.

“I’m sorry.”

“Not!” she blubbered, the tears now a torrent.

I found a Kleenex and wiped her face.

A man was screaming for water.

“I’ll be back,” I told her and got a plastic cup of water for him. He gulped down half of it and threw the rest at me.

“Oh, my,” I said, trying to deflect his anger. “Do you think I need a shower?”

I had a big wet spot on my skirt that looked as if I had wet myself.

He glared at me.

Pill Nurse was making her rounds. Little cups with orange, white, green pills. Pills that I soon learned were more powerful than the restraints. The kicker Thorazine. A drug for those with mental problems or dementia–a drug that terrorized the patients’ facial muscles, gave them stiff necks, trouble breathing, or made them light headed, confused, agitated and jittery. Best of all, it knocked them out. It was a three martini drug making the staff’s work easier. No one was going to run away or demand better care or complain about the food. Not on Thorazine.

“Down the hatch,” said Pill Nurse, and inserted her fingers into the patient’s mouth to make sure they had gone down the little red lane as my mother used to call it. If a pill came out or was tucked into a cheek, she pushed it back into their throat where they either swallowed it or gagged and threw up. She was a fish hook. Barbed and dangerous. I tried to stay on her good side, but the patients couldn’t. They couldn’t help who they were. And with the drugs, they lost what little volition they had left and became salt in the wound that was her life.

Pills done she asked me to follow her into a patient’s room. A small room with a bed, a table and a window letting in the summer light. And a twig, a bone collection of a patient in the bed. Her mouth open. Eyes sunk deep into her skull.

“Is she–”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

I held a towel while she gave this specter of death a sponge bath. The woman didn’t move or talk, and I wasn’t really sure she was breathing.

Pill Nurse gave me the wash basin to dump in the sink and told me to check on the patients out on the terrace. A bevy of twisted bodies with flat eyes and cotton speech. Would they even know I was there? At least outside the smell wasn’t as bad. There was a slight breeze, the full green and lustrous trees waving like happy flags around this prison of disintegrating lives.

Back inside Pill Nurse was yelling at Mrs. C.

“No, you can’t go home. This is home. This is where you live and where you’ll die, and you need to stop complaining.”

“But this is what is Rodney here.”

Rodney was her son. She meant I don’t belong here and where is my son.

I don’t know how I deciphered her garbled speech, but maybe because I was an English major and read a lot of poetry, it came to me.

She repeated her demand, louder this time. Glaring.

“Stop yelling!” snarled Pill Nurse, taking Mrs. C’s chin in her hand so she had to look at her.

“Bitch!” screamed Mrs. C. and burst out laughing. A terrible laugh like cloth ripping.

Pill Nurse would have hit her except that I was in the room, watching.

“Get your work done!” she snapped at me. “Make sure everyone has juice.”

I got the tray of little plastic cups of apple juice from the kitchen, the cook a huge woman who was not jolly, her eyes narrow slits–windows in a fortress.

I had to hold the cup for several of the patients, otherwise it sat there. The smell of apple juice reminded me of kindergarten–of lining up in the school hallway, following orders, the rules a mystery to me, and my teacher, a woman in love with her clicker.

Click, clack, right in my ear because I colored outside the lines.

Click, clack again because I was talking as we lined up for lunch.

Click, clack when I couldn’t write my name on the blackboard.

“Too slow,” said Pill Nurse. “It will be lunchtime by the time you fuss over everyone.” Click, clack.

I sped up and had to leave some patients on their own. Their eyes and crumbling voices followed me. Their frail hands lifted as if they could hold on to a wisp of me that would save them.

When my mother picked me up in the late afternoon, she told me I looked tired.

“It’s awful, Mom.”

She nodded, navigating up the steep dirt roads to our house.

“They’re not getting better. No one holds their hand or sings to them or tells them that they love them.”

“I will not go like that,” declared my mother.

“Me neither,” but then I realized that none of the patients I was caring for thought that either. They once had vibrant, independent lives. They were daughters, sons, husbands, sisters, and had jobs and children and went to parties.

And then of course I had to quote Dylan Thomas as we pulled into our long driveway:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I told Mom that if Mrs. C. were reciting this poem it would be:

No not
Let me out
I will not
Get off
Me now.

Mom patted me on the leg. She liked Mrs. C’s version. As did I. Her voice screaming at Pill Nurse came back to me and I smiled for the first time all day. She knew how to rage and had looked that poor excuse of a nurse square in her hateful and icy blue eyes and had branded her with the wonderful and ugly truth: “Bitch.”


The next day was worse and the one after that agony topped off by a confrontation with Pill Nurse and my boss. Same old complaint: “You’re way too slow. We’re not paying you to fuss over people.”

And stupid me:  “But they need it. Need someone to care.”

“Not your job, and we don’t have favorites. Your relationship with Mrs. C. is way out of line.”

“She loves me.” And I her.

A harsh laugh as Pill Nurse bears down on me. Before I know it, I’m in the director’s office–a man who never sees the patients but who appreciates the money their families spend to keep them here. He wears a pinky ring and a chain bracelet and a tie clip. All metal. All hard and glittering. His eyes are hard without the glitter.

“What’s the problem?” he asks me in a voice that makes it very clear that he already has the answer and above all, really doesn’t care.

“I don’t know.”

“You must know. Nurse says you’re slow. That you spend too much time with the residents and don’t follow directions.”

He must have said the real name for Pill Nurse, but I don’t remember it now. I have never followed directions unless they make sense to me. I can’t tell him that.

“I do my best to care for them.”

His alligator eyes glaze over. Heavy lidded. I’m thinking I’m only here for two months so what’s the big deal?

“I expect improvement.”

He talks like a robot. No inflection. Flat and sharp. An arrowhead.

What kind of improvement? To move through the ward as if they’re already dead? To do the least amount of work possible? To suck up to Pill Nurse and make her happy? I don’t think so.

I nod. That’s the most I can give him.

“You’re on probation.”

I may have heard the word before but since I’m only 19 and this is just my second job, I’m not really sure what it means.

“No improvement and we’ll have to let you go.”

And who will care for these broken people tied in their chairs? I want to ask. Who will bring them juice and hold the cup for them and put a soft hand on their shoulders? Can you tell me that? Who will greet sorrow with kindness? 

I stand up and leave the room. Pill Nurse smirks at me. Mrs. C. is screaming for Rodney. The man who threw water at me is slumped over so far in his chair that his head is almost resting on his knees. The smell of rotting flesh and excrement and the Jean Nate cologne that they think covers up the stench gags me.

I walk slowly to the break room where I keep my lunch. I pick it up, take one long look back into the ward, send a prayer to Mrs. C. for whatever comfort she can find, watch the back of Pill Nurse leave the room to get her arsenal of drugs, and without a word or a moment’s hesitation, head straight for the front door, out to the portico, down the long drive to the main road. I turn right, and in less than a mile I turn right again onto the dirt road that leads to home. It’s steep, and I hear my breath and feel the strength of my legs and a song matches my rhythm–one of the Civil Rights songs that I love: “Aint Going to Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”

I hum it cautiously, but because there is no one near me, just trees and a few houses set back from the road, I sing it louder, and with only a few miles to go before I reach home, I blast the summer air with the full power of my voice: “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round, turn me ’round, turn me ’round, Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round, I’m gonna keep on a walkin’, keep on a-talkin’, Marching up to freedom land.”

And then I laugh, and my voice carries with it Mrs. C’s voice, and I sing the same verse again and again, unrestrained, louder each time, as we’re marching up to freedom land.

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