“I’m sleepy,” Sam grunted. “Put me to bed.”
“You are always in such a hurry,” I said, dabbing shaving cream on his chin.
He looked up at me with pleading eyes.
“It’s only 7 o’clock, Sam,” as I carefully shaved the bristles of his beard.
“Sam, how about those Eagles today? They put up some points, huh?”
He shrugged his shoulders, not caring about the game. Football was his sore spot in a world of sore spots. Talking about football reminded him of the days when he was strong and not trapped in a gnarled and spasmodic body. From what I heard, he was a talented athlete with the speed, size, and strength the college scouts were looking for.
Sam’s words came out in grunts. The doctor said his throat tightens when he tries to talk. At first, I couldn’t understand him, but now I can hear every word.
He pointed to the towel and motioned for me to finish quickly.
“Hold on, big guy,” I said. “Be patient. You’ll be in bed in no time. You wouldn’t want me to shave you fast and accidentally cut your face, would you?”
Sam looked up with his sad hazel eyes as if to say, I didn’t mean to be so high maintenance. But I understood his impatience. He wanted to get out of his uncomfortable wheelchair, lay in bed, close his eyes, and forget. The bed was his sanctuary, the only place where he could have privacy and escape a world that made him feel defective.
“You must be tired of watching all those reruns of The Waltons,” I said.
Sam shook his head. I wondered what went through Sam’s head. He must be envious of me. While the health care aides help him at night, I go home to my girlfriend in a cozy apartment. I could drive anywhere and eat anything I wanted, while Sam was limited by his wheelchair and the house manager’s food selection.
He grunted and rocked his wheelchair.
“Jeez, you’re wound up tonight.”
I brushed and flossed his teeth, making sure I got out all the bits of roast beef from dinner. Then he gargled mouthwash and spat it into the sink.
Earlier, I told him to chew his food before swallowing so he doesn’t choke, and I reminded him when I had to do the Heimlich Maneuver. I gave him three abdominal thrusts, and he coughed up a piece of chicken on the third. He nearly died that day, but now, he’s obsessed with chewing his food because he knows I watch him like a hawk.
My nagging about being patient pisses him off.
He rocks in his chair and bangs the table.
“Now, don’t act like a six-year-old,” I said.
He may get angry with me, but I know he appreciates that I care for him. If he doesn’t, he should. I wipe the drool off his lips every fifteen minutes and push his wheelchair all day. I have to clean his butt and spoon-feed meals. Not to mention changing catheter tubes, poopy diapers, and having to make sure his groin is powdered after a shower so it doesn’t chafe. Of all the jobs I could have done, I perhaps chose the crappiest one. But when I go home at night, I know I have helped someone.
I’ve worked with Sam for four years and heard his grunts and groans. I know his non-verbal prompts to put cream on his dry, scaly skin. I know when he’s hungry and sleepy. And I know when he’s sad. I can read Sam like a book.
Most days, I like Sam. And there isn’t a day that doesn’t go by that I wish he weren’t stuck in a wheelchair. I’d give anything for him to walk and feel independent, drive a car, have a girlfriend, and play sports once again. But that will never happen. A drunken driver made sure of that when he rammed into Sam after a high school football game. The car was a mangled mess, and they had to cut it open to get Sam out. By that time, he was paralyzed.
“Time to crank you up to the sky, Sam,” I said after strapping him into the Hoyer lift.
He had a shitty grin when I hoisted him up in the Hoyer lift, rising awkwardly over my bed. Sometimes, I cranked him higher than usual, his head almost touching the ceiling, and he got a kick out of it, even laughing. It’s like an amusement park ride for a disabled six-foot-six, three-hundred-pound man dangling above the bed like a giant angel.
“Now we’re going to make a soft landing,” I said, slowly moving Sam toward the bed’s center.
But something went wrong. I could see the straps slipping in his harness. His limp body began to ooze like pouring molasses from the bottom of the Hoyer lift. I knew it would happen one day, a mistake, a malfunction. He was too big and heavy.
Sam squirmed out of the harness, and before I could stop his descent, he tumbled on the meaty part of his butt and onto the cold linoleum floor. There he lay, helpless, mangled in his disability. Sam had a surprised look on his face, not expecting this. I stood over him, wondering how to get him back into bed. I nervously rubbed my hands together, pacing the floor, until finally, I sat in frustration, holding my head. I felt like crying, but I didn’t. It would be unprofessional.
“Your mom’s probably going to sue the hell out of me, Sam. I’ll probably be blacklisted from the field.”
He smiled and nodded.
“I’m sorry I screwed up your evening,” I said. “I know you’re tired.”
“Don’t worry,” Sam groaned.
“I don’t know how we’re going to get you back. I can’t lift you, and the Hoyer lift looks broken.”
“Call 911,” he groaned.
His garbled words grunted louder. “Call 911!”
“Oh, Christ, Sam. Call 911! You’re right—it’s an emergency!”
In about fifteen minutes, two bulky police officers were at the door. I explained what happened and that Sam was an ex-football player, very tall, and weighed over three hundred pounds. I said that Sam had paraplegia due to an automobile accident during his senior year of college and was pretty much dead weight.
“No problem,” the police officer said.
The two cops exchanged strategies while Sam and I looked on.
One cop said, “I’ll get him under the shoulders, and you two grab a leg. I will count to three, and we’ll lift him onto the bed, got it?”
“Got it,” I said.
With a picture-perfect lift and heave, the two officers and I got Sam safely on the bed and out of harm’s way.
The men stayed until I navigated Sam safely to the middle of the bed without any more mishaps and put up the safety rails. I thanked the two men, and Sam gave them a thumbs-up sign. A smile spread across his face as if his team had just won the State Championship in football. For a brief instant, I didn’t see Sam as a mangled young man with bedsores but as a football player who helped his team win.
I made sure Sam was comfortable, his head propped with two pillows, and a blanket covered his feet. Then I turned off the lights and thanked him for helping me.