Letters To My Mother
Letters To My Mother Podcast
The Fat Old Lady and The Dead Boy

The Fat Old Lady and The Dead Boy

Letters to my Mother. The Podcast. (Trigger Warning - references to suicide). Life gives us no warning before turning up the heat.

Mrs Day was old and fat and mean. I am not being ageist or body shaming or whatever else you will accuse me of. I just say it how it is. Actually I hate that expression, ‘say it how it is’. Also I hate; ‘it is what it is’. Everything we say is subjective and partial. Nothing is ever how it is. And it never really is what it is. We bend and shape time and situations in the retelling to suit ourselves. And our own subconscious agendas. Don’t pretend to me that this not a thing. I am older remember. We interpret words and actions and we can even turn something fleeting and joyous into a grievance so huge it can never be forgiven. ( You know what I mean).

Mrs Day was a resident in the nursing home I worked in (we called them old folks homes back then) and she was a heavy lift and did not suffer fools. I was her nurse aide, very young and very green. New to the job. New back in the country. New Zealand. So she made mince meat of me. I was a teenager but I should have known better. This was before I was to go away to study to be a nurse, an objective I never got very far through because I started having babies way too young but there you have it - it is what it is.

But in this story of the fat lady and the dead boy I was only just eighteen. Back in New Zealand after spending a year as an exchange student in Illinois, USA.

I was small and sweet like an unspent coin. All shiny and hopeful. Virginal if you want to know the truth. The old folks home where I met Mrs Day and saw young Terry for the last time was also new and shiny, recently opened, beautifully decorated with seventies colours (green and orange) full of light and space and huge vases of autumnal flowers. I learnt more abut managing people there than anywhere since.

On this day I especially remember the light. The windows were large and clean and either slightly or fully open all year, winter and summer and each of the lounges looked out into lovely well tended gardens and acres of grass. the light filtering through the trees into the day lounge had a greenish underwater hue to it. The late summer, early autumn gold. Diffused.

Matron had a straight back and a beehive hairdo and ran that place like a naval frigate, everything was exactly where it should be, fully stocked and no nonsense. Preparation was key. Surprises were dealt with in a cool straight forward way. Hand over every morning was directed with precision and I was always handed Mrs Days ward of six women.

It was 1978 and Twiggy was my idol. I longed to have straight hair like her and I did have that androgyous body. Fabulous word androgynous. No hips, or boobs, all long waist and legs. I never wore a bra (none of us wore bras - they burnt them remember - until they invented push up bras in the 80’s or was it the 90’s which tempted us all back to bras). So imagine if you will this tall skinny girl with wild curly dark hair and long legs in a white nurses uniform with just one too many buttons undone, a white winged nurses cap, stockings, black lace up shoes and black eyeliner and long black eyelashes, those pale blue eyes and freckles and pink lip gloss, walking, never running, the long corridors of the old folks home thinking about where we would go after work.

I look back and see a child who had reached the height of a woman with no concept whatsoever of her power; we just loved to have fun. The nurses home was right beside the old folks home so we could be out of our uniforms and into our skimpy going out clothes within minutes of finishing work.

I did love that job. I was good at it - we were good at it - there were four of us aides, per wing, per shift, all young, laughing and singing loudly all day long and the old people adored us. A whole bunch of us lived in the nurses home. Actually often we nurses were laughing and singing because we had been out all night fast-dancing with boys until the early hours and if we did not dance and sing all day we would have fallen asleep on the beds we were meant to be making. My voice was good but Judy - my best friend on the wards and in the nurses home- she had a huge voice. Every now and then she would hurl herself at the piano in the good lounge and play loud rag tag music.

Judy and I would make beds at the speed of light- every bed was stripped and remade every day - we would work our way through the wards in a perfectly choreographed dance; a whirl of sheets and cotton blankets and woolen blankets and pillows. We were a scene. I can still strip a bed in seconds, remake it in minutes and turn a really tight hospital corner without even thinking.

These were the days before fitted sheets, and disposable gloves and sanitiser. We washed our hands with soap and hot water multiple times a day and tucked the sheets tightly under the mattresses.

There was one registered nurse per wing and all the rest of us were aides of varying experience. I had none. But we were all called nurse and expected to behave with the utmost respect and care. Which I loved. Matron was very strict about behaviour. The singing stopped the moment Matron appeared on the ward and we would hold our breath making wide eyes at our old ladies whose own eyes would sparkle back until they (the old ladies) gave us the nod that Matron was gone.

But then there was Mrs Day.

Mrs Day was in the full care hospital wing, she was as old as methuselah, she and a number of others, who could not walk unaided, were in this wing. She could not talk clearly either, due to the stroke that mired half her body into stiffness. As well as this, arthritis had twisted her hands into claws. So her one good hand, the one the stroke had not compromised, was useless too. She had no teeth and small clear dark eyes. She sat in her bed like a monstrous toad. She was mean. I called her The Frog. The young are merciless. But the very old will give us a run for our money. So don’t feel bad.

Mrs Day’s diet was a mouli diet, she could not chew or swallow well so all her food was ground up in a mouli, and we had to feed her with a spoon. If she did not like the food she would spit it straight back out at her nurse which was often me. She smelled nice though, never wet the bed, she was able to press the bell if she needed the toilet. Once I thought she winked at me from her good side. I winked back and she narrowed her eye at me and spat on the floor.

Still I loved working with old people. With my Mothers cancer in remission I felt freed to begin training as a nurse. At least I thought I wanted to be a nurse. A geriatric nurse actually. In those days us girls were expected to be nurses, teachers or mothers. Or nurses or teachers and then mothers. We were trained from childhood for these roles. But it was late summer this day and nursing school did not start for another couple of weeks so I was working in the old folks home to get some practical hours in.

We did a lot of lifting of people - moving them from one place to the next. You had to be very, very ill indeed or dying actually to be allowed to stay in bed all day. Lifting a large old person (the heavy lifts) is all about technique and partnership and preparation. Preparing the person you are lifting, placement of the wheelchair. Placement of your feet. Balance and movement. The swing. At the beginning of our training we would lift with another nurse. But after a while and if the person was in a hurry to get to the toilet, we would ignore protocol and lift the patient alone. Once you get to know someone a small person like myself (then about hundred pounds soaking wet) could lift a large person like Mrs Day (she was over two hundred pounds) down out of bed and into a wheelchair and off to the toilet, alone. Using their braced legs as a pivot. Most patients would help with a lift, having a little hug on their way past but not Mrs Day she would go very still and loose and helpless, laying in wait for an unguarded pocket. Mrs Days made our lives as difficult as possible and her signature move was to hook our pockets with her clawed hand and give the girl a good pull. Ripping the pocket right off was her goal. When I was new Mrs Day got me a beauty and we both went down. Neither of us was hurt but I am fairly sure Mrs Day cackled as we hit the floor. She fell onto me so my lifting partner had to call for help to check her and lift her off me and free us both. After that I was very careful with Mrs Day. She had no fear and no morals. We were her entertainment.

Once out of bed and toileted, the residents had their breakfast at a little table by the bed. Lunch and dinner were in one of the dining rooms. So after breakfast a person was showered and dressed. It was this training that taught me to think through my movements, to prepare three or four steps ahead, to lay all the clothes out in the order you put them on - how to dress a person in a chair. How to quickly hook false teeth out of the mouth. How to jolly a recalcitrant person into clothing and in fact back into life.

After breakfast, and once they were dressed, the residents were taken into day lounges for the morning until after lunch when it was naptime. Mrs Day would sit in her chair in her lounge, big garden windows beside her and literally attack the nurses with her claw hand. Remember, her objective was to rip our pockets right off. Her black button eyes would flash with fury and a cruel kind of glee as she exacted her revenge on us.

We had two deep pockets on our white nurses uniforms where we kept our tape and scissors and notebook and pens. I kept my watch in my pocket too we never wore watches on our wrists on the wards, there was too much risk of nipping or bruising the delicate skin on our residents arms during a lift. Watches were pinned to the bosom and a nurse with a nice rounded bosom could read her watch while taking a pulse just by looking down. I had no bosom so my watch lived in my pocket.

There were no phones, no electronic gadgets, blood pressure was taken with a cuff, temp was taken with a thermometer and the pulse was counted with a nurses fingers on her patients wrist.

Mrs Day would shriek with delight if she managed to rip off a pocket and fling all our stuff everywhere. We all learned to dance fast past her as she lunged at us. Matron would occasionally talk to her about her behaviour but Mrs Day did not care. She had lived through a war. She had dealt with the aftermath of mass murder. One of the other women in her room had been in the camps - she had a number tatooed into her wrist, she spoke only Polish, had no family left and licked her bowl clean. That woman screamed when we took her into the showers so I gave her a bed bath when it was my turn. We could not scare these old women. They had seen way worse than anything we could even imagine. They were fighters.

Her chart said Mrs Day was suffering from dementia that manifested itself in aggression but I thought she just didn’t care anymore. And that is a dangerous way to be.

It is here that substack encourages me to stop and only allow paid subscribers to hear the rest. But I can’t bear for you all to miss out- so read and listen on. But think about subscribing. And paying me a little for my writing.

On this day, the day our friend Terry died, I was sitting in the sunny lounge with the stroke patients, feeding Mrs Day and two others their soft mashed lunch. We used real plates and bowls and spoons in those days. No plastic wrapped plastic pretend food. No food in little plastic pottles. Everything was home cooked, every plate was crockery and washed in industrial dishwashers. The food was made in vast well staffed kitchens using fresh local ingredients delivered to the kitchen door, not to be fancy; this was just how it was. We ate real food. Everything was served on hot plates so the food was not cold and with domed metal covers. We had shiny cutlery and cotton serviettes and little towels to hold the hot dishes.

I had lined all my ladies up in their wheelchairs, by the window, put all their bibs on and sitting in front of them on a spare wheelchair, like a conducter, I was stirring the gravy into the mashed potatoes when Judy my singing piano playing nursing friend, flounced down the corridor, her feet slapping the floor, her arms rowing through the air. We all looked up.

She stopped about 6 feet from where I sat, we had all turned. She was wearing jeans and a black top. Not working today.

Terry is dead, she said. They are picking me up.

The walls receded until there was only that one word. Dead.

But we just saw him last night.

She nodded. Her movements small and grim. She smiled at me - it occurred to me that she was enjoying my shock. I was trying to think. I struggled for words. She watched me struggle. But I could not find the right words. She glared at me. She turned to walk away. The whole room went quiet.

But, I started.

She stopped and turned back to me, whipping back. He shot himself. She said. Victoria left him after last night. She stalked back around the corner.

Terry had tried to break into my room the night before - not break in as much as try to get through the window. I knew he was out there, he did not scare me or anything, he had tried to talk himself into my bed before, I thought he was joking, he had a girlfriend. Victoria. We had seen them when we were out earlier and I had been asleep when he tried to come through my window, scratching and calling in a sing song voice, like everyone he played the guitar and sat on a beer crate and sung at parties. He had a great voice, he was singing and whispering to me through the window and I was laughing - he was drunk, being funny and foolish, this was not the first time he had tried it and so I was laughing at him telling him he was out of luck - I was not the girl for him. Go home, you drunk bastard, I called out - giggling at him from my bed. He was tall and dark with flashing black eyes and though great to drink with; his girlfriend was pregnant - I knew that. I did not take him seriously. Go away, I called out, I’m trying to sleep! I put the pillow on my head. I had an early start the next morning at the old folks home. We had been out and I needed to sleep.

My friend, Judy, who was in the bedroom next door, had stomped down the corridor and called Terry’s girlfriend from the phone down there, telling her about him trying to get into my room. Then all went quiet and I slept again. His girlfriend turned up later I think, shouting something at Judy. Something about a note. Whiskey. A shotgun. Me. The hospital. We were kids. It was a mess. No-one thought to tell me anything. Because I was incidental. I did not even leave my room. I barely knew Terry. I was not even sure I had not dreamed it. I dressed for work in a fog - not even sure what had just happened.

You need to remember that there were no cell phones, no texting, no late night messages. No private communications. Later in the night I had heard those distant arguments, the phone ringing down the hall, then nothing, it could have been anybody, so that morning I got up, showered put on a fresh uniform and hurried down the verandah for breakfast in the hospital kitchen. I just went to work.

When Judy flounced down the long corridor at lunchtime that day, that lunch time, I can only describe it as flouncing, dressed in civvies with her handbag on her arm and announced bluntly that Terry was dead her words like hammers: Mrs Day and I both went quite still. I was holding the spoon raised to Mrs Day’s mouth, she had her mouth open ready to receive the food or spit the food it back out or knock the spoon out of my hand with her claw or whatever she was planning.

It was like air stopped or the sun froze or something. My head could not produce words or thoughts. There was just nothing. Mrs Day closed her mouth then blinked her eyes open and shut again, very slowly. I looked back down the corridor in case Judy had more to say but she was gone and so very carefully I set the spoon down into the bowl, laid the bowl on the table and sat back in the borrowed wheelchair. Both of us, the fat lady and the little nurse aide, went silent. The room and the breeze went soft. It was as though the glass breathed. Nothing made sense.

Her hand, Mrs Days hand, this claw, her weapon, reached out and across and gently patted my knee.

Your friend? she said. Stumbling on the f so the words came out like ‘or ehnd?’.

He wanted to be my friend, I said. But I sent him away.

Ssssh her mouth moved around the sound. Shhh. She said. I don’t know what word she was trying for.

We sat like that, still, for what felt like a long while as I saw every moment from the last 24 hours reorganise themselves in my mind to mean something else. Like a shifting scene in my head. Like a jigsaw made of plasticine. Like one of those kalaidoscopes you shake and hold to your eye when you are a kid. The same little shapes making a new pattern every-time.

Mrs Day? I said.

Yes, child. Her voice muffled through her crooked mouth.

Was this my fault?

She patted my knee again.

I am sorry I called you, The Frog. I said. After a while.

She smiled a little. She hooked her claw in to my pocket and gave a tug. My wheelchair rolled closer. Her eyes caught mine. Do better. She said. I think that’s what she said. She hooked her folded and ironed hanky out of her cardigan sleeve and pushed it towards me.

I took it and held it in my hands.

You can talk. I said.

She nodded to her lunch, cooling in the bowl and looked up at her room-mates and so I went back to feeding them all. My birds, opening and closing their mouths swallowing their lunch. They were gentle and quiet with me as I silently cried for the dead boy I hardly knew.

No-one used the expression - it is what it is - not in those days. And we knew the futility of trying to rewrite the past. For forty years I believed that it was me who killed him. Me that set off the tumble of calls and arguments and emotional explosions through a dark drunken night that brought him to his fathers hunting rifle. I am still very careful not to let people get close enough to hurt. Terry taught me that a person can hurt another person. Without even meaning to. We need to be gentle. Kinder. Do better.

A couple of days later we were able to get back into Terry’s house, Judy and I, to clean up the rooms they carried him out of. You know, they take the body away but everything is left exactly as it was found - no-one cleans up. The blood just lays there all over the kitchen cupboards. Drying up on the floor. In drips and spots and splatters. We don’t like to think about these things. But we never unsee them. So we scrubbed it down and mopped and scrubbed some more and we cried the whole time. We found every single blood spot. Judy and I.

I think The Fat Lady thought about the Dead Boy often and she would pat me when I sat with her. When we sat with this. She would catch my eye sometimes when she was about to do something really mean to one of the staff. I would widen my eyes at her and she would narrow her eyes straight back.

Mrs Day left my pockets intact and would help me get her out of bed. She ate her food for me without spitting. Sometimes she lashed out without thinking but I knew she did not mean it. She had been hurt too and nurses all look alike from down there in a wheelchair.

Until you hear the voice.

I am Cecilia from The Kitchen’s Garden.

If you feel you are threatened by suicidal thoughts remember you are not alone. Call me. Call a friend or call 988. Things always get better.

Letters To My Mother
Letters To My Mother Podcast
Cecilia from The Kitchens Garden reads about growing up in a Simpler Time.