desmond

On Friday night, Sept. 16, I fractured my left femur just above Elmo, my replacement knee. Four days and two surgeries later I found myself in The Fortress, a post-acute care facility, doing my best to save Elmo (and my mobility).

These are the stories of that path. They’re self-indulgent, icky-raw in places and, if you don’t know me, likely boring. I’m writing them as a history, so that when I’m at a lowish point, I can read these to see how far I’ve come. And maybe, if you or a loved one end up on the same path, they’ll help you spot a light at the end of the tunnel.

“You need to paint a rock this morning,” decided Selene, one of my favorite daynurses* at The Fortress.

“And I will paint this rock because…?” I asked reasonably.

“Because only two patients showed up for recreational therapy this morning, and Amber needs your support,” she said firmly. She wheeled me on down to the art therapy room, I painted a rock, and met Mr. Desmond.

To my shame, I haven’t done much socializing at The Fortress. I eat in my room with Sally, my wonderful roomie, and I have to admit I’ve mostly been focused on me. As my healing progresses, though, the lens in my brain is widening, and I’m starting to hear hallway conversations, pay attention to this oddly endearing world of pain.

“I’m here to take you to the dining room, Lorna.”

“No, thanks, I feel just fine. Please let me stay here this morning, I’ll be just fine.”

“But you usually like eating in the dining room. Are you feeling some pain? Really tired?”

“Dining room? I thought you said DYING room. Honey, I love you but please: Speak clearly.”

Amber, the sadfaced recreational therapy person, had come to my room every day, offering magazines, books, or movies (my iPad does all that, and more, so no, thank you). Asking if I’d like to make a paper bag scarecrow (not really, I’ve got this spreadsheet to finish…), or taste her special fruit punch. I felt sorry for her, and a bit guilty; she was trying so hard.

So I found myself wedged between Joe and Debbie, picking out my rock and selecting paint colors. Joe had had a massive stroke; he couldn’t speak and was still relearning the use of his hands, but his smile lit up the room. Debbie had slipped on a piece of paper, breaking both wrists, an arm, an elbow, and an ankle.

The room slowly filled, thanks to determined nurses: Bill, with a new colostomy. Linda of the broken hip and an ulcer between her toes that threatens to turn gangrenous. Marcy, brittle bones that won’t stop breaking.

We painted rocks that would be hidden around Vancouver for others to find, a program called “Vancouver Rocks.” Finders could take the rock home, add their own messages and paint and re-hide the rocks, or just put them back for someone else to find.

I don’t think any of the rocks we painted will win prizes, but we gamely tried. I gave my rock a white background, then waved it in the air to dry. At that moment, Mr. Desmond rolled in, shrieked, and ducked.

“Nurse, she’s throwing rocks at me!!!”

I froze, startled, then saw him grinning impishly. We both laughed. “Bill Desmond,” he said, extending a hand to be shaken. He wheeled into the space next to mine, a good-looking guy in his 70s maybe, trim white VanDyke beard and snapping green eyes.

“I’m Cynthia,” I smiled, “What are you in for?”

“The usual. Broken bones, build up muscle, touch of dementia. But,” he warned, “Don’t think I’ve lost it yet. I’m still sharp as a tack.” He picked a rock, grabbed a paintbrush, and called for paint.

“How did you learn to speak Spanish?”

“Soccer.”

“Playing soccer teaches you Spanish?”

“Wanna sleep with a Latino guy, go to a soccer game. Se habla soccer, sweetie.”

I added cobalt arabesques all over my rock with a pinstriping brush, carefully filling them in with bubblegum purple. I added a highlight of yellow reflection, right where a raindrop curve would break.

Mr. Desmond painted his rock black. “I prefer sophisticated rocks,” he said loftily, “I’ll go over this later with gold and white.”

He seemed to know everyone, bantering with the nurses and jollying the little old ladies. His joie de vivre piqued my curiosity, but I didn’t want to ask him what he used to do for a living. It implies (to my mind, anyway), that the only thing that matters is what they were.

I didn’t need to; a nurse mispronounced “idiosyncrasy,” and Mr. Desmond merrily corrected her.

“Idio-SCENE-krissy,” he said, then looked at me. “You’d better watch it. I’m a former English teacher. I have a dictionary. Consider me,” he chuckled, trying to look sinister, “Armed and dangerous.”

“Oh? Where did you teach?”

“California. I preferred staying in the Bay area where I got my master’s, but the jobs were in little provincial farm towns in the Central Valley. Very conservative. NOT,” he grimaced, “The best place to be gay, not back then.”

Whoa. “I can imagine,” I said lightly, “That’s where I grew up; I demonstrated against Anita Bryant back in the 80s. It wasn’t a very popular position.”

“You can say that again,” he said, “Of course, I taught drama and English and sometimes art to high school students, so most everyone just naturally assumed I was, well…”

“Uhm…light in the loafers?”

He made a face. “I hated that phrase, I wouldn’t be caught DEAD in loafers. But yes. I didn’t pull any punches; I made it clear to my students, their parents, the other teachers, that this is what I am. If I caught one of my students calling someone a faggot, I called his parents in, and we had a talk about treating everyone with respect.”

“For the most part, they accepted me. I went to a high school reunion a couple of years ago, guest of honor, this big sign saying, “Welcome back Mr. Desmond!” and there were all my kids. They’d done so much, they were so happy to see me, I was so proud.”

He smiled, lost in the moment, then sighed.

“I really didn’t have that much trouble until I came to this little town, Anonymous, near Bakersfield. I found out I’d be teaching with an old college pal. David.”

“We’d been close in college, but you know how it is, we’d drifted apart. He came in to introduce himself, and I found out he had a wife and two little children. You could have knocked me over with a feather.”

“David. Married. To a woman. A wife.”

“‘Boy, YOU have changed a lot,'” I said, and he just shakes his head.”

“I haven’t changed at all, Bill, I’ve just gotten good at camouflage,” he told me, “Nobody suspects I’m a faggot because I have a wife. She’s my ticket to normal.”

‘He introduced me to her, I thought she was a total loss. The biggest whiner you ever met, only stopped complaining long enough to draw a breath.”

“Still, she deserved better than just being camouflage for a queer. Everyone should be cherished at least once. And David’s kids were great, really cute and smart. He just couldn’t see how he was hurting them. Didn’t want to, maybe.”

“I was patient. I said, ‘David, everything about you, your manner, the way you look at me, EVERYTHING screams ‘queer.’ The only one you’re fooling is yourself.'”

“He wouldn’t believe me. He thought he was safe. I stayed there 18 months before the innuendos and snide remarks got to me, watching David thinking he was safe.”

“I couldn’t take it, I moved back north. David cried when I left, said I was the only one he could talk to.”

He fell silent. I kept painting, saying nothing, but glancing his way and watching. Almost unbidden, my fingers began tracing the word “HEAL” on my rock, weaving it between the empurpled arabasques. He watched as the letters shaped to life and sighed.

“I never heard from David again. I don’t know what happened to him, or his kids. I met a great guy, Bill, he’s my husband, we moved up here. Bill & Bill. Double Bill. You’ll meet him later.”

“Life is good. Well, WAS good until I fell,” he corrected, “Will be good again. Soon.”

Mrs. X, why do you keep coming this way, the long way around? The other way is a lot easier.”

“Because there are only two doors, and that other door is full of assholes.”

A 98 year-old woman, Norma, peered over the table at my rock. “Purple, blue, and yellow, my favorites!” she said, reaching out a hand, “May I hold it? I love it! It’s so pretty!”

She hefted my rock in a fragile, bruised hand, and smiled happily. “This rock,” she said, “Is a true work of art.”

“Why don’t you keep it?” I offered impulsively. Her eyes widened, and she tucked the rock into her lap, slowly turned her chair, and began the laborious trip back to her room, nodding and smiling as she went.

I turned to find Mr. Desmond watching me. “Child, I salute you,” he said.

Then, from his wheelchair, he bowed.


Read the Saving Elmo series:

  1. I fight concrete…and lose
  2. Saving Elmo: The Plan
  3. Bedpans and reachsticks
  4. Meltdown, centering, and balance
  5. Mr. Desmond (this post)
  6. Death by chicken

*Heck, just about all the nurses at The Fortress are my favorites.