Thursday, June 5, 2008

No, I won't pray for you. But can I interest you in a pedicure?

When my Aunt Joanie called to tell me (in an uncharacteristically weak voice) that Lisa was sick, I knew I would be driving through the desert that night. Funny how the mind reacts when it’s our blood, our family, whose survival remains unknown. Had it been my husband’s cousin I cannot say whether I would have experienced the same sense of urgency. But it was my Lisa, my cousin, who was in the intensive care unit with what appeared to be a brain tumor and I was out the door within minutes.

While I drove seven hours from Arizona to California late that night listening to a combination of static and AM radio I had a lot of time to think. I thought about Lisa mostly, how cruel it seemed that she was suddenly so sick. How I had just talked to her last month and she seemed to be doing OK. She did tell me that she was feeling tired, but in her usual Lisa way she made it sound like a joke.

“How tired are you?”

“I’m so flippin’ tired my hair is falling out. That’s how tired I am, okay?”

I told her to have her thyroid checked. That was the best advice I could give. We hung up the phone. That was a month ago. Now I’m driving in between gigantic eighteen wheeler trucks thinking nothing but the worst. How would it feel to lose her? And that thought was followed incessantly by the thought of how much she has meant to me thus far.

There have been countless times Lisa’s antics have brought me to tears in that deliciously combined laugh/cry/pee way. There was the time she lived in Hawaii and came to visit us in California for Christmas. While sitting in my aunt's living room next to a tree that looked more like an enormous doiley pup tent than a Christmas tree, Lisa tossed me a loosely wrapped package and yelled out, “Hey, everyone look what I got little Monica.” I opened it excited to reveal what my oh-so-cool older cousin (she was in her twenties) had gotten me, only to find a giant over sized t-shirt that read, IF IT SWELLS…RIDE IT. And I was like, “Thanks! Cousin Lisa! But I don’t surf.” My mom ripped the shirt away from me before I could try it on. At least now, I understand why I was not allowed to wear it at the ripe old age of ten.

Lisa never seemed to care much about being appropriate, and I can understand how some people find her less than polite company. I once had to take a plane ride with her and there was some turbulence on the flight. Some of the people were getting nervous so Lisa thought she’d lighten the mood by standing up in the middle of the row yelling, “WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!” I doubt she could get away with that sort of behavior nowadays, that is not without being arrested. After the outburst she sat back down in her seat laughing hysterically while I tried to crawl inside the overhead bin.

To be fair, Lisa is also very capable of laughing at herself. Like when she walked into hairdresser school late and hung over looking as if she were about to get sick and her instructor, a white haired man named Hal, told her to SIT DOWN and "put your head between your legs honey.” Which she did. Then Hal bent down beside her and whispered, “That is if you can stand the smell.” She laughs so hard every time she tells that story despite the fact that it doesn’t exactly put her in the best light.

When I got to the hospital, she was in the ICU. It was a coffin of a room, with four other patients sharing the same space. The machines were allowed more room to spread out than the people. I don’t know how anyone can rest inside a place like that. There was a crazy Vietnamese woman yelling out in her native tongue and not one of the nurses could translate. The only thing they could gather was that she insisted on being called Mike.

I tried not to cry when I first saw Lisa because she really is not the crying type per se. And I wanted to be strong for her. However, when I saw her all tangled inside that wired nest of a bed while machines pumped and beeped at her my eyes immediately went blurry. They had already shaved her head, and placed a stint inside. I grabbed her hand and began kissing it. Repeatedly I kissed her swollen and bruised hand next to the place where the IV needle was embedded. I guess it was a weird reaction but she is my cousin and it just felt right to kiss her like that. What else was I suppose to do?

We did not speak at first. But, when I could, I looked up at her and said, “Hi.” Her eyes were full of tears too and in a small voice she swallowed and said, “I’m sorry, I’m kind of stinky right now.” And she was. She had been in the ICU for two days already with no sleep or shower. The ICU barely had enough room for the four occupants and the five nurses it inhabited never mind room for a shower or a bath or any other kind of dignified amenity.

I have read that if you really want to take a man (or a woman’s) dignity away, deny them access to a fresh shower or a shave. There is something about the ritualistic act of grooming that makes one feel a sense of pride and sanity.

Her hands looked gritty and I will never forget the smell of her shaved head as I leaned over to talk to her. The humanness of it all, how helpless we look when you take away our hair, and our showers, deodorants, perfumes, lotions, make-ups, hairsprays, etc. I'm certain that given Lisa's penchant for hairstyling this must have been especially awkward for her. It was like seeing someone go to war with out so much as a butter knife to protect them. How scared and humiliated she must have felt lying there having to see countless strangers knowing that she might be dying and still feeling the need to apologize for not smelling her best. I immediately went down to the gift shop and bought her a stuffed hippo to rest on top of the blood pressure machine and then nail polish and a manicure/pedicure set, the kind where the lotion smells like coconuts and pina coladas.

For the next three days I sat by her side giving one pedicure and manicure after another. It was all I could do. I cleaned her fingernails, washed and massaged her feet, painted her toenails, first red, then hot pink, then mauve, then blue, then hot pink again. I rinsed the pumice stone in the small sink by her bed careful not to get in the way of the staff. And while Lisa tried to rest, I sat at the end of her bed listening to the nurses talking about her and the other patients in the ICU. No one knew what Lisa had as the results were still not in. She may have to stay in ICU another week. Rooms were crowded. She’d have to wait to get a room. It was all bad news. Mike started really going nuts around day two. She got so upset that I finally pulled the curtain back and asked the nurse if I could interest Mike in a pedicure-just to shut her up. However, there was no one to translate. From what I could overhear, they found Mike in a somewhat confused mental state and she may have been homeless, as no one came by to visit her during the time she was there. At one point while the orderlies were coming in to strap Mike to her bed, Lisa looked over at me, "Oh God Monica, what if it all comes down to me and Mike?"

"You won't be here much longer Lisa." It was a good lie. I didn't know how long she would be there. And I'm sorry, but there is such a thing as good lies.

On my third day at the hospital (Lisa’s fifth) we were told she would be moved to a private room. No more crazy bedpan throwing Mikes and finally a real shower for her. She seemed better now that she had her own space. Once she was settled into her new room, showered, inside clean sheets, with the television on, and her nails dry, I decided to head back home. I drove back during the day this time, still unsure of her outcome. But, at least I got to see her again, and for now I would have the image of her pretty toes and her bald head to update my cerebral files. I will go over this image for the next two months. Every time I brush my hair, I will be reminded of her lack of it, and every time I see my Aunts number show up on the phone, I will think the worst. Although, my aunt did tell me that I was the best medicine for her that week. I will doubt that. But, I do give good foot. That much I know for sure.


Katrina said...

Oh goodness...I would have done the same thing. Just do what you can do, and hope you ease her pain in some little way. i know it means the world to her that you went to see her and treated her so lovingly.

Godless Sunday said...

Thanks Katrina!

Jay said...

Oh, gosh, of COURSE you were the best medicine for her! Never doubt it. First, you were there. Secondly, you understood how she was feeling, and did something about it. Don't underestimate the value of nursing care and TLC - and what you were doing was nursing care. You washed her and cheered her and prettied her up. You were there during her darkest time and only left when she had regained her privacy and a little dignity.

And I'm damn sure you're thinking good thoughts for her, and so am I.

Gardens of Solipsism said...

There is no protocol for grief but you recounted your girl cousin memories with such affection it made me cry. Always poignant to recall the caprices of youth when faced with such dire consequences. And performing a simple service like grooming for someone in pain is healing for both parties. You are lucky to be able to connect with her in a nurturing way regardless of the outcome, you will have left no doubt as to your love and Lisa will always know it.

womaninawindow said...

Everyone deserves a cousin like you. Well, maybe not crazy Mike but just maybe she does too.
My best, my best, my best. Maybe if I write it three times it'll be better than once. said...

Never deny the power of human touch-beautiful!

Sunny said...

Love can come in many forms, pedicure is one of them.When my Grandma was ill, it was chicken soup with matzo balls.

jt said...

That is one of the most moving stories I have ever read.

coreydbarbarian said...

i only hope i can be as good a cousin as you. much love.