I work as a nursing assistant now, a big change from my old career. I was worried about how I'd handle the death of a patient I'd worked with, and I was surprised that I didn't fall apart. I work in long-term care, mostly with the elderly, and I've come into work to an empty bed several times in the last year. In some cases, I got to say goodbye. In others, someone was under the weather for a day or two, maybe a few weeks, then gone. Those are the hardest.
The first time someone died on my shift, I stepped in and relieved her aide who wasn't ready for the next step--wash her body and prepare her for the funeral home. Rita had had a fall and gone on hospice only a few weeks before--and she fought death every inch. Rita was a tiny, feisty woman who did not want to ask for help. She was mad that her body was failing her, and scared. I sat with her in her last days. So when she passed, I was stunned at my own response. I was sad. I knew I'd miss her. I kept on, though.
But yesterday, I almost lost it. I was helping a new patient to bed, and as I pulled the quilt around her shoulders, I thought it looked familiar. Then it hit me--it had belonged to Maggie. When I helped Maggie from her bed to her wheelchair, we'd joke we were going to win the next Dancing with the CNAs. Each time she'd get up, she'd tell me whether it would be a waltz, a foxtrot, or maybe a jitterbug. We'd hum, and she'd cling to my shoulders while I eased her into her seat. During our last waltz, we had no idea she'd fade so quickly and I'd greet an empty bed.
When someone passes, we help their family go through their belongings. Many time, families tell us to keep their clothes or blankets or special pillows for someone who needs them. Maggie's quilt now warms a blind woman who can't see its colors, but appreciates its warmth. Penny's pillow cushions a tender wrist. Alexander's slippers help a man with a new hip shuffle safely behind his walker.
Maybe I don't have to say goodbye to these kindly ghosts who walk beside me.