Jane Butkin Wagner
Clara Morgan, like many of the elderly in long term care who come to this home to die, has no visitors. No one writes. No one calls. No one even calls the staff to check on her. Bills are paid, but no one cares if she relapses or suffers, if she lives or dies. Her medical power of attorney has been given to someone Mrs. Morgan doesn’t even know on the nursing home board.
Most start out with families visiting fairly often. But for the patients who last a while, their entourages quickly dwindle. Ever since Mrs. Morgan’s nephew brought her here almost two years ago, she has had not one single visitor, call, or letter. Now in stage four of lung cancer, her skin is grey parchment, her once clear green, venomous eyes are glazed and distant. I have been assigned to her since her arrival, watching her deteriorate. I bathe her, change and turn her, massage her, empty bedpans, and the like. It won’t be long now.
Before her tracheotomy, she was still a force to be reckoned with. Her once regal, almost six foot tall frame, now shrunken, brittle and frail, is not so threatening now. But just last Christmas season, when the children of one of the doctors came around to sing carols, she scoffed at them, screaming, “Get out of here. What a ridiculous song!” to their lovely "Silent Night." As those precious children left, under attack and bewildered, she threw her bedpan at the door, shrieking, “And all of you are so far off key that Jesus Himself is turning in His grave! Your horrible singing is blasphemy. Blasphemy!” She breathed fire.
A lot of the patients here get softer as they get sicker, have remorse, wish they had been kinder, long for more time to make amends. Not Mrs. Morgan. She has never stopped her ugliness. But for me, there is another connection. Mrs. Morgan is more than another dying patient to keep clean and comfortable, for whom to provide dignity until the end.
Thirty years earlier, my junior year in high school, she had been my English teacher. Mrs. Morgan’s class was a rite of passage. Behind her back, we called her “Stormin’ Morgan.” She chain-smoked between classes so her whole body reeked as she greeted, glared, and intimidated every student in her doorway, her huge lean body and rigid demeanor as far from welcoming or nurturing as one could get.
My strongest memory of her classroom includes her infamous trashcan near her desk, where she would place, for the duration of class, any student who could not write verbatim, then perfectly recite from memory, their assigned Shakespeare passage. She continued her class with the offender standing in trash for the hour. If one were unable to memorize great literary works, Mrs. Morgan felt one were as worthless as trash.
I lost sleep over it, but never missed a word of Shakespeare. However, my nemesis, Liza, the cheerleader, spent many mornings in the dreaded trashcan. Liza had told me the year before that she wanted to be my friend, but she and the other cheerleaders decided I needed to prove my loyalty by getting rid of my more peculiar, less popular friends. That filled me with dread, disgust -- and delight that the most popular girls at least considered me on the fringe of acceptability. Or did they? I wouldn’t play the game, so I don’t know to this day if it were just one more group-bullying attempt to diminish someone outside of their precious club.
Secretly, I was glad to see Liza humiliated in English class, placed among the trash by our monster of a teacher. I knew it was wrong, yet strangely, I felt justice had been served. Thinking of those high school days, I absentmindedly pat Mrs. Morgan’s hand, her skin breaking with even the slightest touch resembling kindness, skin as thin as the paper that no one ever writes her on.