I was living in Butte, Montana at the time in which this essay was written. In early 2002 I tore a calf muscle while out on a training run. I decided to run the Seattle Marathon before it was healed, and I injured it further. After, my leg swelled up to the size of a grapefruit and turned black. This prompted me to have an orthopedic specialist take a look at it. He gave me some pain medication and told me to take it easy.
I, who was now at a loss as to what to do with myself, befriended a patient who I met in the doctor’s waiting room. His name was John, and he had broken his leg in several place after falling off a hay wagon. He was a patient in the Crest Nursing Home. I paid him several visits over the next few months.
My decision, to make periodic visits to the Crest Nursing Home, came on the tail end of my visit to an orthopedic surgeon. As I stepped back into the waiting area, I asked John, who was one of the patients, where he was staying. He said “the Crest,” and without hesitating, I replied that that I’d come and visit him. Pete, not surprisingly, looked surprised when he heard this, for my statement was out-of-character. I’d always been an altruistic and empathetic individual; however, I’d never been service motivated. What was stranger still was that I didn’t even know this guy.
Pete reminded me of all this when we got back in the car. In my own defense, I replied that I now knew John, somewhat. What I didn’t say was that my assuring John that I’d come and visit him was my way of killing time. Dr. Gallagher had just told me that I’d be laid up for at least two weeks. I, who hated being idle, was deleting one activity from my list of things to do and adding yet another.
Our first visit was awkward since neither one of us was sure why I was visiting. I walked in the door. The nurse, who was in the process of distributing medications, hurried out. I moved to the foot of the bed. A look of incomprehension crossed John’s face as I told him who I was. He then repeatedly ran a hand through his graying brush cut, as I took a seat. I figured that he thought I was going to pull forth a Bible and begin talking about the power of prayer. I instead marveled at the antenna-like contraption that framed his still swollen, uncovered leg. When asked, John said that he’d be bedridden for at least a month. Surgery was scheduled for March 30th, a month-and-a-half- away. In the meantime, he had to spend his time “in this place where people are dying right and left.” Furthermore, he said, “I’m 65 years old, damn it, and not quite ready to meet my fucking maker.”
John didn’t ask me any questions. After a long, protracted silence in which we listen to food carts being wheeled down the hall, I start to ramble on about the weather. There wasn’t a whole lot to say, even when put in the context of past, present, and future tense. It hasn’t snowed much, I want snow, it may snow tomorrow. If it doesn’t snow, it’ll rain. I don’t want it to rain. John, made glassy-eyed by the pain medication, stared at the ceiling. As, 20 minutes later, I was preparing to leave, he pointed to an oblong package that was sitting on the bedside table.
“Come on back and we’ll play dominoes,” he said.
“I don’t do dominoes.”
“I’ll teach you.”
“I’m a slow learner.”
“Doesn’t matter. I got time to teach you. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Okay. I’ll be back next Monday.”
I returned the next Monday. John, who was now sitting upright, looked at me expectantly. When I asked how he was doing, he pointed to the top of his dresser. I retrieved the box of dominoes. John then put his remaining food on his table tray and emptied the dominoes on the bed stand. I quickly responded to his next order, which was to remove a notepad and pen from the bed stand drawer.
I followed John’s lead in flipping the dominoes onto their backs. The clacking sound was punctuated by a loud voice. “Yes, yes, yes, yes” a thin, plaintive voice wailed. “Yes, yes.”
Startled, I jerked upright.
“That’s the nutcase next door,” John said loudly. “She won’t shut up. Someone should put a gag in her mouth.”
“She’s just old,” I say.
“She’s senile,” John snapped, adding. “Someone should take her out back and shoot her. You want to play dominoes? Here’s how you keep score. . . .”
John explains the rules as we go along, and I learn, by trial and error, how to play dominoes. I let him do the addition. I lose the first game by 150 points, and the second by 75 points. John, seemingly mellowed out by both the medication and the victories, started to doze. His lids grew heavy and his arms fell to his sides. The combined smell of meat loaf, peas, mashed potatoes, and gravy assailed my nostrils. I put the dominoes away, and then attempted to slip out the room.
“Hey, where you going?” he yelled.
“I thought you were going to sleep.”
“You do want to play another game, doncha?”
“No. I gotta get home. It’s dinner time. Yours and mine.”
“Are you coming back next week? You’re just catching on to this.”
“Sure,” I replied.
I returned the next week, the week following, and the week following that. Winter slowly gave way to spring. John and I continued with our set-in-stone routine, which began with my retrieving the dominoes and ended with my putting them away. I won, on an average, one out of every 50 games. In other words, from February to May, I won two games. Both times, John was quick to let me know that this was just a fluke and that it wouldn’t happen again. Though I pretended to act like this mattered, it did not. I blamed my poor performance on being too easily distracted by what was going on around me.
The Crest was way louder than my college dorm, which had a reputation for being party central. The difference was that the sounds of raucous laughter and loud music had been supplanted by the sounds of buzzers, food carts, wheel chairs, flushing toilets, and screeching birds. There were also the sounds made by the terminally insane. The “yes” woman was the loudest. John, who repeatedly yelled at her to shut up, was the second loudest.
I eventually admitted to myself that visiting John had become a dreaded chore. The least of it was that he gloated when he won. That I found him to be both offensive and lacking in compassion for other human beings was equally more problematic. Never mind that he wasn’t at all interested in talking to me. The real verbal exchanges took place when Pete came and dropped me off and picked me up. But I, who had committed myself to this task, persisted.
I decided to focus my energies on taking note on how John was dealing with being incapacitated rather than on pairing up white dots. There were no signs of visitors. The obligatory cards and flowers were noticeably absent. And the nurses, who in leaving food or medication, never exchanged pleasantries with him. Also, none of the other residents stopped in and hello.
My scores grew worse, as I put my playing energy into coming up with questions.
I eventually learned all there is to know about John, which wasn’t all that much. He lived in the ranch town of Dillon, which is 60 miles south of Butte. He lived by himself, in a doublewide trailer with two small dogs, one of which was mean. He wasn’t married. He didn’t like exercising. His idea of a good time was to go racing around on his dune buggy. He’d been a jack-of-all trades, mainly doing outside-related, hands-on-work. He was good friends with his sister-in-law, who he said occasionally called him. He let it slip that he had an ex, but then refused to talk about her. He liked eating ice cream, but didn’t drink or smoke. He didn’t read. I suspected that he was illiterate. The Butte Standard Newspaper that rested at the foot of his bed remained unread.
John’s surgery was repeatedly postponed. He had thrice-weekly physical therapy sessions. His progress peaked after the third week or so. He got frustrated with his therapist, who said that a prerequisite for surgery was more bend in the knee.
In between my visits, John had two roommates. He asked that the first one be removed because “the old fart coughed too much.” For a time, John put up with the second, younger one, who he said was “a drug addict. Loved to smoke pot.” Then, much to John’s relief, the fellow was sent to live elsewhere. John eventually acquired a television. He then whiled away his hours at the Crest by watching his favorite shows, one of which was Championship Wrestling. When I politely asked him if I might turn it off, John said no. Seconds later, John grabbed the remote and turned up the sound.
I gritted my teeth, as on one particular evening, I experienced sensory overload. As the wrestlers went at it with soap opera-type abandon, the “yes” woman screeched at the top of her lungs. John alternately cursed, laid down his squares, and watched the tube. He was somewhat interested in the truck wreck scene that took place in the parking lot, but what really caught his interest was the appearance of two women wrestlers. The bikini-clad babes raced into the ring, circle, grabbed fistfuls of one another’s hair, and then yanked hard. I cringed as one chomped down on the other’s breast. John ignored the look of shock that crossed my face and told me to get on with the game.
“They allow that kind of stuff on T.V?” I asked.
“Hell yes,” John hooted.
A nurse rolled a cart into the room and handed John an ice cream. Then, seconds later, the yes woman cut loose with a cat-like growl. John was only momentarily distracted, for what was of most interest to him was what was going on the screen. I took advantage of his inattentiveness and put my energies into matching up white dots.
Pete returned and tallied up the final score. I begin gloating, because this was my third win. John ignored me, and turned his attention to Pete.
“What do you do for a living?” he asked.
“I teach at Montana Tech,” Pete replied.
“They call him Dr. Pete” I add.
“And she’s Dr. Alys,” Pete said, looking at me.
A look of genuine surprise crossed John’s face.
“You mean to tell me you’re a doctor? Ha ha. You can’t even add,” John said.
Pete focused on the next show, which was Jeopardy, and John intimated that he’d like to play yet another game. I bowed out, for it was best to quit while I was ahead. As I left the Crest, I wondered how I was going to get out of what had become an obligation. I’d originally decided to provide moral support to this individual, who’d suffered an injury that was more severe than mine. This seemed like a good way to spend my non-running time. Maybe I believed that what comes round goes round. Heck, I’d want someone to play dominoes with me if I fell off a hay wagon and landed in a nursing home,
John was released from the Crest and sent home a
few days after the above-mentioned visit. He once called me from his home
in Dillon, Montana, where he said that in a month’s time, he was
scheduled to have yet another operation. He was to be admitted to St.
James Hospital, which was just down the road from where I live. However,
I never again heard from him. And I never called him. My torn calf muscle
was now healed, which was why I again focused my energies on running.