Snowflakes for Christmas
“Time to move Mr. Markovich upstairs,” the ER doctor said to Jocelyn as he shoved the curtain to the side. “You can walk along.”
Jocelyn stood up and watched as two nursing assistants pile tubes and blankets on top of Gramps. The women switched machines off and attached the IV stand to the bed. Every sound echoed too loudly and too long in that emergency room. Smells violated her nostrils. She scratched her nose, trying to erase those foreign odors.
She followed, her legs and arms numb, as an assistant wheeled Gramps to the elevator, up three floors, then to a private room. On the corner, near the nurses’ station, the room had three chairs, a television, and a sink. Just big enough to wheel Gramps’ bed in, turn it around, and untangle all the tubes. An older woman entered the room to supervise the assistant.
Jocelyn peered out the window as the woman positioned his bed. The Bridger Mountains, one of the Gramps’ favorite places, filled the landscape. She unconsciously framed the mountains in her mind to make a stunning photograph. She absently reached for her camera, then jerked as the nurse clicked machines back on and monitored them for a few minutes.
“If you need anything, push the call button,” the nurse patted Gramps’ shoulder. “Lavatory’s in there.” She pointed to the door in the corner.
A toilet sat, cold and solid, in the little bathroom. Jocelyn nodded, her skin too tight. She couldn’t even use the bathroom as an excuse to leave the room. She swallowed and looked back at Gramps, ashamed of herself.
The nurse handed her a pile of papers. “You need to fill these out, honey.”
Jocelyn stared at the papers for a long moment, clicking the pen open and closed. She filled in name, address, and all the typical questions – Social Security number and age. She filled out insurance and Medicare information.
“Gramps hardly ever had a cold and never a serious illness.” Jocelyn signed her name at the bottom then handed the nurse the papers.
The woman patted Jocelyn’s hands. “A trip to the ER is never easy.”
“Have you worked here very long?” Jocelyn stared at the nurse’s graying hair.
“Twenty years.” Her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I’ve seen just about everything go through that ER.”
The nurse left, and Jocelyn was alone in the quiet with Gramps. Until that moment, she loved being alone with him. They always shared space – she’d grade projects or read while Gramps worked on puzzles or listened to a game. Gramps attracted people by his quiet sureness. He made others feel at ease. The two of them shared a love of quiet time and never felt the need to fill it up with talking. She wished he would sit up and start yakking about something. Her throat closed. She couldn’t breathe right sitting in that room.
Gramps lay in that bed, like a lump of breathing clay. She stared at him like a stranger. She didn’t want to approach him or go anywhere near him.
Jocelyn plopped into the waiting chair by the door, her body heavy. She clutched her robe to her chest and fought back the urge to scream her frustration. Her arms and legs drooped like bags of sand. She alternated between tears and anger. She rested her head in her hands and sobbed, grateful for the isolation of a private room. Her chest ached from the amount pain she kept inside. She made no sound, her throat burning. Tears flowed hot down her face and onto her legs, warmth spreading through her bathrobe.
“Am I interrupting?” a quiet voice startled Jocelyn.
Jocelyn brought her head up, instantly quieting her tears. She wiped her face quickly with the sleeve her bathrobe. “No, not at all.” Her voice sounded detached, as if coming from some far-off tape recorder.
One of the most handsome men she had ever seen outside of movies leaned against the door jam. Her breath caught as she hiccupped. His dark hair and tanned skin offset the kindness filling his face.
“Sorry to surprise you.” He entered the room and shut the door behind him.
Jocelyn opened her mouth and struggled to form words. “Can I . . . help you?” A faint woodsy after shave replaced the hospital smells. A pale blue smock couldn’t hide his athletic body.
“I’m here to help you.” He moved toward her.
Jocelyn frowned before she realized he was the nurse on duty. For the second time that morning, she pulled her bathrobe closer around her.
“I’m a bit distracted.” Her chest beat too fast as she ogled the man. She shuffled her feet, her red rain boots squeaking on the floor. They were the closest to the door when they bolted out that morning. She tucked her feet under the chair. “And a little self-conscious about my appearance.” She wiped her face again.
“Don’t worry about the way you look.” He smiled. “I’m Dean Donelli. “I’m Mr. Markovich’s nurse today.”
Jocelyn absently ran her fingers through her hair. The nurse! He fiddled with the blankets on Gramps’ bed.
“If you need anything,” Dean said. “I’m here to serve.”
Jocelyn watched the man perform his duties – taking blood pressure, pulse, and breathing rate. He checked tubes and medications. She tingled and silently chided herself. She was supposed to be worrying about Gramps, not watching the cute nurse. Dean. He said his name was Dean.
“Mr. Markovich,” Dean said firmly. “I need you to wake up.”
Gramps mumbled something grumpy.
“I’d be pissed too if someone woke me.” Dean rested his hands on Gramps’ good hand. “Do you want to turn over?”
Gramps looked at Jocelyn. He mouthed the word ‘Jo’ and something else, but she couldn’t make it out. She wanted to shake him, make him talk to her.
“Are you Jo?” Dean asked her.
She nodded. “I can’t understand him.” Jocelyn flailed to explain her discomfort. “He keeps saying the same thing, and I don’t know what it is.”
“It’s tough.” Dean continued doing his job.
“You don’t understand.” Jocelyn gazed out the window as the words gushed from her. “That’s one thing we always had – our ability to talk to each other.” Jocelyn sighed. “Our conversations were comfortable and never longer than they needed to be. We talked: about politics, about our days, about decisions for the ranch.” She shifted her weight. “I don’t know what to do.”
Before Dean could reply, a doctor came into the room. He looked about her age. Naked under her bathrobe, with no makeup and wet, snarled hair, she wrapped her arms around her waist.
“Are you with Mr. Markovich?” he asked.
“I’m his granddaughter.”
“He’s had a severe stroke. And he has pneumonia.”
“Pneumonia?” Jocelyn gasped. “How? He was fine. . .”
“At his age, it’s common.”
“What’s the prognosis?” Jocelyn braced herself.
“It will depend on the next few days. If we can get the pneumonia under control, he could regain some function.”
Jocelyn stared at the doctor. “Some function? No chance for full recovery?”
“Unlikely.” The doctor put his hand on her shoulder.
Urgent tears sliced down her cheek.
“His right side is paralyzed, which includes his face as well as his limbs.”
“Can he talk?” she asked.
“No. Or swallow. And he won’t be able to turn himself.”
Jocelyn wiped her face with the back of her hand. She tip-toed to the bed,
unprepared for how small Gramps looked. He lay on his back, tubes coming out his nose, IVs out his arms, and a catheter collecting his urine. She stood in the middle of the room for several long minutes after the doctor left.
“Go on.” Dean ushered her into a chair beside the bed. “Talk to him.”
“Can he hear me?”
“He probably won’t answer, but you can touch him and talk to him. Let him know you’re here.”
Jocelyn sat in the chair on his left side, staring at Gramps. The body in the bed wasn’t the man she had known all her life.
Dean turned Gramps onto his right side, so Jocelyn shifted her chair around so he could see her. He drifted to sleep again.
“He’ll be groggy. We want him to rest, to get that pneumonia cleared up.”
Jocelyn sighed, then looked at the clock. Not even lunchtime, and she felt like she had been awake for three days straight. She pulled her robe closer around her shoulders, trying to warm up and fill up the empty space inside her. Gramps was her life. She didn’t know what to do. Usually, she was full of ideas and motion. That morning, she was blank. She watched the clock, but it didn’t move. She shivered.
“Would you like some coffee?” Dean asked.
“I’m not a coffee drinker.”
“Tea? Anything with caffeine?”
She shook her head and forced a smile. “What am I going to do?”
“It throws you in a tailspin, doesn’t it?”
“I can’t believe this is happening.” She rubbed her hands up and down her arms, a sudden chill overpowering her. She wished she had brought a jacket.
“Are you okay?”
Her eyes started to leak again. “I’m usually in control, not waiting for someone else to react.”
Dean approached Jocelyn with open arms. This bedraggled woman intrigued him. Slender like a runner, she covered her fragility with an adamant insistence of strength. He knew she was holding herself together by the tiniest degree of will power. He gently lifted her shoulders, welcoming her into his embrace. At first, she stood unyielding as his arms wrapped around her shoulders. She relaxed, one muscle at a time, until her arms snaked around his waist and she burrowed her face into his chest. He cradled the back of her head, and risked a sniff of her hair. Coconut. He rocked her side to side. “He needs some time.”
“I’m not a patient waiter.” She allowed herself to cry on his shoulder. “I don’t know why I’m rambling on with a perfect stranger.” She cried and took in the scents of his skin and his soap. Why was she comforted by someone she didn’t know? He rubbed his hand up and down her back and said nothing. He held her tight enough to know she was in someone’s arms but not crushed up against his chest. She took a deep breath, again smelling his after shave. “Thank you,” she said softly. She pushed him away slowly.
Dean smiled. “That’s what I’m here for.”
“I feel so foolish.” She wiped her eyes, her head full and her nose stuffy.
He handed her a tissue. “No need to feel foolish.” He stared at her a moment.
“If you need anything, just ask.”
She nodded, but she knew there was nothing he could do. She wanted to run away from the terror coursing through her. Terror that she wouldn’t see Gramps awake again. Terror that he was leaving her forever. Terror that her life was changing, and she had no control to stop it.
“I want to wake up from this nightmare,” she said. He sat her back down on the chair. She clutched her bathrobe tightly around her. The room seemed empty and cold. Sterile. She wanted to mess up the magazines or turn a chair around. She gripped her hands together in her lap.
Dean pulled an extra blanket from the closet and approached her. “You look like you’re freezing.” He stared at her face: high cheekbones, almond eyes, and a small, straight nose. Her ivory skin mottled as a result of the cool temperature, and probably stress of the morning. “This might help.” He unfolded the light fleece blanket and draped it over her shoulders.
She glanced up at him and swallowed. She buried her hands in the ends of the blanket and pulled it tight around her neck. “Thank you.”
The fear in her eyes punched him to his core. He could gladly get lost in those big brown eyes.
Dean brushed past her, rubbing his free hand on her shoulder. She tensed.
“I’ll check on you both later.” Dean slipped out the door.
In the hallway, Dean leaned against the wall and felt his heart pounding. What the hell? He glanced back at the door then smiled. Whistling, he pushed himself down the hall to his next patient.