'Waiter!'(terminal Care narrative)(Column)
Varga, Michael, Commonweal
At the age of forty, I recently took early retirement from the U.S. Foreign Service because of serious medical problems. With more time on my hands and intimations of mortality at every turn, a character from my past came to me, a cancer-stricken man named Jerome.
Many years ago, as a Jesuit novice, I worked as an orderly at Calvary Cancer Hospital in the Bronx, New York, where I cared for terminally ill patients. I quickly discovered that it is not easy to give a bed bath to someone who is so fragile and weak. My very first patient was Jerome Bowers (not his real name). He had spent his entire adult life as the maitre d' at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. He was deathly thin, and his skin had a yellow pallor. Bathing him was not pleasant.
The first morning I came into the room, he got very nervous and said he didn't have time to wash. The lunch crowd would be here soon and the tables were not set. This was all a puzzle to me, so I washed him as best I could, said little, and went on to the next patient.
The next day when I arrived, Mr. Bowers signaled me and said, "Tell Jerome that time is running out. The tables must be done now."
"Which Jerome?" I asked.
"The maitre d'! Go, tell him!" "I'll tell him later," I said, but as I started to bathe Mr. Bowers I could tell he was panicking. I decided to explain: "Your name is Jerome Bowers, mine is Michael. You're here in Calvary Hospital because you have cancer. Don't worry about the lunch tables. They're not your concern anymore. Just lie back and let me wash you." This didn't allay his panic, so I finished quickly and went on to my other patients.
The next day, as soon as Mr. Bowers spied me, he started yelling, "Jerome, get to work. Get the silverware out, and make sure the tablecloths have been changed." This was quite a change from the first day. Now, I was Jerome. "My name is not Jerome," I said, "your name is Jerome. I'm here to wash you, not worry about the silverware." But he kept asking if the lunch crowd was in yet and if we had run out of the daily special.
After tussling with Mr. Bowers this way for over a week, I finally saw the light: Jerome Bowers was dying, abandoned by his family, and I was the only person having human contact with him on a regular basis. …