It was supposed to be a routine hospice nurse visit. The text message from the office said to enter the home through the side door. I press my petite body against the large doorway frame and follow the hum of the oxygen machine down the cramped hallway. I make a note to communicate in my admission documentation that the funeral home would need two people to retrieve the deceased body from the tight halls of this family home. It can be traumatic to see a recently departed family member manhandled, or worse, fall to the floor as he or she is being taken out of the home for the last time.
As a hospice nurse, my job is to always ensure dignity. I found the room where my soon-to-be-patient lay dying. Her hair, white as snow, lay damp against her scalp. Her lips were cotton candy blue due to lack of circulation, cold and chapped. She gasped for air. There was a death rattle in her lungs. The skin on her hands and feet were varying shades of splotched sky blue and cobalt. Old women don’t run races like this for long.
The patient’s caregiver, her adult son, stood at her bedside. I walked over to him, extended my hand and opened my mouth to introduce myself when he fired, “You are late!” I felt my heartbeat quicken. Pain pierced my skin from the salty drops of sweat that dampened my armpits, my groin and my brow. The red-faced man ignored my outstretched hand and moved past me. He was operating under the misunderstanding that the hospice nurse would move in and take care of his loved one as death approached. I was not there to replace him as the primary caregiver and he had not given me enough time to explain. I dropped my hand and said, “Excuse me, sir, but you can’t leave your mother!”
“What do you mean I can’t leave?”
His dying mother hisses, “Son, do we need to drag this nigga out back to the woodshed?”
I remain composed. The black girl in the corner. I watch the dying woman writhes with hate on what I had been led to believe was her deathbed. The oxygen machine groans. The old woman’s son stands between me and the door. His neck, cheeks and arms are tinged pink from the Oklahoma sun. The words, replaying, clear as a bell: “Drag this nigga behind the woodshed.” How will I get away?
My head pounds as I find myself within a reliving; a vivid memory from my early nursing career. I am holding the oxygen tubing close to the wrinkled face of a newborn. His mother has pushed for hours while I wiped her brow and rooted her on while monitoring him during his prolonged birth. My shift had ended and I should have left but I was compelled to see the end of this birth story. We had worked so hard to get this newborn here safely. I was pleased at how quickly this little one was going from dusky blue to bright pink. He was going to be just fine. While encouraging him to exercise his ability to breathe air, I tickle his tiny toes. The eldest member of the family, silver-headed and clumsy, slides over with her walker in hand and agreed to take over the important task of playing with the newborn’s feet which freed my hands to hold the oxygen. I thought of my ebony hand holding the newborn’s oxygen against her shaky and blue veined one, underneath the warmth of the incubator. I heard her chant this nursery rhyme:
Eeenie, meenie, miney mo
Catch a nigga by his toe
If he hollas let him go
Eenie, meenie, miney mo
The room, now black like me, closed in, foreboding. I am a voyeur of some distant ancestral vision, unable to interact, only able to see, only able to remember that is not how I had sung this lullaby to my children. Those are not the lyrics. This is a racist horror of a nursery rhyme, one that I couldn’t believe people ever sang. Still sing. I gasp. My pulse throbs. My spit turns sour. I wonder, if I holler, will they let me go?
The buzz of my cell phone vibrating against my leg interrupts my torment. For a brief moment I am confused. Am I in the hospital room of the newborn whose grandmother crooned racist lullabies or am I in the bedroom of the old woman whose dying wish is to drag me behind the woodshed? My present pain or my ever-present ghost? My eyes adjust to the light. I make out the shapes in the room. The sweet smell of death. Putrescine mixed with cadaverine are in the air. This is the dimly lit home of the dying patient. The home with the narrow-minded hallways.
My assessment is complete! It is clear to me that she is not dying. All pulses are present and getting stronger. But the stench of death still lingers. Old. Unwilling to yield. Through cold, blue lips she intones lullabies to her offspring. Her lullings are threats to our brown bodies. Cold, blue, steel. She continues to babble those threats against us on her deathbed.
Buzz buzz. My cell phone rings. I hold my cell phone high in the air and say,
“It’s the office,” and with a slight stutter, “I need to take this call.”
This is how I escape.
I interrupt Lara, my straw-haired white supervisor, before she could tell me why she called and ask, “What happens behind the woodshed?”
Lara asks, “What did you do wrong?”
“I hardly think their misinterpretation of hospice services would warrant taking anyone behind the woodshed,” I fire back.
“You didn’t really think that she would rise up off her deathbed and take you behind the woodshed, now did you?” she says. “Every single one of these nurses has been fired because a black family did not like them because they were white. I don’t want your fellow nurses to think that you are playing the race card.
Her doctor said she was mottled to knee.”
My supervisor was right. The patient was mottled to knee. The lack of circulation to her extremities had turned her skin a blotched blue that can be found when one is close to death. Once I see mottling, I immediately notify the family that I do not expect my patient to live much longer, usually hours or a day before their loved one will pass away. It is a sure sign of death.
“Now, you are going to have to get over this. Get that chip off your shoulder,” Lara instructs. I like Lara. I respect Lara. But? I don’t understand her logic.
I am assigned to the case. The race card played. My mouth fills with bitter spit. I want to puke. I swallow instead.
Like Louis Armstrong, I wondered what did I do to be so black and blue? It was then that my fixation on what happens to the nigga taken behind the woodshed began. I wonder about the wood. Is it splintered? Is it smooth? How is it that I know? What is it that I know? Fractured experience. My predicaments. My lack of options. I misunderstand that although my co-workers do not look like me they will speak for me. When I get back to the office, I tell everyone on the care team about my experience. The chaplain. My co-workers. I look into their eyes as I say it. “They threatened to drag me behind the woodshed.”
I can’t stop talking about it. My co-workers proclaim they don’t see color. If they don’t, then they don’t see me. I find myself amidst a flood of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil responses. My dilemma is now fodder for office jokes. One red-headed nurse says, “Oh, I know what happens behind the woodshed. My uncles liked the sisters and they would take them behind the woodshed and have sex with them. Not my dad. My uncles. We found a bunch of them with hair the same color as ours and some with the same last name. Figured we would leave well enough alone. No use bringing up old history.”
Tick tock. The clock in the corner next to me ticks. I am convinced no good ever came to the nigger dragged behind the woodshed. The old woman is getting stronger. My destruction awaits me.
The oxygen machine hums. The old woman continues to hiss. A dying snake, unable to shed its skin, but still able to strike.
Gay Pasley is an ordinary person. She lives in Oklahoma City.