When the job seeker representative asked me what qualifications I had for a job, I told her I had a Masters degree. “Don’t put anything high faluting like that on your job sheet,” she told me. “You’re only going to end up a cleaner.”
I think of that sometimes when I’m scrubbing toilets in the middle of the night in my job as Hospital Aid in a small country hospital.
And if I ever needed a reminder that this is a privileged job, I think of the young woman I was on shift with one night, telling me in the kitchen, “One night my friends hassled me. They said, You have to clean up shit. And they laughed at me. And I said, Yes I do. Because those people need someone to help them. And then they went quiet. And they haven’t hassled me since.”
So that’s what we do. We do things for people when they can’t do it for themselves anymore. We shift a pillow under their head to help them sleep. We wheel them to the toilet when they can’t walk anymore, and we do whatever needs to be done. We take their teeth out and clean them and put them back in in the morning. We feed them when they can’t remember what a spoon is for. When they’re dying we make them whatever they feel eating, even if it’s custard for days in a row, or poached eggs till they can’t swallow anymore. We shave them, wipe their faces, pluck their chins, put their lipstick on. We remember how they like their tea and which socks are theirs. We remember who they were when they first came in and could tell us stories – of the Chinese miner who lived in a stone hut on the slopes of the family farm and cooked the farmhands dinner one snowy day when they were mustering, and who threw pieces of gold out to children on the streets of Arrowtown.
We remember they had a little brown and white dog they loved, or a palomino quarterhorse. They didn’t always dribble. On the walls behind their beds are photos of their farms, the tussock and their beloved dogs. There are wedding photos, grandchildren photos. And if a man may seem odd, alone, without history, then that is the day he may suddenly tell you it’s the date his wife died ten years before, and how much he misses her.
What you begin to understand is that it is all loss ahead of you – loss of your home, of your land, loss of your partner, loss of the most faithful dog you ever owned, loss of your garden, your favourite tree. Loss of your memory, perhaps, of all these things.
We ask them about their lives, or we remind them. We play Brahms’s Hungarian Dances to a woman who once taught music and she smiles. We tell another how beautiful her fingers are and she tells us, I played the violin.
It’s the sort of job you do when you haven’t got many options – when you didn’t further your education, or did and couldn’t get a job. Or you chose to live somewhere where there are no jobs.
“You girls should get paid a thousand dollars a week for what you have to do,” one woman said as I cleaned her.
We get paid just over the minimum wage. We get paid for changing briefs, cleaning toilets, putting Steradent on teeth and pulling socks on misshapen feet. Being kind and remembering is the extra option.
Being kind is what reminds you of your humanness, your shared trajectory.
“I didn’t think my life would come to this,” one man said as I guided him to the toilet. “I thought I would just drop dead of a heart attack.” And sometimes they do, right in our arms. But those that don’t are the ones we look out for. Thinking of our own fathers or mothers, living far away. Thinking of … thinking of what could be up ahead for each of us.
Jillian Sullivan: Jillian Sullivan has published novels, short stories, a collection of poetry and a book on the creative process, A Guide to Creating. She works part-time as a nurse aid, and teaches writing in New Zealand, and in America each year for the Highlights Foundation. Her latest book is the memoir A Way Home, on building a new life and a strawbale home in Central Otago.