Taking a shower is a personal affair, the bathroom a place of privacy. However, there have been occasions where I’ve willingly shared the intimacy of cubicle, warm water, soaping and sudsing with a carefully chosen companion, modesty overwhelmed by steaminess. It may not save much water but it does have a softening effect. Recently, after body-disfiguring surgery, I was invited to take a shower with someone I had known for only a few hours. No preamble or compliments. No time for coffee and a chat. No opportunity to take in a movie or a show, or to go for a slow, moonlit ramble along the banks of the Leith. Nor was there any suggestion of a long-term relationship. Just a towel over her arm and a seductive smile that glowed inside the boundary of bed curtains.
‘How about it?’
It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I teetered to the ward’s tiny windowless bathroom. Divested of my gown I perched on a plastic chair, like a wet sparrow in a storm. She held me in the palm of her hand. Her beautiful, compassionate fingers massaged shampoo through my hair. I twittered a few ecstatic notes. A body-sponge at the bedside couldn’t hold a candle to this bliss. She rinsed me off and fluffed up my feathers with a dry towel. I chirped some more and wobbled a bit. She steadied me, led me back to bed and settled me into a nest of freshly plumped pillows. And left.
There was no good reason to cry. But I did. In less time than it had taken to drip a bag of saline into my arm I’d become attached, weak at the knees and in the thrall of my nurse. MY nurse. And now she was gone.
I stared out the window through a blur of warm salt tears, feeling stupid and weak. Then I blinked. And blinked again. Hanging in the sky was a massive metal cross. Was it some sort of divine symbol of loss? Or was I ‘seeing things’? I sniffed for a bit longer and rubbed my eyes as if kneading could clear my sight. On the ward there’s a fine line between post-op delusions and the plain unadorned facts of life which allow you to doze, and insist you stay well-hydrated. To this end there are occasional benign instructions to rest and recover, and constant imperatives to drink, litres of fluid, until your insides are sloshy and water-logged. However, it soon became clear that I was neither delusional, dreaming nor drunk. The cross in the sky was manifestly real.
Reachie McLaw, the Dental School crane, was on the job. He’s a practical sort of fellow, handsome and rugged in his own inimitable way, a model of integrity and bristling good health, not given to blubbing or emotional indulgence of any kind. And there he was, outside my window, swinging into action for the day, inscribing graceful arcs over the Dental School rooftop. Every move planned and charted. I imagine he’d been practising and perfecting these manoeuvres at training sessions for months. In my mind’s eye I saw the night lights, heard the man-grunts, the thunder of boots on turf, the ref’s whistle. But this morning’s team, in yellow vests and hard hats, scurried around on the sideline, watching as two of the squad stood mid-paddock, faces raised, waiting for the steel jaws to open and the payload to drop like a long, precise kick directly between the goal posts. And so my mind wandered, up and down the field, playing with possibilities.
Then my nurse came back bearing a load of pills in a little plastic pottle; two for pain, one for the blood, another for nausea. She hovered like a St John’s attendant in injury time while I swallowed the tablets with copious gulps of water and let them float to the touchline.
How each pill knows where to go to do its healing work is a puzzle. I don’t think it has much to do with colour or shape. But I guess timing is important and somewhere there’s a coach and a game plan. Like the workmen in their yellow vests standing under Reachie McClaw’s long arm, each knows exactly what its job is, where to target attention and how to dodge trouble. My nurse waited while I drank some more water. Then she patted my arm. I snuggled back into my pillows and closed my eyes.
Science and Medicine are smart and necessary for healing. Technology too. But nothing can beat a compassionate heart and the touch of gentle hands when feathers are droopy and the game gets tough.
Elizabeth Brooke-Carr is a Dunedin writer and poet who lives at the edge of the town belt. She has a PhD from the University of Otago. She is currently undergoing chemotherapy and her game plan is to make it until full time.