The resident in room 402 is a difficult patient and yet the reader sees shades of softness in his attachment to the nurse. What makes for this unlikely bond between the nurse and the elderly patient, especially such a cantankerous one?
The relationships I’m drawn to in my writing and in my life, I suppose, are the fleeting connections. The ones that flare up in a summer camp, a hotel bar, or on an overnight bus. The ones that happen when people are removed from their roles (mother, husband, farmer), and see each other with a special clarity. When past and future are reduced to constructs, people are allowed to live in the present. In this story, the nurse’s roles are obliviated because the resident cannot remember them. The resident’s roles are a mystery because he cannot remember them, either, and there is no one around to shed much light on them. Who we are in the present without prescribed roles or concerns for the past or future, and how we connect in that very real space was something I wanted to explore with these characters.
With a rapidly aging population, elder care is an issue in many families today. Why did you pick an elder care facility as a setting? I would imagine that the resident in room 402 does not take kindly to being where he is?
I worked as a hospice nurse early in my nursing career and have spent time in these facilities. Someone should make a TV drama about one because there is a lot going on in there! There are well appointed facilities and low-budget facilities, but a theme that runs through all the ones I’ve visited is that they are a holding place. The residents know this. Their former lives are over. Their death and whatever it brings is not quite here yet. The facility is a liminal space, and a space that is not spoken of much in our society.
I suppose the feelings the resident in room 402 has about being in an elder-care facility mirror the ones we all probably have about aging in general―a mix of relief, resentment, gratefulness, discomfort, anger, fear, confusion. This is another aspect of the facility that makes it an amazing space for stories. You can pluck them from the air. The emotions are thick, buzzing around like insects.
There are hints of abuse blending into the story, some from the patient’s life, some from the nurse’s past. The story mentions the wife in another wing, someone who screams when she sees her husband. How and why does the protagonist process and accept that information without compromising on the care she gives?
Nurses are trained to heal. Hospice nursing is a different type of healing. It cannot heal the body. But there is more to a person than their body. Sometimes what a patient needs just before they leave is to be forgiven for whatever they have done in this life and to be loved with no caveats.
Your piece is poignant, touching, funny here and there, but throughout the story, there is the inevitability of approaching death. Yet, we don’t hear about the patient’s “kin” until the funeral. Why are they absent until the end? What does it tell us about the patient’s family?
Maybe the resident ruined his relationships by dealing in pain and abuse. Or maybe his family was abusive to him. Isn’t it sometimes both? Pain begets pain begets pain in families. The beauty and terror of the liminal space that is the nursing home, especially ones that care for dementia patients, is that the past does not exist. A family visit brings the past to the present. I wanted the resident’s past to remain a mystery. I wanted him to remain to the reader what he was to the nurse—just a man living his life at that moment in time, with only hints of his past.
At the end, I get the sense the nurse is burying more than her patient with the lovely last line where we have the images of the birds taking off. What can you tell us about her thoughts at that moment?
Healing is a two-way street. When you help someone heal, they heal you back. It can be healing to release your grip on controlling the outcome of a situation, or on protecting someone, or on your own past and the stories you tell yourself.
I see many authentic details in this story. Does this story spring from personal experience? If so, what role does personal experience play, both in the crafting of a story and in making the piece resonate in readers’ minds?
This story is heavily informed by my time as a hospice nurse. I have written different versions of this story as creative nonfiction, but they never quite worked. They were all lacking something. It wasn’t until I released the nonfiction attachment to fact, to diligently reporting the characters and settings and time frames, that the story felt right to me. Releasing the story to fiction, I was able to add elements the story needed to become fully formed and subtract elements that were not working.
I think the reader can sense truth within a story, like an artery running somewhere deep down, even if the plot and characters are completely invented. A sense of emotional honesty makes a story resonate.