Universal Translator

Saturday, January 28, 2012

An Old Man in School

Well, I'm back.  The frequency of posting obviously has gone down since the nursing classes in which I enrolled actually started.  The classes themselves consume 30 hours a week, and I am still juggling professional responsibilities in the Life from which I am slowly disentangling myself.

Also, a lot of my free time has been consumed by a bunch of additional extraneous errands necessary to get through the nursing program.  First, I had to get my shot records, which I was unable to find anywhere (I have never really had a regular doctor) and so just this Wednesday I ended up getting hit with about 6 different vaccines all at once and was sick as a dog for two days.  I also had to get a brief physical, which, it turns out, you can't get unless you can produce your shot records (had the physical today, and am in good health - if not great shape - thank you very much).  And finally - for some reason - a dentist has to say that my teeth look alright (I'm taking care of that Monday afternoon).

All of this is in addition to getting CPR certified (taken care of last week) and passing the criminal background check (which, between you and me, is the only one I was worried about and yet the easiest one to get through . . . mostly because it didn't require any effort on my part.)

Oh yeah . . . and I've moved again, which involved relocating myself, a good deal of my possessions, and the dogs.

So while I've been keeping abreast of recent goings on I haven't really had an opportunity to comment much on them.  And I intend to, shortly, but first I thought I'd talk about one aspect of my experience in the nursing program:  being the oldest guy in the class.

As I mentioned earlier, my program is the Certified Nursing Assistant program -- the CNAs are the people who actually provide direct care to patients.  So we are learning all kinds of practical things, like how to turn patients (without injuring them) so that they do not develop bed sores, or how to change the bed linen of a patient who cannot get out of bed.

Typically, the first 2 hours are spent in lecture, and the remaining time in class is spent practicing the actual physical skills that we are supposed to be able to do.  The classroom is outfitted with 6 practice hospital beds, and my class of 12 has been divided into 6 pairs.  My partner is a young woman named Danielle.

Because we are expected to be able to actually do this stuff in the Real World, it is insufficient for us to simply demonstrate a technical knowledge of each skill that we learn; we also are expected to be able to communicate with our patients.  The school wants to inculcate in us a reflexive respect for the patients' dignity and an empathy that goes beyond mere professionalism.  So in addition to demonstrating technical skill, we also are required to role play; one person plays the CNA, the other person is in the bed, playing the role of the patient.

And each skill practice/demonstration begins the same way.  You knock on the door and wait for permission to enter the room.  Then you greet the patient, introduce yourself, and then ask the patient to confirm they are who they are supposed to be.  (Because you want to make sure that you're not giving care to someone for whom it was not prescribed.)  You do that by asking the patient to state their full name and date of birth while you check what they say against the medical bracelet on their wrist.  (Kind of like being a bouncer, if you think about it.)  Finally, you draw the privacy curtain (very important) and proceed to the skill set.

The goal is to make this routine so standard that we do it reflexively, without thinking.  The two most important aspects, of course, are (i) confirming the patient's identity by name and birth date, and (ii) drawing the privacy curtain.

Of course, what this means in Real Life is that you end up knowing exactly how old is any person with whom you end up working.  Our instructor told us when classes began that if we liked we could lie about our ages and I very briefly contemplated doing so, but dismissed the idea as the weakest sort of vanity.  I am who I am -- I'm the Old Guy.  My only concession to vanity was to stop, a few days into the exercises, actually giving my birth date by month, day and year, and substituting instead a string of numbers:  "1-8-69."  The string of numbers seemed slightly euphemistic.

As it turns out, my partner - Danielle - was born the same year I graduated High School.  I've known this now for some weeks, and still remember being hit with the knowledge the first time she answered when I asked for her date of birth.  And then, just this past Thursday, I worked briefly with another young woman - April - and I discovered that she was born the same year I graduated college.  Damn.

But by far the worst of these is Jessica.  On the very first day of class, when we were all asked to introduce ourselves, Jessica explained that she had just graduated High School.  Thinking quickly, I figured that meant that she was probably born the same year I was graduating from law school.  Of course, I didn't feel any real need to draw anybody else's attention to this fact.  But it wouldn't stay unremarked upon for too long.

This Tuesday, during the very first of our skill set practices, I was lying in the hospital bed pretending to be the patient and Danielle was standing over me and asking for my name and date of birth.  When I said "1-8-69" the privacy curtain flew open and there was Jessica staring at me gob-smacked and gap-mouthed.

"My God," she said, "do you know that you're older than my Mom?"

"What?!?" I exclaimed in mock outrage.  "What!  What the hell kind of information is that to hit a guy with at eight o'clock in the morning?  What the hell is the matter with you?  Do you think I need to hear that this early in the morning?  Jesus!  What's the matter with you?""

Of course, one of the great things about the truly young is that they are easy to bluff.  Jessica's mouth went from gap-mouthed open to the more common "O"-open of embarrassed shame.  "No, no," she stammered, obviously thinking she had committed a faux pas, "you don't understand.  My Mom, she's very young, she's a young Mom, she -"

"No, no," I said, "no, don't try to walk it back.  You can't un-ring that bell, Jessica.  You've ruined my morning, just go."  And I made that little shooing sign with my hands, and sighed very loudly.  Jessica retreated behind the privacy curtain again and I winked at Danielle, who giggled.

* * *

Later, Danielle would let Jessica know that I wasn't really upset, which, y'know, I really wasn't.  I was mostly just amused by it all, but also I took it as an opportunity to reflect on how everyone's sense of identity plays out inside of ourselves.

When I was growing up, I was very close with my mother's parents.  My grandmother was named Ammy, and my grandfather was Papa.  And, by the time I was about 12 or 13, I was an acolyte in the Episcopal church in which my grandmother played the organ.  My parents never went to church, so whenever I was required to serve I would spend that Saturday night with my grandparents, and then catch a ride with them to church next morning.

Maybe my strongest memory of my grandfather comes from one of those nights spent sleeping over at their house.  I was crashed out on the couch, and my grandfather and my uncle had gone out for beers after closing up the bookstore that evening.  When my grandfather came home he was trying to be quiet, but he made enough noise to wake me up anyway.  When he saw that I was awake, he pulled up a chair to talk to me.

We talked about a lot of stuff, I suppose -- I think the conversation went on for more than an hour.  I can't remember what any of it was about, now.  I remember realizing that he was a little drunk.  But I'll never forget how he ended that conversation.

"You know," he told me, "you look at me and you see an old man.  You've never known me any other way.  But it's weird, y'know . . . I still feel the way I felt when I was 17 -- like I'm just getting started.  I think everybody feels that way, all the time.  You grow up, you get a job, you get married, you have a family.  People start to look to you like you know things, like you have the answers.  But you don't, not really.  Really, you're always just the kid you've always been.

"At least, that's how I've always felt.  And y'know?  It's how I expect I always will feel -- like a kid who doesn't know anything, and who is just getting started."  Then he kissed me, and went off to bed.

I've thought about that conversation many, many times over the years.  It was the centerpiece of the eulogy that I delivered on the day my grandfather's body was buried.  And I believe now, as I believed then, that he was right about that.  We none of us really change; we just become more and more who we already are.

* * *

This isn't exactly on point but just the other day, while we were taking a break, Jessica and Danielle and Crystal were debating the deliciousness of pomegranates.  April said that she loved the seeds, Crystal claimed not to be able to stand them.  "Eat the seeds, go to hell," I told April.


"You've never heard that story?"  April shook her head.  So I gave her an abbreviated version of the Persephone abduction story, and how it explains the changing of the seasons:
When the world was new and the Gods were young, Demeter was the goddess of green growing things and she had a beautiful daughter named Persephone.  
One day Persephone was walking in the fields of Earth and Hades, Lord of the Underworld, looked up and said:  "That's the girl for me."  The earth split open under Persephone's feet and Hades, in a chariot drawn by four large, black horses, grabbed the girl and took her to stay with him in his kingdom under the Earth.
When Demeter could not find her daughter she became so sad that the green things stopped growing, and so the rest of the gods joined together and approached Hades and told him that he must give the girl up.
"Fine," said Hades, "but only if she has taken nothing from me and my kingdom."
Unfortunately, Persephone had eaten 6 pomegranate seeds while she was in the Underworld.  And so a deal was reached.  Persephone would spend six months of the year - one for each pomegranate seed -- in the underworld with Hades, and the rest of the time with her mother.
And so it came to pass that - once a year - Persephone goes underground and Demeter grows sad, and the growing things die and we have Autumn and, eventually, Winter.  But, after six months have passed, Persephone returns and Demeter is so overjoyed we have Spring again. 
And so it has been going, year upon year upon year, forever after. The Seasons themselves turn because of a mother's love.
 When I was done, April smiled.  "That's a nice story," she said.

And she has a beautiful smile, and I thought suddenly how nice it is to have had the time to learn the stories that can do that for people.

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