I was stranded at my college one Thanksgiving because I was a know-it-all freshman who assured his parents, “I’ll book my own flight.” By the time I got around to trying, the flights were full. Not one seat. When I broke the news, Mom wept into the phone and Dad hauled out his “It serves you right” speech, but he sounded more disappointed than angry.
Dreading being alone, I practically begged Nurse Guevara for a double shift at my part-time orderly job at the Kivel Nursing Home. She agreed.
On Thanksgiving morning, before my first shift, I sat in the dormitory commons room with one other marooned kid. He said he roomed on the fifth floor, but he was the only one up there. Everyone else had gone home.
The Minnesota Vikings-Detroit Lions game came on television. It was hard for me to watch it with a random companion, knowing my living room back home was packed with family friends and relatives at the same time. No doubt they were doing handsprings when Jim Marshall intercepted that pass and tossed a no-look lateral to Alan Page, who scored the touchdown in a snowstorm.
Watching that in real-time choked me up. Not the touchdown. The snowstorm. I ached to inhale that wintry Minnesota air instead of the alien aroma of Phoenix’s stockyards.
I missed dressing for cold weather. I missed winter quiet in the nighttime. I missed home.
Later that day I punched in early for my first shift and headed straight to Mr. Ryan’s room.
Everyone adored Timothy Ryan. At 90-something, he was still handsome and gregarious, a real charmer. He could make the raunchy ditties he sang in his melodic Irish brogue sound like love songs. He often spoke about a girl who, way-back-when, was the love of his life. Her name was Claire and he kept her picture in his breast pocket.
Mr. Ryan’s hands and legs were gnarled from arthritis and practically useless. And he was blind.
On this night, Nurse Guevara informed me, “You’re on your own with Mr. Ryan tonight.” Leaving nothing to chance (I was still an “orderly-in-training”), she handed me a notecard.
As I recall, she had written these reminders:
1) Wash hands and face, 2) brush teeth, 3) comb hair, 4) urinal, 5) pajamas, 6) into bed, 7) turn off lights, 8) whiskey.
About the time I figured Dad was carving “your mother’s turkey” as he liked to call it, I was tending to Mr. Ryan and doing fine, I thought.
When at last I transferred him to his bed and turned off the lights, Mr. Ryan offered his customary reminder: “You won’t be forgetting our drink now, will ya.”
Mr. Ryan was allowed a half shot of whiskey at bedtime. Each night the orderly brought out a bottle and two shot glasses from a cabinet — two shot glasses because Mr. Ryan wouldn’t drink alone. He filled Mr. Ryan’s shot glass halfway and pretended to pour one for himself. Then Mr. Ryan and the orderly toasted each other with a “Here’s to ya,” clinked glasses and Mr. Ryan downed his shot with one swallow. Just like that, he was asleep.
That’s just how it happened on this night with my first solo attempt. It was lovely.
Most late nights in a nursing home are uneventful. Not this one. With no warning, Mr. Ryan started hollering furious gibberish and curses. When I got to his bedside, he hooked one arm around mine and flung wild swings in my direction with the other.
I’d forgotten step 4.
Nurse Guevara came to my rescue. She took charge, expertly turning Mr. Ryan side to side with one hand while I struggled to remove and replace his wet bedding and pajamas. That done, she said something like, “I’ll leave you to sort things out,” and left the room.
Mr. Ryan lay still. I was shaking, near tears. “Mr. Ryan, I’m sorry … .” He stopped me and found my hand.
“No need for that. You won’t be forgetting our drink now, will ya?”
After Mr. Ryan fell asleep again, I sat next to him, still. Not for his sake. For mine.
When I returned to my dormitory in the morning, I tracked down the kid from the fifth floor. I think we watched more football, tossed a Frisbee around and listened to records. I don’t remember much about him except that he was from Indiana and thought Led Zeppelin was the greatest rock ’n’ roll band ever.
Later that night I called my parents. I told them all about my Thanksgiving with the kid from the fifth floor and Mr. Ryan.
Dick Schwartz lives in Minneapolis.