Cora Bridey always felt there was a limit to sadness. It had to be somewhere where the terrible just couldn’t touch you anymore. It was a human limit really, one’s own capacity for sadness, and she felt she had reached it that winter afternoon in Children’s Hospital when little Robbie MacCauley had reached his arms up to her from the bed where he lay dying of a tumor of the brain, little Robbie who had never hurt anyone, never a soul, had never had it in his mind or soul to hurt anyone, mite of a thing that he was at just eleven, and asked her, asked Cora Bridey, for death not to take him. “Don’t let me die, Miss Cora. Don’t let me leave my mama.” And those following three or four minutes, when she swore by the Blessed Virgin to that child that no, he was never going to die, that he was going to get better and better and walk on out of there, that he was going home to his mother in the north of Spokesbury, to play just that coming summer in the dirt and grass, those following minutes when she had held that little boy and lied to him with all the power of conviction left in her—Cora thought then that she had reached the end of that capacity, that she had known only then true sadness. This week, however, she knew different. This week she learned they were shipping her out to the zombies.
It was her own fault really, and it didn’t make it any easier. Ever since she came onto the ward she had given them trouble. Small wonder they were in the way of getting rid of her. Just that first week when she had heard May Swenson with the seizure and had thrown her bedpan out into the hallway to alert them, they had taken that all wrong, that she should have relied on the call light, that she was just a trouble maker. And when she bothered them just a bit too much to adjust a pillow there, lift a foot there, cut her meat, pour out a glass of milk, part the curtain, after perhaps a thousand of those requests she couldn’t resist making, even knowing as a former nurse that she was into the pattern of making work for them, of seeking their attention, seeking anything but to be helpless and alone after the stroke that had left her null and void all the way down her left side, at 230 pounds too stout to make a comeback, too broad, too old, too lonely, too ugly, old maid that she was with her sharp tongue that had driven all her friends, all her relatives into hiding, even now in her time of need, their fearing that tongue and their fearing her stories, yes, even the stories, just as they feared her stroke, and they would never come, especially now that she was going to where they peed and messed themselves and hollered and screamed, poor devils, never for an instant knowing the difference between a dinner roll and the lowest refuse of their bodies.
Tommy had been the last. She had held onto him, that big effeminate man, with the sheer force of her will. She had pulled him close and clung with how old Casey Stengel was one of her patients and how she poured out his whiskey and he called her the battle axe. Or when she told him about Dr. Blumfeld, the eminent proctologist on Park Avenue where she worked privately, how he was examining a patient of hers, and when he pulled out the scope there was this flatulence and a torrent all down the old man’s handlebar moustache, all down his pin-striped shirt, and oh, how she giggled. Or when she told him about how at Vincent’s the night crew baked a gingerbread cake in a metal bedpan and served it up to one of the young interns, how he got sick in the sink over it. Or this story or that story, but finally running out, being 83 and not as sharp witted and a bit forgetful and just simply not recalling the whole rich texture of her nursing career, spanning fifty and more years from doctor’s minor assistant to head nurse on one of the most demanding acute medical wards in the whole City. Oh yes, how the two male aides at Broadhurst used to give themselves enemas before going off evening shift at eleven to help in their love making, and how she found them kissing and embracing in a dark room with a towel over the single light, and there was old Fox Stevens cold dead in the bed next to the window, dead for probably three hours while they were in there, feeling each other up. But there was an end even to that, and even a dollar bill shoved into young Tommy's tunic wasn't enough to get him to just stick around, stick tight for a while, she felt herself so full of terror with the evening coming and the dark, and now the greatest darkness, headed for Chronic.
That day she put a knotted handkerchief in her slacks and took her rosary and slung that over the armrest of her over-sized chair, and she watched them packing her belongings till she couldn’t stand that anymore, and then she made her way with the good arm and leg out to the juncture of the corridors by the nurse’s station and waited for them to wheel down the black stretcher with her effects, the TV, the housecoats, the lingerie, the extra shoes, the photo album, waited for Tommy and that little hussy Miss Goddard to wheel it down, and Tommy to take one hand on her chair and to push her into the elevator, while the nasty one got her chart and slipped it down into her chair, switching all the while her little rear end, and they were on with the stretcher, down two flights to the tunnel, down the ramp, yellow walls, fearful, sobbing, and even the lovely young man that Tommy was couldn’t make him bend a bit and hug her, feeling the pain that the most the Head Bitch Nurse had said was a curt “We’ll see you,” and now there were the pipes and the dripping water and Tommy’s breath heaving down into her neck as he pushed her chair and steered the stretcher with Miss Goddard coming on from behind.
She was feeling for the only strength left to her, the rosary slung on her armrest, and for the other strength, the one she hated, the handkerchief that she had knotted with the one good hand and her teeth, and which contained three months of blood pressure pills that she had trapped under her tongue till they were assured they were swallowed and had then spit into her emesis basin and let them dry and then secreted away for an eventuality such as this. Yes, she still had the pills, and she was a tough old biddy sure enough, and maybe just one of these nights the power would come to her, on out of this world where she was no longer looking on at pain but eating it. Oh Mary full of grace yes, bless his rotting soul, her little Robbie getting on to 53 this very year had he had some better luck. And Cora Bridey? She had gotten the far side of any use to anyone, even to herself. Even to herself, the last fifty feet to the ramp and into the 6-3 elevator and ascending with the stretcher and Tom King and Miss Goddard and the fear, and then hearing that door slide open on their sounds, a wall of barnyard cackles, screeds, the smell of faeces and urine, the stench of sweat, the dark tile floors, the fearful lack of light, sliding by in a haze of tears, all the way back to her very first job out of school, her first assignment with a fresh new pin when they walked her through Wilson Memorial, Ward 6, even now the scar on her wrist where one of them had reached for her, tongue protruding, rope of saliva, eyes in the back of her head, the ugly dark nails raking her flesh. Oh yes, she was all the way back. From nurse to patient. Tommy King, brash Miss Goddard lying they would visit. Sooner or later even Robbie MacCauley outlived you, sick of sin. That night, if she had just a touch more courage, she would outlive them all. Where she was right now it all seemed lies, even prayer, even the soft touch of compassion. Just a touch more and then she’d find out.