Friday, February 25, 2011

Mahalo and the Trash Can

I agreed to go. I didn’t want to go, I never want to go, but sometimes there are weddings, funerals and sick friends to visit in hospitals. For those, you’ve gotta rise above, put away your so-called anxiety and get your ass out of the house. But I couldn’t go by myself, so I enlisted 2 friends.

As the day grew near, I secretly hoped he would be released or forget to tell us he had a dialysis appointment. I wanted to see him, support him, but it wasn’t about him, it was about me. Since I involved others, I couldn’t get out of it. But we needed a game plan.

Before entering the care facility where Matt was convalescing, I went over the game plan with the others: Annemarie would run point, taking the lead and be in charge of starting conversation. We were warned there would be crying, so her female presence would handle any hugging, if needed. She had a natural, nervous energy and a gift for gab - she was perfect for this situation. I would handle jokes and, if needed, making fun of Annemarie’s animated character. Dave, the third person, would help me with comic relief.

Matt was from Philly. His first band opened for KISS in ’76 at the shore, the Jersey shore. He joined the Navy in the late 70s, was shipped to Hawaii and, on his first day on the island, got a tattoo of a devil on his right bicep. The outline of the tattoo hurt so much that he didn’t stick around to get it colored in. It cost him $25.

New to the island, Matt observed the Hawaiian word mahalo written in large letters on the side of public trash cans. He assumed mahalo meant trash. When someone greeted him with mahalo, he took offense and said, “Fuck you.” He later learned its true meaning.

Spending 6 months of the year underwater, Matt was the head chef on various submarines for 10 years. Despite the stench of dirty men and occasionally having to store a corpse in a meat freezer, he enjoyed the long hours and routine.

When he left the island and the Navy, he took with him a wife and a tattoo. That’s it. He landed in San Francisco, got a job at the Salvation Army for a decade and then found us, where he was head chef for 13 years.

First to arrive and last to leave, Matt’s work ethic from his submarine days (work/sleep/work/sleep) never left him. Even though he was the highest paid staff in the kitchen and basically never went home, Matt took on various second jobs. One of these jobs was taking tickets and serving popcorn at a movie theatre. After a few of these types of jobs, you got the feeling that he didn’t want to go home.

Before entering his room, I brush past Annemarie. My confidence was back and I was ready to perform. Slumped in a wheelchair, dressed in a robe, Matt vacantly stared at the wall. His eyes were milky, the skin of his gaunt face clung to his skull like dripping wax and 60lbs appeared to have left his body. I cheerily greeted him: “Hey Matt, it’s Greg.” He replied, “Oh, hi,” his heading moving toward where the sound came from.

Once a virile man, the initial image of seeing him staring at the wall, hollow eyed, was hard to shake. I only knew him as a mule, a stubborn man that was constantly on the move. The Matt I was looking at was a shell of himself, an image that looked more familiar in a VA ward or from the movie One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. It was jarring.

Annemarie and Dave entered, Annemarie taking center seat and Dave and I flanking her. Forgetting about the pre-visit rules, I opened with a story about visiting another coworker at SF General. There was a cop stationed outside his room, which I thought was for him. It turned out he was for his roommate who was handcuffed to the bed. That got a few laughs (Paraphrasing, man. Much better in person) and broke the ice. It’s hard to get to me to the party, but once I’m there, the jokes will flow. Move over, Annemarie.

After 20 minutes or so, Matt’s inflections and mannerisms seemed normal and hope flowed through me. Even though his sight was severely compromised, I felt like he was going to be ok. His world would never be the same, he would never drive, possibly not walk; however; once he regained his strength, he could begin to rebuild his life.

Near the end of our visit, they rolled in a new roommate. Before the nurse closed the curtain between the beds, deep thuds resonated throughout the room. Even though we couldn’t see what was going on, it was easy to imagine the new roommate flailing around his bed, while two orderlies and nurse attempted to restrain him.

Matt’s voiced softened and Dave and I moved closer. All four of us were more interested in the melee on the other side of the curtain. Up until then, it was just sounds of struggle and an occasional yelp.. Eventually, the story came out:

“Ice cream,” he yelled.

“I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t have ice cream. I can get you some water,” said the attractive Filipino nurse.

Changing his order, his true intentions came out: “I want cigarettes and beer!”

“I’m sorry, sir, but there’s no smoking in this facility and we don’t serve beer. I can get you some water,” she repeated.

“I want cigarettes and beer!” he demanded.

This went on and on until the roommate’s wife arrived

In hushed tones, the nurse explained to the wife of his desire for beer and cigarettes. As clear as day, the wife replied, “Aw, when he says he wants beer, he means he wants soda.”

Yeah right.

This was our cue to leave. Conversation was exhausted and Matt was fading. Annemarie rose and hugged Matt; Dave and I held out our hands. I looked back at Matt as I hurried past the roommate. He returned to his initial pose: slouched and staring at the wall.

In the parking lot, Annemarie said the roommate winked at her as she scurried past his bed.

Get well, Matt.

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