No. 8, Home Health Aide #2 (Age 16)

Quitter: A person who quits or gives up easily, esp. in the face of some difficulty or danger.

My mother and I sat at Minette’s kitchen table playing cards and drinking milky tea. We had a clear view of Minette as she lay on a mechanical bed in the living room. Her arms stretched out in front of her as she squeezed the remote control in both hands, growling and grunting as she tried and failed to find something entertaining on the console television.

“Shouldn’t we help her?” I asked. “Should I get her the TV Guide or something?”

“No, she’s fine. If she wants help, she’ll ask for it.” She laid down a full house and let out a small whoop. “Listen, Sandman. We’re only here for emergencies and she knows that. It’s what she wants. Once in a while she’ll come in the kitchen and we’ll talk for a while, but you shouldn’t worry about doing a thing unless she specifically calls for you. No fawning!”

“So I just sit here at the kitchen table until she asks for something?”

“That’s right.”

“I sit here the whole time?”

“That’s right.”

“Six hours. I sit here at the kitchen table for six hours?”

“That’s right. Now, I have to get to work and start making the biscuits. You know how those old farts complain if their biscuits aren’t puffy. I’ll be back this afternoon to take over,” she promised, stacking the cards and lighting a cigarette as she walked out the door. I instantly regretted offering to cover her shift.

Mom had been caring for 60-year-old Minette on a per diem basis, convinced when she began that Minette’s advanced emphysema would be a marvelous smoking deterrent, inspiring her to quit a decades-long habit. The job paid a nominal flat rate per shift and because of its lack of physical demands, it was an effortless way for my mother to supplement her earnings from a fast food restaurant. Except she still wound up with too much work and not enough sleep.

The drive from Estherville to Minette’s Okoboji home only took twenty minutes, but to an overworked, sleepless driver it was a painful eternity of near misses and automotive risk-taking. So when Mom asked for my help I took the bait. I had a hard time saying no to money. Or, maybe I had a hard time saying no to work. Or, perhaps I just had a hard time saying no . . .

This was one of those moments I wished I’d had the sense to say no thanks. Minette had emphysema. She’d suffered horribly for eleven years and was openly pissed about her imminent death. She was quite comfortable being mean and nasty to her caretakers, and passed the day mumbling insults from her sequestered throne in the living room.

“Can’t even remember which pills are which . . .”

“Too stupid to work a real job . . .”

Being sympathetic proved difficult if not impossible. On the one hand, she chose to smoke for years and had therefore drawn the bath that ultimately drowned her. On the other hand, she suffered a great deal in the final years of her life, and was probably hooked on cigarettes long before the medical community thought it might be a bad idea. Now, each gasp for breath made her ribcage bulge, her torso a grotesque barrel of air nearly splitting the thin skin covering it. Day after day—and with The End being the only end in sight—she woke knowing that her blue skin, matted hair and bedsores were part of a nightmare from which she’d never wake. 

“Sandy, I’m back,” Mom yelled as the screen door slammed behind her. “Hi there, Minette. What’s shakin’? I brought you a sausage and cheese biscuit.”

“No eggs on that, right?” Minette hated eggs.

“No eggs, I promise. I didn’t just scrape them off like last time.”

“Thanks, Pam. Your daughter was a big help.” I was? I hadn’t lifted a finger. Was she being sarcastic?

“Thanks, Min. She’s a hard worker ain’t you, Sandman.” Mom winked at me. “I’m going downstairs to check the laundry.” Laundry was the code word for smoking. Minette was jealous of smokers and Mom had to hide in the basement with her cigarettes. I listened to Minette’s lungs gurgling in the next room as I waited for Mom. I knew right then that I couldn’t—I wouldn’t—continue being her caretaker. I didn’t have to. I covered just one more shift before deciding I’d earn plenty of money working at my two other jobs; though I really enjoyed the brief time I got to tell people I had three.

Three jobs? All at once? Why, yes.

What an odd thrill for a young woman.

(And my mother never quit smoking.) 


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