Please don’t take this story as something that I am claiming, even indirectly, actually happened to me. Well, the heart attack did, being visited by the Grim Reaper didn’t. Just understand that I am often entertained by thoughts, and I seem to need little else to keep boredom at bay. This was one of those thoughts.
I never even saw who it was that introduced us. It’s not that surprising, really. After all, I was laying there in a hospital bed, after my heart attack, relatively helpless, immobilized by all sorts of medical paraphernalia that had been attached to my body, still a bit groggy from all that had happened to me in a relatively short span that afternoon, when a disembodied voice said, “It’s time the two of you got to know each other better. Jake, this is Mort. Mort, meet Jake.”
As I said, I never got a look at the person who introduced us, but Mort was nothing like the name itself had ever suggested to me. Had I not seen her with my own eyes, I might have conjured up the image of some sad-eyed, middle age man, probably on the thin side, sporting a mid-length, cookie-duster mustache. At least, that’s what I always thought a person named Mort might look like. Instead, Mort was quite an attractive, youngish woman, attired in traditional nursing whites, who was possibly in her mid thirties or early forties, standing near my knee at the side of my bed, demurely smiling at me with professional confidence.
“You don’t look like anyone named Mort to me,” I said by way of acknowledging her unusual name.
“Well, I’m not just anyone,” she replied with a conspiratorial smile. “I like being called Mort, myself, but you may call me Terminata, if you prefer. Some people are more at peace with a more feminine sounding name.”
“Mort’s good for me,” I responded. “I’ll pretty much always choose one syllable over four, especially if it pleases the person to whom it applies.”
At that point, I was waiting for her to either announce her acceptance of my stance or to parry it with a small bit of challenging dialogue, but she did neither. She just smiled and continued to stand there, quietly, looking at me. It was a little unnerving at first, to have this lovely woman in my room who didn’t seem to have the usual nurse’s agenda of drawing blood, or changing my intravenous bag, or emptying my urinal and recording the volume therein on her chart. Mort wasn’t bustling about me and she wasn’t bustling about the room either. She seemed to be in no hurry to get anywhere. She was just standing beside my bed, just beyond comfortable reach, smiling and watching.
“So, you’re a nurse here, I presume?”
“In a manner of speaking,” she pleasantly acknowledged.
“Well, other nurses seem to have somewhat specialized duties. What’s your role in all of this?”
“My role is to watch over the patient and to bring comfort when comfort is needed.”
Not knowing how to respond to such a generalized description of her duties, I simply met her comment with a slightly perplexed, “Hmmmm,” which is a wordless way of saying, “I’ll have to think about that.”
Then it was me that held a long silence, hoping that Mort might sense the awkwardness of the situation and expand upon her precise role at the hospital. But she didn’t. She just continued standing by my bedside, undistractedly watching me, her small hands gently grasped before her in what a former, Speech professor of mine had disparagingly referred to as the “fig leaf” stance, because the hands, grasped in front, naturally fall before the genital area. It is a fine stance from which to make long term observations of unmoving objects or people, but not advantageous to delivering engaging speeches.
I smiled at Mort.
She smiled at me.
I looked away from Mort and began studying the multi-coloured display screens that were monitoring various aspects of my heart functions. I noticed on those screens that if I laid perfectly still, I could generate three constant and consistent lines, all with pulses of equal frequency and amplitude. But all I had to do was to shift my position slightly, or cough, or do anything besides lay flat and still and the uniformity of the monitor lines would jump crazily around the screen for a few moments before slowly returning to uniformity.
I said, “So Mort, are you here to watch my monitor?”
Mort, with an almost unearthly gentleness in her reply, said, “No, I’m here to watch you.”
“I’m not much to look at even at the best of times and this is hardly the best of times. You’re going to be seriously bored.”
“I never get bored,” she replied. “I love my work.”
“Still,” I said, trying to maintain the comfort of the conversation, “you must have other patients to attend to. Won’t you be needing to see them soon?”
“I have no other patients to attend to,” she corrected my misapprehension.
“You mean, that I am your one and only patient?” I asked, smiling a disbelieving smile.
“That’s correct,” she replied, without further explanation.
“Well then, will someone be relieving you at the end of your shift?”
“In a manner of speaking,” she replied.
“So you’re a nurse, in a manner of speaking, and you will be relieved at the end of your shift, in a manner of speaking. Could you tell me more about the manner in which we are speaking?”
“What is it you’d like to know?” Mort replied.
“Well, let’s get specific,” I said, hoping to pin down some details to expand my understanding of Mort and her role in my recovery. “When exactly does your shift end?”
She shrugged and spoke simply, “It ends when it’s over.”
Slightly angered by her seeming reticence to supply her patient with pertinent information, I glanced quickly at my monitor to see the lines had gone into crazy mode.
“Well then, perhaps you will tell me what role you play in my recovery?”
“Ah yes,” she replied, “there you really have come to the crux of the matter. You see, I don’t have any role in your recovery. I don’t mean to upset you, but I am here in case you don’t recover.”
“Oh, I see,” I said, continuing the conversation that appeared to have turned toward a fruitful avenue. “So your role is to nurses what the bus staff’s role is to the wait staff in a restaurant. You do the cleaning up.”
“In a manner of speaking,” Mort intoned once again.
“Well now, there you go again, Mort! Whenever you say, ‘In a manner of speaking,’ I’m coming to understand that I haven’t got it quite right, but you’re willing to let me continue to believe it the way I understand it. Well, that’s very nice of you Mort. Very accommodating and all that. But here’s the thing, Mort, I’m trying to understand and I’m trying to get it right, but you’re not really helping.”
Again she spoke in soothing tones, above a whisper, but below the volume of most earthly discourse. “I don’t mean to cause you any harm or aggravation, Jake.”
“Well then,” I said, “could you please just tell me who you are and what you’re doing here? I mean, I don’t mind a lovely young woman standing by my bedside, patiently observing me, but not knowing why is rather aggravating, as you can probably tell by my monitor up here.”
At last, she touched me. She laid her small, warm hand gently on my arm to comfort me as she inquired, “How do you feel about life, Jake?”
“How do I feel about life?” I repeated incredulously. “That’s a pretty open-ended question to be asking me right now, don’t you think? I mean, it’s pretty philosophical. It would probably take me an eternity to answer such a question.”
Mort tilted her head slightly, as if she were engaging a small child who knew nothing of the world and as if she was about to help the child to understand something fundamental. Then, in a gentle, soothing voice, she said, “It doesn’t have to take an eternity. It can be told in a heartbeat. And if it does have to take an eternity, I have an eternity to give to hearing your thoughts and feelings. So, Jake, how do you feel about life?”
I took a long pause, trying to collect my thoughts, trying to understand what was happening. I glanced briefly at my heart functions monitor only to notice that one line was flat, another was irregular and the third line looked like it was mimicking a child’s etch-a-sketch. Then I turned my attention back to Mort.
She was warm and she was inviting me to engage her on a very deep level. Somehow, I felt that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to tell someone who really seemed to care, just how painful life was, how much I wanted to be released from its constant hurts and disappointments, its painful memories, its fears about an uncertain future. I could gripe at length and someone would care! When does this happen in life?
Conflicting thoughts raced through my brain. I remembered that earlier in my stay here at the hospital I had agreed to be resuscitated should my systems fail, but when the question had been asked, I hesitated to answer it. Part of me really could not endure the traumatic prospects of electrical defibrilation nor of emergency open-heart surgery. Mort, it seemed, was offering me a way out of this dilemma and she was asking me something that was critical to her work, which would be over when “it” was over.
“Mort,” I said, grabbing her hand with my own, “how I feel about life would probably take a lifetime to say. But before I say anything more, I want you to be perfectly honest with me. Earlier, you said that your shift would be over when it was over.”
Mort smiled her lovely smile, but said nothing. Her eyes urged me to go on.
“The ‘it’ you were speaking about – you meant my life, didn’t you?”
She nodded in agreement.
“And when you tell me things like you have ‘an eternity’ to accomplish your work, you mean it literally don’t you? You mean that you literally have an eternity, don’t you?”
She nodded again and gently grabbed my proffered hand with both of her tiny hands, drawing me ever so slightly toward her.
I stared deeply into her eyes and began to see them as doorways or portals to the universe, complete with beautiful, phenomenal galaxies and nebulae. She was a conduit, a conductor, a guide. She was a path to enlightenment. She was the portal between the complex striving of living and the simple, quiet, contentment of being without life, outside of life, background to life. She was the grim reaper, the ultimate comforter, the angel of death. And she was inviting me to be comforted by her in the way that she understood comfort. She was inviting me to strive no more!
But Mort was not insistent on having things one way or the other. She was true to her word. It was my choice. Had my heart gone still, I would be with her now, learning through experience what it was like to be in a non-striving, peaceful state. Instead, my heart went calm. All my heart-beat monitor lines returned to pulses of uniform frequency and amplitude. I felt ease and gratitude flood my being. I slowly withdrew my hand from her embrace.
Mort stayed for just a little while longer, continuing to watch over me. But one part of my living spirit is an incredible imp. It can never resist any opportunity to inject humour into an otherwise humourless situation.
I said to Mort, “Well, I’m really glad to see that you’re not a scary skeleton with a scythe, draped in a billowy, black, hooded shift – all ominous and stuff.”
Mort smiled broadly, raised her hand to symbolically stifle a laugh, then said, “Everyone conjures their own, personal image, Jake. I just happen to be yours. The image you just described is not widely used by most people these days.”
“You mean that even the image of the angel of death is subject to the dictates of fashion?”
“Well,” Mort began. Then we both spoke at the same time to complete her thought, “in a manner of speaking.”
Mort smiled again in acknowledgement of our jointly completing her catch-phrase, then she turned toward the corridor and quietly padded out of the room.
In some ways, I was sorry that she had to leave. In other ways, of course, her leaving was the only option that would support my continuance of life’s struggles and life’s joys, yet I am still happy to have met her. And knowing that she awaits me at the end of life is its own comfort within this period of almost constant turmoil, the yearning, striving, living stage that exists, briefly, within the larger state of eternal being.