The hall floor in Wing A of Pinecrest Convalescent Center was so well polished that I could see my nervous, white-clad reflection. I looked professional, but I didn’t feel that way. I had read my instructions twice to make sure I had them firmly fixed in my mind. “Mr. Wingate, Room 1A. Routine: PG.” Translated, that meant personal grooming or, in other words, bath and shave.
“Hello,” I said cheerfully as I opened the door. “Let’s make you look like a real movie star.”
“Listen here, Susie. If you think you’re going to give me a sponge bath, you’ve got another think coming. Let me tell you, I’m sick and tired of the lousy treatment around here. And furthermore …”
I took a deep breath and locked my clammy hands together. I can be brave, I thought. After all, I’m armed with shaving equipment and nail clippers.
“Mr. Wingate,” I said in a voice that seemed squeakier than usual, “I’m a nurse’s aide and I’m here to help you. My name is Krissa.”
Mr. Wingate snorted. “Nurse’s aide, my foot. First aid. That’s what I need. Get me fixed up so I can walk and I’ll think you know something! That would take some doing.” He sighed a heavy sigh and muttered, “They send these young idiots in here; think they know everything.”
I could see he was running out of wind, so I took the opportunity to say firmly, “Roll over, please, and we’ll start.”
The bath went fairly well. When he was comfortably settled in his fresh sheets, I said, “Okay, Mr. Wingate. Let’s brush your teeth.”
“Teeth!” he shouted. He threw open his mouth, then snapped it shut again like a vicious old turtle. “Did you see any teeth in there?”
“Do you have false teeth?” I asked timidly.
“I said I don’t have any teeth,” he thundered, “and I meant I don’t have any teeth! If I had teeth, I’d tell you all about it.”
His voice was rising to a high shriek. I decided to dispense with the rest of his personal grooming for the day. I headed out the door, gathering my equipment as I went. Just as I was ready to escape into the hallway, he called me back.
“Listen here, Susie. The least you can do is open the window.”
I set down my equipment and opened his window just enough to let in a faint breeze.
“Needn’t be so stingy with the air,” he mumbled, somewhat more mildly. “It’s free, you know.”
I opened the window a bit more. On my way out, I said “You’re welcome,” even though he hadn’t thanked me. In the hall, I leaned against the wall for support. I felt as if I had been standing before a firing squad for 24 hours and somehow survived.
After dinner that night, I tried to explain to Mom.
“Old people are awful,” I said.
“That’s a hasty judgment,” she said defensively.
“Oh, Mom. I don’t mean you. I mean old people.”
She didn’t answer. I wanted to tell her I was scared of Mr. Wingate and that I didn’t know how I would face three more months of work at the rest home. But I decided she wouldn’t understand. Plus I had a lump in my throat anyway.
“Never mind,” I sighed.
Somehow I gradually learned to live with my job. Most of the patients were fairly pleasant, and besides, I got used to Mr. Wingate. Every day he grumbled about his bad treatment. Every day, too, my visit with him ended with a hassle about how far to open the window.
“That Mr. Wingate!” I would say to Keri and Monica, the other nurses’ aides. “If he wasn’t bedridden, I wouldn’t go into his room unarmed.”
Keri usually had a lively tale to tell about Mrs. Frenzel, a funny German lady. And Monica had an 85-year-old Romeo on her beat who called her “Sweetheart.” “Sweetheart” was much nicer than the two names Mr. Wingate had for me: “Susie”—his name for any female—and “That Young Idiot.”
One day as I was trimming Mr. Wingate’s hair (which was nearly gone, but which he insisted must be “decent, not shaggy like these idiotic youngsters”), he started muttering something about his daughter.
“Tell me all about your family,” I said. I thought he would enjoy talking.
Instead, Mr. Wingate sighed and answered, “I have no family. Wife passed away some years ago. She was a good woman, my wife,” he added, mostly to himself. “I see,” I said sympathetically. “No children then?”
“I don’t want to talk about it!” he said sharply.
I was combing his scanty hair into place when he asked, “I suppose you wonder about my daughter?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.
“Her and Joe—that’s her husband—didn’t want to be bothered with an old man. Guess they’ve got lots of money, no time.” He spoke abruptly, but his eyes mirrored sorrow and hurt, not anger.
“Say, I’ve got some time,” I said to change the subject. “How about a game of checkers after I finish my rounds?”
“If you won’t bother me with stupid questions,” he mumbled. He acted put out, but I knew he was pleased.
That was just the beginning of our perpetual checkers tournament. I learned—that is, he informed me—that he was a checkers champ from way back; and he still put up a pretty good fight. But he lost the first few games. I was afraid I would win most of the time and he would be mad. I even considered losing on purpose because he’d get so worked up after losing.
“Look here, Susie,” he would say after each game. “That was nothing but luck!”
Mr. Wingate finally won our fourth game. “I knew the old knack would come back,” he said with a gleam in his eyes. “Just rusty, that’s all.”
We gathered up the pieces. On my way out he called, “Not bad, eh, Kris?”
I was so surprised to be called by my name that I nearly dropped the checkers.
From then on it was a daily battle on the checkerboard. At first I didn’t care much who won, just as long as the game went fast. Later I found myself planning my strategies and even practicing at home with my dad. Still, Mr. Wingate usually won.
One Monday toward the end of the summer, the head nurse told me that Mr. Wingate was feeling pretty low. Oh, no, I thought. I’m in for an earful today. When I went to his room, I was surprised to find him quiet.
“So you’re not feeling too chipper?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. Instead he let out a long, tired sigh. Without having to stop for the usual arguments, tirades, and grumbling, I was finished caring for his needs in no time at all. But somehow I missed all his griping.
“Want the window open?” I asked when I finished. Surely that would spark him to some comment.
“No,” he sighed.
“Want to play checkers later on?”
He looked at me but didn’t say anything. For one fleeting moment he wasn’t a grumpy old man. He was a friend telling me thank you, not in words but in just as real a way. Then he shook his head as if to indicate, “Away with such nonsense.”
I smiled even though I was kind of choked up inside. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll even beat you this time.”
I didn’t stop in after my rounds. In fact, I never saw Mr. Wingate again. He died quietly while I was bathing another patient. There were lots of medical personnel gathered around his door, so I didn’t go in. I was afraid I would cry in front of everybody.
That night at the dinner table, Dad and the boys were having a big discussion about grouse hunting. I wasn’t interested. I excused myself and left the table. Pretty soon, Mom was knocking on my bedroom door.
“Anything troubling you, dear?” she asked in that certainly-not-meaning-to-pry tone of voice.
“No, not particularly,” I mumbled, and then like a tidal wave the whole story of the day rushed out. When I was finished, I sobbed, “Mom, can you like someone you don’t like?”
Mom just smiled. I guess she could see I had learned a few things.
My summer job ended a few weeks later. As usual, the excitement of new clothes, new classes, and cheering for the football team occupied most of my time. But sometimes while walking home through crunchy brown leaves I thought of the rest home and Mr. Wingate. I could imagine just how he looked and how he talked.
“Nurse’s aide, my foot! What I need is first aid!” The memories made me smile.
I still played checkers. My dad more or less shared my enthusiasm for checkers, and we began conducting our own tournaments.
One night as we wound up our sixth game, Dad asked, “What are you trying to do, enter the Olympics?”
“Nope, I just like checkers,” I said. And besides, I thought, someday I just might meet another Mr. Wingate.
He can even call me Susie if he wants to.