This is the story of Freddy Schrimpler:
As part of his training, a psychiatric aide must spend at least two weeks working the geriatric wards, or “shit pits” as they were called by the other aides, These wards are
concrete barns built, not for attempted cures or even for attempted treatments of the herds of terminal humanity that would otherwise be roaming the streets, pissing and drooling and disgusting the healthy citizenry, but for nothing more than shelter and sustenance, waiting rooms where old guys spend ten, twenty, sometimes thirty years waiting for their particular
opening in the earth. At eight in the morning they are herded and wheeled into showers,
then to Day Rooms where they are fed a toothless goo, then are plunked into sofas ripe with decades of daily malfunctions of worn-out sphincters, then fed again, and washed again, and their temperatures taken if they’re still warm enough to register, and their
impacted bowels dug free in the case of sphincters worn-out in the other direction, and their hair and cheesy old fingernails clipped (the clippings swept into a little pink and gray pile), and fed again and washed again, and then usually left alone through the long afternoons.
Some of these derelicts still have a lot going on and enjoy trapping flies and other such morsels in the snare of their baited hands, and some engage in contented and garrulous conversations with practically anything, and some watch TV, but most of them lie motionless on the plastic covered sofas or in gurney beds, little clots of barely-breathing bones and skin under the government sheets. Even the doctors call them vegetables.
In caring for these men something becomes immediately obvious to all the young aides undergoing their first real brush with responsibility. The thought is very explicit. After the first meal squeezed into a slack mouth, or after the first diaper change or catheter taping, every one of the trainees have thought this thought, and some have spoken it:
“Without our help these guys would die!”
And, after the hundredth feeding and diapering and changing, the next thought, though never spoken, is: “Why don’t we just let them die?”
An awful question to find in your head, because even young aides know that age can happen to anyone. “This could I someday be!” But even fear of one’s own future can’t stop the asking: “Why don’t we just let them die? What’s wrong with letting nature take its own corpse? Why do humans feel they have the right to forestall the inevitable fate of others?” Freddy Schrimpler helped me find my answer:
Freddy was seventy or eighty years old and had been on the Geriatrics Ward for close to twenty years. From morning until bedtime he lay in the dayroom in a gurney bed against the wall, on his side under a sheet, his little head covered with a faint silver gossamer that seemed too delicate to be human hair – it looked more like a fungus mycelium joining the head to the pillow – and his mouth drooling a continual puddle at his cheek. Only his eyes moved, pale and bright blue they followed the activity in the ward like little caged birds. The only sound he made was a muffled squeaking back in his throat when he had dirtied his sheets and, since his bowels were usually impacted, like most of the inmates who couldn’t move, this sound was made but rarely and even then seemed to exhaust him for hours.
One afternoon, as I made my rounds to probe with rectal thermometer at the folds of wasted glutinus maximus of these gurney bed specimens – hospital policy made it clear that the temperature of anything breathing, even vegetables, had to be logged once a month – I heard this stifled squeak. I looked up; it was Freddy’s squeak, but since it was his temperature I was attempting to locate I knew that he hadn’t shit his sheets. I resumed my probing, somewhat timidly, for the flesh of these men is without strength and a probe in the wrong direction can puncture an intestine. The squeak came again, slower, and sounding remarkably like speech! I moved closer to the pink and toothless mouth, feeling his breath at my ear.
“Makes you …kinda nervous …don’t it?” he squeaked. The voice was terribly strained and faltering, but even through the distortion you could clearly make out the unmistakable tone of intelligence and awareness and, most astonishingly, humor.
In the days that followed I brought my ear to that mouth as often as the nurses let me get away with it. He told me his story. A stroke years ago had suddenly clipped all the wires leading from the brain to the body. He found that, while he could hear and see perfectly, he couldn’t send anything back to the visitors that dropped by his hospital bed more and more infrequently. Finally they sent him to the VA, to this ward where, after years of effort, he had learned to make his little squeak. Sure, the doctors and nurses knew he could talk, but they were too busy to shoot the breeze and didn’t really think he should exhaust himself by speaking. So he was left on his gurney to drift alone in his rudderless vessel with his shortwave unable to send. He wasn’t crazy; in fact the only difference that I could see between Freddy and Buddha was in the incline of their lotus position. As I got to know him I spoke of the young aides’ thought.
“Let a man die for his own good?” he squeaked, incredulous. “Never believe it. When a man… when anything…is ready to stop living…it stops. You watch…”
Before I left the ward, two of the vegetables died. They stopped eating and died, as though a decision of the whole being was reached and nothing man or medicine could do would turn this decision. As though the decision was clearly unanimous (I remember a friend telling me about her attempted suicide; she lay down and placed a rag soaked in carbon tetrachloride over her face. But just before she went out completely there was a sudden clamor from all the rest of her: “Hey! Wait! What about us? Why weren’t we consulted!?” And being a democratic girl at heart, she rallied over mind’s presumptuous choice. “Our mind has no right to kill our body,” she told me after the attempt. “Not on the grounds of boredom, anyway…”) and met with the satisfaction of all concerned…