I pulled into the parking lot of Edenbrook Convalescent Center at 6:00 a.m., my stomach rolling. At 17, I was not exactly skilled in caring for the sick, and yet stories of Florence Nightingale fluffing pillows and mopping the feverish brows of the wounded had always appealed to me. Smoothing my new red smock—could it be any more obvious that I was a nervous newbie?—I pushed open the heavy glass doors and stepped inside. A peculiar odor of urine and floor wax hit me, and for a nanosecond I considered faking a killer migraine and making a run for the border. “Get a grip, Christine”, I chided myself, “they can probably smell fear.”
“Gotta light?” A pot-bellied gentleman with thick spectacles and even thicker jowls greeted me. Cigarette in mouth, he leaned forward in his wheelchair and cocked his head in my direction.
“No, I’m sorry sir, I don’t smoke.”
The man grunted disapprovingly. I soon learned that Mr. Mason Penner couldn’t have cared less about who I was or why I was there—I could have been a terrorist as long as I was packing a Bic lighter. Looking back now it seems ludicrous that smoking was permitted, particularly by legally blind residents such as Mason. Perhaps the emphasis back then was on keeping patients occupied, not flame-retardant.
I was assigned to 2 West, an all male floor designated for “lifers”, which included Mr. Personality. My supervisor, a tall red-head resembling “Flo” from the TV show “Alice”, gave me a quick run-down on all the residents, and then immediately escaped to parts unknown. “You’ll be fine”, she shouted over her shoulder. I’m positive she wasted no time in describing my “frog in the flashlight” expression to the other aides in the break room. My “pillow fluffing” fantasy was growing dimmer by the minute.
Two hours into my shift, Flo miraculously reappeared and announced with great flourish, “Bath time!” Bath time? I surely hadn’t anticipated this! I secretly wondered how I could accomplish this task blindfolded and with my poor, unsuspecting “victims” fully clothed. Surely washing hands and faces would suffice!
“You can do ole’ Mason first,” Flo said nonchalantly. “He’s used to breaking in new people”. I groaned inwardly, feeling like a lamb being led to the slaughter.
It was true—Mason was quite accustomed to training new staff in the art of the “bed bath”. With obvious impatience—think Walter Matthau in “Grumpy Old Men”—he critiqued my every move:
“This water is waaaaaay too hot!”
“You forgot to wash between my toes!”
“Don’t scrub so hard—what are you trying to do, skin me alive?”
Bath finally complete, I carefully dressed Mason from head to toe, and smugly congratulated myself on a job well done. Mason seemed satisfied, and once back in his chair, felt his way down the corridor, and returned to his regular spot near the front door.
It was noon when I heard shouting coming from Mason’s room. Assuming the worst—that he had somehow fallen and hurt himself—I rushed to room 201 and found him, sputtering and cursing, in the bathroom. Tentatively, and with my most professional voice, I asked him to explain the “nature of his dilemma”.
“Some STUPID GIRL dressed me this morning—and she put my boxers on BACKWARDS! And I have to go to the bathroom—NOW!” Mason could barely contain his disgust with this unexpected surprise, while I was completely mortified at my huge, albeit unintentional, blunder.
It was immediately obvious that Mason had no idea who I was, and even more obvious that I didn’t have a clue about men’s undergarments. My options were to ‘fess up, identify myself, admit my mistake, and beg forgiveness…or feign ignorance as I worked to correct the problem. I chose the latter.
“Mr. Penner, I’d be happy to help you! Relax, and let’s see if we can get you fixed up.” Suddenly grateful for his failing eyesight, I quickly proceeded with Project Damage Control. Disaster averted. We had both survived.
Time passed, and summer breaks were spent at Edenbrook. During this time, God made it clear that despite my faults, my work was to be with the physically challenged. Many “Mason’s” later, I am reminded of how imperfect I am and yet how perfect God’s love and grace is. He sees us clearly, turning our mistakes into character building life lessons like this one:
“There is a right and a wrong way to put on boxer shorts”.
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