Sitting with George
It was just another weekend at the Benton’s. I sat beside George’s bed at two A.M. watching him obsessively twist his bedsheets. Like every other night, he pulled and tugged until the sheets were sitting in his lap where he then inspected them as if searching for instructions. The energy and enthusiasm he expended instigated his glasses to slip down his nose, and off his face, where they hung precariously by one ear.
“Goddammit!” George seethed, seemingly unable to do anything about it. I removed his spectacles and placed them on the dresser hoping he’d go to sleep.
“What the hell are you doing?” The old man fumed.
“George, it’s time to go to sleep.” An old M*A*S*H episode threw our blinking shadows on the wall behind us.
George wanted the TV on. One night I turned it off thinking the silence would help him sleep. He cursed and flailed, and had I not ducked, a nearby glass of water would have hit me in the head. Lesson learned.
“Like hell it is! Give me my goddamn glasses, you son-of-a-bitch.” His eyes danced with rage, his face gnarled. Fearing another meltdown, I conceded. “And don’t pull that shit again…or you’re fired.” He snatched them with a growl.
I wanted to snatch them back.
I started seminary last year in preparation for the pastorate. My dad and grandfather are both pastors so I’ve always known my path. A few months ago, I found an ad on a school bulletin board seeking a caregiver for an elderly man, but I didn’t know it’d be like this.
Eyeing me suspiciously, George held his glasses in a death grip as if they might leap out. With shaky hands, he returned them to his face, temples folded in. They fell to his lap.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” he blustered.
“Need any help with that?” I asked.
He sighed and scowled. “Ok…but no funny stuff.”
“I promise.” I cleaned his lenses, returned them to his face, then stretched the sheets out and over him hoping he would take the hint and go to sleep.
“Thank you,” he said pleasantly.
“What the hell is this?” George grabbed his bedsheets with both hands, raised them to his face as if reading them like a book. He then balled them into a wadded mass, and held them in his right hand, ready to be thrown at a moment’s notice. I tried to pry them from his grip.
“What the hell are you doing?” He raved.
“Can I help you with that?” I asked half helping, half fighting.
“Go to hell!” he fumed and pushed me away.
I rolled my eyes and sat. George’s sudden mood swings, acerbic rants, hallucinations, the occasional thrown punch and all the obscenities I could stand made this job emotionally draining. Dad told me that serving is never easy. It seemed to come so natural to him.
George turned his attention to the large painting that hung on the far wall; a bucolic scene featuring a farmer, livestock, an open field and a winding road disappearing into the horizon. He would stare for minutes at a time, fixated, as if it may have reminded him of something. I often wondered what he was thinking, but then he’d curse me for no apparent reason, and I wouldn’t care.
I had been sitting with George as his in-home, overnight, caregiver for about four months. I worked weekends. While George slept I usually read or did school work, but like a newborn, he often got his days and nights mixed up. Last week at three a.m. he meandered about his room, picking up this and looking at that, again and again: picture frames, books, figurines, anything he could he get his hands on. It seemed a new experience each time.
George’s house was enormous. Actually, it was more like a mansion. Most of it was off limits to us so I never knew just how big it was. French doors opened from his room to a cobblestone courtyard that housed a lush, sprawling garden that stretched in all directions. A towering, ornate fountain featured a winged cherub clasping a fish-like creature that spewed water into a bubbling pool. Lights in and around the fountain showcased it as the main attraction. I’d often drag a lamp outside to read. The honeysuckle, and jasmine filled the air with summer sweetness, and reminded me of home.
“Are we there yet?” His cloudy eyes turned to me in anticipation. Thirty-five years of corporate leadership taught him to expect answers.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Goddammit, you stupid bastard! Don’t start that shit again! We’re going to Anaheim!” George exploded. “Don’t make me tell you again!” He prepared to lunge but didn’t. “Now shut up and drive!” His eyes were loaded guns.
“Is everything okay down there?” Louise yelled.
I hurried down the hall to her room. “Everything’s fine,” I said peering in. “He thinks he’s going to Anaheim.”
“That’s not surprising,” Louise rolled her eyes and took a sip of coffee. Books surrounded the plush couch on which she was reclined. “That’s where we lost Robin.” Louise resumed reading, then peeped over her bifocals, “No telling what that old bastard’s thinking.”
Alpha Home Care provided in-home, around-the-clock care for wealthy seniors, and we knew everything about George and Louise Benton: his cheating, her beatings, their drinking. Old friends and grown children were eager to talk. George rarely recognized them. They talked, laughed, cried, and reminisced, but he would stare at the painting, randomly curse, or fidget with anything he could reach.
“Where in the hell have you been?” George barked as I re-entered the room and sat beside him. His face was hard like cracked, parched ground.
“Had to get some gas.” Playing along with his delusions got old fast. I tried arguing at first, but that got me nowhere.
The old oil executive paused, and rubbed his bald head. Calmness quickly replaced his anger. “Okay,” he conceded, “…but step on it. Robin will be waiting.”
After a few minutes of bedsheet play, George focused on the painting, then nodded and fell asleep. I took the opportunity to check his diaper. A couple of weeks ago, I checked thinking he was asleep when he took a swing at me. He missed, but the lunge nearly took his six-foot- two frame to the floor.
His diaper was dry so I pulled out my textbook, History of Western Christian Theology and read about the Pelagian controversy of the fourth century; tough reading at three a.m.
I awoke with a jolt when my book hit the floor. George was waving and smiling at somebody down the hall. It was almost four o’clock and M*A*S*H had been replaced by All in the Family which filled the room with canned laughter and shrill voices. I grabbed the remote and turned the volume down.
“Who ya waving at, George?”
“Goddammit, what the hell’s the matter with you? Are you blind?! She’s standing right there,” he declared pointing emphatically down the empty hall. “You could see her if you’d just open your goddamn eyes.”
He turned his attention back down the hall. “You’re daddy’s pretty little girl,” he said in a sing-song voice, then glared at me. “Well… don’t you think she’s pretty?”
“Absolutely.” I rolled my eyes.
“I bought that dress at Macy’s,” he continued. “She wanted to wear it all the time.”
George climbed out of bed and lumbered toward the door.
“Where ya goin’ George?”
“Where ya going George?” He mimicked sarcastically. “I’m getting the hell out of here.”
I blocked the door. “George, I think you better lie down.”
“Don’t you think I know what’s going on here?” George enunciated each word three inches from my face. “You change my diapers like I’m a goddamn baby. I’m a grown man! I worked my way up from the goddamn mail room and I’m not taking this shit from you or anyone else.” He finger-poked my chest for emphasis. The old man plodded to his closet, put on pants and a nice shirt, tied his shoes and headed for the door.
“George, you can’t leave.” He didn’t seem to hear me. “Where are you going?”
“Any place is better than here.” He shoulder-bumped me on the way out. Standing in the courtyard, George stretched his arms, and deeply breathed the night’s sultry air, then stargazed, as if taking in nature’s eternity. The old man trudged past the fountain and plopped into an iron patio chair in what looked like exhaustion. I scurried to the other chair. The luminous, full moon revealed perspiration bubbling to his brow.
“George, you know you can’t leave.”
“I know,” he gasped. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” George spied Louise walking passed a kitchen window, coffee cup in hand.
“I sure as hell shouldn’t have married her.” He shook his head in disgust. “What in the hell was I thinking?”
George appeared to examine the cobblestone at his feet. Beyond the furrowed brow and the crinkled skin that used to be his hairline, I could see George’s mind spinning. Rusted gears and worn pistons sparked and sputtered, attempting to jump start the old engine.
“What are you doing?” He turned his attention to me as if just noticing my presence.
“You heard me.” His eyes were clear, focused and piercing like a hunter zeroing in.
I swallowed hard. “I’m here to take care of you and….”
“Oh, yeah that’s right,” he interrupted, leaning forward, “You’re the guy who wipes my ass.” George proudly pointed to the fountain. “I paid for that with hard work, not by wiping asses.” Reclining, he maintained eye contact. “What in the hell’s wrong with you? Can’t you find a real job?” Mumbling to himself, he shot a quizzical glance to the moon as if expecting it to weigh in on the matter.
“Didn’t your dad teach you to be a man? It’s women’s work, ya know.”
“I’m studying to be a pastor,” I said feeling like I was in the principal’s office. “Jesus served people and that’s what I’m doing.” My words felt stilted and small.
“Lotta good it did him,” he raged. “They killed him. Do ya want them to kill you too?”
I sat under his glower for what seemed like minutes, not sure of what to say or do. A firefly lit up over his left shoulder, then another one. Here, then gone, flying unseen in plain view. Wispy clouds dampened the moon’s glow, throwing George’s face into intermittent darkness.
“Sounds like horseshit to me!” He waved his arm, as if throwing off the idea. “While you’re running around helping everybody, who’s gonna help you?” He leaned forward. “You gotta take care of yourself.” The old man surveyed his grand house and spacious courtyard. “Boy, you’ve got to build something… something you can be proud of, not a pile of shitty diapers.” His focus held on as he caught his breath. “Sounds like you’re trapped…or you’re gonna be. One day you’ll hate changing diapers, but you’ll be too scared to do anything else.”
I noticed a choir of grasshoppers and cicada chirping in dissonance. The clouds dissipated and brilliant moonbeams shimmered through the still trees.
After a moment of awkward silence, George fumbled with a shirt button. He silently cursed, then looked at me absently, as if peering through a mist. “What the hell are you doing out here?” Familiar madness returned, clouds of confused angst seemed to roll in. “I told you to bring the car around, you dumb son-of-a-bitch.” A fist was clenched on the table, his jaw was set, face rigid like a cast iron skillet. “We’ve gotta get the hell outta here!”
I wanted to leave him there, just walk away. I asked myself, how much of this was I supposed to take? He wouldn’t even know I left. I thought about it, considered it, then abandoned the idea. This was my path.
“Well…,” the old man crowed. “Ya just gonna stand there with your thumb up your ass?”
I sighed and rolled my eyes. “The car is over there,” I said, pointing to the bedroom door.
“All right then,” he consented.
“Let’s go, George.” I took hold of his arm and pulled him up. Surprisingly, he complied. The two of us walked together, my arm under his, back to his bedroom. I walked, he shuffled, stooped and shaky. I took off his clothes, put on his pajamas, and gently put him back to bed.
“She’s back.” George pointed down the hall, waved, then quietly fell asleep. It was four fifteen. I pulled out the daily log from the desk drawer and recorded the night’s events.
David Gunn (David Isham James) has published one story, One More Shot, in Release Magazine. He works and lives in Monroe Georgia with his wife and black lab.