April 10, 2017

Julie Price Pinkerton

VEINS

I.

During my annual physical, I tell my doctor that I’m starting to gross out 
over how bulgy the veins on my hands are getting. Look at them, I say, 
they’re like lounging blue sea worms. 

It’s normal, she says. It just means you’re old. 
(She and I are the same age.) 
And it’s summer, so you’re warm. And old.

But this seems really sudden, I tell her. I just noticed them 
last week while I met with a woman at a dementia care home 
to try to get my husband’s stepdad a room there.

Well then, you were probably stressed. 
Fight-or-flight and that whole deal.
That makes veins stand out more. 
Also, warm weather last week, right?

OK, but last night I was watching “Tiny House Hunters” 
in our nice cool living room. I was drinking root beer.
I was not stressed. And my veins were still gross.

Then you’re just old.

I hold up my most offensive hand.
Look, I say, some of the veins on this one form an “H.” 
Do you want to hear my husband’s theory? 
He says our dead cat Hankie is trying to reach me. 
(My husband did not theorize this. I did. I sometimes put a degree of 
separation between me and the things I throw into the mix.)

Though this is not my year for a pap smear, 
my doctor needs to check my ovaries. She inserts 
more than one but less than five 
fingers way up into me. 
I gasp. 
Relax, she says. Go to your happy place.

I sit up on the table when she’s done with her hand-puppeting
and say, Damn, it’s like the morning after the prom.

For my weeks-long back spasm, she says 
Here’s what you’re going to do: 
You’re going to go home, find one of your husband’s long, long tube socks, 
tie a knot in it—

—and bury it at the base of the oak tree at midnight? I say.

No, you’re going to lie down on it to work the muscles in your back.
Squirm around on it awhile. It’ll help.

II.

My husband cannot remember the name of the memory care home. 
The name is Brookdale but he keeps calling it Briarhatch. 
That makes no sense, I tell him. Think about it. Dementia patients 
walk down the hallway and suddenly a hatch opens in the floor 
and drops them into a bush of briars.

Yeah, he says. Not great.

Before Brookdale can let my stepdad-in-law, Bob, move in, 
he has to get over an awful infection 
which calls for awful antibiotics.  

III.

Bob has what a lot of people call bad veins. 
Nurses can’t ever draw blood from them or insert an IV without a big production. 
Bob’s veins know an interloper when they hear one coming.
They hunker down in his arms hiding from those who summon them to come out
come out, wherever they are. 

A regular, no-frills nurse tries to stick the IV needle in.
She digs and digs as though the needle is a pick-axe and Bob’s arm 
is a steep mountainside hiding a shimmering vein of opal. 
She is useless.

Sure enough, someone has to call in the Big Kahuna of veins 
from a far corner of the hospital. This nurse knows things.
She is a snake charmer, coaxing Bob’s tired arm-vein to stick its head out
of the wicker basket long enough to be shish-ka-bobbed. 
The antibiotics begin their work.

IV.

Bob gets better.
Then worse.
Then better.
Then worse.

V.

My back spasm won’t go away, 
even after four massages I couldn’t afford
and some unholy-looking writhing 
on the knotted-up tube sock. 

I go see my orthopedic doctor 
who writes up an order for physical therapy. 
Before he can escape, 
I ask him about my veins.

When you age, he says, everything you have 
gets stiff, leaky, and starts to fall apart.
End of story.

VI.

I forgot to mention that Bob is the nicest man I’ve ever known.
When he was dating my husband’s mom, 35 years ago, 
Bob was too good to be true. Too kind. Too decent. 
People were skeptical. But he turned out to be the real deal.

VII.

So imagine this nice man
still going about his life, 
still mowing the yard,
still drinking the cold water from the cup his wife brings him from the house,
still waving at her as she keeps a close eye on him, 
still counting on her to fill in the gaps 
of his memory, towing his cloudy brain along
like a barge that she 
tugboats down the river. 

VIII.

Bob’s final month was a long menu of rottenness.
He was shuttled back and forth eleven times between the hospital 
and the nursing home. If you want to make a dementia patient worse, move them around from place to place like a hunted-down witness for a murder trial.

Bob went off the rails in the evenings, his confusion cooking up to a frenzy. 
The shadows in his room grew longer and more sinister. 
Corners filled up with things only he could see.

It didn’t help when half a dozen nursing home people gathered around him
trying to talk him back into his bed. Please don’t arrest me! Bob cried.
The nicest man any of us ever knew got so scared that he punched 
a pregnant CNA in the belly. Not hard, but still a punch.

As the ambulance pulled away with Bob inside, headed back to the E.R.,
the nursing home director said, Please, you can’t bring him back here.

IX.

When laboratory mice were used to test certain theories 
about the human brain, they were dropped into tall, cylindrical 
columns of water for what is known as a forced-swim test. The researchers measured how long the mice would swim before realizing that they could neither touch the bottom nor climb out. Once they became aware of their situation, 
they would stop swimming and collapse into a forlorn float. 

X.

It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact day 
that Bob stopped knowing us.
It was gradual, hidden somewhere 
between his fever and his infection
and all the little moments of us trying 
to make him feel loved.
We cleaned out all the Snickers 
from the vending machine, breaking off
little chunks when he was able to eat.
The hardest thing was when Bob wept.
It was often during the last month.
Are those happy tears? Bob’s wife asked,
and he said yes. But you could see decades
of sadness, rivulets rolling off his chin.
I started to understand the difference
between crying and weeping.
If crying is the shattering of glass
or the doorbell ringing, weeping
is a dog lost in a forest.

XI.

Veins are good things, I tell myself. 
Bob would’ve been happy to have these
simple, easy-access veins, “H” and all.
They keep me alive. They’re normal.
The weather is warm. I’m just old.
I ask my brain to be on my side.
Not to leave me until the very end.
I try not to look at my hands.

XII.

In the competition between Bob and the infection,
the infection won. It wasn’t even a good enough sport
to let Bob play for best-two-out-of-three.
The doctor said it was time to take out all the IVs.
They were only prolonging Bob’s struggle.
As decisions were made and needles were removed
from punctures in his narrow, reluctant veins,
Bob was elsewhere in his deep sleep, 
already packed for the next world.
He wasn’t trying to touch bottom.
He had no dreams of climbing out.

from Rattle #54, Winter 2016
2016 Rattle Poetry Prize Winner

[download audio]

__________

Julie Price Pinkerton: “I became squeamish about veins after having blood drawn a few times as a little kid. That was exacerbated when my brothers used to pretend to make ‘pinchers’ out of their fingers and threaten to pull all the veins out of my arms. This poem started out as a short, silly piece about my hands. Then our family had a rough summer and the poem grew. My stepfather-in-law Bob couldn’t just sit around. He had to be fixing something. A plumber by trade, he branched out into the lives of every person he knew. He fixed toilets, boat motors, light sockets, sump pumps, birdhouses, even my clankity Honda Accord. He kept the 45-year-old furnace at his church functioning long after all its contemporaries were sleeping under blankets of rust in Ohio junkyards. When Bob was confined to a nursing home wheelchair (not because he couldn’t walk, but because he needed to be kept track of), he got bored and agitated. My husband, Scott, and I went to a hardware store and bought a few small segments of PVC pipe and a red metal shut-off valve for Bob to tinker with. At first he was unimpressed, but his hands eventually found their way to the motions that he recalled, the muscle memory of repair. I got to help Bob eat a couple of meals, and my own muscle memory returned. Lifting forkfuls of food up to the waiting mouth of a beloved, elderly, ill, confused man sent me back to five years earlier when it had been my own dad. Bob still talked and joked as he could; my dad had gone silent except for the occasional small question like “Where you been?” In the hospital, the same day we fed Bob the abundance of Snickers, he began to smile and weep. I was sitting near his bed and asked him if it was OK for me to wipe his tears with a Kleenex. He nodded. I didn’t want to do it without asking, because he’d already been invaded in so many ways. My mother-in-law is a private person and she hasn’t seen this poem yet. Since I’ve pulled some personal moments into the light of a public space, I’m hoping that she won’t see it as yet another invasion. At Bob’s funeral, almost every one of the hundreds of people passing through the receiving line told us how much they adored Bob, and then named something he had fixed for them.” (website)