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Short Story Second Prize 2009
 
 

THE DISEASE

By Mohit Rao

 

Every time the young man entered the room, Nurse Ratched broke into a maternal smile that conveyed the utmost affection. She spoke about him in high praises to the other nurses and even to the other inmates. He was as rare as rare can be, a ‘blue-eyed wonder’, she declared confidently.

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Initially, his arrival was regarded with suspicion. With the cynicism of experience, she viewed any such sudden arrival to the old-age home with considerable contempt. These ‘long lost’ sycophantic relatives dropped in once a year; cadged their way with unctuous smiles into the old man’s will; shed a few tearful goodbyes and were never to be seen again; That is, until the old man was buried and his will removed. But, he….he was different.

He, with his blue eyes, a benignant smile and a poignant face, introduced himself as ‘Bob Russell’, the son of ‘Jack Russell’. Nurse Ratched hesitatingly and with great distrust led him to her favorite inmate, a 70 year old wheel chair ridden Alzheimer patient. She watched this father-son reunion with considerable skepticism.

Jack had had a visitor only twice in the two years of his stay. Both times it was his elder son, George Russell, an avaricious salesman who had been described by Jack as “a bottom feeder. For a dollar he would sell his own soul!”. With his rough manner and unruly snide remarks, he left an unfavorable impression on Nurse Ratched. Jack sparingly talked about a second son, a vagrant, who fell into bad company, took to alcohol and eventually into drugs. The last Jack heard was that the son was jailed for larceny. ‘A leech to society’, he said contemptuously to Nurse Ratched.

She continued to keep a close eye on the father-son interaction. It was hard to believe that a young man of such saintly features could indulge in what she perceived as such odious activities. Jack could hardly recognize his younger son. Maybe it was the disease or maybe just his change in appearance and demeanour, but Jack wore a puzzled expression. Bob explained his ‘clean-up’, his ‘spiritual awakening’. He was sober, with a low paying honest job. “Not a day goes by without remorse for my actions”, he explained. “Jail gave me time to think, for the mind wanders in the solitude of the cell. There was little to do except to review my life – all the mistakes and all the humiliation”. Jack, and Nurse Ratched seeing from afar, viewed the declamation with dubiety. “Dad, I’m a born again Christian”, he kneaded the silver cross slung on his neck,” It’s funny, how life works - for me to find God, amidst the criminals and the lost souls in prison”. He paused and with a sigh stared down at the floor – an elegy of his sinful past. A first rate act, thought Nurse Ratched. “Father, I’m sorry for everything. I’m sorry for the pain and humiliation. I’m sorry for not being there during your illness.”

Jack’s eyes welled up. His throat was caught. And with a benevolent smile, Bob’s nefarious past was forgiven. However, Nurse Ratched continued to watch him with suspicion. ‘Prudence, Jack’, she muttered under her breath.

Their desultory conversation continued for hours. Jack talked most of the time, hopping from one topic onto another and oft repeating topics, but Bob nodded with Zen-like patience. Bob and Jack proceeded to play carrom, a game in which Jack was surprisingly adept at. His unsteady fingers disposed the coins into the pockets with deft ease. Jack exclaimed joy, an expression the nurses had rarely seen before. He was like a boy, so intense was his pleasure. Nurse Ratched waited for the mention of the ‘will’ or money’, but it never came. After spending the entire afternoon, Bob promised to return the next day.

“He’s not coming back”, Ratched spewed venomously to a fellow nurse. “These greedy people always say that with crossed fingers and an eye at that money”. She eyed Bob as he was leaving and continued her tirade to a disinterested nurse.

“He has changed. That was my son, he has changed”, said a visibly proud Jack, rolling his wheelchair toward nurse Ratched. “He has got a job and forgotten about all that nasty business.” Jack said with a naive child-like innocence.
“It would seem so. But I advise you not to raise your hopes”, Ratched replied.
“No… No. He has changed. Not like that lecherous…. ”, he stopped to remember a name.
“Yes, he seems to have changed, so unlike George. I hope for your sake”, Ratched said wearily.

Nurse Ratched’s relation with Jack had started off, like any nurse-patient relationship, as pity. She lent a sympathetic ear, listening patiently as old colonel ranted against country and children. The morose wheel chair ridden man recounted, with immense sadness, the tragedies in his life and in Nurse Ratched he found a compassionate audience. She was his ministering angel, oft muttering a kindly word to ease his troubled soul. As the disease progressed, this melancholy was replaced by a saintly innocence – almost like a lost child. His sorrowful soliloquies were gradually replaced by a confused silence. He found it hard to maintain a constant train of thought, unable to make a decision on his own. His once sharp mind was blunted by the vicious disease, rendering him completely dependent on Nurse Ratched, who assumed a matronly mantle. It was like a pestilential disease that would not take your life but would take from you all that made life worth living. The disease was wiping out his identity. Seventy years of experiences, of joys and tragedies, of family and friends, of childhood and adolescence, of marriage and children, were all resigned to a collection of hazy memories, which would be gradually faded away as the disease progressed. This disease had taken away from him the right to solitude in retirement, of reconciliation with life and God. Colonel Jack Russell, the celebrated hero of the Second World War, was going to die in the solitary confines of his mind. Nurse Ratched spent countless hours crying in the shelter of darkness for the old colonel.

For Jack, the sliver of happiness came in the form of an estranged son. His son came everyday, to the absolute disbelief of Nurse Ratched. After the first week of meetings, buoyed by the candour loquacity of his father, Bob brought with him a portable record player and a bunch of old vinyl records belonging to the old colonel. Jazz and blues permeated the room as Jack fell into a sort of hypnotic trance - snapping his fingers, tapping his feet and humming along. For a man who could no more recall his achievements in the war, he recollected with amazing precision the names of these artistes.

Their jaunts continued daily. During the weekdays Bob would visit in his lunch break, and during the weekends he would stay for almost the entire day. He pushed his father’s wheelchair, strolled through the gardens and talked in high cheery tones. In Nurse Ratched’s eyes, Bob had grown from ‘a leech to society’ to a ‘blue-eyed wonder’. With his daily visits, she became closer to him; sometimes even looking forward to his visits as enthusiastically as Jack.

Alzheimer’ disease is unrelenting; systematically removing memories held so dear that when the last vestiges of memory fades away, one is reduced to being a stranger to oneself. In the last few months Jack’s mental health was deteriorating rapidly. Spells of confused, vacuous blankness increased. He spent most of the time staring at the wall, seemingly with no thought in his mind. Even though he recognized a familiar face, he had a hard time placing the face and obtaining a name. He gleamed with mirth when Bob entered the room but could hardly ever recall his name. Bob was usually referred to as ‘that young man’. Once while strolling through the gardens, Jack told Bob about his younger son, now estranged, who was a ‘leech to society’. Bob was crestfallen and only uttered a low sigh. Nurse Ratched, who often strolled with them, tried to explain to Jack that the companion he was talking to was indeed his own son. For Jack all this was incredulous. After expounding the facts of his return in lucid detail, Jack turned to Bob and exclaimed “You’ve changed a lot”. And with a benevolent smile, Bob’s nefarious past was forgiven, again.

However, on the next day during a similar stroll, Nurse Ratched overheard Jack telling Bob about his younger son, now estranged and ‘a leech to society’. Nurse Ratched unable to bear Bob’s humiliation, explained to him about Bob’s ‘spiritual awakening’. But, the old colonel stared in disbelief, not comprehending the facts being told. He insisted that his son was in jail ‘for thieving from some poor sod’. However after much deliberation, the old colonel turned to Bob and exclaimed “You’ve changed a lot”. The next day, the entire cycle repeated. After getting a bit weary of the explaining, Bob turned to Nurse Ratched and said “It’s alright even if he doesn’t remember me. As long as I know that he approves of me now. All that is important to me is that he has a companion to help him live the rest of his life in dignity he deserves”. Nurse Ratched spent countless hours that night crying for the old colonel and his son.

Bob came daily, yet the old colonel failed to recognize him as his son. Bob resigned to the fact that he would forever be a relic of the colonel’s past. He was disappointed but found solace in the thought that the old colonel eagerly waited for his company.

One afternoon, Bob did not arrive. The colonel stared at his watch for some time and then rolled his wheelchair towards Nurse Ratched.

“Where is that young man?” he asked her.
“You mean Bob?” she replied.
“I cannot remember his name now”, he said, pausing for a while to recall the name. Unsuccessful in his attempt, the colonel continued, “But, usually he comes to visit at this time”.
“He must be delayed with some work today. If not today, he will come tomorrow”
“Yes….. Yes”, Jack muttered before a quiescent, vacuous look overcame him.

Bob did not arrive that day or the day after that. Both of them grew anxious. Every half hour, a visibly restless Jack would roll his wheelchair over to the nurse’s workstation and ask Nurse Ratched about ‘that young man’. ‘Delayed by work’, would be her reply, thinly veiling her panicky solicitude. She feared for Bob. A vile thought would creep in - maybe, he has given up on his father or maybe, he is tired of the humiliation. Her eyes would moisten and would later regret ever considering such a thought.  

Another afternoon of waiting and there was no sight of Bob. The sun dipped below the horizon and a golden light seeped through the blinds. Nurse Ratched often looked at Jack who stared out of the window with his usual inscrutable expression. She knew he was eagerly waiting for someone whose name or face he could not recall.

The phone rang, she ignored it. She was lost in the monologue of her thoughts, worrying about Bob and Jack and his disease.

“Nurse Ratched. It’s for you. It is George Russell”, an attendant informed her.
Puzzled by the mention of George, she took the receiver and proceeded to talk to Jack’s seedy elder son.
“Nurse Ratched speaking……What?......An accident?......When did this happen?.......day before? Oh the poor soul…..”, before she could complete the sentence, her eyes welled up and her throat knotted. The ground grew unsteady and all senses descended into obscurity. She could not speak anymore and gasped like she had trouble breathing. She stammered a few words, a few incoherent words. Slamming down the receiver, she ran to the restroom. She wept, she cried till she could cry no more. Her throat was parched, her eyes puffy. Her lips trembled. And in the confusion of her mind, only one thought stood out clearly - Bob was dead.

When she came out of the restroom, barely able to stand and barely able to stop herself from crying even more, she sauntered towards the window where Jack was. He was in a blissful slumber. Seeing the innocuous old man she let out an uncontrolled yelp. Jack woke up.

“Your son….Your son is dead….. Bob is dead“, Nurse Ratched said softly. She had to summon these words after many aborted attempts.
Jack stared at the weeping nurse. His countenance remained unchanged. It was obvious to her that he had not comprehended the impact of those words. He struggled to recall the identity of Bob. Struck back by this lack of recognition, Nurse Ratched was indignant.
“That young man who used to visit you everyday”, she asserted angrily and then immediately regretted the tone.  Jack showed some semblance of remembrance. “That young man is Bob, your son. He died day before yesterday in a car accident”. The gravity of these words caused her to well up with tears again. 

“No. It can’t be. Bob is in jail for stealing from some poor sod. He is a leech to society…” Jack continued his bitter tirade, as if oblivious to the weeping nurse in front of him.
“Jack!” Nurse Ratched vociferated in a tone that silenced the colonel. Jack stopped his declamation and stared at her in shock. The nurse continued in a subdued tone, “Bob was released from jail sometime ago. He came out a born-again Christian. He turned over a new leaf. He had apologized for the pain caused to you in the past. He came to visit you everyday”. She paused and covered her eyes with her hands. “He said the least he could do was to come over and give you company”. She could continue no more.

A flood of memories rushed in and Jack murmured something inaudible in a low mournful tone. The knots in his throat prevented him from speaking anything further. He closed his eyes and his lips quivered a little. Small channels of tears made its way from underneath the closed eyelids. ‘He changed a lot’ is all he could manage.

Nurse Ratched spent the night weeping by his side. By midnight, Jack had fallen asleep. In the wee hours of the night, Nurse Ratched staggered home still thinking about Bob as she walked through an insensitive city.

The next morning, Nurse Ratched appeared by Jack’s side. Violet bags drooped from under her eyes and she appeared profoundly weary. Jack did little, spoke little and wore a gloomy demeanour – one of unfathomable sadness. There was an awkward silence between them. Both stared out the same window, thinking about the same person.

Bob’s funeral was a meager, somber affair. There was no eulogy. The tombstone read simply – Bob Russell, Son of Jack Russell. Only a handful of people attended and George was conspicuously absent. To Nurse Ratched, the funeral seemed to denigrate his entire existence.
 
The next day, Nurse Ratched performed her duties languidly, still distracted by Bob’s death. She frequently checked on Jack who bore an inscrutable expression. Maybe still mourning or maybe lapsed into disease provoked thoughtlessness, she could not tell with certainty. The day passed by with little being said between them. The next day too Jack bore a sepulchral appearance. He was mourning, but could not recall the name or face of the person for whom he mourned. 

The coming week was hard on Nurse Ratched. A few times, in his mentally weakest moments, Jack had asked her about ‘that young man who usually visits at this time’. This perturbed Nurse Ratched who had to relive the moments following that phone call. She had to explain again that the young man was his son Bob, who died in a car crash a few days ago. Hearing this Jack grew melancholic and withdrew into a shell.

After the week, Nurse Ratched, anxious about Jack, pleaded with a friendly attendant, Steven, to play a game of carom with him. Only after persistent pleas, the hesitant attendant went over to Jack and engaged him in a game of carom. That day, Jack stared at the board and disconcertedly indulged the attendant.

Under the orders of the senior Nurse Ratched, Steven went over to Jack every afternoon and tried to draw him into a conversation or a game of carom. Initially, Jack indulged him distractedly, replying the attendant’s incessant questions with monosyllable answers and struck the carom coins listlessly. However, gradually he opened up to the young attendant. Until one afternoon there was no more perturbation on his face.

Their afternoon rendezvous continued and Jack gradually returned to his usual jocund self. The circumstances seemed familiar enough – a young man visited him every afternoon, played carom with him and even took him for strolls around the garden; he soon forgot about the tragedy and about his son. One afternoon while strolling through the gardens, Nurse Ratched overheard Jack telling Steven about his younger son, now estranged, ‘a leech to society’, ‘thrown in the slammer for thieving from some poor sod’.

Nurse Ratched appeared crestfallen. She was about to remind Jack about the reformed Bob and all that he had done for him when the vivacity of one thought stopped her –‘He will not remember it tomorrow’. The disease ravaging through Jack’s mind had wiped out any memory of his son’s reformation. Bob would remain forever ‘a leech’ in his memory and Nurse Ratched understood it as an ignoble reality of his life. She found solace in Bob’s words “All that is important to me is that he has a companion to help him live the rest of his life in dignity he deserves”. This epiphany caused her to gaze dully at the old colonel. Nurse Ratched spent countless hours that night crying for the old colonel, his disease and his son.