… “You’re not a pretty sight today, are you sweetheart?”
I held William’s good left hand and contemplated my old friend, a shadow of the chubby cherub with great gams who entertained the troops as Betty (Grable?) while Canada was at war in Korea; one extraordinary individual who I had come to know by chance late in his life as William, then affectionately renamed Bette (Davis?) to those with whom he shared secrets and embraced life in gay trust.
Catheterized and clad only in a hospital gown following a devastating stroke, Bette lay shivering on a hospital gurney in that long, green hospital hallway, first in a seemingly endless line of patients and their families awaiting an interview with the discharge planner.
Redirecting my focus into a Spartan office, my eyes locked with the small pupils of a bird-like woman, a ‘tweed-suited somewhere’ between accepting her own mortality and knowing that there were ten more years of working that endless line before retirement. I pointed to Bette’s gurney and gestured, ‘What gives here?’ She pointed to a plastic bag tied to the gurney rail.
“His dentures are in the bag. We’ll talk about his clothing.”
“I’ll be back in a jiff Bette. We’ll make things right here.”
Bette’s eyes implored me. There were bruises, hand marks on his forearms. He gestured slowly on my palm with his left index finger. I smiled.
“G …T, T … G, G & T … is that ‘tongue in groove’ or do you want a gin and tonic?”
Drooling at the mouth with a lop-sided, toothless grin, I saw a glimmer of Bette the trooper and knew that she had not lost her sense of humour.
Leaving Bette with tears in her eyes and in mine, I sat squarely in front of the discharge planner, she studying me with tired eyes peering above a pair of drug store ‘demi-lunes’, file folder closed in front of her.
I knew that afternoon light in a pea green room was bad light for both of us.
“So I take it that you are not family.”
I half-conceded with a shrug and retorted matter-of-factly,
“I am William’s gay family.”
“The patient was admitted with nail polish on his toe-nails, and, in a silk kimono.”
“So he had a stroke in the privacy of his own home before he did his manicure.”
“I really am having placement issues here. He ..”
“SHE, Bette regards herself as being a woman in a man’s body.”
“Yes, sHE had a serious stoke and will require heavy continuous care for some months. I take it that the patient is a Veteran.”
“Twice decorated in Canada’s service (‘on his knees’, I thought and smiled to myself) during the Korean War.”
“The Veterans’ ‘K’ Ward at Sunnybrook Hospital it is then.”
Unceremoniously the discharge planner initialed a form and gestured me out of her interview chair without looking at me again. Head lowered she muttered,
“Lucky sHE is a Vet, but Heaven only knows what they’ll do with him there.”
I reflected on the bruises on Bette’s forearms.
A week later I visited Bette in Sunnybrook’s ‘K’ Ward with two cans of Schweppes tonic water , one in each trouser pocket. In Bette’s Louis Vuitton overnight bag was her favorite silk kimono, a bottle of “Cherries in The Snow” nail laquer and a 26’er of Bombay Sapphire gin.
Nurse Barbara was busy arching Bette’s eyebrows with a pair of tweezers and my sweet William had made new friends.