You’re not a pretty sight today, are you sweetheart?” I held William’s good hand and contemplated my old friend. He appeared a shadow of the chubby cherub with great gams I had known. He was a fabulous personality who had entertained troops as a Betty Grable impersonator when Canada was at war. I had come to know him late in life as William. He was renamed himself for the last time as Bette Davis–sharing secrets with friends and embracing gay life with gusto.
Catheterized and clad in an ugly hospital gown following a devastating stroke, Bette lay shivering on a hospital gurney in a long, hospital hallway in a seemingly endless line of patients and their families all awaiting an interview with a discharge planner.
In a Spartan office my eyes locked with those of a tweed suited bird-like woman who appeared to be in the process of accepting her own mortality. (She was in for ten more years of work– that endless line before retirement.) I pointed to Bette’s gurney outside the door and asked, ‘What gives here?’ Bird woman pointed to a plastic bag tied to the gurney rail,
“His dentures are in the bag. We’ll talk about his clothing,” she said. Bette’s eyes caught mine imploringly. I saw that there were bruises, hand marks on his forearms. He wrote on my palm with his left index finger.
“G …T, T … G, G & T” he spelled out, “ Is that ‘tongue in groove’ or do you want a gin and tonic?” I asked.
Drooling at the mouth with a lop-sided, toothless grin, I saw a glimmer of Bette the entertainer and knew that she had not lost her sense of humor. I had to leave Bette and with tears in my eyes sat squarely in front of Bird Woman. She gazed at me with tired eyes and began to ask me questions. “So I take it that you are not family.” “I’m William’s GAY family.” I conceded. “The patient was admitted with nail polish on his toe-nails, and, in a silk kimono.” she said.
“He was giving himself a manicure before he had the stroke…”
“I really am having placement issues here, ” she added. “He regards himself as being a woman in a man’s body. The stroke is serious one requiring continuous care. I understand that the patient is a Veteran?”
“Twice decorated in Canada’s service during the Korean War.” I said.
“The Veterans’ ‘K’ Ward at Sunnybrook Hospital it is then.” she said.
Unceremoniously she initialed a form and gestured me out of my interview chair without a glance. As I was leaving she muttered, “Lucky He’s a Vet, but Heaven only knows how this will pan out” A week later I visited Bette in Sunnybrook Hospital’s ‘K’ Ward. I had two cans of Schweppes tonic water in each trouser pocket. I looked in Bette’s Louis Vuitton overnight bag to find her silk kimono, a bottle of “Cherries in The Snow” nail polish and at last, the 26’er of Bombay Sapphire gin. I saw that Nurse Barbara was busy tweezing Bette’s eyebrows delighted that my sweet William had made new friends. Also that he had landed in a social safety net adjusting well to his new environment with elderly soldier friends. His bedside routines and antics captivated them all. The experience made me realize that we must care for our aging brothers and sisters. We all are morally and ethically responsible for them and to protect them against abuse under Canada’s Charter of Rights that protects us all. The call is out for all of us to engage as a family and defend our gay friends in good faith. We must visit them regularly. We need to nurture and care for them. All of life lives layer upon layer and we must embrace it all.