Tuesday, August 5, 2008

March, 1980. Meeting Wilson

I hurried down the long hallway of the treatment center toward a patient's room. As I quickly walked, two men ambled up the hall toward me. One was a staff member, the other a new patient on crutches. The new patient was a Native American with classic features. He eyed me closely as he walked by, making me feel extremely uncomfortable. I didn't like being stared at.

That Indian better stay away from me, I thought as he passed.

BetterLife Treatment Center, on the seventh floor of Sunshine Park Nursing Home, was an alcohol detox and treatment center specializing in geriatric nursing care. Because of BetterLife's ability to provide specialized nursing along with alcoholism treatment, the program occasionally accepted younger people with physical needs other alcohol centers couldn't cope with.

I learned that the Indian man had been hit by a car after leaving Arthur's Bar six weeks earlier. Late to meet a girlfriend at another bar, he was struck by a fast moving Buick while crossing the street and sustained a fractured leg. He had spent the last month and a half in traction at the county medical center. He was at BetterLife because of the medications and physical therapy he still needed for his recovery.

BetterLife was focused around the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program. As a Nursing Treatment Assistant, I worked with patients on a daily basis with both their physical and alcohol treatment. Doing the first step with people was always one of my favorite duties. Reviewing their past in an attempt to bring out the problems related to alcohol and their powerlessness over it, I heard their stories and got a chance to know them personally.

Although most caregivers involved with emotionally vulnerable patients are able to remain objective and detached, it's not uncommon for a nurse to occasionally develop a close relationship with a patient. Unfortunately, I had a tendency to get attached to one or two patients at a time. Doing step work with patients only amplified my tendency in that direction.
I became attached to a seventy-year-old woman when she broke down and cried over the murder of her three-year-old daughter at the hands of her husband fifty years earlier.
I fell in love with an eighty-year-old Florida transplant when she swore at me for trying to explain that those were elm trees outside her window, not palm trees.

But having grown up without a good relationship with my father, my biggest danger was that I had an overwhelming need to be protected and wanted. In February of 1980, Bruce Gates was the resident I was most fond of. A war veteran, he was fifty-ish with white hair and a fatherly appearance. I wasn't assigned to Bruce's first step, but I'd met him in group session and found him to be smart, warm-hearted and funny. Although I didn't go out of my way to find time to speak to him, I enjoyed his teasing when we were around each other. We developed a warm friendship.

At the same time Bruce was also developing a friendship with the new patient, Wilson, the Indian man. Whenever I ran into Bruce, Wilson was with him. Together they would tease me good-naturedly.

Wilson also began hanging around the nurse's desk more.
He was kind of a nice person after all, I decided.

I wasn't assigned to help Wilson with his first step either, but he wasn't comfortable with the person who was and asked me to help instead. There was nothing in his first step that struck me emotionally. In fact, my initial impression was that Wilson was skimming the surface, not totally forthright in his story. But through the open door of this first step work, Wilson began to tell me details of his life.

He was 100 percent Chippewa from the Fish Lake Reservation. Wilson's generation was the last of primarily full bloods on that Reservation and until he was five-years-old, he spoke only Ojibwe. As a baby he lived near the lake with his family in a small house without plumbing. When his mother remarried after his father died, he stayed with his grandpa, Way-zhow-ush-quah-je-wabe, in the woods near Leech Lake. The rest of his five or so siblings stayed with his mother and stepfather, Walter, who were drinking heavily. I say five children or so because the number varied. Both adults entered the marriage with five children each, but some of the older ones were already married and others moved in and out. Five more children came after Wilson.

The drinking wasn't the reason Wilson went to stay with his grandfather. Grandpa drank too, although not as often as his daughter. Grandpa needed Wilson to help him around and be a companion. But the relationship was reciprocal; Wilson cherished the help and companionship his grandpa gave him in return. Spending much of their time alone together, they grew very close.

Of Wilson’s early childhood he spoke fondly, "We used to camp by the lake in large groups," he said, describing traditional events such as powwows and ricing. "Gathering wild rice every year was our time to be together and see friends and family. We looked forward to it, just like Christmas to you guys. Other times in the woods was when we gathered maple or went trapping and fishing."

Wilson stayed with his grandfather until he was five and it was time to begin school. When the time came to leave, Wilson hated to go. He adored his grandfather. But his parents still spent time with his grandfather at the gatherings in the woods. There, Wilson continued to learn from both his parents and Grandpa the traditional way of life and food gathering. However, Wilson's mother and stepfather were also Christians now. As Christians, they were determined to raise their children to be sober and love the Lord.

"They had all of us kids sit at the table after dinner for Bible study," Wilson remembered.

Nevertheless, after his Grandpa’s death six years later, Wilson began drinking. His parents, who had no problem with spanking him when he was younger, now backed away.

"You make your choices. Just don't come crying to us when you get in trouble," his mother said.

Wilson took to running away from home and getting into trouble with the law. Finally, he was sent to a foster home and then to a boy’s reformatory.After graduation from the reformatory he attended Haskell Institute, an Indian college in Kansas. There he trained as an architect. He enjoyed the work; creative design appealed to him. He worked as an architect for a couple of years before, according to Wilson, he'd dated the Sheriff's daughter once too often.

Wrestling with his jailers as he was being thrown into a cell, he grabbed the doorjamb with his left hand to keep from being pushed in and they slammed the heavy door right on it.
The next morning, the doctor worked to save most of his hand. Although the doctor was successful and he lost only half his thumb, he was unable to use that hand for a long time and so was unable to continue as an architect.

Wilson was in and out of jobs for the next few years. His life alternated between trying to pull himself together in alcohol treatment and being drunk. His life fluctuated from honest workman to social outcast and back again. BetterLife wasn't his first time in treatment; it was his fourth, and he now had a wife and four kids. He hadn't lived with his wife for the last six months, though, and he didn't see much chance of returning to his marriage. According to Wilson, she was always critical of him and mean with the kids.
"Anyway, my wife won't like me sober," he said.

Most days, I began my shift in the afternoon and inevitably found Wilson and Bruce leaning against the wall in the hallway. Wilson, swinging his cane in his hand, was always nicely groomed. His clothes, including his jeans, were always pressed, and the cuffs of his sleeves carefully and perfectly rolled under twice. The two of them talked quietly to each other as they watched people pass. They always had a big smile and hello when I approached.

When I had the opportunity to take a group of residents for a walk, Wilson joined me. It was spring, and another aide and I guided the group along the parkway toward the University. The river sparkled below us. Wilson and I, while at the same time speaking and laughing with the group and enjoying the sunshine, walked together and talked.

In the late evening, Wilson and Bruce were the only ones still in the smoking room watching TV long after the older residents had retired. With the shift almost over and the work all done, I took the time to sit down and unwind.

I couldn't imagine myself relaxing at night with the Indian I was sure to steer clear of earlier. Funny, now I looked forward to it.

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