Helena preened herself before the mirror. Her starched white uniform crackled as she tightened her belt. She adjusted her cap for the umpteenth time.
“Hmm,” she said, “Not bad at all.”
Helena was now a staff nurse. She topped her class with distinction. She knew how much her parents had sacrificed to let her complete her course. They were extremely poor, and had a large brood of children. Helena was the eldest. Now it was up to her to supplement their meagre finances. Helena knew her duty, and cheerfully assured them of her support.
Her first day as staff nurse was on night shift. Just a few days earlier, she had been working on these wards as a student. There was only a skeletal staff on duty at night, and Helena had to care for the male medical ward, with only a student and a nurse’s aid to help her.
She made her rounds, peeping into every cubicle, to see if her patients were asleep. There was a cranky old man who grumbled and fussed, until she stopped by, and tucked in his bed sheet.
“Good night nurse,” he mumbled, and was soon snoring away.
It was the patient in No.7 who gave cause for concern. He was a young man called Ranjit, who had been in and out of the hospital for a couple of years. He had been a lecturer of Physics in a local college, until Leukemia messed up his life. In the early part of his illness, he would come in for a few days, to be transfused with fresh blood. When better, he would resume working until the next exacerbation. Young, handsome and cheerful, he made light of his ailment, and never gave people a chance to smother him with sympathy.
“How are you tonight, Ranjit?”
“Oh Helena how smart you look! Do I have to call you ‘Sister’ in future?”
“You do, young man. You can’t order me around anymore.”
In the glow of the bedside light he looked sallow and sick. Yet he managed a smile for the new staff nurse. She could see he had difficulty breathing. His chest gave a labored heave from time to time. Helena checked to see whether the oxygen cylinder by his bedside was full.
“Don’t bother about me, Sister. I’m an old hand here. I know how to use the oxygen mask if I’m winded.”
“Call me if you need anything Ranjit, and try to get some sleep. Do you want a sedative?”
She puffed up his pillows and left him in a semi-reclining position, so that he could breathe easily.
“Sleep well,” she said, and moved on to the next patient.
“How brave!” she thought, “Ranjit has always been a model patient. He knows that for him, time is rapidly running out. Yet he smiles, and tries to cheer others up.”
Helena finished her rounds, ensured that all her patients were comfortable, turned off the lights, and settled down at the nurses station, to write out her various reports. When her head began to nod just a little, she called for a cup of coffee. She was sipping the hot ‘cuppa’ when the buzzer sounded. It was No.7.
She dashed to the cubicle. What confronted her was a frightening, tragic scene. Ranjit was gasping for breath, flailing his arms about like a drowning man. The oxygen mask was askew.
“Sister, Sister,” he begged, “Please stay with me. I’m going to die, and I’m scared.”
Helena stood rooted to the spot, unable to move a limb or articulate a word. Not that she hadn’t witnessed death before. It was just that she was alone as Head of the ward, and couldn’t do a thing but watch him die. The doctors could be summoned, but there was nothing they could do to save him. She panicked. With her heart thudding wildly, she escaped, but not before she heard his desperate pleading.
“Sister, please stay with me. Don’t go away. I’m so afraid.”
Helena managed to reach the nurses’ station. Mechanically, she dialed for the duty doctor. But Ranjit’s voice vibrated in her ears, “Sister, don’t go. I’m afraid.”
By the time she had picked up courage to go back to Ranjit, he had slumped into a lifeless mass. Helena broke down and wept inconsolably.
“Ranjit, forgive me. Please forgive me,” she sobbed, as she held on to his unresponsive hand.
When the duty doctor arrived, he found her in a state of near hysteria, and gave her a good tongue-lashing.
“Calm yourself, Sister. You can’t go to pieces every time a patient dies. You know Ranjit could not have been saved.”
He pulled her away from the body.
“If you’re going to break down every time something like this happens, Nursing is not a suitable career for you.”
She could not tell him how she had betrayed her calling, and how miserably she had failed to bring solace to a dying man.
In the days that followed, Helena became depressed and withdrawn. She was afraid to come on duty, and the very thought of entering the hospital gave her stress headaches. She begged the matron to grant her leave for a week, and though leave was not usually sanctioned to staff on night duty, an exception was made in her case.
Helena ‘s unusual gloom bothered her parents.
“What has gone wrong with this lively, smiling girl?” they wondered. Nothing could make her verbalize her secret grief.
“I failed him. I failed as a nurse,” were the words that played on her mind without respite.
At the end of the week, she told her parents that she would not be going back to the hospital. In fact, she would not work as a nurse again.
It was a rude shock to the old parents, who had scrimped and saved to see their daughter through Nursing School . Just when they thought they would be lifted out of their penury, Helena had dropped a bombshell. But they were parents after all, and felt a deep concern for her.
Helena spent months, pottering around the house, and doing nothing in particular. She had many disturbed nights, and began to fear for her sanity. She decided to consult a psychiatrist about her problem. The doctor was a kind and understanding person, and took her through a long period of therapy, until she was well again.
“Don’t stay idle for long,” he advised, “Go back to the hospital.”
“No doctor, I still don’t have enough confidence. I have not yet come to terms with death and its meaning. I need a deeper faith that will stand me in good stead, when confronted with such tragic situations. I have decided to enter a convent. My parents are over-protective. They worry too much about me. I will feel better in an unfamiliar atmosphere.”
The Sisters of Mercy Convent became Helen’s refuge for four years. She prayed and meditated for long hours, and a semblance of peace descended on her. But she never went near a sick person. Instead, she busied herself in the kitchen or attended to other household chores in the convent. She spoke very little, and kept to herself.
Then news arrived about a new hospice opened by the Sisters of Mercy, at a hill station in the North. At such an altitude, where the air was pure and clean, where lush green forests interspersed by cascading waterfalls covered the hillsides, even the sick and dying could experience peace, and be conscious of the nearness of Heaven. From the Hospice, one had a glimpse of towering snow capped mountains, against an azure sky. This atmosphere, together with the loving care of the sisters, allowed terminally ill patients to live and die with dignity.
There was a vacancy at the Hospice, and Mother Superior felt that it might be just the place for Helena to recover her courage.
After prayers one evening, Mother invited Helena for a chat.
“You’ve been living in this place, insulated by your own fears. Now it’s time you brake free and stand on your own feet. The longer you hide, the greater the problem of readjustment. I think working in a hospital will help you overcome your fears. Think about it for a few days and give me your answer. The decision must be yours.”
Helena thought about it. There was still a little part of her that held back. In the end, she was able to triumph over her fears.
“I’ll go Mother, if that’s what’s best for me.”
The journey to Delhi was long and tedious. From there, it was one picturesque spell of beauty up the long tortuous winding roads, right to the top of the hill. From a distance, Helena saw the white washed hospice buildings nestling snugly among the trees. What greeted her when she reached here was an atmosphere of tranquillity. There were just about thirty in-patients. In spite of impending death, and the knowledge of their incurable ailments, they seemed calm and prepared for life beyond this world. Helena knew that the nuns were the real miracle workers. It was their holistic approach to these dying people that was responsible for the calm acceptance of their terminal state. Not only their physical requirements, but their emotional and spiritual needs too, received attention in this haven of peace.
Helena settled in well. Her rehabilitation she hoped was finally complete. She felt spiritually stronger to meet the challenges of her profession.
Into this tranquil abode, there entered a stranger. Once upon a time, he must have been a handsome fellow. Now he looked gaunt, his eyes sunk in his sockets, his back slightly hunched. The Mother Superior summoned her little band of workers together.
“Girls, what I am about to tell you must in no way alarm you. The man who has just been admitted, is suffering from AIDS. He has not much time to live. The time he spends with us must be the very best.”
Those were early days, when a lot of misinformation about the disease was being circulated. People thought it could be transmitted by droplet infection, or even using the same linen. The panic was so great that the very word AIDS sent shivers down one’s spine.
“We know that there are many rumors floating around. No one really contracts the disease by touching an infected person. Even if it did, it would not matter to us. We are here to serve the dying. However, it is prudent to take precautions. So we’ll use gloves to handle the patients, and masks whenever we are in the room. The articles he uses will be properly sterilized, and whatever is disposable will be incinerated.”
One of the older nuns was very judgmental.
“If he has contracted AIDS he must be a very bad man. He is reaping the fruits of his folly.”
Mother glared at her.
“With such uncharitable thoughts, you will never serve well. You need not attend on him.”
Mother turned an angry pink as she walked away.
Helena stood in the doorway, taking in the situation. David had already unpacked, and arranged his things to his convenience. His books and portable typewriter were on the table. There was another small pile of books by the bedside. His clothes had been put away in the cupboard, and the empty suitcases pushed under the bed, out of sight.
He was standing by the window, entranced by the view of the mountains covered with snow. He suddenly realized that he was being watched. He turned and looked directly into Helena ‘s eyes.
“Afraid? Scared to come in?”
“You mean the mask and the gloves? Those are regulation requirements. Why should I be afraid?” asked Helena .
“No need to come close as yet. I’m perfectly able to manage by myself. All I need is some peace and quiet, to get on with my work. No pity, no commiseration, above all no interference.”
There was an edge to his voice.
“We mind our own business here. But we cannot help showing our love and concern. Otherwise there would be no reason for running this hospice.”
Helena walked away, hurt at his snub. She did not visit him again for many days. He stayed in his room, writing, typing, reading and sleeping. Sometimes, when the weather was not too nippy, he would sit outside, looking towards the mountains and strumming his mandolin. He sang those songs of long ago, of love denied, of heartbreak, of sadness.
His bout of illness came too soon – a high fever and a rasping cough that made him groan with pain. Now he could not manage on his own and needed help. Helena volunteered to nurse him. In his helpless state, his animosity began to thaw. She gave him his medicines, fed him hot soup, and cheered him up with her presence.
“I want to be well for a few months more. I’ve got some work to complete.”
“You’ll be okay. Try to think positively.”
When he was better, she asked him, “Why do you always sing such sad songs? Every time you tune your mandolin, I expect to hear a burst of joyful sound. Instead it is always a heart rending love song. What strife within you chokes your music?”
Helena continued without waiting for his answer.
“Once I was like that, depressed, introverted, crippled and incapacitated by self-pity. I’m glad I’ve put it all behind me.”
“I too was a happy energetic man, Sister. Not this ugly, shriveled up vestige.”
In bits and pieces, David told her his story. He had been a pilot in the Indian Air Force. During the Indo-Pak war, he was sent to the USA for specialized training. While there, he had met with a near-fatal accident, which necessitated several bottles of blood transfusion. He returned completely healed, to his unit in NEFA. It was understood that one day soon, he would marry Diana, his childhood sweetheart.
His troubles started four years later. He contracted a severe lung ailment that refused to respond to conventional antibiotics. The Military Hospital physicians diagnosed tuberculosis, and started his treatment.
“This was enough of a shock to me. I conjured up pictures of myself, thin and emaciated, spewing out cups full of blood. I immediately wrote off a letter to Diana, freeing her of her promise to marry me. I was angry with everyone, God, fate, the physicians, and I took my temper out on the innocent girl, who was very much in love with me. But fate had not done with me yet. When my symptoms did not subside, one of the physicians suggested that it could be the very thing that had affected Rock Hudson. I had been transfused with several pints of blood after my accident. Blood testing for this disease, had not yet come into practice. In fact, very few knew about the disease. After many weeks of waiting, it was confirmed that I was HIV positive. The hospital authorities literally threw me out.
I cannot describe to you the agony of those days. Fortunately, I was well off materially, and so I went away to an isolated village in the North, and set up home there. What could I do to while away the hours? Diana wrote faithfully c/o 56 APO . From there the letters were redirected to a post office address I had left with my office.
Each time her letter came, I wept for hours. But I knew that I would have to sever all connections. I turned my mind to writing short articles to newspapers and magazines. Some were accepted. Others came back with rejection slips. Then I had a lucky break. I tried my hand at a full length story that was partly autobiographical.
I titled it “With Broken Wings.” It was the name of an old song, “With broken wings, no bird can fly…”
It was beginner’s luck. The publisher wanted my bio-data and photograph for publication.
He was annoyed that I didn’t oblige. However, the book received good reviews, and a new author was launched.”
David worked when he was well, and rested when he felt ill. He had a man to help him with chores, and run errands. Two more books were published in quick succession. When the publisher became too curious and determined to bust his identity, David felt it was time to move. Besides, his illness was leaving him weak, breathless and incapable of caring for himself.
“I needed someone to look after me. I couldn’t live on my own anymore.”
He had read in some newspaper, about this hospice for terminally ill patients. When his inquiries received a favorable response, David had come here to spend his last days.
“But I wanted to see my loved ones just once more before I died. I visited the town where my parents lived. Diana’s house was across the street. No one recognized me, not even Diana, as she walked past me to work, head held high, beautiful but somehow sad. Perhaps she will never trust another man, because she believed that I jilted her.”
Helena sat so still for fear of interrupting his story. Here was a young man on the verge of death, suffering for no fault of his. There was nothing anybody could do to save him. Her eyes were brimming with tears, but she could not let them spill over. David asked for no pity. He had come to terms with life and death. She could see that he was unafraid. Somewhere inside that gaunt dying man, there was an area of peace. Death would mean escape from a diseased body, into the presence of his Creator.
“I want to live just as long as it takes to finish my present novel. It is a story dedicated to Diana. When she reads it she will know all. I hope she’ll think kindly of me, and her faith in humanity will be restored.”
David was sinking fast. Most days, he lay listlessly in bed, staring out through the window at the mountains.
“Too young to die,” he must have thought, over and over again.
Perhaps his mind wandered back to the time he was a pilot. How he had soared through the skies, unfettered and free!
It was a moonlit night in December. Helena heard David’s call bell ring. She rushed to his room. Through labored breaths he said, “The manuscript is complete. Please send it on to Diana.”
Then he could speak no more as he battled for breath. Helena realized it was the end.
“Oh David! I want to hold you hand,” she cried, as she tore off her mask and threw away her gloves. She knew she was disobeying orders, but nothing mattered just now. She just wanted to be a caring, feeling human being. Not a nurse in a stiff white uniform. David had never seen her without the mask. He gave her a wan smile. With one arm, she cradled his head, and in her right hand she took his pale one in hers. They stayed that way until the breathing became shallower, and finally ceased.
“The Lord bless you and keep you,” she whispered, as she laid his head gently on the pillow.
As David passed into undiscovered country, Helena was sure at last that she had retrieved her lost courage and strength.