“Bed 3214-A” by Barbara West
When the bedside nurse whispered to me in the hall, I knew it would be
bad. The smell as I entered the room confirmed it—reminding me of the recluse
living in a double-wide with her aging mother, years ago, when I was a hospice
nurse. Or the woman who showed up in wound clinic, telling me prayer would
conquer the tumor…just give it a little more time.
But this time there was no one retreating to the far bedroom corner of a
double-wide; no one admonishing me for lack of faith. The woman, in her early
sixties, was sitting up: elegant, light blue gown, tidy afro, questioning me
with an open, warm gaze as I came around the end of her bed and asked if I
could take a look.
She was from a Pacific island whose name I had trouble discerning at first,
through her rich island lilt—so remote and tiny I can’t now recall it. She’d
come to California a couple weeks before, staying with her brother, reminding
me of how my mom relied, at times, on my Uncle Ken. She hoped the doctors here
could help her. I imagined the months, or years, she’d been patiently living
with what had started so small. What it had taken for her to leave life as she
knew it, cross an ocean, and arrive at this inland rectangle of third floor.
Her nipple had died a while ago, but was still hanging on. None of us in the
room could quite grasp this, but I just started trimming, gently; it didn’t
hurt. She said it was OK to keep going. We didn’t realize the enormity of it
until I was holding her nipple, what was left of it, in my hand, separate from
her body. It was awkward .
Here is your nipple, I said.
Oh, she said.
I think you are better off without it, I said.
Yes, I am. Thank you.
I put it in the biohazard bin, red bag marked with skull and crossbones.
Barbara West is the author of a collection of poetry and prose “…and I felt the simple sweetness of me” (Cold River Press, 2017). Her work has appeared in Flying South, Worthing Flash, Full of Crow, Brevities, Medusa’s Kitchen, Sacramento Voices, Escarp, Shambhala Times, and others. Her performance videos haven awards in film festivals around the world. She descends from Pennsylvania Dutch activists, lives in Davis, California, and works as a wound/ostomy nurse. She is the only parent of an adult son.