I met Rick while I was working as a nurse in a state psychiatric hospital. He was a young man in his early twenties with a great smile and a passion for life. He was also one of my more colorful patients.
Rick would hang around while I went through my routines. Sometimes he would lend a helping hand, but mostly he talked. He had some wicked funny stories and some heartbreaking confessions.
Rick's sexuality was a major issue throughout his life. His parents didn’t care for his gay friends or lifestyle, and they didn’t hesitate expressing this to Rick or the staff. He ran away dozens of times as a kid, drowned his pain in drugs, and became a prostitute to support himself, his fun and his habits.
As an adult, he tried returning home several times, but the streets kept luring him back. Then when a few arguments with his parents ended in violence, he was committed as a danger to himself and others.
Over the several years I knew Rick, I watched his optimism fade while his insanity grew, two certain curses of long-term institutionalization.
In an attempt to sort out his thoughts, Rick started writing long letters that he would present to me as soon as I arrived for my shift. He wrote about how he wished his life had been. It was a life where he was straight, and we were happy ever after together on the outside.
As his psychosis worsened, I became his only support. No one cared for Rick or his antics which ranged from picking nasty scabs to throwing his feces. As if the picking and throwing wasn’t worrisome enough, Rick had AIDS, something we were just getting a grasp on in the early eighties. Since Rick liked me, I was exempt from his fouling attempts, so he became my special assignment until the end game.
Before drug cocktails, death for AIDS patients was certain, but it came painfully slow. Rick’s last weeks were spent in an empty isolation room until thankfully, the patient's advocate got him a TV set. Still, he was alone for ninety percent of the day. I’d stop by to bathe him, dress him, go through all the steps of my basic routine, and he’d talk, but not as much as he once did.
Then one day I went in his room and was hit by a blast of cold air. Death was there with his eyes laid on Rick. I picked up my sad friend’s hand. It was like ice. I never knew someone could be alive, yet be so cold. He looked at me and smiled. I ran to get the doctor.
Rick kept calling for me while he was being examined, but I stood outside, away from the doorway. My feet would not take me back in there.
My coworkers tried to get me to go see him. They knew we needed to say goodbye, but when my shift was over, I walked out without a word.
It’s no consolation that I unwittingly bought a part of Rick back to life in my character, Blue Jeans. The memories were just as painful to write down today as the experience was to live through, and I still can’t fix the fact that I never gave Rick a goodbye.
Rick’s name was changed for this true story.
Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (AGP) AGP supports research and active prevention of AIDS in children worldwide. Help if you can.