The house was huge. Atop a large hill with a view so good the city taxes for it, the building was a testament to a lifetime of work. Large, spotless windows looked out over an expansive yard immaculate with a carefully arranged springtime assortment: newly budding flowers, a bubbling brook, and ornate iron wrought trimmings. The home was pristine in detail. New in condition but old in design, everything seemed to maintain a sense of timeless style.
Our dirty, diesel ambulance grumbled up the long driveway, spewing fumes and emanating a presence that, even as the driver, I felt somehow contaminated it all. We were called for a "lift-assist" only, a call so doomed to be boring that it fouled our moods and depressed our spirit. Frowning, we approached the house with our gear.
We were met at the door by an old man who was very happy to see us. Deep wrinkles on his face seemed to add volume to his smile as each crease and fold followed in turn, reaching upward as they contributed to his healthy grin. "Oh thank you for coming," he said. "Right this way. She fell on her way to the toilet and I just couldn't get her up. Just skin and bones she is, there's no meat left. She really shouldn't be walking around like that anymore."
We followed him through the house, an agonizingly slow pace as the man hobbled from one step to the next. Passing through an expansive kitchen and a luxurious living room, I marveled at the home. Absolutely beautiful. Around a few corners and down a hall, we turned right into a room lined with wood. There, on the floor, was an older woman laying face-down. She was positioned just next to the hot tub, a large marble edifice covered with more wood and leather. The tub was dry. It looked like it hadn't been used in years.
The woman had her eyes closed. She looked exhausted, her head resting on a makeshift pillow fashioned from towels pulled from hangars on the wall. Wrapped around her was an old, yellowed bathrobe. The material looked thin and fringed at the edges, a hole here and there. Although she was covered I could see that the woman was extremely thin. Ghostly thin. Just skin and bones, covered with the tattered remnants of a robe, the woman let out a small sigh as we introduced ourselves.
The man interjected immediately, apologizing for the lack of formal introduction. "She's very tired," he said. "She's been there on the floor for some time now, I just couldn't get her up. There's nothing to her, no meat on her body, but I dont have the strength anymore."
We smiled back. No problem at all. We're here to help. My partner kneeled down and touched the woman's hand. He asked about how she fell, if she remembers everything that happened and if she has any pain. The woman, seemingly mustering great effort to find the strength to do so, answers quietly. She slipped on the tiled floor. There is no pain. She doesn't have the strength anymore. "I've lost all my muscle."
We lift her up together even though one of us could have easily handled the task alone. The woman was even thinner than she looked. Like picking up a bundle of sticks. We sat her down on a chair as she sighed with relief.
The man, again. "The doctors think she has cancer. In the stomach, they say. We did a bunch of tests last week but they want us to start chemo right away. They havn't even seen the results from the tests yet!" The man's wrinkles dropped downward into a hardened frown. "How can they be sure she has cancer if the results aren't in yet?"
My partner and I both know the answer, but dont let it escape. The cancer must be that obvious, so plain to the doctor that the tests were only a formality. Look at her. Skin and bones, no meat left at all. Something is eating her away from the inside, hollowing her out. Neither of us imagine that the diagnosis was all that difficult to ascertain. The woman is deathly sick.
I ask her if she would like us to take her to the hospital. It is probably a good idea, I say. Falls are sometimes a sign of something else, and if you're feeling extra tired that might be another warning sign. How about we take you to the emergency department and have the doctors take a look at you.
The woman raises her head upward, which until now remained hung downward between her legs. Her eyes came to life as she emphatically shook her head no. "No more hospitals. I'm so sick of the hospitals. I was just there for 9 weeks, and look at me. I just want to rest." I try again in vain to get her to oblige, but she will not relent. "If you could please just help me to my bed. I'm so tired." The man agreed.
We helped her to her bed. Down the carpeted hall and left into a small room, we moved slowly as my partner and I each guided an elbow. The room was packed with personal belongings. A TV in the corner, bookshelf on the far wall. There was a small sink in the room that looked like it had been added, and a mini fridge under the bedstand. The large room was cramped with the necessities of daily living: items from every room of the house concentrated into one small space.
The woman explained. "This is where I spend most of my time now, since I've lost so much weight. I dont have the strength anymore to move from room to room, so I had all of the necessary stuff brought into here." The woman, despite an effort to project a smile, betrays a saddened frown. "No muscle on my bones anymore."
We tucked her in and brought her remotes close. Made sure she was comfortable. She thanked us profusely throughout, asking for our names and writing down the company we work for. She promised to call our bosses and sing our praises. "You boys are so nice," she said. The man knelt on the side of the bed, tucking in the covers and arranging the pillows.
We showed ourselves out. Walking through the house on our way, we noticed for the first time how empty the other rooms looked. A hot tub that hadnt been used in years, couches covered and left alone, lights off and drapes drawn. It is easy to keep things looking immaculate when you never use them anymore. A lifetime of work and success, spread out to lavish comfort and then forgotten in the face of disease. Their world shrunken down.
We coaxed our dirty ambulance back to life as it growled and spit in protest. Rumbling down the driveway, I could see the shape of the enormous house against the night sky. Only one light remained on in the entire building. A single room illuminated.
The light faded in the distance as we headed to our next call.