By: Rich Kenney, MSSW
We all have our time machines, don’t we? Those that take us back are memories.... And those that carry us forward, are dreams.
Uber-Morlock from the movie,
The Time Machine
Who needs wormholes or cosmic strings when you have a slide trombone and a bag of cotton?
Postulates of special relativity and concepts of the Alcubierre drive are beyond my comprehension. They fall within the realm of physics and, like wormholes and cosmic strings, are related to theories pertaining to time travel. I am not a physicist; I am a social worker. What I do know, however, is that time travel is not just for scientists. Hospice social workers can dabble in time machines, too. At least, I do.
For the past few years, I have been working with hospice patients in Oklahoma. Hospice is an option for people when their life-limiting illnesses no longer respond to cure-oriented treatments. In addition to assisting patients and their families with end-of-life issues and care, I help them to return to the past.
While physicists look for ways to apply the possibilities of quantum mechanics and symmetric polygon arrangements, I explore the realities of the powers of old paintbrushes and Klingon warrior swords. These are some of the time travel tools I use in life review, the process of looking back to the past with the goal of bringing new meaning and perspective into the present. It provides hospice patients with opportunities to recount and re-evaluate their life stories.
A Bag of Cotton
“There’s an animal in Gloretha’s house and it’s not hers.”
That was the part of the nurse’s telephone message I kept thinking about while driving to Muskogee from Tulsa to see Gloretha, a petite, ninety-one-year-old woman with emphysema. In reading her chart earlier that day, I learned that she lived alone in a “cluttered and unclean abode.” Another report noted that, despite her breathing difficulties, she was “feisty and frank.”
When I sat on Gloretha’s worn couch after giving her my business card, dust quickly filled the room.
“I don’t want no prayers or bedpans,” she said. “I want to live my last days. I want to smoke Pall Malls at the casino.”
“Casino?” I asked.
“Slots at the Hard Rock every Friday,” she said. “Cab takes me.”
Pots and pans rattled down the hallway.
“That cat again,” she said, sensing my surprise. “He come up from the hole under my sink. Follow me.”
Gloretha led me into her kitchen, then leaned against the counter. “Go ahead,” she said, pointing to the cabinet.
I gripped the handle and cautiously opened it. Without warning, something grabbed me. Shaken, I turned around.
There was Gloretha, her frail hand clutching my elbow. Her innocent laughter filled the tiny, ramshackle house. It was wondrous... childlike. Then, her long cough, cutting the moment short and reminding us of the present.
Over the next few weeks, I found services to help clean and repair Gloretha’s residence. We even found a home for Potsandpans, her kitchen-crashing tomcat. One day, I noticed a bag of cotton hanging from the wall in her living room. Inside were several cotton balls.
“Just a child when I picked it,” she told me. “Reminds me when I was young, when times was hard. Cotton brings me back.”
Gloretha asked me to hand her the eighty-year-old bag so she could hold the cotton balls. She described the struggles of picking cotton in the fields of Webbers Falls in the late 1920s to earn money for her family.
“Bought my sister a winter coat for six dollars with cotton money,” she boasted. “Fought them green worms and grasshoppers all day.”
She cupped the balls in her palms. “These remind me to live.”
A time machine. Evidence.
Cockroaches fell from the ceiling like scattered raindrops. When one landed on or near Roland, he picked it up and crushed it between his thumb and forefinger.
“Sorry about the bugs,” he said, struggling to reposition himself in bed - all four hundred pounds. “One got stuck in my ear last year. Needed surgery to remove it. Flick them my way if they get on you.”
I glanced up at the ceiling to see a dozen roaches. Another one crawled along the blade of a sword hanging on the wall beside me.
“That’s quite a weapon,” I said.
“It’s a bat’leth, the one used by Klingon warriors. Remember Star Trek?”
“I do,” I said, watching his mood brighten.
“Used to bring that to Trekkie conventions. I was the doorman. Best days of my life.”
I took down the crescent-shaped sword and carefully handed it to him.
“Man, I haven’t held this in years.”
For the next half hour, Roland forgot about the cockroaches and the squalor of his makeshift bedroom separated by a moldy shower curtain from the rest of the rooming house. He forgot about the heart condition, obesity, and severe depression that ruled his life. He was no longer sixty-four and sickly.
“With this, I was somebody,” he said. “No one made fun of me.”
In the weeks that followed, Roland was somebody—a time travel warrior.
The Slide Trombone
Edgar was cooking breakfast the first day I visited his apartment. The enticing smell of bacon and pancakes wafted through his slightly opened door. When he didn’t answer, I pushed it and called his name.
A wisp of a man stepped out from the kitchen. “You must be the social worker. C’mon in.”
I stepped inside the sparsely-furnished living room. An unmade sofa bed faced a stereo system. A jazz album jacket leaned against one of the speakers. There was a music stand and a fold-up, auditorium chair. One framed, black-and-white photograph of a man playing a slide trombone hung on the wall.
“Have a seat in here,” he said, waving me into the kitchen and moving aside sheet music from the dinette table.
“Smells good,” I said, savoring the scents of the small feast on the stove.
“Oh, I probably won’t eat any of this.”
As I sat down, I noticed an over-flowing trash bucket containing several days’ worth of previous breakfasts.
“I cook this because it reminds me of my Molly,” he explained. “Makes me feel like she’s right here with me.”
Edgar was eighty and dying of pancreatic cancer. His wife had passed away a few weeks earlier.
“Only thing I have left is that sheet music.”
I studied a page of penciled notes. “Did you write this?”
“That’s what I do,” he said. “Better, though, when I have my trombone.”
“Where is it?”
“Hock shop,” he said. “That’s where it goes when I’m running low on cash.”
For the next hour, Edgar told me about how he “played with all the jazz heavyweights,” like Arnett Cobb and Jimmy McCracklin.
“Played on the Dick Clark Show in the fifties,” he said. “Where I met Molly.”
The sparkle in Edgar’s eyes said it all. I had to find a pawn shop... to see about a time machine.
A former hospice social worker in Tulsa, Rich Kenney, MSSW, is now director of the Social Work Program and an assistant professor at Chadron State College in Chadron, Nebraska. He is a graduate of the University of Texas with a master’s degree in social work, and received a creative writing fellowship in poetry from the Arizona Commission on the Arts.
When not writing, Rich enjoys playing chess and shooting birds (with a camera). He’s also dabbled in rainbow-spotting from the deserts of Arizona and the meadows of Oklahoma all the way to the sandy beaches of Cape Cod. He and his wife, Linda, live in Chadron, Nebraska.
This article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER. Copyright 2012 White Hat Communications. All rights reserved.