My mother once wore a condominium on her head. It was in the early ’60s and she decided to wear three wigs all layered on top of each other. She threw on a blue dress, eyeliner drawn into her temples, frosted pink lips. She was on her way to the Marine Corps Ball. Her pale shade of schizophrenia had started to peek out under her mask of Shisheido, but she was beautiful in my eyes. I knew I could do the same thing with two towels on my head and some mayonnaise on my cheeks. Before she left for the dance, she smiled and said, “These are the small pleasures in my life.”
Later in my nursing career, I reflected on my mother’s sad smile when I met Bessie, the bone lady. She had worked as a prostitute in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, and after a series of bad-luck romances and hard drinking, she ended up with Hep C and bone cancer.
Bessie would always say, “I want to tell you my story in case you find me dead here in this hospital bed.” I knew Bessie was just being dramatic because every day at noon she ordered a double cheeseburger and Reglan (just in case she vomited).
Once Bessie called me at the nurse’s station to come to her room, and what followed was a vision that cemented itself in my memory. It’s one of the reasons I stayed in nursing.
I walked into her room and there she was, sitting in the windowsill, staring out at Golden Gate Park. She smiled at me the same way my mother did before the tears dripped from under her false lashes.
The afternoon sunlight glowed on Miss Bessie’s legs that afternoon. There she was, in a white one-piece Catalina bathing suit (Miss Dorothy Dandridge style) and a Diana Ross wig a la “Love Hangover.” She had painted on her deepest red lipstick and circles of pink rouge.
I had never seen a patient sunbathing in the hospital. I said, “Miss Bessie, what are you doing?”
She laughed and said, “I’m ready for my morphine.”
“Oh,” I said, “I thought you were ready for your close-up.”
I never laughed so hard with a patient. After her dose of IV morphine, I tucked her into bed for her nap. She was still wearing her one-piece. She touched my hand and said, “It’s the small pleasures, child, just the small pleasures.”