This summer I was assigned to work in the infirmary. Not a bad gig by prison standards. Air conditioning, TV, the occasional extra tray and a phone I didn’t have to share with 70 other inmates. There were just two dudes who lived back there. Shaky and Juanito. Shaky had stage four cancer and was refusing chemo. The prognosis was six months. He told me he was at peace with his situation. His wife had already died and he had no one on the other side waiting for him. He felt like he had a good run. He was just going to read his Bible until the Savior called him home.
Juanito had a different philosophy. Fight like hell. Especially with anyone who tried to bathe him which, unfortunately, was my job. My first attempt was met with stiff resistance. Just trying to dab at his neck and arms with a soapy washcloth was like giving a cat a sponge bath. Wasn’t happening. Have you ever been punched in the face by a little old man? It hurts more than you’d think. He also stabbed me in the hand with a spork, bit, scratched, cussed me out in English and Spanish, pleaded, prayed, cried… I was totally unprepared. I couldn’t even get his shirt off. After round one, it was clearly Juanito 1, Malcolm 0. But it wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.
Juanito is 5 feet and 105 pounds of piss and vinegar. A 92-year-old Cuban American serving life in prison for shooting his landlord. He was 80 when he committed his crime. I don’t know if he had dementia when he pulled the trigger, but he was definitely dealing with it by the time our paths converged. Sometimes he wouldn’t get out of bed. Sometimes he’d just stare off into space. The sides of his wheelchair were crammed with old alcohol pads, tongue depressors and other medical paraphernalia pilfered from infirmary garbage cans. Since I was educated in the Dade County public school system and spent a lot of my childhood just a few blocks from Little Havana, my Spanish has a heavy Cuban dialect. I thought this might earn me some cool points with Juanito, but it only made him more suspicious of me. Sometimes when I was on the phone, he would glare at me from across the room as if he knew I was reporting his whereabouts to the Castro regime.
Oddly, the only assistance he wouldn’t resist was when nature called. He’d just wait for eye contact and motion toward the bathroom. Yeah, it was part of my job to wipe his ass. The only other ass I’ve ever wiped besides my own. Strange experience. In the beginning it was humiliating and awkward. For both of us. Even with the dementia, Juanito was proud. I’m sure it irked him to be dependent on another man for such a basic human function. But after a few times it became mechanical. I’d push his chair to the front of the toilet and lock in the wheels. He’d grab the handicap rail with one hand, the armrest of his chair with the other, and slowly rise to his feet. Once he got turned around, I’d pull his pants down around his ankles, followed by his diaper. Then, he’d sit down and handle his business. After he finished, he’d grab the arms of his chair and stand while I grabbed the gloves and the wet wipes. Easy as 123.
I let the bathing thing go for a few days. I felt like I was failing him but I didn’t know what else to do. It wasn’t like he was dirty. Aside from digging in the infirmary trashcans, he lived a relatively clean life. The problem was his clothes. They were smeared with dried snot and food.
“Come on, papito,” I’d say. “Let’s just change you into these clean blues.”
At first he stared at me like I was some babbling idiot. But when he realized I was attempting to remove his shirt, his iron grip clamped around my wrist and his thick yellow fingernails dug into my skin. His eyes filled with terror.
“Okay,” I gave up. “Okay.”
Juanito 2, Malcolm 0.
One day some official looking people came to see him. After they left, the nurses were buzzing. The rumor was that Juanito was going to be moved to an old folks home under something called “compassionate release.” They decided that at age 92, he was no longer capable of harming anyone. Despite the scratches on my arm and the spork holes in my hand, I totally agreed. Society was not being served by warehousing a little old man who didn’t even know he was in prison.
“Juanito!” I told him as I cut up the gray meat on his tray. “You’re out of here man!” He was more interested in stashing salt packets in the side of his wheelchair.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. There was a hearing in Tallahassee, the victim’s family objected, and that was that. No appeal, no second opinion, no mercy. The good news is that Juanito had no clue how close he was. Maybe in some cases dementia is bliss.
That night when we were doing our bathroom routine, I noticed he left a deposit in his diaper. When he sat on the toilet, I took off his crocs, pulled his pants over his ankles, removed the offensive diaper, and chucked it in the trash. Then it dawned on me: I was halfway there. I just needed to remove his shirt and victory would be mine. I could finally get him into some clean clothes. Maybe even scrub him with some soapy water if I could weave his punches while I worked. I moved decisively. His arm was through his shirt before he realized what was happening and it was off before he could protest. Surprisingly, he did not fight. He just sat there and glowered while I went to work on his armpits and neck. Maybe he knew that resistance was futile. Maybe he was just tired of fighting. Or maybe it was something else. Maybe on some subconscious level he realized how close he had come to freedom after all, and was mourning the loss of precious hope within the confines of his diseased mind. Either way, I took no pleasure in the victory.
I’ve since been switched to another job. The prison library. But I occasionally get back to the infirmary to check on Juanito whenever a cool officer is working. He has no idea who I am.