I was on day three of treating Lateef Ajao and in truth, I was fed up.
The old man was dirty, smelly and worst of all cranky. His only redeeming grace was my mother. He was the father of an old school mate of hers. One she held in high esteem. One, who in my opinion, had abandoned her father in the prime of his age paying people to look after him.
She had done what seemed best to her. What was most convenient. The problem was, the employees were doing an awful job.
I heard his sonorous voice through the thick wooden door in front of me and let some air out through pursed lips before opening it. Stepping into the stale smell of dirty laundry, I held my breath. The stench was suffocating. It was intensified by the lack of fresh air in the closed room.
“It’s me sir.” I replied, hating the fact that I had to speak.
“Physiotherapist.” I pushed the door further in groaned silently.
The laundry man had not come in days. The cook, I guess, came once a day and the cleaner I had never seen. I hated being one of the paid personnel but I felt a little self righteous at my consistency. I was doing my job compared to the others. I loathed the appalling condition under which I had to work and thought to myself that if Lateef Ajao had been my father, I would have dismissed them all and put him in a home.
“Why don’t we leave the window open sir?” I asked, stopping to place my bag on the dressing drawer near the closest window. “The fresh air will do you good.” ‘And relieve me of my agony.’ I added under my breath.
“It’s cold.” He said, his voice brusque. “I’m cold.”
“I know sir. I’ll help you into some warm clothes. You’ll be sweating soon with a little exercise.”
I pushed the window open grateful to get my face into some clean, healthy air. It had rained all through the night before and the draft that was blowing in was cool.
“You can’t stand the pleasant fragrance?” He said with a sardonic smile.
“Sir?” I turned to observe him.
He looked pathetic in a dirty yellow polo shirt and carton colored shorts that emphasized his thin frame.
The brand new wheel chair he was sitting in was about the only good thing in the room.
“The room, it smells doesn’t it?” His bright, blazing eyes were fixed on me and his eyebrows drawn together. One side of his face was drooping and there was the very slight downturn of his lips. I could hardly tell if it was the stroke or the sneer on his face. One of his arms was relaxed over the wheel chair arm and the other was coiled tightly to his chest. The urine bag on the floor beside him was half full of a straw colored liquid.
“No. Not really sir.” I said stone faced as I walked over to leave the door of his bedroom open. “I just want to let the fresh air circulate. You’ll need it while we go through today’s exercise.” I paused to switch on the fan.
“Shut the door.” He said crisply. “I need some privacy in my own room. I’ll not have people drop by and see me like this.” He spoke with a slight British tint to his accent. He had definitely spent time abroad.
I glanced at him. We both knew no one would be coming. “Only for a little while…”
“Shut…. MY… door!”
“I’m not going to have you come here and order me around like I’m a little boy. I’m old enough to be your grandfather and this is my room. I can do whatever I want!”
I had learnt in three days not to argue when he spoke. I shut the door. It was his door after all.
“Alright sir.” I mustered up some friendliness and reached for the handles of his wheel chair. “What do we start with? Do I help you into bed?”
“I am not having any physio today.” He announced with a set mouth.
“Are you blind? Can’t you see the deplorable state of the room? I wonder what the matter is with you young people nowadays. Education has turned out to be our enemy. I wonder what type of education they give to you, when you can’t see beyond your own noses.”
“Sir?” I looked down at the hoary head of hair and bent down a little to address him. “I’m here for your exercise, you need it.”
“You are dumber than I thought. I told you I don’t want any exercise. Are you deaf as well?” He was staring at me through the full length mirror opposite us with a look that dared me to speak again. “We are not doing any exercise.”
Lateef Ajao might have been a weak, old, hemiplegic patient but his eyes were still sharp and his mouth sharper still. His mind was firmly committed to getting whatever he wanted or didn’t want done.
“Sir,” I began in a gentle voice. “What are we going to do?”
“Gracious boy!” said the old man, “An exercise is the least of what I need now. Can’t you think?”
I was beginning to get flustered. “I came here for your physiotherapy…”
“I don’t need any exercise, I need a clean room, clean clothes and some food. And that’s what we are going to do today.” He was still staring at me through the mirror and he caught my frown. “Boy…” He continued. “A little hard work didn’t kill anyone yet that I know of. Wheel me over to that corner and let’s get on with it.”
I let go of the chair handle bars. I was a Physiotherapist and not a cleaner and that was who I intended to remain. “Get on with what sir?”
“Grumble and mumble all you like, I’m going to tell my daughter what a lazy drone you are and I’ll make sure you don’t get a kobo from her. Quack Physio.”
I really didn’t care about his daughter and her money, but I did care about what my mother would have to say if she heard. The old man did need help and at least, I would get to work in a clean environment.
“Where would you want me to put the chair?” I asked ignoring the abuse.
“By the bedside, that corner.”
I wheeled him over quietly and got to work picking up all the dirty articles of clothing while holding my breath.
“Put them in that green basket and leave it outside my door.”
This I did in five minutes wrinkling my nose. I also put a tray of used plates and cutlery outside the door. The room already looked better.
“Sir?” I was dismayed.
“Bed sheets, take them off and toss them in the basket. Then get a clean one from the wardrobe.”
I glanced at my wrist watch. I had an hour with him and ten minutes were already gone. At this rate, I would spend longer with him than I had already planned. I laid the bed while he watched me like a hawk.
“Young people!” He muttered. “Always in a hurry, never a time for anyone, let alone themselves. No time to sit and consider their grey years.”
The bed making took me another ten minutes or more considering I had to do it just right, the way he wanted, which included lifting up the mattress and tucking the sheets well under. I don’t even make my own bed that way. I puffed up the pillows and stuffed them in their pillow cases. Then I straightened up, hoping we could now begin.
“So where do we start? The strengthening exercises or the PNF techniques?”
Lateef Ajao looked up at me like I had totally gone mad. His mouth was screwed up in a scowl. “No exercise!” He growled. “And I hope I don’t have to repeat myself.”
“Sir, you need…”
“Shut up! What do you know about what I need? Don’t you ever dare tell me about what I need again. Do you hear me?” He snapped.
I was confused. The last two times, we had gotten on better than this. I wondered what had happened. I was doing my best not to lose my patience. “Mr Ajao, I am being paid to treat you and help you get better. Part of my treatment includes…”
“Well, I don’t want your exercise.” He stated clearly.
I opened my mouth, ready to launch into the benefits of physiotherapy for his type of condition but I didn’t get very far.
“Don’t want to hear.” He closed his eyes and waved me off. “You are a quack any way. You collect outrageous sums of money just to move my hands and legs. Any fool can do that.”
“Sir…” I was ready to protest.
“How about some warm clean clothing, I’m freezing.”
I tried to explain further as I rummaged in the wardrobe for clean clothes. There were plenty surprisingly.
“I’m hearing not a word of your mumbo jumbo. Get me out of these clothes and throw them along with the sheets into the green basket. Then you can take out the catheter while you’re at it.”
By this time, I was livid. I got rid of the catheter and urine bag first, dumping the contents in the toilet in his room.
“Flush it!” I heard him yell from the bedroom. “And pour in the harpic.”
I yanked the lever as hard as I could so he could hear all the way from the room and wrinkled my face in disgust as an irritating smell rose up from the toilet bowl. I wondered why the stroke had spared his speech. I poured in the blue toilet bowl cleanser and hurried back to the room after giving my hands a good scrub in his ceramic wash hand basin.
We battled getting him into a white tee shirt and a pair of brown shorts that were perfect for exercising. He slapped my hands twice when I hurt him and said a number of other annoying things. By the time we were through, I was bloated twice my size but the man and his room looked in better shape.
“Why did you pick physiotherapy?”
It was a question out of the blues and I replied despite being angry. “I was given.”
“What do you mean you were given? You failed to get the required score to pass, that’s what happened. Given my foot. Wanted to study medicine right?”
“Yes sir,” I wondered what his point was.
“You never get what you wish for in life.” He said in a quiet, wishful tone.
“Find a seat.” He snapped.
I totally gave up trying to convince him to exercise and took the only chair in the room.
“It’s good when you don’t always get what you want.” He peered at me from across the room. “Because then you realize that what you get is actually better in the long run.”
Old people talk endlessly. I didn’t have a clue how to stop him at this point.
“Sometimes, what you want ends up being a pain in the neck when you get it.”
I studied him. Here was an old man starved of conversation. Stuck in a house with all the necessary conveniences but lonely. Lonely despite having five grown children. There was no family around him. If he wanted to talk, it was no problem. I would get paid at the end of the day.
“Do you believe in God, boy?”
That snapped me out of my thoughts and my conscience picked on me. I wondered if he had read my thoughts about planning to do nothing and still get paid.
“I do sir.” I stood up straighter, fully expecting him to clubber me on being paid for doing nothing.
“Good, Let’s go to the kitchen.”
“Sir?” I was confused.
“Seems to be your favorite word of the day.” He replied frowning at my quizzical face. “You are making my lunch.”
I stared incredulously at the old man. ‘Really?’
“What’s the matter?” His piercing eyes focused on mine, daring me to complain.”You sat on glue or something?”
“No… I…” Now I was his cook? Who in the world did the old man think I was? A jobless individual?
“Not a word that exists in my dictionary. Wheel me out of the room.”
“Excuse me sir…” I was prepared to argue no matter what he said.
“It’s not my job to cook for you or to even clean for you. I am sorry sir, I’m not staying any longer.” I stood up angrily, picked my bag and sauntered to the door.
“You seem to think you know what I need.” He said unexpectedly as I reached the door and opened it. “Because you were sent here and my daughter told you I need physiotherapy, you think you know.”
I sighed. I knew he wanted me to stay.
“Do you believe in God?” He asked again.
I turned at the door and found myself facing his side profile. For a second I hesitated.
“Yes, sir” I wondered if it was a ploy to keep me waiting.
“Good.” He muttered. “Because in the end, he is all you’ve got.”
It hit me. He was lonely. Beneath the façade and all the cruel words, he was a lonely old man.
I closed the door, sighing in spite of myself. “I understand sir.”
I understood perfectly. He needed his family more than hired helps and paid professionals. All the pain and frustration had simply been bursting out as sarcasm for me.
“What would you like to eat sir?”
“Rice, what else is new?”
“Alright.” I dropped my bag and walked over to grab his wheel chair and turn it around to face the door. “What happened to the cook?”
“I fired him.”
“And the nurse?”
“She was worse. Both of them were stealing from me.”
“Stealing what sir?” I was curious as I wheeled him out of the room to the kitchen.
“Happiness.” He replied in a sour voice. “At least when I fire them, my daughter calls and comes around. Even if all she does is yells.”
I was thinking as I started on his meal, an old man and five children with fantastic jobs, non bothering to check on him. “I’m sorry.”
“I guess I understand sir.”
“Don’t feel sorry for me, be sorry for your generation. You just take care of your mother. And learn to help old people out and don’t wrinkle your nose if they smell. You are going to grow old one day.”
I lit the gas cooker without a word.
“Do you believe in God?”
“Yes sir.” I replied setting the pot on it.
“Hold onto him.”
He looked around the kitchen and watched me for a while. “I was a judge once, did she tell you? Did
some things I’m not proud off, but now I’m glad I have God.”
I glanced at him surprised and thought of all the old people I knew, many who had been rich, highly placed and influential in their days. Maybe he had settled some cases wrongly, or taken a bribe. Maybe this was a punishment, who knew? We all grow old. He was right. It was worth thinking about.
I found a seat in the kitchen. “Thank you sir…. for making me see.”
“Hmmnnn….” He grunted staring straight at the table lost in thought. I doubt he heard me. I watched him for a few minutes and realized that he had only needed company for a while. I vowed to talk to my mother on his behalf and ask her to appeal to her friend. The judge needed his family around him more often. That was all he needed.
Olufunmilola Adeniran is a physiotherapist. She resides in Lagos, Nigeria.