Mr. Reilly was my first patient. I was the only male CNA in the nursing home, and the nurses warned me that some patients would have a problem with it. Sure enough, when I knocked on his door he met me with a fierce glare.
“You’re a man.”
I started as though in surprise. “You’re right — I am!”
He didn’t smile. “You might be gay.”
I nodded. “I might. If I am, it isn’t contagious. Regardless, you can rest assured that you’re not my type.”
He gave a bark of laughter at that, and he let me help him with his shower.
One of the unexpected things about aging is what it does to tattoos. I saw a lot of misshapen anchors, illegible names, eagles like hippogriffs. I never saw anything like Mr. Reilly’s tattoo. It was a skull-faced grim reaper, hands reaching as though to tear out Mr. Reilly’s heart. That first time, it was entirely on the right side of his chest.
“What’s that for?” I asked as I helped him shower.
He gave that same bark of laughter. “That was a mistake. One I can’t fix.”
It was months later, after he got out of the hospital following a heart attack, that he told me more. I was cleaning the EKG tabs from his chest when I noticed that the reaper’s hands had reached his sternum.
“Is that—” I stopped, embarrassed. I was working towards my RN by then; fantasy was for children.
“Yes, it’s moving,” Mr. Reilly said. He paused, and I buttoned his pajama top. When I began to lotion his feet he began again.
“I loved a girl, before the war. She said she’d wait for me. When I was in Korea she sent me a letter that said that she was no longer free. I got roaring drunk, and woke up the next morning with the tattoo. My buddies said I’d gone to an old tattoo artist, told him that my girl was tearing out my heart, and damned if I’d let anyone but Death do that to me. He took my money and inked this on me. Back then the hands were at its side. They didn’t start moving for a few decades.
“The worst part is that when I got home I found out why Lorena had jilted me. She’d been dying, and hadn’t wanted me to know. Thought it was better, safer, for me to be angry than sad.”
He paused again, and I pulled socks on his bony feet to keep them warm. He looked up at me, and smiled. “Thanks, John.”
It was the first time he’d admitted that I had a name.
I saw him off and on after that, on weekends while I went to school during the week. There were three other men in the class of fifty, and Chris and I started dating. It was insane, both of us combining work and school and building a relationship, but somehow it worked.
Chris had been a tattoo artist, had gotten interested in helping people while injecting ink beneath their skin. I wanted to show him Mr. Reilly’s tattoo, but there were limits to the tolerance of the elderly. Suspecting I was gay and knowing it were two different things.
One day, though, Chris brought me to work, and Mr. Reilly brought it up himself.
“Is your young man coming to pick you up as well?”
I hadn’t lied directly to anyone about my sexuality since I was fifteen. “He is.”
“You bring him by, then. I want to meet him.”
It was almost like introducing Chris to my Dad. Like Dad, Mr. Reilly was cool about it. They talked for a bit, Chris’s old job came up, and Mr. Reilly paused a moment and then unbuttoned his shirt. “You ever see anything like this?”
“No, Sir,” Chris breathed.
I closed my mouth. The hands were reaching past midline, almost to the heart.
Mr. Reilly’s crooked smile said that he knew. “Don’t mess it up, Son. Boys, girls, I guess we’re all human first. Don’t give up on what you’ve got.”
A few months later, during my first shift as a brand new RN, one of the aides ran to get me. “John, Mr. Reilly’s worse. He’s calling for you.”
I knew that he’d never married, that a nephew was his closest relative. I went, hoping my presence would help.
He was sitting up in bed, gasping. “No hospital,” he said, his eyes fierce. “It’s going to be soon. I just wish… I wish my heart was going to Lorena, where it belongs.”
I got him nitro, held his hand, listened to his heart. The Reaper’s hands were curved now, into claws. When Mr. Reilly was calm, I left him, promising to return soon.
My first call was to Mr. Reilly’s nephew. The second was to Chris.
Chris arrived just after the nephew’s signed consent, and I explained what I needed him to do. He went in himself to explain it to Mr. Reilly, to get the consent there. Then he went to work, and I returned to med passes and vitals.
An hour later it was done. Mr. Reilly stared at the new tattoo, tears in his eyes; Chris had covered it with a clear dressing, so the heart was easily visible, with the words “Tom loves Lorena FOREVER” emblazoned across it.
Mr. Reilly grasped my hand. “Thank you. Now I’m not afraid to go.”
“There’s no hurry,” I teased gently. “I hear we’re having French toast for breakfast.”
He gave his bark of laughter, and closed his eyes. “We’ll see.”
The aide came to get me just at dawn, to do the pronouncement. I opened the pajama top to confirm the lack of a heartbeat, and then stopped.
The new heart was still there, but the hooded figure bore the face of a young, smiling woman. Hands, not claws, cradled the heart. The words, still in Chris’s flowing script, proclaimed: “Lorena loves Tom. FOREVER.”