Rule Keepers by Kim Cousins

“I don’t make the rules, I just follow them,” the mayor said apologetically. The village of French farmers looked at the man, appraising his reasoning and cowardice. Now that German soldiers occupied their village, they were required to identify their Jewish neighbors to the new commandant.

“We’re being asked to betray our friends,” whispered a beleaguered mother to her daughter. The little girl grasped her mother’s hand tightly, staring at the procession in front of her. Amid a flurry of snapping red and black flags fastened to a raised platform, a striking man in a uniform walked over to the microphone.

Although he spoke a language the girl didn’t understand, his abrupt, forceful speech terrified her. Every time he slammed his fist on the podium to emphasize points, the girl jumped. She closed her eyes, but tears still escaped beneath her eyelashes.

“What does this mean, mama?”

“It means that control has now replaced compassion.”

Eighty years later, the girl, now an old woman, remembered the commandant’s stony expression when she gazed into the face of an Emergency Room admitting nurse. With a clipboard in her left hand and a pen in her right, Nurse Billings asked the woman’s husband of sixty years to answer a long list of questions.

“Have you been in contact with anyone infected with Covid-19 in the last three weeks?” Check. “Are you tired, achy?” Check. “Do you have a history of respiratory illness?” Check. At the end of her questioning, Nurse Billings asked an orderly to take the old man into an examining room.

As the old woman began to follow her husband, Nurse Billings immediately stopped her. “I’m sorry; you’re not allowed to go into the examining room with your husband.” The old woman began to sit on a nearby chair, but the nurse announced, “Visitors are not allowed in the hospital.  You must leave now.”

The old woman looked around the waiting room confused, “There isn’t anyone here.”

“It doesn’t matter, you must leave.”

As the old woman started to walk outside, she inquired, “May I sit in this outside foyer? I want to be close, in case my husband needs me.”

“No. Visitors are not allowed anywhere inside the hospital building.”

So the old woman stepped outside onto an uncovered sidewalk during a sweltering heat wave in Tennessee. She noticed a iron bench so she bunched her dress under her legs to prevent the metal from burning her skin. She put her hand on her forehead to look at their car parked on a paved hill, a black tar surface that radiated with the afternoon heat. She sighed, and sat, and waited. 

When the old woman could no longer stand the heat, she walked uphill to their car. She turned on the ignition and started the air conditioner. Within minutes, she felt refreshing cool air blow over her legs. She leaned back in her seat, closed her eyes, and fell asleep.

When she woke up, she realized that she’d been asleep for over an hour. Anxious about her husband, she turned off the car and walked back to the Emergency Room. Once again she faced the admitting nurse, “You cannot come into the hospital,” the nurse said authoritatively.

“I understand your rules. I just want to know how my husband is doing.”

“I don’t know.”

“Can you please check for me?”

“An ER nurse went outside a while ago looking for you but you weren’t around,” she responded accusingly.

“I was outside in my car,” the old woman pleaded. “What did the nurse want to tell me?”

“I don’t know.”

The old woman recited her phone number to Nurse Billings. “Please have the ER nurse call me. I’m right outside waiting in our car.” Nurse Billings wrote down the number on a piece of paper and restated that the old woman must leave the hospital premises.

Another hour lapsed. The old woman passed the time playing crossword puzzles from a battered book she kept in her purse. By this time, the temperature in the car was intolerable. The old woman opened all four doors to allow a wispy breeze to blow through her vehicle. 

She noticed several other people in the parking lot. Long-suffering people enduring the intense heat and humidity while waiting for news about loved ones. She saw car doors flung open, face masks used to wipe sweaty brows, and eyes nervously watching the hospital’s entrance doors. 

After the third hour of waiting, the old woman returned to the Emergency Room. Nurse Billings looked at her with contempt. “Visitors are not allowed in this hospital,” she growled.

“How is my husband?”

Before the nurse said anything, an ER doctor burst into the waiting room. Addressing Nurse Billings, he asked, “Did you say you have the phone number of that elderly gentleman’s wife?”

Nurse Billings held up the slip of paper, “Right here, Dr. Morganstern.” Pointing to the old woman, “But this is his wife…”

The young doctor turned to look at the old woman for the first time. She stood up straight in front of him. Her hair stuck to her forehead, her dress was wrinkled and unkempt, her eyes filled with worry. “How is my husband?” she croaked, a knot in her throat.

The doctor removed his surgical gloves to shake her hand, flesh on flesh. He introduced himself. Still holding her right hand, he wrapped his left arm around her thin shoulders. “I’m so sorry to tell you this…but your husband passed away. A cardiac arrest. We tried to resuscitate him but he wouldn’t respond. I’m sorry.”

The old woman put her hand to her mouth as tears welled in her eyes. Nurse Billings stepped forward. She said impassively, “I’m sorry for your loss, but I didn’t make the rules, I just follow them.”

The old woman gasped, shuttering to hear those words again; she then wept from the depth of her heart, as a mourning wife and a frightened child.

Kim Cousins holds a BS in Horticulture, an MS in Education, and a PhD in Educational Leadership.  She published an article in the National Association of Student Affairs Professionals and wrote institutional research papers while working with the University of Minnesota.  Most importantly, she received numerous awards from university colleagues and students for her work in student success initiatives.

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