How Fast Do Toenails Grow?

By Michael John Burrows

I woke Norbert and told him we had to go downstairs for a test. His bones, laden with years, stretched a good length of the bed and looked heavy as lead. The notes said one-person transfer, but I had my doubts.

“Maybe we should wait for help,” I said.

He shook his head. “I can do it. Don’t like to keep folks waiting.”

He tossed off the blanket with the back of his wrist, but the sheet under it snagged on his feet and stuck. Then he paused to release a sour morning-fart. I’m sure he saw me wince, but Norbert was much too old to notice or care.

“The food here tastes great,” he said, “but it sure stinks coming out the other end.”

Old habits like pretending your farts don’t stink are abandoned when you’re waiting for a bed in a nursing home.

Realizing that he wasn’t down far enough in the bed and couldn’t get past the guard rail, he propped himself up on his elbows. It looked like he was trying to lift a cement block into the back of a pickup. Once he had the leverage, he shifted his rear down the bed. I wanted to help him, but I didn’t know where to grab hold.

After three short bum slides, he cleared the rail. He took hold of the sheet and tried to yank it off his feet. Still snagged, he yanked and yanked until he was finally able to free his trapped feet and hoist himself to vertical on the edge of the bed.

“My arms are just cotton-pickin’ useless these days,” he said.

I nodded, my eyes at once compelled and revolted by his newly revealed feet. Each toe was capped with a thick yellow nail arcing out dangerously like flattened chisels. Images of freak show wannabes: The California grandmother with seven-inch toenails who likes the attention she gets when she takes a stroll in Compton. (What kind of shoes could she possibly wear?) The Indian in Poona whose left hand is disfigured by four-foot long nails that twist and curl as if they were blackened branches on the devil’s apple tree.

But this was just Norbert. He wasn’t trying to be famous. He was just trying to be helpful and get himself out of bed so that he could be wheeled down to radiology for an x-ray. He was deaf as an antique telephone, but he had the voice of a radio preacher. Powerful, chesty, and blessed with a charismatic intonation.

I got a good look at his pale pink head, fuzzy with post-comb hair, as I yelled in his ear. “Can you get to the wheelchair?”

“Well, I can get in alright, you see. But gettin’ out might be a whole ’nother story.”

Then, before I could do anything to help, he slid off the edge of the bed and swiveled into the chair. It was more of a fall than a transfer, and I immediately regretted not insisting we wait for help to move. Luckily, the chair’s brakes were on and he landed squarely on the seat.

“Can you still wear shoes?” I asked, wanting to keep the process moving so that nothing bad would have time to happen.

“Yes. Yes. I do believe I can.” He gestured with bony fingers to his strangely jaunty deck shoes, stashed under a nearby chair. They made me think of Gilligan.

Later, when I was charting, I mentioned to the charge nurse that his toenails were long enough to butter toast.

“I know,” she said. “The podiatrist is coming in two weeks.”

She looked at me and responded before words could hit my lips. “Nurses don’t do nails.”

A call bell sounded and she dashed off before I had a chance to raise my eyebrows.

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Image by Flickr user giest, used under a Creative Commons license.


Michael is the author of dozens of short stories. His fiction has been published and produced for radio by CBC’s Alberta Anthology. Other writing has appeared in Motorcycle Mojo and Everyday Fiction. He has worked as a small town reporter, a graphic designer, a wedding photographer, and now as a speech-language pathologist — always with a hungry eye for stories.

7 Responses to “How Fast Do Toenails Grow?”

  1. Lois Delaney says:

    A very cute story. So true to life and well written. You must be proud, fellow Canadian. I live in Manitoba.

  2. Karrie says:

    Ahhh the truth about pride, aging and long term care. Another something new to add to my list….weekly toenail clippings! I appreciate your honest and intriguing writing style.

  3. Chrisy says:

    Terrific! I like how you ended this…”cute” as Lois said, but also spins me in a different emotional direction. I have a heart for what you do IRL, Michael, and the older set I find particularly interesting and rich. Great story! More!

  4. Michael says:

    You bet Chrisy. Thanks!

  5. tinsenpup says:

    I think this is terribly sad, although utterly typical. As soon as we enter a medical institution, our full, rich lives become reduced to a series of illnesses, each often compartmentalised and treated in isolation and our most basic needs, like food or toileting or personal hygiene can become problematic for all involved. It’s a shame that the notion of wholistic care is only ever really given lip service.

    Great story!

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