Friday, February 14 Happy Heart's Day
The sweetest thing. Margie and Misti, the two CNAs I usually interact with, surprised me with a gift this afternoon. A fragrance set for my home, made of glass, as well as a plush, pink cat, (“We heard a rumor about you liking cats,” said Misti with a grin), and a card with well wishes from them as well as Stephanie, Jenni, Sharon, and some of the other nurses who have cared for me these past couple of weeks.
I was so touched, I told them how much the gifts meant to me, how kind it all was. And yet the broken parts of me tried to ruin their kindness, to trivialize it, paranoia took root for a few moments and I wondered if the nurses were giving gifts like these to everyone on the floor, or to maybe just a select few — more than just me. “The Hall of Famers,” as Mom had once described those of us who have lived on the Med/Surg floor for more than two weeks. But I quickly chased those thoughts from my mind.
Margie took my vitals as Misti looked on from across the room, her scrub tops the only ones busy and bright with special valentine hearts as she promised they would be when we talked yesterday about plans for the big special day. “But no one else played along today,” Misti said disappointingly, referring to the plain cranberry-red scrubs the other CNAs had chosen to wear.
When the women both left, I sat in my recliner for several quiet moments, looking over their wonderful gift, their bubbly handwriting inside the card. I was so destroyed by their kindness at one point I unplugged the IV stand, went into the bathroom and sat on the toilet and sobbed in the dark.
I only eat half of what’s on my breakfast tray — a croissant, part of a hashbrown. Terrible, unrelenting nausea. A blue hour passes, then another. The only light comes from behind Mom’s head, the wide drafty window overlooking the back end of the hospital where the view is unfamiliar, disorienting; where plumes of steam rise every now and then from vents dotting the exterior, where in the distance rows of cars atrophy throughout the day and night.
Her body is silhouetted, a mere presence this morning, but I can tell she’s watching me. I watch back with tired, dead eyes. “What are you thinking?” I whisper from beneath my blankets, hardly audible.
“Just sharing your pain,” she says.
Later, I slip my headphones on. The Triumph of Our Tired Eyes, possibly my favorite song in the whole world, starts to play, and I try to keep it under control, the shudderings in my breath, the tears welling from inexhaustible reservoirs of past pain, loss, past heartbreak, but it all comes out eventually. I cry hard into my hands, fingers smearing up my face and eyes. Mom rises from her chair and leans over me in the bed, consoles me. “Everything is just so hard, so hard,” I say finally.
Saturday, February 15
Around three thirty in the afternoon, Misti comes in to check vitals, perhaps for the last time. It’s a little different, quiet. Still a ray of sunshine, she is, still that smile and laugh that lights up the blistering hell that are my insides. Not so much conversation this time, maybe nothing else to talk about with an aging sick person as me. Hard to know what she thinks about me, other than I’m nice, a sweet guy. I’m tired of being those things and not loved. Nice, sweet men kill themselves to escape the loneliness always in their hearts. The empty rooms where no one goes, no love is made.
And so I feel slightly down as Misti works around me. The pulse oximeter slides onto the left forefinger, reads the oxygen saturation in my tissues with its red light; the blood pressure cuff folds around my right bicep, squeezes and counts the heartbeats as they rise from a blood-darkness, down, down they count, down, down for the systolic, the diastolic, and then the machine emits a beep as from a videogame, the quirky, congratulatory sound of the hero levelling up, getting stronger.
Misti exits the room for the thermometer and returns shortly before all of this happens, traces a line across my forehead, down the right side of my face.
“Am I alive?” I ask jokingly, as the numbers are printed on a small paper receipt.
Misti laughs, disappears behind the drawn curtain for something. For a time, we joke about that time she weighed me on the scale and my bodyweight came up zero.”Yes, you are very much alive. And no high temp, either.” But I knew that. Sick only in other ways, it seems.
Later that evening
Walking through the halls just now on the Med/Surg floor, I’d peek into the open rooms. See patients, mostly older women and men, still in their beds at four in the afternoon, their bodies wrapped in ruffled, crisp white sheets and blankets, skin cast in dim blue light from the window across the way, the weak February sky, these people that have their own health issues, that hurt in their own private ways, intensities I sometimes withness in their wrinkled, clenched eyes, their slack or twisted faces, their mouths bent agape in sleep or some kind of wistful drug-dream.
I was pushing Al down the hall beside me, still tethered to him and his drip feed, feeling strong for once, free of the crippling nausea of the past several days, now wondering how I fit in here, what the perception is of me. Do the nurses just think I’m hanging out, some frequent flyer? Do they think I’m out of place, do they think of me at all when they are not in my room? Surely they do; I guess I know that already. But do they mind.
The rooms I passed . . . . A man sitting in a chair near the bedside where a woman lay, the lights in the room down warm, the television playing, both of them, or maybe just the man, absorbed in the Sochi winter olympics.
An older woman with spiny, red salon hair meandering in the hall, cellphone hugging her ear. The same woman disappearing a little while later into one of the rooms.
Doors closed, doors half-closed, doors open. The sound of nurse’s voices inside. In one room I hear Stephanie, tender Stephanie’s voice, reassuring in blue hospital half-light, explaining procedures to the student nurse who’s been shadowing her all day.
I move to the window at the end of the hall, gaze out at the rest of the city for a while. Gray buildings rising out of thickets of brown trees. 72nd and Mercy streets, really the only ones familiar to me, zipping with rush hour traffic, people on their way home from work, actual homes, not hospital homes converted during fits of unacknowledged, unbelieved, unprepared for desperation, to masquerade as home.
Immediately below me in the ER parking lot, groups of people come and go. A trio of black men in faded athletic team jackets walking away to their car. Another black couple and their son, the father lugging his adolescent son in his arms toward the ER entrance, a broken leg maybe; a mother and her young daughter passing by the couple in the same moment, moving in the opposite way, to their own car, to 72nd and Mercy streets possibly, to rush hour traffic and to their own home, not some hospital home. Hot pink tights in the graying post-snow light.
Saturday, February 15 Trading stories
Little bits of family history come out during our evening talk. The time when Mom crashed her van off the road, down in Dawson. She’d had a really bad fight with Vince the night before (we were all staying at his parent’s house in Humboldt). She was driving to the farm, was crying. Rebel, our Doberman at the time, was in the backseat. Mom described how the dog was just a little too active, one too many times looking over her shoulder at him, how the final time she looked back at the road and couldn’t find it anymore. The van veered off into a weedy, sloping ditch, headed for the small creek and the underside of the bridge. The front end of the car smashed a rock near the water’s edge. The airbag, when it rifled out, broke her left wrist. She was unconscious in the car for twenty minutes, she tells us.
I was just a young teenager at the time, called from the warmth of sleep that morning and told the news, driven to the scene where all sound seemed to have left and nothing moved, to fetch the dog. Rebel was still sitting in the very back of the van, trembling. He wouldn’t come out for anyone until he saw me.