Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters
Where the ragged people go
Looking for the places only they would know
-“The Boxer,” Simon & Garfunkel
Every day for the past two weeks I have visited my mother in the hospital at least once. Some days she was in a coma and I simply sat with her; more recently she is awake, fairly alert, and beginning to remember things. Today she knew my name, she remembered all of the grandchildren, and she asked if I could bring her some gazpacho “when the tomatoes are good.” She also asked me if I had spoken to her own mother, who died nearly 30 years ago. Things are better, much better, but I am still worried, and exhausted in the way that comes from having one’s nerves stretched taut on a daily basis and riding the waves of good news, bad news and endless waiting.
In those moments when I am most dispirited, I find a curious but unfailing comfort in the company of the other Hospital People. Like me, most of them are stretched thin, and bearing private grief in a starkly public place. It is like saying goodbye to a lover you will never see again in the airport; there is the primal urge to cry out, to plead, and to rage against pain and injustice, but there is also the institutional air, the proximity of strangers, and the lack of comfort or familiarity. The emotions are all there, but they are restrained, held close, perhaps invisible to the outsiders who are happily rushing to the fourth floor to meet a new grandchild, or picking up a sister after routine outpatient surgery. They can’t see what we see in each other, fellow travelers on a road unsought and unmapped.
Today I saw a woman I see often, outside the hospital in her wheelchair, wearing her tie-backed gown, IV pole in one thin hand, pushing herself to the bus shelter with one foot to have a smoke. I saw a man with a gaggle of small children, handing out sippy cups and looking at crayon drawings, his mental state revealed only by his manically tapping foot. I saw a young man sitting in the lobby with his head in his hands, and an immense woman in a hospital gown holding an audience with six or seven family members in a corridor, like a capo giving directions to her minions. I rode in an elevator with a skeletal woman with missing teeth, eloquent in her mute grief, staring fixedly at the floor.
My mother’s roommate is a woman younger than I am, who is recovering from the amputation of her left leg due to diabetic complications. She is demanding; she wants a fan, a cup of ice, more Xanax. From her allotted shelf springs a bouquet of Mylar balloons wishing her a Happy Birthday. No one has been to visit her in all of the hours I have sat by my mother’s bed. I wonder whether she lost her leg before or after the birthday, who sent the balloons, and why they don’t visit her. It is terribly sad, but in that context, in hospital life, it is business as usual. She is a fellow traveler enduring some unimaginable losses in a bright, busy and public space. She becomes my sister, as all of the others are my sisters and brothers. We know we inhabit a world completely different from the one that’s all about work, and shopping, “Jersey Shore” and weekend vacations.
I believe that the people who work in the hospital have a carapace of Profession; they are actually Doing Something Useful, and have developed the ability to wall off human suffering so that it does not bleed into their personal lives. They are brisk, kind, efficient and able to change gears when they trade scrubs for street clothes. I have no protective shell, and I drive out of the parking structure and into the sunlight feeling like an inexperienced death eater who has not yet mastered the art of digestion. I find myself, at odd moments, thinking that nobody in my “real” life understands what I’m going through, no matter how compassionate or empathetic they may be. I know who understands, and when I slip back into the stream of hospital life I un-kink a bit and feel at home despite the fluorescent lights, the perpetually beeping machines, and the blurring of hours and days. We are not free to “spill,” really, but we recognize each other and know that we are together for as long as it lasts. We are “ragged,” untethered, unsure of what comes next, but with an exchanged look in the hall, or the offer of change for the vending machine we say everything. I don’t know their names or their stories, but for now, they are my people.