Truth is stranger than fiction. Really, it is. I have always found that to be a trite and specious sentiment, but now I know that the world is littered with scraps of total bizarreness which, when concentrated in the emotional and public hothouse of a hospital, come together to form a crazy quilt of…crazy. Yesterday, in one seemingly endless day, an infinite loop of exhaustion, borderline hysteria and tedium, I saw it all.
First there was The Prisoner. Three rooms down, he lay in his single room with no fewer than three officers of the law guarding him at all times. They looked bored, he looked really sick, and I found myself making excuses to travel that hall, honing my surreptitious eye-darting skills so that I could figure out the backstory. Was he handcuffed to the bed? Was he so dangerous, even as he slept, that three burly men in blue uniforms were required to monitor his every move? I invented a story for him: he was involved in a robbery at a warehouse, foiled by a tip from a weak sister (I watch a lot of old Jimmy Cagney movies) and he was shot in the ensuing gun battle. He was kind of handsome, and I felt bad for him because he was alone, and because I’m a sucker for a bad guy with a mustache. By late afternoon yesterday he was gone. The door was open, the bed was stripped, the chairs so recently occupied by his warders sat empty amidst empty soda cans and Kleenex. Apparently my Prisoner had achieved some awaited state of wellness that meant he could be whisked away to become a guest of The State of Michigan. I kind of missed him, truth be told.
In the meantime, a member of the hospital staff appeared to tell us that she was sorry not to have met with us at the appointed time, but that she was distracted by the fact that her foster child had disappeared and the entire county was looking for her. She was pretty, and flustered, explaining that it was their first foster child and that they had picked an adolescent because everyone said it would be easier than fostering a younger child. The child was found, and the woman’s adrenaline levels were patently dropping, but I kept wondering who would ever suggest than an adolescent, particularly one with a troubled history, would be “easier” than…anything. Clearly, no one who had ever been the parent of an adolescent.
Next, there was a faith healing. Walking by an open door in the direction opposite from the Prisoner Path I heard a booming voice: “be HEALED by the power of Jesus!” I looked – you would have looked, too – and there was an immense woman in a tie-back hospital gown, facing a very natty looking man in a suit complete with a vest. His hand was on her forehead, and behind them I could see the patient in Bed 2 pretending to read a copy of Redbook while the healing took place. I had to keep moving, it was not a moment intended for public consumption, I don’t think. Or maybe it was. I walked away slowly, waiting to see if a little glossolalia was next. I’ve always wanted to hear a little glossolalia. By the time I returned, the preacher was sitting in a chair and the patient was tucked into her bed. I looked, using my recently perfected skills, for signs that he might have a box with a snake in it, but I saw nothing. The lady reading Redbook looked relieved.
Late in the afternoon, there was a tornado warning. I am not making this up, not any of it – the Prisoner, the missing child, the faith healing, the tornado all took place in one long day in one Midwestern hospital. I am witness. And so, as liability regulations dictate, all of the patients were moved into the hallway, away from the windows that usually constitute the highlight of a hospital room. There were people with IV poles, all manner of drains and tubes and bandages, most in wheelchairs, a few on gurneys. I could not help thinking of Matthew Brady photographs of Civil War battlefields strewn with the dead and wounded. As the warning was extended by half hour increments, we formed a kind of community in the halls. Those that had received their dinner trays before the evacuation offered up precious morsels of chocolate cake and plastic tubs of Jell-O. We shared the information we could get from eavesdropping and Smartphones – the tornado had touched down in Dexter, it was moving due south, and there was hail the size of golf balls. The faith healing lady moaned a lot, and somewhere, way down the hall, someone threw up.
In a place where there is usually no sense of real time, and the temperature, smells and activities are removed completely from anything natural, it is strange to collide with the raw, powerful vagaries of nature. I imagined how I would feel if I were terribly ill and had to sit in a wheelchair in a hallway filled with strangers, my hair unwashed, nothing separating me from the world but a drab, blue gown with a faded pattern of tiny dots. I imagined how I would feel if I wasn’t all that sick, maybe close to going home, and I could leave the confines of my room and find myself in a veritable Carnival of Invalids animated by a kind of fervent, nervous energy, passing around lidded plastic bowls of beef broth instead of a hash pipe.
I closed my eyes and listened, for a bit, hearing all that was good, and all that was bad, and all that was stranger than fiction.