In the hospital,the aides brought the meds every morning at 6 a.m., just when the last patients had ceased pushing their buzzers and had finally gone to sleep; when the quiet of the night had finally settled in like a heavy fog, and the moans and groans of the ill had subsided. Once in a while I could hear the rustle of the nurses’ polyester uniforms and the squeak of their rubber-soled shoes on the hospital tile, but overall things were quieter than in the busy hours of the previous night.
I was in University of Cincinnati Medical Center, sharing a room with a woman who talked incessantly. By 6 a.m., though, even she had quit talking for a couple hours of sleep. I had not drifted off yet. “She’ll have to be a nightclub singer,” my father used to say when I was a baby. Even then I went to sleep late and never woke til noon.
In the hospital, with new smells and sounds, a place where I hadn’t expected to be 24 hours before, my mind could not still itself. I worried about my dog, about jobs I’d left unfinished, then deeper I went into thoughts of my family, all of whom I had lost.
I had cellulitis, an illness I’d never encountered and didn’t understand. The nasty-looking ulcer on my leg began to clear up pretty fast, but I was scared; I’d never had anything faintly resembling this before, and at my age, anything could be the beginning of the long good-bye, or at least that’s how I looked at it, in the pre-dawn hours in the hospital. How did I get here? I who never even got the flu, had somehow ended up in an institutional-looking room, with an IV drip in my left arm and a roommate who was a world-champion talker. She chattered constantly, repeating herself as if she were on a recorded loop.
Her husband, she mentioned several times, was in a convalescent home; she had fallen and was on her own and couldn’t care for herself. I had only one glimpse of her during that long two-day one-way conversation. Mine was the bed by the window, and she was behind a curtain in the other bed in the room. When I finally saw her, on my way out of the hospital, she was slender with long unshaven legs, curly white hair, and Coke bottle lenses in her glasses. I wonder what she made of me.
I don’t remember how long I stayed in UC Medical Center, with my seventh-floor view of the smokestack outside and snow lightly falling on the roof. It was probably a few days. I thought I’d go home feeling better, but that wasn’t in the plan. Instead, I was scheduled to go into a convalescent facility for physical therapy to help me regain my strength and endurance. I was too weak to push back against those plans, but I didn’t think physical therapy would help, or that it was even doable.
However, my friend Leona suggested a place called the Marjorie P. Lee Community in Hyde Park. She had stayed there when she had pneumonia and gently pushed me to an acceptance of my circumstances. When the social worker came to see me, there was one bed left at the Marjorie P., and I grabbed it.
The building was turned into a care facility by a husband whose wife had been Marjorie P. Lee. It had wide hallways, Oriental rugs, fresh flowers, and a grand piano in the reception room. Outside my window on the first floor, I could see trees and wooden furniture painted a crisp white, vines twining around pillars in a kind of winter sleep. I could hear birds singing in grey leaden skies.
I was alone in the room for the first day. I could hear ambulance sirens now and then, and occasional cheerful conversation and laughing in the hallways. I could hear the rattle of the medicine carts, like tumbrils on cobblestone streets. Nurses were in and out of the room pumping up my arms for blood pressure readings, sticking my finger in an oxygen reading device. Most of that first day I was content lying in bed and thinking, wool gathering if you will. I remembered other hospitals, other times, relatives dying in box-like rooms while half my family sat with them and the other half sat outside in the waiting room working crossword puzzles.
“What’s a three letter word for imitate?” my aunt would invariably ask, irritating my father.
“It’s ape Snooks!” Daddy would answer. Eventually, the relatives in the room would change places with those working puzzles, and the bedside vigil would continue. That was just how my family dealt with illness. Now I knew there was something peaceful about lying there. I was responsible for nothing.
They brought lunch to me on a tray, and it was surprisingly good. Dessert was a frozen yogurt dish, which you might find at a really good restaurant. It was studded with chocolate chips, and chocolate shavings topped it. For dinner I went to the dining room, pushing myself behind a walker, but I was supposed to be accompanied by a nurse, so Jay went with me. He was quickly becoming one of my favorites, quick and efficient, with a wicked sense of humor. We became friends instantly.
My lazy days were coming to an end, though, soon to be replaced by physical therapy. It started with two of us throwing a large inflated ball at one another. Wait a minute! I thought. This is much harder than it ought to be. I couldn’t seem to balance myself, and my equilibrium went completely haywire when the therapist added a new wrinkle. I stood on a foam cushion and tossed the ball, and to add to the difficulty, I had to pick a small fabric-wrapped sack out of a box and throw it in another box while balancing on the cushion. When it was over I was exhausted. Hadn’t it been just yesterday that I was walking three miles a day at the Cincinnati Nature Center in Milford? Wasn’t I just swimming 45 minutes a day at the YWCA?
The occupational therapist came to my room a bit later with a clipboard and a checklist. Surely I could do well on a multiple-choice test, I thought. She asked questions then threw in a series of objects and asked me to repeat them. I did, but 10 minutes later, I’d forgotten them. I quickly sobered. It felt like the wings of age had brushed my shoulders, poking a pin in the balloon of my consciousness.
“That’s a bad sign,” I said, after failing to recall a word, but Emily, the therapist, only laughed. She was young and blond, and her luxurious hair was braided and held back by a thin headband.
“You did all right,” she said, but there was no coaxing any more out of her. I spent the rest of the day learning how to get into and out of chairs.
One of the aides asked me to go up to the third floor for a poetry reading. The people at the reading were an “old” poetry group. They had been meeting and writing together for many years, and their work was good. There were paintings on the walls around them, and bright sunshine streamed through the atrium window.
I saw the swimming pool. It was a warm-water pool with motorized platforms, which took you from the edge of the pool down into the water and up again when you were done with your swim. It looked better than the pool at the YWCA downtown, where I had to climb the ladder to get out, pulling myself up by the strength in my arms. Would I ever have that kind of strength again? How could I have taken it so for granted?
I could feel the presence of something beyond myself. Part of me wanted to sink into the comfort and part of me wanted to say “not yet.”
At dinner I tried to make friends with a woman who the staff told me was 102 years old, but she rebuffed me. Other women drifted to the table where we sat, and none of them spoke to each other or to me. They could have “memory issues,” I realized. I stared at the woman across from me, who had gray-green eyes as deep and silent as a pool, but she did not respond either. I kept throwing out conversational gambits, and the women lobbed them right back to me, unanswered. When I finished and had folded my napkin to leave, the 102-year-old woman looked gravely at me. “I can’t hear out of my left ear,” she said. Then she whirled her wheelchair around and left.
The nights were still at the Marjorie P. I could feel the presence of something beyond myself, but I was too sleepy to define it. Part of me wanted to sink into the comfort and part of me wanted to say “not yet” to the walls surrounding me. Faced with having my physical self seriously malfunction I found I could cling to life as tenaciously as the old woman at the dinner table. I didn’t want to live to be 102 years old—or I hadn’t planned to live that long, but I suspected, rather suddenly, that I wouldn’t have much to do with it.
After lunch the next day, I discovered I had a roommate. She was from Norwood, and I could hear the sharp Kentucky twang in her words, sense her self-conscious discomfort at being in the room with me, a stranger. She said she was from Corbin, Kentucky, originally, close to Harlan County, the heart of coal mining country. It was the home of miners struggling for their right to unionize against the mine owners back in the 1930s. I had sung for miners in West Virginia, and I knew from them what a violent, bloody time it had been, when miners went on strike and were beaten and shot by the gun thugs of the mine owners, the bodies of the dead and wounded dropped anonymously in front of the hospital in Harlan when no one was looking.
I could hear all that in the way she said her rs, in the proud way she wrapped the curtain around her side of the room to shut me out. Her son and her sister kept her company in her cocoon-like space just a few feet away from my bed. We both pretended no one else could hear our conversation, no one else could hear our coughs and sneezes, could hear us go in and out of our shared bathroom.
She was saying goodnight to her son when I came in again later, and I could hear the fear in her voice when he left. She was a sturdy woman with both feet on the ground, but illness can erode your confidence. Anything can happen, she probably thought. I wished I could talk to her, but I was running out of gas myself and by the time I washed my face and hands and brushed my teeth I was exhausted.
A man I met in the dining room at dinner turned out to be an excellent conversationalist. Finally, I thought, someone to talk to. Bob appeared to have a palsy; his muscles moved without control. “It’s nothing that will kill me,” he said. “It’s just annoying.” But I scarcely noticed his physical frailties when he began to talk about books and writers and good music.
After a couple weeks at the Marjorie P. Lee, I was relearning walking, sitting, rising, and learning how to eat three times a day (protein, two vegetables, etc. for dinner), as well as how to be sociable, cheerful, and obedient (i.e. don’t walk in the hallways unaccompanied). Still, after bedtime when I couldn’t sleep I’d find myself walking out to the desk to pass the time with the night nurses. One night a woman checked in rather late, and since I was sitting in the television room, she sat down beside me. “I used to have a dog in my other life,” she said. “Now I have no life left.”
“Oh my,” I said. “You have a lot of life left. You’re relatively young.”
“I feel as old as the hills,” she said, and a tear trickled down her carefully made-up face.
She got up and left, and one of the aides behind the counter looked at me and shrugged.
I left the place stronger than when I entered, and the physical therapy continues even though I am at home. Twice a week, Dan comes from the Visiting Nurse Association and we walk outside for half an hour, something I never thought I’d do again. Before the hospital I couldn’t rise from a low-slung chair; now I lift off like a Redstone rocket, in all kinds of aerodynamically correct positions (the secret is in getting your feet under you just so, and your knees pointed outwards). I’ve even decided to have my left knee replaced. It will be hard, and it will take months out of my life, but Dan says he will come back to oversee my therapy himself.
I don’t look forward to the hospital, to being awakened when I’ve just fallen asleep, to the loneliness of it all. And that’s where the rub is: the loneliness. My dog will have to be boarded again, and I will worry about him. The mail will pile up, and I will miss something I should have seen or miss being somewhere I was supposed to be. When you’re in the hospital you should have family there, just to demonstrate that someone will stand up for you in case something goes wrong. You need someone to be an advocate.
But that is a ways down the road. For now I can enjoy my books and my dog, breathing in a shallow snore next to me; the spring and the pear trees across the street in full bloom. Life, I now realize, is learning to take the good, dread the bad, and then somehow get through it yet again.