posted on: Wednesday February 10, 2010
It is a strange thing to wander into a hospital room with no expectations.Not that you’re apathetic about the whole affair. You just don’t know what to expect. Who knows what sickness—terrible, unshakeable sickness—looks like on the face of someone you love? Then too, you will yourself not to expect anything—a hesitation born from fear of disappointment. Because when you’ve come to say goodbye, it’s disappointment you can bear the least.The walls were the color of all hospital walls, which is to say a drab tan-taupe-bone, washed-out and faded further by the grayness of New England winters. There were no cards. No flowers. No balloons. There might have been, now that I think of it, a printout cajoling a return to good health in rainbow Word Art flanked by bubbly cartoon nurses and doctors. A hollow-cheerful ornament, it was taped to the medical whiteboard hanging on one side of the room.Only the nurse’s name, medication schedule, and most recent vital signs were scrawled in blue dry-erase on its surface. The ‘Patient Goals’ side was blank. Defeatists.I wanted to write something—ANYTHING—on that stupid whiteboard. I swallowed my urge to scrawl LIVE, DAMMIT!!! on the whiteness and instead took a seat in a generic plastic hospital chair where I watched the Man wheeze away in his bed. His fingers fidgeted absently up to his ears, his hairline, and back down to rest on his chest. He was in pain. We fed the IV drip. His eyes stayed half-closed, half-opened, rolled back up into his skull. And with every breath came a rattle from somewhere between his ribs. It stunk up the room, and that night while I carved ham hot from the oven and served potatoes au gratin to smiling relatives, I could still smell the rattle in the soft skin under my fingernails.But that wouldn’t be for a few hours yet. For the moment, I smiled my not-quite-normal smile at other relatives, worried relatives, relatives who were getting the jump on mourning (and everyone else understood this, because they were doing it too) by staying fairly silent and by blinking a lot.They all needed a good cup of coffee, but it would have been rudely ordinary to show up with four steaming cups of Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts. I refused the coffee they brought back from the hospital cafeteria. Their lips tightened into sips around the Styrofoam and we watched the nurse take another reading of the Man’s vitals.We couldn’t escape the rattle in the hallway, either. From the prenatal ward just down the hallway, someone’s child started crying. Maybe it was throwing an irony-tantrum.Sitting back down in our plastic chairs, on the windowsill, leaning against the rolling hospital table, we talked about smaller things. The drive over. The weather. The Providence College basketball team. We watched two unimportant Midwestern teams dribble a basketball back and forth across the court for 20 minutes. We waited for halftime, checked on other games. We talked politics. State of the Union. Sarah Palin. Progressivism. The Daily Show. If not for that rattle, we’d be in anyone’s living room.As he rattled and rasped away into oblivion, I learned more about him in five minutes than I had in my 21 years of toddling around as his niece.