Wednesday, May 30

Weekend at the Hospital

When my brother was put through to the phone on my desk I was very happy. I was not happy because he had called but rather because it the sun was bright and bold, the sky was blue, girls had their legs out, and all was well. He told me in his panic – ‘Dad’s had an accident.’ He explained some of the details of my dad’s accident – which was a car accident – and I found I could no longer concentrate. The sun and the sky and the legs had lost their lustre. Even my voice trembled. I would go to the hospital, I thought, or wherever they were taking him – so I packed my things and ran out of the door. It was hot out and the air clambered over me and the pavement kicked up dust and heat. I caught the train and sat in the sun and looked out over the valleys. They were green, floured in sunshine and pollen mists. I thought of my father.
When my brother was born he had had trouble with his lungs – asthma – and we spent a lot of time in the hospital. I remembered it clearly. It was strange to walk through its halls again. Not much had changed. I asked a variety of nurses where my father was. He looked up at me; his lips were dry and his breath was bad. His leg was bandaged up. Darkened, swollen flesh pushed out the sides of the bandages. There was a lot of activity about but most of it occurred behind the blue curtain that wrapped around us. My mother stroked his arm as he told me what had happened. I did not know what to say. There was surely some business I could attend to. ‘Would you like some gum?’ I asked him, but he said no, because they might operate soon. A nurse arrived. She was flustered yet cheery. She pulled my father’s bed and told him they were going to clean the wound. ‘It was flopping,’ he’d told me ‘and I had to hold it up while the firemen tried to get me out the car.’ I began to follow. There were many people around.
I fled down the corridor, though finding my way out was difficult. The place was a network of corridors; white and outstretched; handwash on every corner; people coming and going; signs were marked in long words that scarcely meant anything to me.
A cigarette by the pond: ducks sounded incessantly, walking around looking silly. My hands shook and I wanted something to eat. Women stood around, cigarettes in hand, and an IV hooked up to their arms, gowns, floral patterns, almost unisex. The ducks kept soundtracking everything, as if it were up to them to keep things going. The mallard’s green shone in the sun.
The general hospital granted me the same feeling the city does – it submerged you with lives and ideas and excitement that were overwhelming. It did not pay attention to you but expected that you pay attention to it. The building had a charge, an electric charge. The long chambers buzzed with lives beginning, revived, or ending; each without interest in the other. The great human symphony playing out, on and on, seemingly without end.
A makeshift cast smothered his right leg. His head tossed from side to side as his tongue attempted to wet his lips.
‘They stretched it,’ he told me. ‘They had to strai’en it before they put the cast on. I felt the bones scratch each other. It was fuckin’ painful.’
A short time later my mother said – ‘You go home. There isn’t much to do here.’ She gave me some things to take care and off I went, gladly. A cab pulled up with its air conditioning running. It was cool, with tinted windows and still the day was glorious beyond. The driver asked me about my father so I told him, and then we discussed the weekend crowds that would flock to the seaside on the upcoming bank holiday weekend. His thick fingers held the wheel at ten and two and I studied his watch.
I visited him again the next day. When I arrived he held his arms open for me. He had been operated on. His neck was flaccid and he struggled to look up, plied with morphine. I wanted to take a cloth to wet his lips. Slowly his eyes fell as he drifted in and out of weak sleep.
He was in a ward with five other men. A Chinese woman with a big hairy mole attended to them. She smiled, busied herself, answered questions and made the rounds. The old man in the bed next to my father just stared up and moved his head from side to side. His mouth did not close. His eyes were empty as they pointed upwards. He shat himself over and over. No visitors came to see him. The other old men, with tubes up their noses, and mouths folded toothlessly, gazed at anyone who came in. The stench was hard to bear.
While I smoked outside I observed the IV-dragging patients with their cigarettes and chuckled to myself.
Then something caught my attention. New parents were emerging from the hospital. Had I not spotted the sign pointing to the delivery ward? The father carried the baby in a mobile cot as the mother, grinning and limping, followed behind with a balloon rising up from her left hand. The other smokers who sat on the bank of dried-out grass saw it, too. We all watched the scene. The sun was setting behind the new family. They were smiling; everyone could see they were smiling; the woman’s sari blew in the wind; they smiled and I smiled back at them. This was the child’s first breath of fresh air, this was all we had to offer at half-seven on a Saturday night.
The next day my father was more alert. He sat upright. His leg was bound in bandages. The windows were ajar and let in wisps of cool air that disrupted the stale air coughed up by the men in the ward.
‘That man over there,’ my father pointed ‘is a real joker, a real character. He broke his back. He was getting dizzy spells and his family kept telling him “Go see the doctor! Go see the doctor!” but he didn’t. Then he fell and broke his back. You remember when granddad had those dizzy spells?’
‘Yeah.’ Granddad died soon after.
The old man in the next bed shat himself again. ‘He’s DNR,’ my father informed me. Nurses rushed in and pulled the blue curtain around him. He just pointed his eyes up. They pulled on their gloves and their overalls. ‘Michael,’ said a male nurse, ‘we’re going to give you an enema.’ The old man with the broken back shouted out – ‘Make sure he ain’t got his hands on your shoulders when he’s giving you it!’ He sniggered loudly and my family laughed. Death was all around, happening very slowly, adjusting itself in a chair or a hospital bed.
Visiting hours were over. The sun set fiercely over the hospital carpark. The grass was dried out and the soil was yellow underneath. My hands smelled of alcohol, pure, eye-watering alcohol. I thought of the letters dee-en-ar. I thought of his unoccupied bedside. The ducks could still be heard, trailing their sounds off into the red Saturday dusk.

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