“It was like trying to get dressed every morning for the weather in a nation we hadn’t heard of before.”
By then, we had spent two weeks dizzy, elongated, just in time in the hospital. We didn’t have a diagnosis at any time during that time, let alone a diagnosis. At each stage, we were trapped by new possibilities, new experiences, new doctors, new hopes, and new fears. Every night we would come home exhausted and talk about what happened as if doing so might guide us through the next day. Then we woke up and resumed our parking garage routine, ICU check-in sheet, and 24-hour Au Bon Pain, only to discover that, other than these things, there was absolutely no routine, and absolutely nothing to help us prepare. or plan. It was like trying to get dressed every morning for the weather in a nation we hadn’t even heard of.
Living through the death of someone you love is an intimate act, whose memory inevitably lies in strange and definite things: the voicemail you left for your brother he will never hear; The TV show that was running in the background when the phone with a terrible foreknowledge started ringing; The darkened window glass at the front door, turning red then blue and then red again from the police lights silently circling outside it. Yet for all this disparity, a kind of similarity shapes the experience of death for many of us today, because so much of it takes place in hospitals. A hundred thousand plots of land unfold in only one place; It’s as if we’ve all been walking around in the same bad dream. And while a hospital can be, in many ways, a good place to die, it’s a strange and difficult place to begin mourning. On my previous several visits, I had always tried to alleviate any negative feelings I had about hospitals because I knew that wonderful things had happened in them too – that all around me, lives were saved, pain eased, hope restored, babies were born. And I’ve seen some of this myself. My niece, 3lbs at birth, terrified at her miniature perfection: A month in the NICU brought her back to us, irritating, healthy, flawless, miraculous. My father’s pulmonary artery, repaired at 45, again at 60, the scar barely paid for all those extra years. I would forgive hospitals for almost anything in return for such gifts.
Yet it was awful, awful and dreary, sitting day in and day out while my father was dying. It was very cold almost the whole time; I begged the nurses for extra blankets and stacked them, thin and white, in threes and fours on top of my mother, who sat in a vinyl chair next to my father, reading or falling asleep and holding his hand. There was a bench sitting across from the entrance, a metal chair against the wall; I lay on one of them, or sat down in the other, or stood and looked out the window. It would have been boring had it not been so appalling; There was something very urgent going on, and yet there was absolutely nothing to do. The hours were endless but split endlessly – by a machine that beeps, he bleeds his blood draw, someone stops to check levels in bags of fluid hanging over my father’s head. From time to time a nurse would come, and everyone but my mother discreetly left the room, though the need to do so was long gone, and modesty and privacy were the least of anyone’s worries anymore.
Other times, one of us would leave the room for some reason of our own, to take a phone call, go for a walk, or head to the cafeteria. In the elevator, skinny old men in gowns cautiously escorted their oxygen platforms, mothers stood like weary guards behind their children’s wheelchairs, and the busy, energetic doctors respectfully fell silent as the doors opened one floor after another, proof to the contrary. Jedar—neurology, nephrology, oncology, radiology, pathology, pain management, and pediatric critical care—offers a vision of hell as comprehensive and carefully planned as the one that Dante gave us. On some days a woman stationed in the main foyer was playing the harp, a gesture which I found too fermented to be beautiful, though the fountain outside, which rippled in a similar fashion and was there for a similar reason, was quiet and charming. I. In the foyer behind it was a bookstore with a window full of bears and beyond that the cafeteria, where once a day or so I would wander in circles around the shows, trying and failing to summon any desire whatsoever to eat.
It continued like this, day in and day out. I knew how lucky we were that the era of limited visiting hours and the policies of one guest at a time had passed, just as I realize, writing this now, how lucky we were that the era of no-guests at all had yet to come: that my parents didn’t get sick and die during the coronavirus pandemic , when everyone’s grief is compounded by solitude–by losing, and above all else, the opportunity to sit down with your loved one and say “I’m here.” I had the pleasure of being at my father’s side throughout his final weeks; If he was going to stay in that room for a long time, we wanted to be with each other and with him.
However, unless you work there, the hospital is not a place to spend a lot of time. Like a storefront church, its physical existence is at odds with its existential responsibilities. In the ICU, you are aware of the shortness of life and the great descent of immortality looming as Wordsworth was in Tintern Abbey, but at the same time, you are stuck in an airport. There is the same mixture of impatience and impotence; the same constant closeness to strangers; The same inescapable dependence on professionals whether they are compassionate or responsible; The same long march to expensive and unattractive trade; The same creeping exhaustion that, like air quality, enters almost the moment you walk through the door; The same sense of temporal dislocation, existing in a particular time zone stranded and distinct from all that is in the outside world. In our case, since my father’s condition was so vague, there was also a sense of being stopped in a distant city when your flight was canceled and no more information was available; However, instead of waiting for the plane, we were waiting for ruin or survival.