Every time I am in here I meet new people and the uniqueness of their stories is fascinating to me. If they happen to be in for as long as me, and if the dynamic between all four room-mates is good, we become friends. The cubicle curtains are drawn back, we laugh together and harass nurses and doctors. Only the tea lady is spared a ribbing, because, quite frankly, she’s a sweetheart.
But when the dynamic is off, or someone is too sick to converse, the whole room stays quiet. Curtains are closed and we carry on, exiles existing in the same airspace, hearing all about each other during ward rounds and pretending not to listen. We make our assessments of each other while we lay wrapped in the misery of illness. We judge the kindness of each other’s partners, the difficulty of each other’s ailments, the level of strength each exhibits when faced with difficult news.
We are a sub species. Our days don’t pass on the same chronology as yours. Our lives hold smaller shapes, existing as we do, on our beds. Beating ginger paths to the bathroom and back, shuffling in our slippers, pulling our IVs along with us. The time passes elastically; sometimes it is slack and drags on the lino floor, other times it is taut and too fast to catch, a day is gone in an instant or another night stretches the bounds of reality.
This time, in my privileged window position, I can see out into the hospital atrium. During the day there is a reflection, bounced around until it leaves a narrow rectangle on the glass across the way. A rectangle of sky. It’s the same sky you see, but you see the whole of it, up, down and around. I watch the rectangle for clues. I wonder what is happening that I cannot see, out there under that sky. Life carries on without me and my kind. We glean small tidbits from the visitors who come. And if they don’t, from the visits to others that we eavesdrop, lying here in bed.
Every time I am here, I am struck by the lack of verbal privacy. I am asked questions to which the answers make me cringe. But I have to answer. No room for time-wasting in a hospital, unless it is mine. I tell what I have to tell, knowing that the bored ears around me are all trained in on my latest bowel development. I think I know the toilet habits and drug regimes of my ward-mates before I ever learn their names. I know them by their diagnosis, their prognosis, the procedures they’ve had done. I know each by the wuffles and snores by which they mark their sleeping hours. It’s a strange intimacy. I feel at home here, in this ‘Get Well Hotel’. For a change, in here, I’m not the only sick one, just one of the many. Our stories are unique but our suffering is common. I hear whimpering in the cubicle beside me and I want to reach out my hand. I get it.
I don’t know how long I am here for this time. I am forced to wait for ward rounds, to wait for my five minutes of allocated opinion. Wait for the decisions, wait for the drugs, wait for the new IV bag, wait and see. See and wait. Meanwhile, my husband is out there under that big blue sky, organising the weekend, suffering through the laundry, the shopping, the organisational stuff that usually is my domain. He is under strain. The pressure shows when he visits. He’s short with me, distracted, irritated; he needs comfort and reprieve… and right now I can’t give him what he needs. I miss my normal life. Curling up on the sofa, morning cuddles with the kids. I miss my wi-fi. I miss being productive. I miss my hairbrush.
Sister Margarithe across the room from me has a cancerous growth in her stomach. She has just found out. Her family have arrived, burdened with sorrows they don’t want to show her. There are smiles and giggles, forced talk about food, comfort, have you enough water, Sister? Hugs, warm hugs that cling for a few seconds too long. The air is full of grief. Some of it sits heavily on the end of my bed and won’t leave me. I remember my mother telling me about her cancer. And then, a flood of memories of her, chemo, hospital beds, chemo, cold sores, wasting, hair loss, chemo. Then the end. It makes me think about myself, my end. I blink it away. Not today, I won’t think of it today.
Jenna, next to her, had her gall bladder out. Her large children arrive, with their double decker prams and brood of wriggly, cantankerous kids. She is religious, but not the same as Sister Margarithe, she is born again. She wears it like a cloak of superiority. She says she will pray for me. She tells me what I must do to be released from my illness. I need deliverance, apparently. Tell me about it! Happily, I am delivered from her presence by her superior ability to recover from surgery. She goes home.
Brent the rugby player comes in around mid afternoon. He has ruptured his knee mid-game. He can’t move. He regales us with the tale of his heroism; he kept running after it blew, chasing the try. Then he blacked out and was carried off the field. Lucky it was your knee I said. My cousin broke his neck. Hi wife gave me a dirty look. She says when they’ve fixed his knee he’ll go straight back on the field. That’s the spirit. The indomitable wife likes her man to be tough. His shaky grin tells me it won’t happen. He’s afraid. He met his mortality in that ambulance and it has changed him. He cries like a baby for more pain relief. He cries when he has to pee in a bottle. He cries when his wife goes home for the night.
Greta, interior designer. Slipped disk, horrific pain. Slides in and out of sleep, drugged up on painkillers. Calls out for her Samoan boyfriend who never visits. Tells us in stilted instalments about the meeting of him, the moving in with him, the disappointment and difference she finds, the disapproval of her English family. She complains about our room and is moved on the second day. We talk too much, she says. The nurse explains her departure with a smile. This room. She rolls her eyes and smiles at us. We’re the cool kids. The rebel rousers. The thumb your nose at illness, laugh in the face of sick. We’re a force. We’re not everybody’s cup of tea.
They remind me of Tony. Bum-pinching, flirtatious Tony. Sixty something and washed up. Bankrupt, alone. Melanoma they told him. Should have come in sooner. Too late now, tumours in the head, the liver, the lymphs. But Tony was still looking for love, internet dating from his hospital bed. Even so, I was his only visitor, trundling across from my side of the room. He told me his sins. He asked me to forgive him for things he never did to me. He had me write his life story, revised for his own benefit. Even in fiction it was all wrong. He held my hand like a drowning man and wished I was his real daughter. And then he shuffled off the mortal coil, alone, in the middle of a Saturday night. He was cremated and that was the end. I feel sweet tender sadness for lonely. Hospital is so much worse for them.
And then, there is night time. No chats at night. Sighs and moans and laboured breathing. We struggle into the morning, our sleep punctuated with curses, interrupted by nurses, taking our obs and explaining our status to the new nurse. We are weakest at night. We sometimes cry. And this evening before night truly begins, I am sad. Across the atrium I see the children pouring out of the elevators behind the rectangles of glass. They carry balloons, gifts and cards for their loved ones. My children aren’t among them. I roll over and close my eyes, counting the sweeping colours that spread beneath my eyelids.
I wonder when I will go home. I wonder when I will come back next. I wonder what it is like to feel like you are in control of where you get to stay each night. After I am discharged I’m not going to see these people again. These people who I feel so close to. It’s a false intimacy but yet more real than most connections.
We dissolve off, one at a time, into the land of the outside sky
and maybe we will live and maybe we will die.