Editor’s note: The piece below contains mature content and language. It is nonfiction and names have been changed to protect patient confidentiality.
I thought about you and your wife today — about how we were neighbors. A fleeting thought chipped away at some mental dam I had constructed, and the details of those months flooded my mind in vivid detail. It was like remembering every little element of a past night’s dream all at once after lunch. I remember meeting you for the first time. We were riding the elevators, and you were lost. You were hushed and panicked as you spoke into your phone: “I don’t know, I don’t know where she is, I just want her to be okay.” The phone was held up by your shoulder as you used your hands to balance on crutches.
I offered the information I had just acquired before I had gone downstairs for dinner — a car crash with some young girl, didn’t sound too promising, she was being transferred to the unit, to the room next door to us.
“Yes — yes, that’s my wife.”
I told you she was next to my dad and that I could show you. By now it was second nature to navigate the various walkways to the ICU, and I showed you your wife’s room, bed five. I went back to my dad’s room in bed six, put the isolation gown back on, and sat down to talk with him. He always smiled when I walked in the room despite all the hardware going in and out of him, despite his discomfort. We talked about his new neighbor, the girl from the car crash. Apparently the husband had been driving? Or the wife was driving and the husband was also in the car? No matter. Some welcomed gossip to pass the time — after all, if there were more silence, just my dad and I sitting on a hospital bed, I might start crying again.
Over the next few days, people came and went to visit your wife. That was when we started talking, really. Inevitably we would bump into each other and try to fit the rote pleasantries of every day conversation into our dialogue.
“Hey Liz, how’s your dad doing? Oh, okay, that’s good to hear. My wife? She’s doing okay. She’s stable. I think they’re going to shave her head today.” There was slight disappointment in your voice, utterly incongruous with the dire nature of the situation. But I am guilty too. I think everything was minimized when we talked. I was horrified that they might have to re-operate on my dad, but I told you as if it were no more inconvenient than a flat tire in a parking lot. We both knew the reality, of course; repeat surgery is no small business. I hadn’t seen your wife get out of bed or talk to anyone since she was admitted. But something about those conversations was soothing – a return to normalcy, however brief.
I admired your persistence. I would drive back and forth from Tampa to Hollywood every couple of days to work — how was I still working? — see my cats, decompress, and just be home. I had the option to stay at my grandma’s house nearby or even sleep in the hospital like you did, but I wasn’t that strong. The monitors, the beeping, the interruptions, the nurses, feeling the desperate need to micromanage every little thing to make sure they weren’t messing up — there was no way I could stay in his room day in and day out. But you did. How did you do it? Why couldn’t I do it?
They shaved her head. It must have been for some procedure, perhaps putting in a bolt to monitor intracranial pressure. It was clear after several days that this would be no quick turnaround. Whenever I peeked in, she would just be lying in bed as if she were asleep while other people were talking. One time her room was empty except for her, and I steeled myself enough to walk in. I didn’t know if I would be saying hi and introducing myself or not. When I made it past the curtains, I stopped mid-step, mid-breath. She was lying there with her eyes wide open and her breast exposed.
I was about to apologize when I realized she wasn’t moving — wasn’t reacting. My stomach turned. This was more unnerving than being caught, I think. I turned around and went back to the lobby. Soon, you stopped sleeping in her room.
We kept up our positively spun conversations whenever we would bump into each other. Yes, the operation went well. No, I don’t think he’ll be leaving soon. They left him under anesthesia, sedated, but hey at least he’s comfortable. Same old routine, still comforting to me for some reason. I knew when you told me about how she was doing that you were lying as much as I was. I remember hearing you talking on the phone, yelling, crying, begging. Just as I had. I imagine you had overheard me some time or another with my guard down, crying when my mom or my grandma was visiting. Maybe that’s why we were both so invested in lying.
I had gotten pretty used to how things were going. I would come in and sit in my dad’s room and color one of those adult coloring books while the ventilator would breathe for him. I had a bag of gel pens and chose the huge, ornate, intricate pictures. I had gotten used to the monitors. I would watch my dad’s vitals to check in on him. Every once in a while, if something was really out of whack with another patient’s vitals, it would pop up on his monitor so that any nurse in the room could see it. Sometimes it was her vitals, and I would watch apprehensively for them to return to normal. Sometimes I would peek over and see if there was any commotion or just an error from a piece of hardware.
Despite how often we ran into each other, we never had a proper introduction. I learned her name from the prayer board in the ICU lobby. I looked her up on Facebook. She was beautiful. A model, Miss Teen USA or something like that. Active, healthy, happily married, perfect hair. I saw the picture of the car crash. I saw family members posting their support and love and prayers. I recognized some of them as people who came in to visit, like the sister that had fainted when she walked in.
One day when we bumped into each other, you said she would be moving to a different room.
“Yeah, I guess she doesn’t need ICU care anymore, so they’re going to move her to a normal hospital bed now.”
Even your excitement was restrained. I guess it’s easier to hide disappointment than it is to fake excitement. I wouldn’t know. But I knew her discharge from the ICU wasn’t some miraculous cure – I still hadn’t seen her walk or talk or do anything, really. I told you good luck. I told you that I hope we never meet again, and you laughed.
She was still there for another day or so before moving. I remember watching her get transferred. This meant, of course, that she had been admitted after my dad and then gotten discharged before him. Sure, I was happy for her, but I couldn’t help but feel jealous. She got to leave. He didn’t.
I got a new neighbor. I didn’t really connect with him or say hi to him. I missed our conversations, our familiarity, no matter how fake it all was. It was a pleasant distraction from the reality of day-to-day life. We were brothers in arms, together holding strong against the constant desire to break down, give up, succumb to the grief we felt, the loss we had already suffered, despite the encouragement of those in the periphery —
“At least he’s still alive — ”
“Well I’m glad the surgery went okay –”
“Maybe this will be the last leak they find –”
“I think he’s going to turn the corner soon –”
And so on.
And so on.
I needed you the most when you left. I don’t even know what I would have said to you if you were still there. I saw you, in fact, in the cafeteria one day. I didn’t say hi. I hid. I couldn’t bear to talk to you because there was no positive spin I could put on the latest bit of news that would maintain our light and friendly banter. How do you put a positive spin on hospice? We had just decided to kill my dad. At least he won’t be in pain? At least we know this is what he would have wanted? Fuck that. What about my wedding? What about grandchildren? What about the next time I had a problem that I knew he could solve or needed the advice he always knew how to give? Did I really never convince him to stop smoking? Would I even get to say goodbye or would he just stay asleep until his heart stopped beating? He would never see me as a mom, never see me pregnant, never walk me down the aisle, never even get to read his fucking Father’s Day card that’s been sitting by his bed for the past five weeks. I remember the last time I saw him awake. It was just before the second or third surgery, the one they did in the middle of the night. He was terrified. I think he knew. He never woke up. He’s spread across the Everglades now.
That was the last time I saw you. There was no way I was going to ruin what we had. Maybe you saw me and thought the same thing, maybe life in the step-down room was going just as hellishly as the ICU was for me. No matter. I still valued our time together, our joint escapism. We were both just some 20-somethings looking for a way out, and we found it in that brief connection. It broke the constant rumination and panic of the days. It was a rest stop on a long road trip, a lunch break on an arduous hike. It helped keep me sane, I think, no matter how insignificant it seemed at the time. I didn’t remember your name — I don’t even remember if you told me your name or if I had just seen it on Facebook or something. But thank you. Thank you for injecting some humanity into the lobby outside of my dad’s ICU room.
I checked on your wife on Facebook again today. Her hair has grown back a little bit. Someone — her sister? — set up a page detailing the events of the crash, her hospitalization, and her recovery. She is making progress, it said, and it showed a video of her learning to walk and talk again. On the page there was a link to donate. The ICU was expensive, sure, but so was rehab. They were running out of money, and the incremental gains that she had been making were in danger. I wish I had enough power, enough money, to make your problems go away. But I don’t, and I can’t. Good luck, Thomas and Tanya, and thank you; may we never meet again.