“Sure hope so, hon.”
After five nights in ICU they moved me to a regular room. This was a blow; in ICU I’d had a huge room all to myself and a staff taxed with far fewer patients, thus able to cater to my every need (even if most of those needs had to do with bedpans). In steerage ward, I was put in a much smaller double with only a curtain between the two beds. My roommate was a 57-year-old woman from Farmer City, diabetic, obese, in for dialysis. I can’t remember the last time I had to share living space with a complete stranger, so I disliked her as a concept before even meeting her. When she proved herself to be the kind of person who turns on the TV immediately upon entering a room, turns it to the stupidest possible show and leaves it on forever, even while sleeping, even after leaving the room for a lengthy dialysis session, I disliked her in practice as well. They couldn’t have picked someone more different from me if they tried.“Tracie.” The doctor, stern and scolding. “You’re not going to give up your 3-Pepsi-a-day habit, are you.”
“No way. Gotta have somethin’ to live for.” The reply, both raspy and slurred at once.Figures, I muttered. I hadn’t seen her yet but I didn’t have to; there might as well have been a big neon “white trash” sign flashing on the other side of the curtain as far as I was concerned.
Her husband was even worse, a grubby behemoth, or so I envisioned, with all the sensitivity of a sidewalk, and probably close to that in IQ. Anything his wife asked him to help her with was answered with, “I can’t do that hon. Get Jerry in here.” Once, in a mincing voice, adding “Jerry the nurse,” the implications clear.“He’s a good guy.” That was Tracie, gravelly voice gone cool.
Jerry was a good guy, getting saintlier every time—and there were many times—my roommie pushed the call button for him. She needed pain meds. She needed more pain meds. She needed her phone charged. She needed pain meds that weren’t on her prescription list but she insisted had been prescribed. She needed lunch. She needed a snack. She needed the TV turned on, because apparently the nurse had turned it off while she was out. (It was me.)Of course, these are all things nurses do, and if a nurse didn’t help her, nobody else would, certainly not her husband. At one point she needed to get on her commode. Behemoth tried to get it for her, but the it was stuck back behind some equipment.
“Hurry!”“Stop yellin’. I can’t get it.”
“I have to pee real bad!”“Well, you’re in my way and I can’t get past you.”
Silence and then the awful sound of trickling liquid. More silence. The nurse call button pressed. The husband stalking out of the room, Jerry rushing in.“Jerry. I pee’d on the floor.” Her voice mournful, aching for forgiveness.
“It’s OK, Tracie. Don’t worry about it. I can take care of it. Don’t worry. It’s not your fault.”“It is my fault. And his fault.”
“Well…I don’t think he understands how sick you are.”“You’re defending him.”
Jerry deftly steered the conversation elsewhere. Being a nurse requires all sorts of skills.Later, just the two of us in the room, long hours of silence. As with war, the worst thing about being in the hospital is often the times when nothing happens. The wait is torture. It makes you do all sorts of crazy things. Like talk to strangers with whom you have nothing in common.
Small talk at first. “You think you’ll be out for 4th of July?”“Sure hope so. Can’t stand this place.” That was her, responding to me, though the dialogue could easily have been reversed. So at least we had that in common.
“Do you have plans for the holiday?”“We were s’posed to have neighbors over, then this happened. I thought my husband was gonna tell ‘em all not to come, but guess what: he didn’t. He says to me, don’t worry hon, I got it all taken care of, I got the grill and I got propane. You won’t have to do a thing.”
I made a noise in my throat, a sarcastic sort of grunt. “Oh man. Are you kidding me?”“No! Can you believe it? I won’t have to do a thing he says. I’m like, uh, honey, ain’t you forgetting something?”
“Like what are you going to put on the grill to cook with the propane?”“Yeah! Right! But he don’t think about that. He thinks, hey, I got propane! I’m set!”
I laughed at this, but I could also picture Tracie being stuck taking care of the million and one things her husband neglected to do when she should have been resting. I’m sure she was picturing this as well. She laughed with me anyway.I told her about the time The Ex and I threw a New Year’s Day brunch party early in our relationship. It was mostly his friends coming, and it was the first time I’d be meeting a lot of them, and I was anxious. I fussed and futzed; I cooked, cleaned, and counted the minutes left, comparing that number to the number of things I had yet to do. In the middle of my frantic activity, The Ex suddenly appeared in the kitchen, in his underwear, holding up a pair of khakis. “Hey, do these need to be ironed?”
Tracie snorted. “Do these need to be ironed. Sure, darlin’, you just give ‘em to me, I’ll iron ‘em right now.”“Yeah, put them on, and then I’ll iron them for you!”
We shrieked with laughter. There was more silence after this as we retreated back into our own spaces, but it was far less uncomfortable.Later Tracie told me how she didn’t remember being admitted to the hospital. She was on life support for two days following major renal failure. She could easily have died.
“Did that, I don’t know, give you a new outlook on things?”“Yeah. It did. I haven’t done anything with my life. I wanna do something before it’s too late.”
She told me how she wanted to start by volunteering at the senior center, interacting with elderly people. It seemed like an odd thing to start a bucket list—no skydiving, no African safari—but I told her how a friend of mine did that and found it very enjoyable; she had a weekly Yahtzee game with a woman in her 90s who played up the helpless old lady bit even while she was trouncing my friend in points. Tracie liked that; I heard her chuckling through the curtain.A trio of doctors came to my side of the room. I needed another operation, I needed more recovery time, I needed to get off the drugs and then back on the drugs. I might be here through the holiday, through the rest of the week.
They left. I sat on my hospital bed, looking at the bruises on my arms and legs, the holes in my body, the scars.“Damn. I think I need to go break my arm or my leg or somethin’.”
I stared at the curtain. “Huh?”“You get three hunky docs coming to see you. All the kidney doctors are ugly.”
I snorted, but it was a laugh-snort, I’ll admit. “Yeah, they were kinda hot, huh.”“Yeah. Very.” After a pause: “Propane!”
More shrieking laughter.Eventually an administrator came to have Tracie sign some final discharge papers, which said, among other things, that if the patient felt that had been released too soon, there were steps they could take.
“Why would anyone want to stay here longer?” Tracie growled.But of course there are people who do just that. They have no one in their regular lives to interact with, no one to give them the kind of help and care they get in the wards. Perhaps, too, they don’t know how to help themselves, how to make things better. It’s not easy, but it can be done. It seems there are many ways to make things better.
A wheelchair came for Tracie, along with Grubby Behemoth and their daughter, neither of whom did much to get her out smoothly. “I can’t bring the car ‘round, Mom. They said no parking. You got to go down first and wait for me at the curb.”“Let’s get you on the wheelchair, hon, so we can put all your stuff on it and we don’t have to carry none of it.”
“Hey,” I called through the curtain. “Good luck, Tracie.”“Thanks, hon. Good luck to you too.”
They finally left. I sat in silence, waiting.