Jan 25, 201309:05 AM
Living, loving, laughing, and learning in the new New Orleans
Time stops in hospitals. I know this is hardly a unique thought, but it kept running through my head last week as I waited for my husband to be taken in for surgery and then waited for him to come out of surgery and then waited for him to come fully awake after the anesthesia. We were in a room without windows, and when I finally left the hospital that night, I was shocked that it was dark outside, even though I knew full well it was 9 o’ clock.
I have only ever been in hospitals to have my babies, so my personal experience with them is happy – a contented hormonal/morphine-induced blur of nursing and snuggling and baby-cheek-stroking. Oh, plus the ice chips. I love hospital ice; it is almost worth having another baby just to get more hospital ice.
When my family members have been hospitalized, though, it’s been much harder.
I barely remember any of Ruby’s stay at Children’s because I have blocked so much of it out. I remember the wagons, which there were never enough of, and I remember making a fervent promise to a God I only half-believed in that if Ruby would get better, I would buy at least three wagons for the hospital – she got better; I forgot. I remember the elevator doors opening after we’d pushed the button to go upstairs to the playroom and a frantic mother peering out at us from inside the elevator as she stood behind the bassinet of a very sick infant, and I remember being slightly offended and yet totally understanding as she shrilled at us: “No. You stay off this elevator. You are not getting my baby any sicker. You and that boy stay off!” (Ruby had very short hair back then and was in a unisex hospital gown.) I remember Ruby throwing up grape juice all over me; I walked around for hours in vomit-stained blue jeans. I remember throwing up myself after some well-meaning friend brought me some soup because I hadn’t eaten in days – I have the world’s worst nervous stomach. But other than that, other than answered prayers, broken promises, hysterical mothers and a whole lot of puke, I blessedly don’t remember much.
It’s about the same from when my mom was in the hospital in Missouri. She was having exploratory surgery to remove her ovary and – more important – rule out the possibility of ovarian cancer on the day Hurricane Katrina hit. I remember watching the hurricane coverage – again and again and again – on the TV in the waiting room and then in her hospital room. I remember fighting with a particularly brash nurse and then being reprimanded by my mom for being rude and fleeing the hospital in frustrated tears.
In both cases, with my mother and with my daughter, I went into the hospital terrified, more scared both times than I have ever been in my entire life. And in both cases, I was unbelievably lucky in that they were fine. My mom has a scar. My daughter has a medical chart that is slightly thicker than other kids’ and the notation in said chart that she’s allergic to chloral hydrate. That’s it.
But then my sister went into the hospital in Florida in November 2009. She spent her last-ever birthday, her 49th, in the hospital. Poor Ashley. Poor, poor Ashley. Ashley spent so much of her childhood in hospitals after she accidentally ingested drain cleaner when she was 2 years old, and she couldn’t stand being there. She hated being poked and prodded and woken up at all hours. It brought back terrible memories. And now, she was extra-furious because she couldn’t drink endless tumblers of cheap white wine and she had to go outside to smoke. She kept calling me from her hospital room, and even now, I am ashamed of how I talked to her – on the few occasions that I bothered to answer the phone and didn’t send it straight to voicemail when I saw the 850 area code flash up. I wanted her to stay in the hospital. I thought she would get better if she just sucked it up and dried out and listened to the doctors. I was so angry with her by then, so frustrated with her alcoholism and her childish behavior and completely livid at what she was putting my father through. He was at her side in the hospital physically, but I may as well have been there, too, between all of the phone calls I got from them, each bitching about the other. I wasn’t particularly nice to either of them. I told my sister to grow up. I told my father to stop coddling her. I told all of my friends that my family was insane. I went out and drank too much myself and broke my shoes and said stupid shit to strangers and behaved badly and woke up the next morning feeling embarrassed and sick.
When she came home from the hospital a few days later, it was not with good news. It was not with just a scar or a notation on her medical chart. It was with the knowledge that she was going to die and we couldn’t help her or stop her or even really comfort her. All we could do was watch. We didn’t call hospice because what would we even say? Come sit on the sofa with her while she watches QVC and drinks herself to death? We didn’t call rehab places because we knew, by then, how pointless it would be. We called each other, and we cried, and we waited.
Time might stop in hospitals, but this, this eerie feeling of watching someone slowly slip away, is impossible to quantify in any real way. Yet just as I was inexplicably surprised by the darkness at 9 p.m., I was surprised when my father finally called to tell me she was gone, even though it was every bit as inevitable as the sun setting.
I miss her. I miss her especially keenly this time of year – she loved New Orleans, loved the Super Bowl, loved Carnival. But as sad as I am that she will never again see Orpheus (she loved Harry Connick Jr. with a deep, abiding passion), I am happy that she will never again have to lie in a windowless hospital room, watching the clock tick while not even realizing it’s getting dark outside.