On the weekends almost all of the patients in my program at pulmonary rehabilitation go home. For the first five weeks, I did, too, but this last time it was recommended that I stay in the hospital as my wife and son at home had a bad virus.
And so I did.
The place, stripped to a skeleton staff and now loosely populated by the permanent residents– most of whom were confined to wheelchairs of varying complication– was pretty empty. The days, now shapeless and free of plot, offered little and so I wandered hallway after hallway. Seeming more memory than music, the theme song to MASH drifted from one room I passed,
while another was antiseptic and empty but for Trump/Pence banners taped defiantly to the wall, and then through a doorway, I caught a glimpse of a nurse changing a patient’s tracheotomy tube– so intimate and tender as to be virtually erotic. Downstairs, scattered like islands, I came upon people who sat anchored and voiceless in wheelchairs, each one stationed near a window, watching.
There was a church service later in the morning that took place in the same space that hosted Bingo, Pub Night and all our other events. It was Catholic, which occasioned a few religious props being removed from a box and placed on a cafeteria table, and somehow this act was achingly beautiful.
A strong, elderly woman dressed all in black walked in, made the sign of the cross, and then nodded warmly to all who made eye contact. She went directly to a middle-aged woman who was frozen and strapped into a wheelchair, and touched her with a tenderness that exceeded language. Gently, she pulled a favourite sweater over her head, and then smiling, began to brush her hair—a mother’s imperishable, radiant love, holier than a saint.
An impossibly old woman was reclined, almost prone, in a wheelchair. Blankets and knitted things covered virtually every inch of her body, and her skin was so very thin, her body so frail, that it seemed as if a soft gust might be enough to push her through the veil. A couple of hospital staff tended to her, telling her that her brother would be there any moment now. Her eyes flickered open at his mention, and as if surfacing through water she said, “Oh, I hope so,” and then she fell back down and in to sleep.
Ten minutes later a tall, elderly man, clearly ill himself, entered and sat stoically beside her. With a bible open on his lap he mumble-prayed along with the priest. He never touched her, nor did he say anything to her while she slept through the service, but it was clear that he was her brother. He was her tie to this world, the one now disintegrating around her into a living mist. Drifting in and out, all of time swirling around her, what version of her brother might she have hoped to summon, what memory returning in dream, what ghost to see her home?