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January 2020
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Emergency Room

Emergency Room, originally uploaded by elefanterosado.

Hospitals are lonely places. Isolating places.

To me they also have a definite scent: of disinfectant, disease and death. And even worse: institutional indifference.

My experience of hospitals has been one of alienation and repression, of weightiness. The only notable exception is a particularly beautiful specimen of architectural elegance located in the countryside of New Hampshire. When Dartmouth Hitchcock was constructed (in the famous words of Dr. E, one of my son’s neonatologists) someone  “was thinking about what they were thinking about” and got both substance and structure right. Otherwise, I have a well- developed aversion to these bays of sickness and the interminably impersonal. (I don’t judge the hard-working staff who shuffle the institution’s long corridors; to the contrary, I regard them with wonder and awe. Their work is necessary, and at times life transforming. I could never do what they do.)


“Mummy, I want to go home now,” he reminds me for the tenth time.

“I know honey, I know,” I say impotently, vainly attempting to sooth him. I urge him to be patient and stuff down the impulse to inappropriately share my revulsion of this place with a three year old.

“I want to get dressed,” he implores, his little face screwed up in agony. “Take me up to the store so I can pick out a toy.” He pronounces “toy” with a little trill on the end of the ‘y. It sounds as though he’s saying “towww-i.”

I smile, then inwardly constrict at the sound of these small linguistic liberties which are beginning to gradually dwindle from his sentences.  I feel like the proverbial mother bird surveying her empty nest and wondering if her hatchlings will ever migrate home again. A child’s gradual steps in the giant dance to adulthood can, at times, feel all too swift.

There is a store, I tell him, but it’s very small and probably has little, if anything, for children.

“Take me anyway,” he wheedles.

His temperature has been hovering around 103 degrees, occasionally spiking as high as 106. I feel powerless to play the bad cop ogre, and as such find myself capitulating to any reasonable request. I suggest a compromise: if he’ll stay put in the room with daddy, I’ll venture out into the sterile world of linoleum floors and sour smells. And I won’t come back empty-handed, either, I promise. He smiles, elated.

An odd character sporting a 1970s mullet crosses my path in the hall and cracks a buck-toothed grin. Her companion wanders with her in tandem. Like her, he seems to float over the floors without guile, purpose, or direction. I marvel at their level of comfort and lack of self-consciousness. Hospitals don’t intimidate this couple.

As I climb the staircase I reflect on the road-rager who passed me on the steep hill en route from town a short while back. I’d gone out to buy some take-out lunch for my husband and myself. After shamelessly tailgating me, the driver became further enraged when I shrugged off his intimidation and abruptly pulled over to the side of the road for a photo op. My subject was the hospital itself, which stood grim and foreboding on the hilltop, like a medieval prison anchored down by a vast array of underworld dungeons. Furious that I’d changed the rules of his carefully orchestrated power play, the man now hovered menacingly near my bumper before yelling “idiot!” and waving a fat fist at me. I watched him flair past, detached. His insult ricocheted off me, like a smooth pebble skipping over a shallow lake. I noticed that he was driving a Jimmy, and wondered what it is about this particular vehicle and its propensity to be owned by overweight men festooned by a particularly venomous brand of waspish road rage. Or perhaps road ragers are simply their own breed: constitutionally hard-wired and predisposed toward barely suppressed fury.  Of course, I’ve been guilty myself of getting sucked into a pissing match with just such a person, but the merits of this type of onerous exercise barely seems worth the exertion to me now.

I snap my photo, continue up the steep hill, and park in the one available spot left at the emergency entrance. The vehicle next to mine is clearly parked in a no parking zone. It’s the Jimmy.

Upon entering the hospital through the automatic doors I quickly spot the driver, a heavy man leaning on a cane. He’s puffed up like an over-sized éclair, and looks ready for imminent cardiac arrest. I can’t help but feel that his palpable anger is helping him get there a whole lot faster. I change my mind about reporting his illegally parked car and continue walking down the hall. This fellow is clearly dwelling in a hell of his own construction. There’s no need to fan the flames.

In Room 3, my son is stretched out on a gurney. He is wearing a tiny johnny dotted with bouncing Tigers, and breathing heavily under the weight of a blanket and 104-degree fever. His small ears are ringed a burning red.

The hours drag on.

I sit down in a straight-backed chair, relaxing my weary spine. And fall back through the corridors of time, of days, of years. Fall back against this loathing, this dread, this fear. I walk ahead, straight into the heart chamber of its source.

The hallway is a maze of twists and turns, of elevator bays and bad fluorescent lighting. My shoes click on linoleum floors as my stomach sickens to the stench of  Clorox, ammonia, and the buzzing hum of respirators.

I find the room at the end of a long hallway. I open the door cautiously; afraid he’ll slip away from me if I leave even the narrowest crack. But he’s there, just as I left him. He is slumped over on his side; the skeletal S-curve of his once fit body hooked to a machine that is doing the breathing for him. His dark red hair is slicked back from his head in a mass of greasy waves.

A week has passed, yet my father stands resolute.

“If he’s going to die, it will be of natural causes,” he states before returning to his Book of Common Prayer. It’s as though he’s been rehearsing the line, polishing it to a dull and unenthusiastic shine. But the sound emanating from his lips is broken and hollow.

“It’s costing $10,000 a day,” my brother’s fiancée hisses in my ear. “What is he thinking?”

She resents his control, despises his intrusion. They are like dangerous jungle cats circling each other, unsheathing their claws while sounding the death knell. Yet they keep a guarded distance from each other and work through neutral parties.

The neurologist saunters in, dressed like Bob Hope on a golf day. He’s wearing slacks and a sweater vest. His jowls sag as he sits down heavily on a stool beside the bed. He sighs with bored indifference and pulls a reflex hammer from his pocket.

“I’m from a medical family. My father was a doctor and my father’s father was a doctor,” my father states idiotically, his voice rising to a high-pitched octave of desperation I’ve never heard before.

The neurologist seems not to hear him. Instead, his eyes blink and stare at the clock above my father’s head. He taps the small mallet beneath my brother’s knees and again on his back. And frowns. A nurse fusses around in the background, smoothing pillows.

“Your boy is brain dead,” the doctor tells my father with a blank expression, as though rolling out the punch line of a bad joke.

My father, long a connoisseur of the physician’s “bedside manner” (or lack thereof) blanches perceptively. The blanch rolls straight through the punch line of the bad joke and across the dark room. It curls into a fist, which sucker-punches me in the gut. I feel a rising wave of nausea and I know the jig is up.

The present room comes back into focus as the spidery shadows of the past retreat into unknown dimensions of time and space. The eternal present, slow and steady, waits patiently. It waits mindfully, with breath.

Breath and watch,” it reminds me gently. “And hold the space.”

Several hours pass. I don’t know how many. Various members of the medical staff enter the room and tell us now it’s time for a chest X-ray, now for blood work. His little face turns scarlet red as the cruel needle pierces his alabaster skin, and he screams. But it is the primal and visceral scream of life. Of one who is alive.

And later: he is running through the halls, laughing. The cruel needle and cruel day are forgotten. His fever has broken.

“Catch me daddy, catch me!” he laughs.

“He is so, SO adorable,” a patient behind us whispers to me.

The automatic sliding glass doors click and shut behind us as we walk out into a mild night. The hallway of memory retreats into the background, melding imperceptibly with the medieval fortress on the hill. At last its shadowy specter withers and dissolves into a ghostly aura, barely detectable even to me. I walk forward and feel my heart beat with purpose; one hand folded over my son’s little one, the other stretched forward into the unknown, unmanifested future.

I feel the breath within me…and continue the journey Home.

© All rights reserved by Mary Alden-Allard. Content may not be reprinted except by express written permission of the author.