One a.m. in the neurology wing of Methodist Hospital.
Subtle rushes of air layer in the room, in the hallways, with the quiet humming of the lights, the machines for recording vitals, the helicopter whirs beyond the white window screen barely disguising the rooflines.
The second longest time I’ve stayed in a hospital. The first longest — the mastectomy and the reconstruction. Two years ago now? Three?
I’ll tell you a not-so-secret. I have a cousin, Jenny. Here we are, pre-drama, with my mom fresh from the prairie.
Sweet and button-nosed as a child, everything about Jenny, was always lovable, from the way her whole kid body scrunched around her smile to the way she braided you friendship barrettes with long ribbons of your favorite colors as a surprise. Once upon a time, Jenny roller-skated over a trash can lid on her sidewalk in Plano, Texas and broke her collar bone on the sort of sweltering afternoon that lays in wait in glints in overturned trashcan lids. Her collar bone. Maybe her arm. Maybe I’m converging two incidents into one. I thought it was some real-life fabulousness that could only happen to my real-life Jenny, like when Pollyanna fell out of a tree and the whole town came to pet her cheeks and feed her ice cream.
Though I doubt little Jenny saw it that way at all. Jenny’s cast was pink in my imagination (and quite possibly in life because, of course it was). Everyone in two hemispheres took time to find a jot of pink space for their well-wishes. The cast smelled like Fritos and socks, I was told, when it finally cracked open, but lets say it smelled like vanilla cupcakes breathing Jenny’s name. The not-so-secret was I wanted a broken collarbone-arm too. And not for the perks. For the drama. For the writerly details. Even then.
Right over the trashcan lid and foom! Crash!
I wanted the detail of that trashcan lid, especially. I’ve borrowed it in another short story since, in fact. I wasn’t there when it happened. I’m sure I was a good five hours south in San Antonio with thumbs cramping against a game controller at the Atari, the white elastic-hemmed bubble shorts I’d sewn for myself deposited with me on the deep-pile carpet like a merengue. But I listened to every retelling over the phone while mom wound her finger in the coiled cord. The pixelated River Raid plane refilled along the solid, blue stripe of a bank. Blip, blip, blip.
“Well, bless her sweet little heart,” mom intoned softly as she lowered to the hissing cushion of the breakfast bar. (Another great detail in this story: Jenny always called my mom, her Aunt Donna, Aunt Donut.) Phone cord unwrapping, wrapping, unwrapping. “I wonder why someone would leave a lid out like that with children playing around?”
The shade of pink gauze. The painful angle of the collarbone break, small as a chopstick under her button-down shirt collar. Metallic thread woven into the seersucker fabric. The clatter of the lid against the wheels. Tiny, wet wads of tissues in Jenny’s fists.
I thought of these details at 1 a.m. when I grabbed my camera and filmed a few seconds of the analog clock over the dry erase board with the nurses’ names, my toes peaking out from the slots in something the nurses called “ted” socks, a styrofoam cup on a tray.
Maybe another not-so-secret — my favorite children’s movie, as in one I’d loved from childhood, was The Aristocrats. It’s the only children’s movie I can think of that features, at one point, a thoroughly inebriated goose — Uncle Waldo — because he was “marinated” for dinner in Paris before waddling off.
I want to write here that on September 29, I was thoroughly marinated for dinner, roller-skated over a trashcan lid, and broke my femur. These dramatic details weave nicely together, no? And I like the story. It’s just about how I picture the real one. I was leaving the chemo lounge when the periphery of my vision combed together in neat angles of color that shifted and twinkled (ooh la la!), the command center in my brain, busy framing the order, “push the door open,” spit out this on invisible ticker tape instead, “hgslksjfioew,” so that my entire body protested by crumpling my weight on one knee that beat the tile floor in a single, downward strike. Foom! Crash!
What’s your name?
Do you know where you are?
Uncle Waldo, I wanted to answer, and I was actually beginning to think of how to shape a wide, drunken grin, but none of it happened. My head nodded back and forth. My hands were wrapped in other people’s hands. My breathing pushed out in loud, regular intervals that tugged at my chest.
Later, my nurse Margaret — you may remember her as the one who shot a six-foot-snake and posed with it in a selfie — would say over the phone, “Honey, if only I’d a been there I would have been the only thing coming between you and that floor. I tell you what.”
I tried the Uncle Waldo grin, but then … no. Oh, no, no. I could only cringe up as tightly as I could tense myself, stretch my neck, grimace. The moment someone tried to move me to sit up in a wheel chair, scoot me a little on the tiles to see what was possible, it was as if every Jenny button nose from here on back into eternity went out in a poof.
My right hip, pelvis, femur, and knee had been compromised already by cancer along with metastasis in the brain and liver. Thus, chemo. Immunotherapy had run its course with me, apparently. So when everyone asks me how I could possibly break the biggest bone in my body in one drop, well, that’s how — the whole incident triggered by a seizure that I’d had a few of, actually, and just hadn’t realized that’s what they were. The perfect storm of broken bones.
The details go fuzzy for a couple of days, but here are some important ones: I rode in an ambulance! The urban San Antonio streets squared off behind heavily screened, gray rectangles of windows, and I stared up through swags of wires wondering if this was indeed San Antonio or if this was Tulsa, where I’d lived for many years, because the view between the two looked so much alike from the gurney. I was told I rode two ambulances and was moved from one hospital to another. I vaguely remember a faux window in the first hospital with a golden-lit giraffe as if I was on safari with Hemingway and admiring the vista while in agony. Otherwise, my story has one room, one ambulance ride. There may have been an EMT talking to me the whole time, or he may have sat quietly with his hand on the gurney rail on the turns. I may have held my breath. Everything I was wearing except for my ballet flats and my headscarf was cut off me. Someone had tried to talk me into saving the cardigan I’d pulled on in the chemo lounge by sitting up enough to slip it out from behind my back.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Cut it. Cut. It.”
Know I loved that cardigan.
My family who could make it on short notice all converged on my hospital room, and I did feel like Pollyanna — an alternate universe, bald Pollyanna who’d had her clothes cut off, clung to the blue paper sock of a vomit bag she missed every, single, time, and spoke in the thoroughly pain-pill marinaded slur of Uncle Waldo.
I had to wait two days for surgery on the leg to implant a metal rod and nails in place of the femur. In my mind, this was what was happening:
Not even this was happening:
It took us all awhile to process there’d be no cast. The walker, the wheelchair, the physical therapy, yes. Cast? No. Everything is fortified on the inside now. And apparently it was a little grizzly. During the surgery, I had two packs of a transfusion. A few days later, I’d have two more.
The first night nurse I remember being assigned is Barbara, her tightly coiled hair the same olive tone as her skin, glasses reflecting the monitor lights. This was her first stay in San Antonio so far. She was a traveling nurse, unattached to any one location, moving from hospital to hospital where needed.
“I like it,” she said everything in near monotone, “I really do.” A little drag on her syllables to convey sincerity.
“Do you get to go wherever you want?” I asked her.
“Oh, yes. I enjoy it,” she said as she wound a blood-pressure cuff on my arm. “Seeing things I’d never seen before.” With a flick of her finger on the thermometer, she deposited the sleeve in the nearby trashcan and added, “You are just so sweet and lovely. Always a smile on that face no matter what. I tell you, I so admire you.” She said it every time she came in.
I had a feeling people weren’t always kind to Barbara, someone on the margins of the hospital, from here and not here, full of details that few are probably patient enough to listen to. But listen. Always listen. Stories are packed away in there. And what if you are the only one who’ll ever unpack them?
Then when it was just me and insomnia at one a.m. in the hospital recording my toes and the arrows to the bed controls and the curtain dragged across the doorway, I was also texting Andrea about Frida Kahlo. Andy wondered if someone had brought me my paints and canvases yet.
Andy makes an exquisite Frida, in case you were wondering about that detail.
We’ve had a few running plans over the last twenty years. One, ending up in the same nursing home (which evolved into ending up in the same Mad Max motorcycle Vuvalini) and the other, returning to Spain where we’d spent a summer as roommates. So this one a.m. text marveled at how much fun it’s going to be to travel back to Spain since I have a metal rod in my leg, worse perhaps than when we had to finally check Andy’s Spanish sword she’d purchased, hand-forged in Toledo, while traveling home.
“You might have to ride in steerage,” Andy texted back.
I smiled as I sat my phone down.
Around two-thirty a.m., Barbara was back with the rolling cart for vitals. “How’s your pain? It’s time for more meds if we need it,” she asked as she tapped the small rolling cart monitor.
“Oh that’d be great,” I said. If there’s a no-miss detail in this story, it’s that breaking one’s femur and having it replaced with a metal rod and nails ranks as the most excruciating pain I’ve ever experienced. And I think I have a fairly good tolerance for pain, actually. I am Monty Python’s “just a flesh wound” most the time. Well, no more.
Tossing back pills in a little plastic cup, reaching for the water to wash it down, I was thinking of Nurse Barbara, her details, her stories, wondering if her travel nurse experience is a modern equivalent of the men who’d travel from construction job to construction job in the Great Depression, leaving families like so many held pins across the map of the U.S. See, that’s the thing with details. They bump up against other details, unpack in slightly different but no less dramatic directions. The modern traveling nurse with the only obligation to the patients like me they eventually leave behind in sterile hospital rooms.
“I’m going to remember you,” Barbara said with her finger bobbing in front of her chin, in the frame of her curls.
“Well, know that I truly appreciate your very thorough care and kindness,” I said.
And suddenly there was a twinge in my ribs at the detail of Barbara, of the other nurses and doctors, of my sisters and mom taking turns spending the night in the barely-lounging guest chair by the windows that molded one into the sort of zigzag block a toddler stuffs in a shape sorter, of my girls sitting carefully on the bed and kissing my cheeks goodbye when they’d leave, of Joe talking me through a seizure in whispers, of my dad bringing me extra cups of Raisin Bran and milk in the mornings, of mom arranging my sheets around me, of colleagues sending well-wishes and offers of help with my classes, of Hannah’s dance team rallying to support her with rides and family meals and help with her weekly dance team preparations, of Chloe’s teacher arranging to meet with her after her cafeteria breakfast to keep her caught up on homework despite the chaos of home, of my friend Maia who made sure Chloe had some Girl Scout fun on a Sunday afternoon when they’d met for crafts, of friends and family and strangers alike coming together to set up meal deliveries, housekeeping, arranging Cynthia-sitting shifts for home and hospital, of handwritten prayers, cards, notes, texts, email messages, donations, arriving with affirmations and hope and well-wishes that, let me assure you, if you ever thought weren’t enough or weren’t helpful, please know they couldn’t have been more so. These details are the most important ones of this story, and they’re all still lining up, the ones I sift in my fingers and wonder in dramatic Jane Austen fashion, how can I endeavor to deserve these blessings?
Now I’m home, like Jeff in Rear Window, all the curtains crisscrossing my own rear windows open wide to the sunlight. The details I can see now, the aged oak branches parting ways to patches of blue sky and light, the occasional neighborhood walker pumping arms around the street corner, the neat circle of a beach hat shading the woman’s face. That was me once. Now I have a wheelchair and a walking frame beside my bed and a small table my dad had made me with wooden inlay, stacked with my computer, iPad, sketchbook, folded reading glasses, my phone.
“Where are some binoculars?” I asked Joe.
“I’ll get them for you,” he said without giving it a thought, though I was joking.
And when I asked him to zip to Target for me and get some decent lounging pajamas, he came home with a size 14 girls Cinderella pajama set. Dreams dashed.