An earlier version of this story was published in the October 2018 Saints Peter and Paul edition of Dappled Things. The issue is no longer available for purchase, hence its inclusion on my website.
Say a Little Prayer
I rouse as they roll me out of the recovery room, a nurse hands me a hand drawn get-well card. “Look what they made you,” she says. “Isn’t it sweet? They never do anything like that.” I peer at it. There’s some significance here, but the thought doesn’t match a reason. I let the card slip out of my hand. The gurney whisks me towards my hospital room. The ceiling rolling past – light, square, square, light – is disconcerting and my eyelids flutter shut. The darkness is safer.
Facing my hospital bed, the card hangs as a testament to my amnesia. It contains the best wishes of the post-surgery volunteers. A nurse has tacked it to the middle of a corkboard. I stare at the card and try to reattach my memories, but they dodge away. My husband says I talked to both our children while I was in recovery. I have no memory of these conversations. I awoke parched and in pain, leaking affection. Whatever I said broke through the staff’s body armor. Somehow, I stumbled into endearing. Apparently, I have a mysterious ability to charm while disoriented.
Prior to my surgery, I had little idea what going to rehab meant. It yawned wide and unknown before me, dependent upon variables I had modest control over. My son and I toured several facilities in the area the week before my surgery. When the hospital’s social worker asked if I had a preference, I hedged. I want to go to location A, but only if they had a single room. If that isn’t available, I’ll take site B.
Location A agrees to place me in a double room alone until a single opens up. It isn’t the closest facility or the most modern, but it is convenient for my husband and the administrators are kind and helpful. The facility houses patients needing both short- and long-term recovery. The rooms on the first floor are reserved for those who need short-term rehab, after things like hip and knee replacements. At 59, I am one of the younger residents. While it’s hard to tell people’s ages, I make differentiations based on first names. Ruth, Doris, and Betty fit in the Great Depression era; Carol, Nancy, and Pat were born during the Second World War, while names like Mary, Susan, and Debbie belong to my generation – the mid-century boomers. There are differences in frailty and outlook, but the staff ignores the generational distinctions.
At about three p.m. my first day at rehab, Tim, my aide for the evening shift, introduces himself. He is in his mid-twenties, about six feet two, a little on the hefty side. His demeanor is gentle and good-natured. He tells me I’m one of the lucky ones. I get to take a shower today. I refuse to care that a stranger, a man, will help me undress and bathe. I focus on washing my hair and erasing the shadows of my surgery. Blue marker bleeds under my bandages, indicating cut here, replace this hip. I can rinse away the tinge of antibacterial soap that stains my skin yellow and scrub off the adhesive bits oozing around the edges of the dressings. I get to take a shower. I let the voluptuous water pour over me, grateful for its warmth. Afterwards, laying under fresh sheets, dressed in a new gown, I am exhausted.
I arrived Thursday afternoon. Today is Saturday. I have avoided the dining room long enough. Today, for lunch (dinner as it’s called here), I will leave the protection of my room and share a meal with others. The old elementary school dread creeps in. I wonder who will sit with me, who will talk to me.
I shouldn’t have worried. The dining room is compact, holding perhaps fifteen small tables, each set for four people. In practice, this means they are tables for two. I sit in a wheelchair. My outstretched legs extend into the space across from me. We dine side-by-side or face each other on the diagonal.
I direct the aide to park me next to a window. I have the table to myself. It gives me time to get used to the place. A country music station crackles from the corner radio. I’m surprised. For the current crowd, I’d pick a mix tape from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Music lights up connections to memory and emotion in a positive way. I groan when the hostess turns off the radio and turns on the wide screen TV. The pain meds give me Fuzzy Brain. The flashing lights and revolving graphics of the TV show they’ve chosen add to my confusion.
Lucy, one of the dietary aides, greets patients and takes appetizer orders. The choices for dinner and supper are chef salad, tomato soup or chicken noodle soup. Meal after meal, those are the only options. At supper, tonight’s entrees are breaded fish on a bun with coleslaw or a salad plate consisting of tuna salad, macaroni salad and cottage cheese with canned pears. It’s a blast back to the Woolworth Fountain menu. In one meal, we get the flashing graphics of contemporary TV with a side order of pre-war nostalgia.
I sit next to Mary, who is recovering from knee replacement surgery. We talk about her family, her children, where her home is. Mary admits her husband is living in the dementia wing of the facility, and it’s hard, very hard. There’s so much understated truth in the simple word, hard. I believe devastating, unbearable, terrible are words that come closer. Squeezing her hand and saying, “I’m sorry to hear that,” doesn’t seem like enough.
They shuffle us like cards in the dining room. A new table mate at each meal. After a while, I stop asking questions. It’s Fuzzy Brain in action. I can’t remember which stories go with which face. Is Doris the one with four boys? Two living, two dead. Or is it Sarah? Which ones have empty homes waiting for their return? Their sons, daughters, or neighbors watching over their home while they’re away. Who will go back to the long-term care wing once their rehab is over? Who has a dog? Who has a husband able to carry on while they recover? The stories blur together. We all hope the duct tape securing the pieces of our lives holds together until our return.
The deafness of some patients makes eavesdropping unavoidable. You hear what everyone says. When she is in the room, Betty is the center of attention. The aides tease her, and she good-naturedly teases them back. I like her. She’s loud, friendly, and outgoing. We share our sorrows, our worries with her. Gertie admits she’s sad at dinner. She can’t stop thinking about her son, who died two months ago. His body is still in a morgue waiting for her to arrange his burial.
Betty advises her, “Don’t be sad. Just don’t think about it.”
June is wheeled in, her son and daughter-in-law accompany her. Her son squeezes her shoulder, avoids her eyes and leaves.
“Come, June,” Betty says, “Tell me why you’re sad.”
Some people try to shush her, saying, “Maybe it’s none of your business Betty, hush now.”
Betty brushes away these admonitions. “We’re friends. We’re good friends. Aren’t we June? Go ahead; you can tell me. Why are you sad?”
June admits, “She can’t stay. She doesn’t have enough money.”
“Don’t be sad. It will all work out. Say a prayer. That’s what I do. Say a prayer and trust it will be OK.”
I suppose it will be all right in the sense that people can get used to almost anything, but there is always a cost. I’ve only been here a few days, but already I’ve begun to lose myself. The concerns of the outside world have closed down to a relentless schedule, breakfast, occupational therapy, dinner, physical therapy, a short rest before supper, bedtime, then morning, when the program begins anew.
I must prepare for supper. The aides expect me to wait patiently for them to pick me up and drive away in my wheelchair. They will stop a moment so I can turn off the TV or place a marker in my book, but if I need to close the browser on my laptop, they’ll whirl around and spin out the door. If I need to turn off my iPod, take off my headphones, and tuck them away in my nightstand, they’ll come back later. They don’t have a second to waste.
They wheel a new crop of patients into the physical and occupational therapy rooms at the top of each hour. Those like me, here for rehab, come for an hour each day for each therapy. Others come less frequently. They wheel in Mary’s husband for the bi-weekly uncurling of his long frame. He sits slumped in his wheelchair, his face shadowed by a baseball cap, unresponsive. He hides from the therapists and aides who try to rouse him to action. When they wheel in Mary, her face lights up at the sight of her sweetie. She spends a few moments rubbing his leg and arm. She calls to him, asks him to recognize her or respond in some small way. He doesn’t. Reluctantly she allows the aide to wheel her to her therapist’s area for her hour of exercises.
I watch the scene. It’s time for me to practice walking up and down the halls. A wide braided belt encircles my waist. Alyssa, my therapist, places her hand in the small of my back, as a precaution. I use a walker, retraining my muscles to work with a replacement hip. This miracle of free motion that makes it possible for me to swing my leg ninety degrees, one hundred degrees, I can walk almost normally. I swing my left leg past the right, take a step in front of the other, and reply with the same motion. I walk down the hall amazed at the recovered ability. I can’t remember the last time I walked like this.
I reach the end of the corridor where we turn right and head for the lounge. I am astonished at the regained movement. I am also blending my life with Mary’s. I imagine myself, overjoyed at the sight of my husband. I greet him with hope and love. I push at the edges of his memory. I plead with him to remember me. I think about blankness in his eyes, and I am detonated. My face crumples into tears. It is too much. Too much joy and sadness mixed together. I stop; afraid my emotions will make me stumble. Alyssa silently waits beside me.
After lunch, I decide to wheel myself back to my room. No one stops me as I roll out of the dining room. I keep to the right. Like a canoe listing to starboard due to lopsided stroking, I make frequent adjustments in heading to keep from running into the wall. I run out of steam halfway back and gratefully accept an aide’s offer to push me home.
Since then my arms have gotten stronger. It’s seven a.m., and I am on my way to breakfast, then an eight o’clock appointment with Occupational Therapy. The hallway is an obstacle course littered with wheelchairs, narrow rectangular medication carts, and fat round laundry tubs. The smell of urine pours out from some of the rooms, and I realize rising means changing diapers and soiled bedclothes. As I navigate around the obstructions, I’m struck by the demands made on the nurses and aides. The morning shift begins at six a.m. Patient appointments begin at eight. Each nurse has eight to ten patients. They must deliver each person, freshly washed, dressed, and fed, to physical or occupational therapy on time. I say a little prayer of thanks; I’m relatively self-reliant, only needing assistance with my support stockings and shoes.
I have never been in the hallway this early. The doors to the rooms I pass are mostly open, though privacy curtains are drawn here and there. I note everyone’s location. The private rooms run along the right side of the hall, double occupancy on the left. I started my stay in a double room, but this morning they offer to switch me to a newly vacated single. I accept and roll on towards breakfast. While I eat, they move my personal items. After OT, I inspect my new digs and am pleased with the change. By the end of the day, they have filled both beds in my old room.
Dave and Sam’s room is across the hall from my new room. A panic alarm has gone off at regular intervals throughout the evening. The alarm is loud. It clangs pay attention; this is an emergency. A heart has stopped. Someone’s breathing has ceased. I’m surprised to learn it warns when a person stands. Sam has been setting his off all morning. Like me, he is tired of this place, of its ‘you have to wait’ rules. He is impatient to do things on his own. Each time the alarm goes off, his aide runs to his room to make certain he doesn’t injure himself.
I am feeling better. I yearn for my bed, my home, my life. It’s time for me to leave. OT and PT agree and have signed off. I’ve packed my bags, searched through my drawers and cubbies three times. While my son pulls the car up to the entrance, an aide wheels me through the facility. I cross paths with the PT therapists. Their fresh faces and waving hands beguile me. I laugh back at them, and wish everyone the best as I’m wheeled to the exit. Caring and gracious as they are, as my son drives me away, I sigh with relief.
Two weeks, I’ve never been away from home this long. I peer out the window at the world, which shimmers in the bright sunshine. I think of my grandmother, her rosary gently clinking in her fingers. She would raise her right hand to her forehead, nose and lips, while whispering, “Glória Patri, and Fílio, and Spirítui Sancto.” The impulse feels right and I lift my hand.
Note: to protect people’s privacy; I have changed names throughout this piece.