On the way into the hospital for a routine visit, I saw a perfect depiction of the entirety of life; an older man and woman pushing someone in a wheelchair who appeared to be the woman’s mother chatting as they passed a young woman heavily pregnant, waiting for her partner so they could take the elevator together.
It was so tidy a picture of humanity — caring for loved ones at the end of life, anticipating the beginning of life — I wanted to remember it. Three days now I’ve been in hospitals, one as a volunteer, two as a patient for annual exams. I love hospitals; the staff is always intelligent and dedicated, by and large, and patients are being cared for by nurses and doctors and families. The reason for a hospital visit may be quotidian, like mine, but are often more pressing, an illness or injury requiring attention. Those more grave reasons seem to remind people of what’s important, of the ticking past of the very few minutes we are given. The hospital is a place where the dearness of life, the connection or disconnection in each of our lives is realized.
That dawning realization and the care poured out upon loved individuals makes me at ease in hospitals. The whole building is staffed by carers who also have the intelligence to learn the human body in minute detail and have studied the science of helping those bodies thrive.
I know my comfort in hospitals stems from raising my daughter, so many days and weeks getting treatment or surgery or going to clinic. She was treated like a regular person at our hospital, Chicago Shriners, not like a person with a problem or someone to be pitied or diminished. At Shriners, she got to be just a kid for the first — and sometimes only — time in her life. That experience colored hospitals for me permanently, though I realize non-children’s hospitals may not be quite so charming and balloon filled.
Maybe all-ages hospitals could do with more balloons.
There’s great quiet in hospitals, too, the private rooms, the purposeful striding of residents in their very important snow-white coats, no time to talk or make eye contact. The air vents always give a pleasant — if antiseptic-odored — white noise, and people tend to leave visitors alone. It’s a great place to write, with its halls full of human drama, plenty of caffeine available at all hours, and uninterrupted quiet in empty cafeterias.
I go through my regular day so blithely, expecting the next 24 hours to be served to me on a platter of golden sunlight. So often, too often, I spend that 24 hours sad or anxious. Being at the hospital grounds me in a way no other setting does. By the sounds and smells, the blue scrubs and clacking name badges, tight smiles and tighter ponytails, and obscenely large clusters of balloons, I am reminded of the days I came to the edge, the brink of losing the only precious thing in this world, one of my children, and I am flooded with gratitude for the gift of her continued presence in my life, and for my sons. And I know in my bones–my sturdy, unbroken bones–that my life is equally fragile, if for different reasons, and I am grateful anew for the chance I am given repeatedly, every morning, to live in this day and be glad in it.
I wrote this entire piece in an exam gown with a paper drape on my lap, waiting for my doctor to give me a pelvic exam. Tell me this isn’t a great place to write. Now I’m going to read a six-month old magazine with Melissa McCarthy, who looks like my mom did, and think about twinkling Irish women and their dimpled smiles.
Maybe I’ll write about that too. Fingers crossed, the doctor will continue to be “a little behind” today.