Hospital stories

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, January 16, 2007 |

Juniper's latest favorite nag is to ask us to tell the story of her birth. "Dada, tell story Juney in Mama's tummy?" she asks over and over. It is a story she seeks out when scared, or uncomfortable, that question a default query whenever she is nervous. Her favorite part is when we get to the hospital; she listens very carefully and wants all the details about the doctor who tugged at her pulpy skull. She wants to know about all the nurses. When Juniper had the opportunity to go to a hospital last week she was excited. She knows nothing of hospitals beyond that it was a hospital where she first entered the light of this world.

Juniper's grandmother called us in a panic last Tuesday night. Her husband was being transferred in an ambulance from their small-town hospital to a larger one in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he was to begin induction chemotherapy almost immediately. After some small-town hospital bumbling, he was diagnosed with acute myelogeneous leukemia, a swift-working cancer that causes rapid proliferation of dangerous cells which accumulate in the bone marrow and blood. The next day we left Detroit for Grand Rapids.

Hospitals are such theaters of human frailty. From the new mamas you see carrying their two-day-old infants out into the cold, bundled in their car seats, to the bald somnambulists you see dragging their IVs around the cancer ward, no quarter is given to those trying to avoid just how serious the business of life is. People who work in hospitals must become dulled to the gravity of it all. For those of us who don't, what goes on inside hospitals gets pushed out of our brains as much as possible so that we might go on thinking that so many of the things we think are important are actually as important as we think they are. I don't mean we fail to consider the witty banter of hunky residents wrist-deep in the open abdomen of an unknown actor or fail to find a sympathetic voice when someone we know must visit someone that means something to them in a hospital; I mean it is hard to live with the knowledge that fate will drag each of us to a hospital inevitably, perhaps when we least expect it, and then we'll sit there and stare at peach-colored walls and men and women wearing paper garments in various states of repose, all arching towards the afterlife. We'll all sit there and be reminded that sometimes life is just shit. In the cancer ward, it is hard not to think about the vacancy of the room you're sitting in, what the sudden vacancy next door means, or even the one down the hall. The cancer ward has the same desperate hopefulness of a second-rate casino: sure, the house always wins, but just this once you might get lucky.

I will let Wood write about what she is going through, when she is ready to do so. By the way these things naturally work, this whole situation has been much harder on her than it has been on me, just as it has been catastrophically harder for her mother than it is for her. God only knows how hard it is for her stepfather. We have been sitting in a hospital room for much of the past five days, Juniper keeping her grandfather busy with books, though he could only read her two before we had to lift her off due to his shortness of breath. She was not frightened by all the tubes sticking out of his arm, filling his blood with chemicals that have the power to both kill and save him. We smiled and tried to talk about things as though everything were normal, feeling warmed whenever we could get him to be all crotchety about the food or the broken key on the laptop we loaned him, because that felt more like normal. We stared at the peach-colored walls, Juniper and I ducking out of the room when the oncologist dropped by to discuss platelets and prognosis, walking past the rooms of other adult leukemia patients in various stages of chemotherapy, their guests standing proudly and sadly by, a grim vision of our own future.

Juniper could not nap at the hospital, so I wore her in a sling and walked around downtown Grand Rapids, singing to her until she fell asleep on my chest. It occurred to me how things can change so fast, how long it had been since she'd slept on me as she so often had when she was just a few months old, and how in that silent sleeping face I could still see the baby she would never be again. Wood and I lived in Grand Rapids many years ago. It was where we moved in together for the first time, and despite the circumstances it was nice to see the city that we once thought was so big and serious with eyes that had seven more years of experience. When Juniper woke up she told me she wanted to return to the hospital to see her grandpa, so we did. Her innocence and the purity of her love for him made the whole thing all the more heartbreaking.

On Saturday, we stayed with my parents in Kalamazoo. Wood went to the hospital, but because of some immune system concerns and because she was becoming a bit of a terror in the limited confines of the cancer ward, Juniper and I stayed behind. I could not help but look at my own parents with new eyes that day. My mother played with Juniper all afternoon while my dad and I worked side-by-side down in his shop---something I had wanted to do for years but which I had never found the time to do. He showed me how to work his machines, told me stories about his cars and his buddies. We built this together over the course of several hours, though it would have taken much less time if he hadn't shown me what every one of his tools could do to each piece. He has been building metalworking tools that allow him to turn a sheet of steel into a perfect fender for a 1937 Auburn when he can find no real part on the market, and he was eager to show me what each of them could do to the leaves of the mobile we were building. I'm sure I frustrated him with my poor welding skills and my miserable spray-can technique. He just kept doing what he always does, telling me stories about how he made each tool and how when he retires he might stop working on cars altogether and just make metalworking tools. At other times, I might have grown frustrated with all those stories, but this time I didn't mind at all.