At one point yesterday I was trying to figure out how to navigate two wheelchairs through a hospital. In one, my mother -- the hospital is huge and its miles of corridors tire out even the most fit. In the other, my father, recovering from a diagnostic surgical procedure.
Luckily there was a nice hospital escort to help out, and we wove through the hospital corridors just fine. I've watched my dad care for my mothers through the years, particularly since she was in this same hospital three years ago for a neurological event. And I watched my mom care for my dad when he was first hospitalized 15 year or so ago, back when I got an emergency call that involved the words "stents." This is the nature of love and of aging, and it involves the trading off and sharing of duties.
The thing that strikes me about yesterday is the silence. The hospital was buzzing, as hospitals do. Family members drinking stale coffee and surgeons explaining things in terms of the size of coins. A city within a city, with mazes of underground tunnels. The hospital confuses patients who have traveled from throughout Alabama, and across the region (or country) because it's so huge. I used to encounter people every day on my way to work here looking for directions. They clutched pillows and plastic bags filled with clothes and were often bleary eyed.
So I know how to navigate these halls, but still have to stop to ask for directions. The hospital has added more patient escorts, and they are friendly and helpful. There are wheelchairs for use and color coded maps.
But still, there is no map for this.
There's never a map when you get a call in the middle of the night, or, in this case, when you've planned for it. I feel a deep kinship with those bleary eyed people walking through the halls because I'm one of them.
When we left for the hospital I posted a photo of my father wearing a Hawaiian shirt -- "to bring some levity to the situation," he said. Our bags were carefully packed -- iPads and chargers, medicine lists and insulin, laptop, wallets, books.
But still, there is no map for this.
When I was a young reporter -- a 19-year old intern, I had my first spin through a cancer center -- the prestigious Moffitt Cancer Center. The story was on art therapy, and I remember feeling drawn to the paintings on the walls, the act of expression from the patients. This world of the ill still felt faraway though, and I could shake it when I went home to sit by the pool and drink Rolling Rocks with my friends.
Now it's intimately familiar and has been for a long time. Since I got calls about my father, my mother, my husband. For the body was not constructed to be indestructible, as much as we like to think it is.
So there is firmer footing now. Like the calls we get from the operating room updating us on progress and recovery, I methodically transmit updates to our family, pour the coffee, and remain level.
In the main hospital lobby there's an exhibit by psychiatric patients for National Health Awareness Month. While Dad's in recovery, I bring Mom to look at it and to browse a bake sale. This art is the thing I understand the most in these halls. (I do not understand the song choice of the acoustic guitar player nearby. His melodies are meant to be soothing but "Mr. Bojangles" seems a really depressing choice. Though maybe that's just me.)
The art (pictured above, with the cups, and below) speaks to me, and stirs that memory of learning about navigating illness from long ago. You learn how to traverse the terrain better.
But -- what happens when the illnesses are many? What happens when they are all at the same time? What happens when they are affecting more than one person you love? And what happens when this has been the case for years?
I don't know. I do know. A quiet, still voice says, "This is why you are here."
We navigate these hallways and look for the light outside. It's a sunny day and later I'll sit on my parents patio and watch dappled summer light.
There's no map for this. But, after a while, you know what to pack.
This is day 16 of 90 Stories in 90 Days.