projects and writings of T.A. Burkholder
Before this week, I’d only been in a hospital room once, about 15 years ago. All I remember is the dimness of the room at night and how bad I felt for crying the whole time, for making a sick man give me comfort.
As my last post noted, I’d been avoiding visiting my friend in the ICU and feeling all sorts of ugly for not stepping up to the plate the way so many of his other friends and family had. One day this past week, I was attempting to be useful by helping my sick friend and his wife move apartments while they were stuck in the hospital. One of the other helpers, another good friend of the couple, pulled me aside, looked me in the eye and said in a very kind but very serious tone, “You should go see him.”
I had half a dozen different new things to get through before arriving at the biggest new thing I’d done in a long time. I had to face my phone phobia and call my friend’s wife then face my long-held identity as a nervous driver and head into a part of town where I’d never been. I had to get lost for 20 minutes in the maze of Oregon Health Sciences University — a small city of buildings I’d been looking at across the river for 20 years but had never visited. Inside the labyrinth, I had to ask directions twice and try to listen to the answers instead of thinking about whether I’d have to meet my friend’s evangelical parents or meet the scrutiny of his strong, gracious wife or his brave, generous friends.
As I walked and walked from one building to another, I tried not to look too closely at the people in scrubs and the people in robes, the people with bags of belongings and presents and food. Instead, I focused on the chaos in my body. Jittery and nauseous, I fought a panicky, childish urge to crumble into a ball or run away. For a second, I was able to note that at least the jittery nausea part of it felt exactly the same as the jittery nausea I often get when I’m excited about something good. I’ve been tipped into that shallow-breathed, shaky-limbed state by glancing blue Hawaiian water from the plane, by driving in the direction of a friend I haven’t seen in a long time, or even when I spot my partner unexpectedly out on the street and we narrow the space between us.
Outside the ICU, I picked up a phone and asked permission to enter. Down the hall of glass rooms, I passed one gravely ill person after another until I arrived at the room of my gravely ill person. I paused for a half a second before letting him come into view. Shaky and excited to see my friend still alive. Nauseous and scared to see my friend struggling to stay that way.
As predicted, I cried the whole time. Even though he was heavily sedated and attached to every kind of tube, IV, and beeping, flashing panel, I was told he could hear my voice. But my voice couldn’t get past my tears. The only time I stopped crying was to talk to his mother-in-law and his wife.
I didn’t stay long and I didn’t feel particularly good about the visit, but I’d done it.
The next day, I had many hours of massage clients and was happy for the busy hands and focused mind. Stiff, sore and stressed, each client laid down on my table. Naked. Prone. With each person, I grew more grateful of their trust. I worked my hands along on either side of their spines. I rolled my hands along the backs of their necks, watching the rise and fall of their chests. Therapy for the therapist.
After my last client, I got in my car and drove back to the hospital. It was evening and the buildings were all much quieter. The lights of the city below looked peaceful and sweet. My friend had had a better day. His eyes were open and they fell on me as I wrapped my hand around his. And I didn’t cry. And the nausea was more like a flutter. And the jitters were more like a hum.