Photo by Jonas Von Werne on Upsplash.
Mae was my first roommate. At 91 she set off the smoke detectors by trying to sneak a butt in the bathroom, feigning hearing loss as she puffed away in the midst of a blaring fire alarm. I loved her instantly.
“Cut the crap, Mae. I know you can hear me.”
Her body glittered with glee every time I swore, which was often. Tethered to an IV pole like old playground equipment, I was a miserable patient plagued by boredom, my patience and aptitude for lying in bed deteriorating as I grew stronger. Without a book or laptop, our one television was my hope for salvation and Mae stashed the remote under her sheets, probably in her underwear, as if it were the Hope Diamond or Neil Diamond, dependent on her vigilant security.
“You’re killing me slowly with stupidity. Can we please put on the news? I’d settle for FOX. PLEASEE!” I ached to her selective hearing.
Eyes glued to the screen, Mae tried to mask a delighted snicker under a poker face, too innocent to ignite anger. She filled our mornings with daytime diarrhea where both host and guest contemplated the obvious while swooning over each other’s unremarkable accomplishments. With each dragging hour, I became more confident that the Bottlenose Dolphins should rightfully claim their position as the most intelligent species on the earth.
“Don’t you have PT or something?” I asked the room.
She flicked a hand at me, shooing me away with the reverence of a pesky insect that made too much noise. Mae was not one to chat, content with leaving the reason for her hospital stay a mystery, though implied by age. When she did speak, her words were drenched in Greek dressing, vowels somersaulting from her tongue at lightning rotation that stuck the landing with impeccable direction and little regard for proper syntax.
“Close the lights over there inside.”
“Sit on your eggs.”
Once my fever subsided, I was not sure why I was in the hospital, either. My diagnosis dumbfounded medical professionals as well.
“Your lab results and clinical data are indicative of sepsis,” reported Dr. Prisha Paravasthu, Director of Infectious Diseases. “The good news is, your white blood cell count and fever have decreased following a strict regimen of Vancomycin and Zosyn.”
Her beauty tried to defy her intelligence but as soon as words arched from her succulent lips, there was no question who was the smartest in the class.
“Wait…what? My body is a septic tank?” My head was flooded with images of domestic wastewater flowing through the slums of Nairobi along with the putrid stench of poop.
“No. That’s not the case. It’s sepsis.” Having grown weary of the awkward communication barriers between doctor and patient, Dr. Prisha Paravasthu spoke with the control of a well-mannered person on the edge of throwing a shoe.
“Then what is it?”
“Sepsis occurs when the body has a toxic, overactive response to infection. If not treated it can lead to tissue damage, organ failure and septic shock.”
“So sepsis can become septic if not treated,” I interpreted, succumbing to my innate weakness to be seen as intelligent.
“Yes, that is possible,” Dr. Paravasthu confirmed.
“Well, that doesn’t sound good!” I exclaimed. “So how did I get sepsis which can lead to septic shock in the first place? A lousy job rinsing the lettuce? Did I forget to wash my hands?” If I still had eyebrows, they would’ve leapt off my face.
Dr. Paravasthu MD dropped her voice an octave and slowed her rate of speech. “Given the number of variables in your case it's difficult to pinpoint the source of infection. Chemotherapy and your recent history of surgeries have put your immune system in a vulnerable position. The good news is, you have responded well to the antibiotics.”
“Fabulous! When can I go home?”
Her expression tells me there’s more to it, a cliff hanger up her sleeve. Dr. Paravasthu pulled in a deep, long breath, raking in every leaf of bedside mannerism left in her core.
“The images from your CT scan show signs of aortitis. There’s a suspicious focal thickening of your proximal aorta and we need to run more tests to understand its composition.”
While her luscious lips belly-danced, my hippocampus skated back to 1987 and blew the dust off notes from Anatomy & Physiology class. Decorated in doodles and lacking substantial content, they were as legible as The Magna Carta. Still, something didn’t sound right. Befuddled, I crinkled my nose.
“What’s my aorta doing in my lower back? Isn’t it part of my heart?”
Dr. Paravastu gave a nod while assessing how much dirt was needed to fill in my knowledge gaps. Based on my response, a dump truck.
“The aorta is part of the heart. It’s the largest blood vessel in the human body andt transports oxygen from your heart to the rest of your body. A section of your aorta in your lower back is inflamed, which is the source of your pain. The appearance of a lesion is noted, and more tests are needed to assess its composition.”
That afternoon, Mae packed her bags.
“Easy up on the cigarettes, Sunshine, that crap causes cancer,” I advised.
“Life is short for some. For others, not so much.” Mae responded with the self- assurance that can only be acquired from living on earth for nearly a century.
At night, the hospital floor was dimmed. A quietness crouched over the nurse’s station ready to pounce whenever the urgent pitter-patter of white sneakers bounced across the vinyl floor. Except for fear, my room was empty, the stars from my window too far away to be seen.
Brittany arrived the next morning. Unlike Mae, she possessed an uncanny ability to conduct an entire conversation without engaging another person, the high pitch of her nasal tone causing every canine within a 20-mile radius to cover his ears and cringe.
“So it was like this whole situation. Some cheerleaders were jealous because I was getting all the attention but I mean, I’m the flyer, right? The focal point of the entire routine? Like that’s not hard. Whoever said cheerleading is not an intense sport is seriously disturbed. Anyways, I was literally dying from all the pressure.”
By lunch I wanted to stick a fork in my eye.
A flyer on the Southern New Hampshire cheerleading team, Brittany splattered to the ground when the squad’s back spot lost stability. Or so said the accident report.
Five minutes into my precarious debut as Brittany’s roommate, I ruled the “accident” an inside job, the product of a premeditated conspiracy plan hatched the moment team rosters were Scotch taped to the locker room door.
“When will Dr. Paravasthu be in?” I asked the attending nurse.
Emma’s gaze raked in the faded cotton fabric of my patient gown, the shoulders dotted shut by plastic snaps and twill tape tied behind my neck in a sloppy bow. Annoyed by my audacity to reference a higher authority, my question was brushed off with a nonchalant shoulder shrug coupled by a hair flip.
“There's like so many of them it’s hard to keep track,” Emma responded, each sound pitched to the point of maximum tightness, having made a triumphant escape from nasal cavity suffocation.
From the other side of the room, Brittany’s voice perked up with the projection of a forlorn Arctic penguin who just heard the squawk of her long lost mate.
“I know, right!” tweeted Brittany. “They’re like the freakin’ paparazzi. I was totally stressed when they were stalking me with all these questions about how I landed, where it hurts, whatevah, and don’t even get me started about the 9 million images they made me take.”
Their instant, BFF commitment was sealed by Brittany’s dazzling smile, hijacked from a teeth-whitening commercial.
“Some of them can be super judgy,” Emma added. “They totally don’t get how hard it is to work and go to community college all at the same time.”
In a swift, unapologetic gesture, I exercised seniority rights and blasted the television to full volume. The cohosts of The View were debating the complex dynamics of vacationing with your ex-spouse, highlighting their opinions with dramatic hand gestures and a smorgasbord of American accents that disclosed the origin of their biased beliefs.
“I totally get it,” said Brittany. “I got this huge, anti-me vibe from the whole squad.”
Their magnetic chemistry, bonded by the sweetness and substance of cotton candy, was gold fodder for a reality TV series, a lopsided entertainment match to the progressive, reflective women of The View. To save my sanity, I escaped from the Southern New Hampshire version of the Southern California Valley girls and walked to the visitor’s room, IV pole dragged behind me.
Deemed well enough for visitors, Nick arrived, girls in tow. In an instant, they nimbled around an obstacle course of plastic tubes and nestled into my lap, two forlorn cubs reunited with their mother. My heart drummed in hysterical joy, inflamed aorta and all.
“They really miss you,” Nick said. Unshaven, eyes drooped with exhaustion, he looked as if he was one released from the ICU.
“When are you coming home?” they beckoned.
“Soon as I can. I have to take some more tests.” I kissed their faces over and over again, the smell of their unwashed hair an elixir to my melancholy. Flooded by their vulnerability, my blood boiled, the mother bear poked awake. My illness, a predator, its prey, my children. Each nonexistent hair on my back stood up.
“The laundry is piling up. I don’t have any clean socks,” Nick reported.
“Why does it have to take so long?” Julia cried.
“It just does,” I said.
Dr. Paravasthu greeted us with a puzzled expression. “Families are welcome to visit patients in their room,” she offered.
“Oh…it’s more relaxed here, there’s more space for us to spread out,” I said.
“My mom doesn't like her roommate,” Sienna added, from the mouth of babes.
To hold back a burst of laughter, Dr. Paravashu folded her lips. But I caught a glimpse of the clever, carefree child that peek-a-booed from the corner of her eyes.
“Any news?” I redirected.
“The good news is your white blood cell count has continued to decline and your vital signs are stable.”
“Yeah!” I exclaimed, one arm hailing an invisible cab while the other did its best to express enthusiasm while tethered to an IV pole.
“Yeah!” echoed the girls, mirroring my expression, appearing to have arrived at an all-you-can-eat candy store.
Dr. Paravashu was quick to read our game. She shifted discomfort from one side of her body to the other, bracing before she dropped the other shoe.
“We need to learn more about the focal thickening of your proximal abdominal aorta.”
“The aorta in my lower back,” I added between dotes of affection.
“Right,” she cleared her throat. “Our diagnostic capabilities are limited because of the tissue expanders in your chest.”
I sensed a turn in our discussion, a heaviness to her tone, an ominous cloud in the air. Without a thought, the wrap around my daughters shifted from affectionate to protective.
“Breast tissue expanders with magnetic ports are MRI unsafe.”
“Like wrapping a potato in tin foil and popping it in the microwave,” I translated.
“Sorta,” she nodded.
“OK. So what are my options?”
“What’s an option?” chimed in Sienna.
“Another word for a choice,” I translated. “Let’s listen carefully to our options so we can make the best choice.”
Dr. Paravashu cleared her throat. “We can continue with your current regimen of antibiotics and closely monitor the inflammation with the imaging we have available. Another option is to request a transport to a Boston hospital that has more sophisticated imaging equipment.”
Her unspoken words registered in my head. Home was not an option. Or a choice. Anytime soon. I felt the suction of grief begin to spin, whipping its grip around my ankles, preparing to yank me down the abyss of misery. All along, the girls were watching me.
“I see,” I said, the storm inside gaining momentum with each tick of the clock.
In my core, I know there are times when a mother is forbidden to cry. When Ma Joad led her family across the California desert. The Irish mother who tucked in her children as the Titanic sank. Every woman who responded to the cry of gunshots with a lullaby. The matriarch is nature's primary resource of nurture, the well from which her children drink to understand the world. It was my duty to shield my daughters from the storm, redirect the apocalyptic energy into something more palatable, more suitable for a child to digest.
“By transport do you mean ambulance?” I asked. The tail of an idea caught my attention, its whimsical invitation almost drifting away before I pinched it between my fingertips.
Dr. Paravashu took my lead. “Yes, you would be transported to another hospital by an ambulance.”
“So I would get to ride in an ambulance?” I said, beaming at my ticket to a carnival ride. “How fun is that?”
“Can we come ,too?”
“I want to sound the sirens!”
“I want to flash the lights!”
“Does insurance cover that?” asked Nick.
“Let’s see how this all plays out,” I said. “What we know for sure is that I will be in the hospital for a little while longer.”
They nodded in compliance, not happy with the outcome but tickled by curiosity.
I looked at Nick. “Maybe you can stop by Target on the way home and pick up some socks. The girls can pick out a new outfit for tomorrow.”
“That sounds like hell,” said Nick.
“I’m sure things will go smoothly if there’s an incentive for good behavior.”
For the life of him, Nick could not decipher what I was saying.
“Ice cream!” shouted Julia.
“Ice cream!” shouted Sienna.
They escort me and the IV back to my room before skipping out the door.
Exhausted from pretending not to be sick, I collapsed in bed.
“OMG! Your husband is a hottie!”
Needled alert, I ached for just one hour on Brittnay’s planet, to swim in a sea of blissful oblivion, where the weight of responsibility bore no gravity.
Later on, when Brittany melted into the arms of her mother, I drew a different perspective. The privacy curtain between us was far too flimsy to seclude the sound of a mother’s suffering when her child is sick.
“Shh…I know it hurts.” Old enough to join the Armed Forces, Brittany was still her child.
I wanted to reach out and hold her mother’s hand, as if my compassion could water down her pain. Confronting my own misery, I recognized the only thing worse than for a child to witness a sick parent is for a parent to witness a sick child. This is why the Bottlenose dolphins rally around the injured or sick, refusing to waste precious time on the notion of war. This is why Bottlenose dolphins are the most intelligent creatures on Earth.