I remain confused about the position of other people in my life... my family, my friends, my colleagues.
I remain confused about the position of other people in my life... my family, my friends, my colleagues.
[Fourth – perhaps there will be five – in a series on my hospital experiences last month.]
[March 26 - 31]
As I lay in the hospital, recovering, with not many things happening on any given day (a status which will last for about a week, as it happens), I meet various nurses, young doctors, senior doctors, cleaners, and very occasionally orderlies; they become my circle, my network, my universe.
Melanie is young, with an extraordinarily fresh complexion and delicate coloring. Her face is pushed in a little too much around the nose to be quite beautiful, but the textures, the general air of angelic delicacy, that she projects makes one think of beauty, of feminity, of fragility. She is businesslike and direct about cleaning me, moving me, giving me shots and checking the status of my body and its attached tubes; but she is also, unusually, always in a hurry, always moving slightly faster than she should, if she’s going to get everything exactly right.
It’s odd, as though she has worked really hard to be a good nurse – and for the most part she is a good nurse; I trust her, and am always pleased to see her – but she gets things slightly wrong through speed, through haste. She is in fact an illustration of ‘more haste, less speed’ (a proverb that always makes me wonder if it can be reduced in some way – as my mother humorously reduced ‘waste not, want not’ to its logically required components as: ‘waste, want’, a refocusing I found increasingly witty over the passing years).
It does occur to me: could she possibly be going faster because she is slightly panicky at my HIV/HCV status? Everyone is, indeed has been, so utterly matter-of-fact and unintimidated by the fact that my blood and other secretions are poisonous, even in the days when they thought that the Chefarzt was infected. But this is probably paranoia on my part: chances are good that sweet, gentle Melanie is simply hampered by the pressures she has invented for herself out of nursing, out of the vast number of skills and pieces of knowledge that are demanded of any nurse, in that context that always seems to require all of one’s abilities all at once.
Later, I will talk to Joyce about Melanie’s delicate skin, and how it, and her behavior, reminds me of Theweleit’s image of the compassionate nurse, the White Woman who takes care of the Nazi soldiers. Theweleit’s Männerphantasien, an astounding book, pivots on the opposition between that White Woman and the Red Woman (the Communist, the gun-wielding revolutionary); Joyce remembers this somewhat differently, as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Marian figures, but she can see what I mean by it all.
Melanie is too young to be very Marian, in any way at all; but, although I am in no way heterosexual, I perceive in my relationships with these nurses something that helps me understand the Theweleit a bit better – a frankly romantic, affectionate, loving quality; the intimacy of care, which could so easily (if one were bent that way) become loving, passionate, even sexual. I can see, a little better, how all those soldiers felt after the war; and why they married their nurses.
Speaking of medical personnel slightly overwhelmed by the way they see their jobs: young Dr Türck, a not unhandsome, high-strung young man, slightly swarthy but with beautifully clear skin and big dark eyes, always seems to be in a panic when he talks to the Chefarzt, as though he’s about to piss himself. It’s a bit like those moments in Scrubs – when a young but basically competent doctor is frantically trying to remember everything at once, in order to impress the savage Dr Cox. When Türck was alone with me, The Patient, asking questions about my insurance, he was in control, but slightly supercilious though perfectly polite: it is interesting to see how he experiences dynamics between people as a matter of hierarchy, control, power, and fear. Of course, he probably won’t grow into a mature doctor until he puts at least some of that behind him.
Incidentally, the other day, when the insurance administrators came to quiz me about my status, I told them that “young Dr Türck” was the one who knew what was going on with my case, and they should go ask him. They looked at me in confusion and some discomfort; after some wrangling, where I’d mentioned Türck several times, I realized that they had misunderstood, and emphasized that Türck was his name. And they suddenly relaxed…
Obviously, they’d thought I was making a clumsy and mildly racist identification: you may know that Turks are the complicating racial ‘other’ in Germany, and they are actually a large part of the population around Stuttgart (the airport had signs in three languages, and they aren’t the ones you expect – Turkish was first, then German, then French). If you were to try to translate the situation, it would be as though I had said Dr Black (meaning, as it happens, a young black doctor whose name was also Black), and they had heard it as, “you have to talk to that black doctor to get the information”. Hmm. It is, of course, in this German context, a slightly – well, awkward name; I wonder if he gets peculiar looks from time to time.
Melanie has a satellite, an even younger but much less able and very unintelligent nurse, whom I call in my head the Dingbat – she might be a trainee of some kind, although she has the same uniform as the others, at least as far as I can tell. She has a plump and friendly face with a big smile, black hair in a round, bouncy bob. Despite the smile, I am nervous when she comes in, as she has absolutely no idea what she’s doing and no idea whom to ask: when she moves the drip needle to a different place on my arm (and I’m thinking: do I dare ask her to get somebody else do this? – but Melanie is watching and clearly this is a learning setup for the Dingbat), she is obviously struggling to remember what she’s supposed to do. And yes, what she does hurts, kind of a lot (remember the line in Angels in America, when Belize says a drip can go in so smooth you’d think you were born with it, or alternatively it can feel like it’s pumping Drano…).
The next day when the Dingbat comes in alone, and I ask her to do something with the plastic bar with the button you use to ring for the nurses – it has been unwound and put out of my reach while someone gave me a shot – she wraps it round and round the triangular bar above my head, about twenty times to use up the slack, and leaves it hanging practically in my eyes. The next nurse in redoes it, with rapid professional moves, in the ‘correct’ three times around to hang in exactly the right place.
Fortunately, the Dingbat only comes in for two days out of my whole stay. Bless her clueless little heart…
And here is a most exquisite beauty, a young doctor with a lovely face severely framed by the kind of glasses that are meant to cause men to take her seriously, her hair artfully pulled back to show highlights of blonde and brown. Her last name is, as it happens, Italian, though she was clearly born here; she is perhaps my favorite of them all, strongly competent, proactive, charming without working at it, and even gently but assertively distressed when anything goes wrong. For my final week here, she will in fact be one of my most trusted sources of information and advice – almost more than the Chefarzt, who is of course mostly fairly preoccupied with larger matters.
I wish I could remember her name, though perhaps I shouldn’t put the last names of my caregivers on this blog (which is why I always call him the Chefarzt – although he has an interesting name, one which you know from famous automotive companies – which means something in Stuttgart, the great automotive center of Germany; and of course I had to tell you Türck’s last name, but hopefully that will never get back to him). Even when I first met her, her combination of a strict no-nonsense style with a sensed-rather-than-seen underlying sweetness was attractive; you could imagine that young male doctors would want to ask her out, but never dare to do so.
Her voice is husky, always a bit hoarse, though still a light girl’s voice. She takes my questions and requests seriously, as though I know what I’m talking about – always a great pleasure in medical care. One of the most startling moves she will make happens towards the end of my second week here, when she is changing my bandages: she, with precision and no repugnance, sniffs the length of the used bandage – sniffing to see if the pus is infected or not. It is a move that would alarm those of us who are not medical types; and it seems something she would have learned from the Chefarzt – a direct, realistic appraisal by smell, touch, feel, of what’s going on; the evident heritage of a country doctor, as accustomed to farmyards as to hospitals, and more trusting of his senses than of medical tests. It is peculiarly crude and delicate at the same time – and also strangely moving.
Speaking of the Chefarzt: I have already spoken of him a great deal, but perhaps it is possible to round out the portrait a bit.
(… round out… perhaps a poor choice of words; he is after all a fairly hefty guy…)
As I’ve mentioned, he is respected and somewhat feared; and the running joke is that he is a Landarzt, or country doctor (compare, perhaps, the famous stories under that title by Kafka and by Chekhov). Rough, brusque, given to broad strokes, traditional approaches, no coddling: the inhabitants of this part of Germany are often treated as rough, unlettered peasants – perhaps he’s seen as a part of that.
He treats me well – very well, in fact. From a few days after surgery, I started asking when I could go home; the Chefarzt started to get slightly irritated, turning to the other doctors who trail in his wake to comment sarcastically that I evidently wanted to be treated by English doctors. This seemed so odd to me that I didn’t even know how to respond – but when he visited the next day, I tried to correct his impression, telling him that it wasn’t that I didn’t like the care in Germany (which was of course excellent, if sometimes a bit chilly and/or disciplined, but of course I didn’t mention that), but just that – well – what I said was that I really, really wanted to recover in comfort back at home, because I wanted so much to be sleeping on the couch, making tea, and reading children’s books….
He apparently forgave me, after that.
After a few days, a much older nurse comes in: not friendly, and exaggeratedly Protestant… at first I’m a bit put off, and have the impression that she isn’t particularly interested in her job – is she someone who has gone into nursing after retirement, a sort of docent? She does have a different uniform than the others.
I am, however, entirely wrong, and at every level. Doris is The Head Nurse – the head nurse for this wing, or for the hospital? I don’t know; after all, I’ve been dealing with the head doctor for the entire hospital, she might well be head of everything. As I finally recognize her position, I reinterpret her style – she is brusque because she’s watching everything that all the other nurses do, handing out orders as does the Chefarzt, assuming they’ll be followed, not even bothering to look behind her. (This, then, is where Melanie’s nerves come from, as Türck’s come from the Chefarzt.)
In my last couple of days, I will manage to make friends with her, at least to some extent: I ask her for general advice on taking care of myself after I leave the hospital, etc.; and she warms, slightly, professionally, to this recognition of her superior status.
One of the strangest, at first most off-putting, of the nurses, is a dark-haired Eastern European woman with a voice like an antique brass instrument. And really, her voice is astounding: there is a loud buzz of frontal vowels, and all the consonants of her German are inevitably smashed together at the beginnings and endings of syllables; she is hard to understand but unmistakable, even from the other end of the hall – it is as though someone were suddenly playing a baritone krummhorn, a serpent, a sackbut, outside my closed door. Her family name starts with an H, has a J in it somewhere, and is to my eye completely alien, like Basque or Etruscan – I ask her where she is from; with a certain cautious hostility she says she is from Kosovo. I immediately say something vague but positive, and she relaxes; it is possible that she gets different reactions from different people these days.
Her face is mannish but not unattractive, her big dark eyes intelligent, the hair dark and heavy; in fact her hair, like her voice, is one of those things that must be seen – its texture has the strangeness of a Balkan epic, and when her hair hangs over her eyes it is as though it is made of swords. Heavy and straight, as though the strands are steel, it suggests the brutal nobility of those intricately related Slavic and Asian tribes that crowd into the spaces north of Greece.
It is really so remarkable what different materials make up the humans around us: my Chinese students in Hong Kong all had the same black Asian hair (except for the desperate few who tried to do something with henna, but they were always mostly unsuccessful, only achieving an ugly rusty variation on the norm); but this woman’s hair is like nothing I’ve never seen….
Her braying, brassy horn of a voice is comforting, if hard to understand; for she is competent, with the unfussy competence of battlefields, which she may actually know something about. Once I have negotiated those crucial seconds of finding out she’s Kosovan, without insulting her, or showing myself to be an enemy (I shudder to think what she would do to her enemies), she treats me as one of her own: and that, too, is moving.
And now, finishing writing this nearly two months later, the Kosovan is the one I remember best: at night, when she is sitting at the nurse’s station, talking quietly (as though a krummhorn were asked to play pianissimo) to the other nurse, in an empty, brightly lit space; because I am unable to sleep, as always (for it feels as though I never, ever, really sleep in the hospital, not for the whole two weeks); her presence, her powerful ability to handle any situation, is comforting. And so I walk, decently covered by the gray robe borrowed from Joyce, navigating my drip pole in intricate circles next to me, up and down past the nurses in the hall, getting a little exercise, in this unending dead center of the night.
Too many years of interest in psychology, including pop psychology, including of course any possible interpretation of my own psychology, and interest in many ideas of productivity and success, or happiness, or, well, I don't know, any peculiarly labeled combination of these and a number of loosely associated concepts – also all combined with an upbringing that echoed elements of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodox cultures, all of which have strong and conflicting opinions about all these things – make every possible interpretation, every plan, every decision, all too easy to doubt.
And then there's the complex interface of health and living, of body vs. opinion: feeling better, then feeling worse; going for a long walk to a new bookstore, a pleasant small meal in a book-lined café around the corner, then walking home – but unfortunately climbing the steep stairs in the park near my house with a backpack full of books was a bad idea, since I managed to, once again, strain the muscles that were cut in the operation – my right abdomen aches now, rather a lot, again – which means I'm not really taking proper care of myself – but then, what exactly is proper care?...
Wanting to do the right thing: the right thing for the book(s), the right thing for my body, the right thing for my research, the right thing for colleagues who are waiting for work, the right thing for myself. But never being quite sure exactly what that right thing is – this confusion is typical of me, it's built into my nature; but it's still frustrating....
It's part of the system. Perhaps it is the system.
It's also not a forgotten manifesto from the Surrealists.
I still want something... feeling relatively healthy though still not energetic (especially yesterday and today, oddly and inexplicably tired after short errands and walks); but I am restless, and childishly rebellious that I should expect myself to get back to work on The Book (let alone work on editing the other two Books) without some sort of bright spot, something different, an amusement, something exciting.
First impulse is a trip to Copenhagen, or perhaps Barcelona; or something uncrowded but pleasant in southern Europe. I want the place to be: charming, beautiful, different, and probably not completely unfamiliar (which means Barcelona is a good choice, I already have a whole collection of favorite places to go there; Amsterdam is also good for that, but probably too aggressive for my current mood). But I wouldn't be able to leave for at least a week, and I really couldn't walk around a great deal, and....
Second impulse, strong but fraught with complex decisions, is to get a cat. It is years since I've had a cat: my beloved Ralph, whom I found as a kitten in the middle of the night in San Francisco, wandering the streets (as was I, and I couldn't tell you which of us more needed rescuing), somewhere in 1983-4; who came with me to Los Angeles, in a dramatic airplane journey with a remarkable amount of meowing (I'll tell you about it some time); and who was tragically hit by a car on my too-busy residential street, when he was only about three years old. He was truly a good cat, affectionate and calm (as my roommate Russ said, a True Friend); and, although I've missed him for years, I haven't lived with a cat since then.
Of course a cat means a catbox (and I hate those – Ralph went outside, which is of course why he didn't live long though); or some sort of cat door (a double cat door to outside? one cat door through just the kitchen door on to the back staircase, with a catbox on the steps? so would the first make the house cold and the landlord annoyed, and the second make the cat and possibly me annoyed, especially when it's cold outside? yikes).
And there is the danger of becoming responsible for a crazed cat, an unhappy neurotic or frigid taker. How do you know what kind of foundling you're taking in? I definitely need a friend, not just another demanding mouth lined up next to all the students.
And naturally, having a cat would make travel, such as taking a trip to Barcelona, that much more difficult.
What could I do instead of either?... a train trip to York (too much walking I think). A trip to London (way too stressful, no). A brief escape, or a new responsibility, or....
Can't decide. Aargh.
I remain pleased: this blog is what I want it to be, a support for writing, a communicative device, a casual map of my days.
If I never finish anything else in my life, I'll be quietly happy with this small thing: it feels right, and satisfying....
[A somewhat delayed continuation of my tales of being in hospital; third of perhaps four or five parts. Hey, it amuses me.]
[March 24 – 27, 2008]
Terrible days (Monday/Tuesday)
It’s hard to explain the slightly crazed, exhausted misery of the two days, nearly three, after I was taken out of intensive care. There is, as it happens, a solid explanation – in fact there are two of them: the morphine ceased, and all the artificial well-being gained from it vanished; but, more importantly, and in direct contradiction to what all the nurses repeatedly told me, the side effects of another medication drove me mad.
That medication was simple enough – I don’t know exactly what it was, but a shot every four hours was meant to restart my digestive system, which had evidently been stopped dead in surgery. I’m assuming it was some kind of stimulant – something close to adrenaline? – in any case, although it was aimed at the muscles of my abdomen, it affected everything, my other muscles, my breathing, and worst of all my brain.
I became frantic, wound up, wired, obsessed though exhausted: especially for the two or three hours right after the shot, I would pant, my heart racing, and pluck at the sheets in vague and unfocused irritability. I couldn’t get up of course, or really do anything at all, so – well, you can imagine the craziness of the whole thing: like being in a tiger cage that didn’t exist, or one that was made completely out of my mind and muscles. I kept thinking about brainwashing, about hysteria, about torture, about simply going out of my mind: especially at night, at times, I burst into tears from not being able to relax, to stop this strange and endless buzzing.
The nurses said that the shots had no side effects, and that therefore I couldn’t be experiencing them. I wondered – was it really just me coming down from the morphine? But the experience was definitely worse right after each shot. Perhaps I was so weakened that I felt side effects that a healthy person wouldn’t notice….
Rather weirdly, two musical experiences made these days even more disturbingly charged. When I had opened my computer in the intensive care unit, I played some music for an hour or two on iTunes – and thought that my folk tracks would be the most relaxing, the most comforting. At the time, some of them were: but for some reason one of the last pieces I heard, a reel played by one of my colleagues at the university, which had three chords that went round and round and round in a rather frenetic way, got stuck in some part of my brain.
And so, a day or so later, with this strange medicine driving me nuts, those three chords showed up again: and no other music or other thoughts were clear, nothing else much happened inside my head – not for hours – just these three simple, shrill accordion chords, round and round and round and round and….
On the second night, in an effort to derail my frantic mind from these chords, and from other Ohrwürme that struck me from hour to hour, I turned on the radio in my room. These weren’t general broadcast radio, but a hospital radio system with supposedly about twenty stations (I never got more than five or six); most of the time it focused on rather pompous talk radio in German, which of course didn’t interest me at all. After a few unfocused hours of occasionally turning on the radio and turning it off in exasperated boredom, at about 9 pm or so I noticed a woman’s voice announcing, veneration in her tone, Wagner’s Das Rheingold, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Well, although I doubt I could have stood Die Walküre or Siegfried (neither of which I like, despite Walküre's popularity) in my frantic state of mind, Rheingold or maybe Götterdämmerung might have been just barely possible.
So I left it on… for perhaps an hour, perhaps two. (By the time I turned it off we were somewhere in scene 3, I think.) I’ve always loved Rheingold –the gimmicky, weird bits most of all (the spacey opening, the anvils, the dwarves and dragons, the Leitmotiven underlining every twist in the panicky arguments that make up such a lot of scene 2) – so this was potentially a pleasure. However, the performance itself was a bit frantic, a bit breathless and fragmented: or was that just me and my medicines? Joyce later said she thought the early Karajan recordings were probably like that, though – a bit too energetic and assertive for their own good. And, of course, as my favorite set pieces gave way to extended recitatives, or the tiresome arguments among the gods, my exhausted mind started battling with the whole….
In any case, it was a strange and short-term relief: for some parts of that hour or two, my mind had something to latch on to. I frankly hope that I never have to hear the Karajan versions again; but I’m grateful to Wagner for a little (strange, uncomfortable) relief – or at least some change of mental scenery – in the midst of all the torture.
Through all of this, Joyce kept visiting, almost daily (I think she only missed one or two days of the thirteen that I was in hospital). She brought tea, books, and even downloaded some of her favorite podcasts onto a flash drive in the hope that I would enjoy something and relax. In the time of morphine, we chatted pleasantly, and she expressed surprise that I was in such a good mood. In the more frantic days, at first I was just quiet and uncommunicative; but at last I started to erupt in fretful complaints and demands, like a feverish child. I tried to explain that I was feeling very strange and unhappy from the medications, that it was hard to focus, hard to chat, hard to relax; at first she treated it lightly, assuming that I was still in control, but after a few minutes she realized that I really was not quite myself.
I kept complaining about the things she’d brought, that I’d never use, that the nurses kept moving around, that I felt responsible for; about my coat and suitcases, which were still left behind in another room on another floor; about the bits of things around the room that I couldn’t find, couldn’t reach, the earplugs, the slippers. I know I was a bit crazed and exasperating, especially after trying to be so urbane for the previous days; she began to accede to demands, which were contrary to anybody’s expectations – take home these books, take home the podcasts, I won’t enjoy them, I can’t keep watching to see that they go with me when I get moved.
All of this was about control, about certainty: just as I get fretful at home when things are out of place, so in this hospital room where my own things seemed scattered everywhere, hidden in drawers that might get used by another patient if one should be brought in (and even in different wings of the hospital), I was becoming frantic at the dissolution of systems, of control. Bless her, she went up and down stairs looking for my coat, dragged my suitcase downstairs, and took many things she had brought in back home. All to keep me from bursting into ridiculous tears….
A day or two later, when they no longer gave me shots and I was calm again, we could talk in a more civilized manner. She looked at me, appraisingly: you know, you were really wound up the last couple of days….
On the Wednesday following surgery, as I became more normal, and accustomed to my room, surroundings, nurses, and increasingly part of the hospital’s schedule (and, of course, as the entire hospital itself straggled back to its usual patterns after the long Easter weekend), I started to notice more of what was going on around me.
An annoying visit from a young and clueless administrative functionary about my health insurance – I told her it was taken care of by travel insurance, by Joyce, by two young doctors who had written down information over the weekend, and that I had no names, telephone numbers, or information; she knew nothing, and seemed to have no idea how to find out anything – developed into a more substantial visit the next day from an older woman, with the clueless youngster in tow. Fortunately, the experienced woman understood what to do, asked a few more questions, said it was all perfectly satisfactory, and went and handled everything; I started to appreciate what Joyce had said, that my travel insurance seemed really excellent. Even proactive, weirdly enough: she said that they called her.
Drips, tubes, catheters: only three remaining (the drip with saline and periodic pain medications and three different bottles of antibiotics in my arm, a tube to extract unused gall (bile?) going through my nose down to my stomach, and one well, you know where), but the hard part is disentangling them. As my digestion restarts, I need to get to the bathroom occasionally, then with more frequency; but turning my body over to pull myself up, to roll out of the bed, inevitably leaves the gall bag tangled with the urine bag, and/or both around the pole where the drip is. No amount of planning and bag-arranging seems to stop this….
And mild arguments about just where to inject the drip: during surgery, while I was anesthetized and couldn’t ask them to use my left hand (so my right hand would be free for meals, computer, and going to the bathroom), they put it in the back of my right hand; then two days later, when that spot was swollen and useless, moved it to my left hand; then another spot on the top of the left thumb, then back to the right forearm… five places over ten days, leaving my hands bruised and scabbed, echoing the growing number of bruises and black spots on my inner elbows, and scattered across my thighs from other shots against blood clots, and shots I didn’t even understand.
Parts of me have thus come to look like battlegrounds, battered and ruined, a range of dark bruise colors, none of them healing quickly. But worst of all are the backs of my hands: it’s not only the bruises and scabs, but they look so dry, wasted, ancient – of course, in Los Angeles, where plastic surgery is a cultural norm, they say: you can always tell from the backs of the hands. And mine look very old indeed: I know that in some ways I am younger than my age (one nurse is startled to hear that I’m fifty-one, and says she would have said ten years younger – but perhaps she’s comparing me with all the many patients in their seventies?), and also that in the past few years I’ve tended to think myself into being mentally older than my age (depression, lack of sex, loneliness). Now the backs of my hands are an accusation and a sign, emphasizing the sense that my different ages are fragmented across different parts of my body and mind, some younger and some older; and some frighteningly, pathetically aged.
(Hands... an interesting if rather intimate aspect comes to light: as I have needles in one hand or another, plus two other bags attached to me, and am starting to have diarrhea as my digestion starts to work again, the elaborate fuss over wiping myself gets a remarkable amount of attention. Right hand, left hand, easy or difficult, coordinated versus un-: I start thinking also of the intricacies of those cultures that define the left hand as the hand that wipes, and therefore never picks up food, or shakes hands, or does anything else. I asked Joyce at one point, as her husband is Turkish, whether this seemed to matter to him or to his relatives: but she said no, that modern Turks, who have all the toilet paper they need, don't worry so much about such things. I suspect that, on my visit to Bali in the late 1990s, I was entirely unaware of this distinction – and probably offended many of my hosts, especially at the big cremation festival, around the vast banquet table of rich and alien foods.)
After a few days, I notice something else that seems peculiar: several of my fingers, on the inside, have blisters, each getting harder. I can’t imagine where they might have come from, given that I’m barely moving and doing no kind of work, and of course lifting nothing at all. Finally, I see it, looking up at the triangular bar above me, the one I use to hoist myself into and out of bed – since my muscular center of gravity, the connection between legs and torso, is absolutely out of commission, and I can’t shift my body as a unit, but only in parts and with help: they are blisters from grabbing the bar and lifting my body up, every time I move.
Herr Silva (Thursday)
Something I’ve been obliquely dreading: after I have been alone in this room for three days, very late one night, at about three a.m., the nurses bring in another patient. Ah well, I knew this peace and quiet wasn’t going to last.
Herr Silva (not quite his name, but the name that most of the nurses have settled on for him, after transposing and subtracting some letters) is evidently a charming little man, like somebody’s grandfather. He is a tiny, elderly Brasilian who has spent years in Germany; he has a face like a dark dried apple, and has had fairly major surgery of some kind on his chest. He can’t say much, but at first seems pleasant, if groggy; I introduce myself, as though I am the host of this room. He explains to the young doctor’s questions that his family is scattered across the world, there is a brother in Saarbrücken but it’s no use to call him (which is odd, because Saarbrücken is a small city only about an hour away – perhaps they are seriously estranged).
The nurses, after fussing a bit, leave him alone, and it is just the two of us. After a while, he becomes agitated, apparently uncomfortable: he is in pain, and calls out to the nurses. I ring for him, they come and ask what’s the matter, and make sure his pain medication is running; after this happens twice, there is some discussion, the dark orderly from intensive care talks to them, plus a young doctor on call; and finally they wheel him back to intensive care. I am relieved at my restored peace, though I now know that at any time I could get a roommate of any kind: which makes me a bit, selfishly, uneasy….
The next afternoon, as I pick at my lunch (which, given my condition, consists of two pieces of white bread with jam and honey), Herr Silva is wheeled in again, nurses reorganize and fuss, move things around, and generally get him settled. At least as much as he can be settled: he seems even less conscious; and, after a while, he starts to moan, periodically, in pain. I don’t know quite what to do, if anything: asking him if I can ring for the nurses elicits no response – he seems too drugged, too out of it, to know what he wants.
After the moans have gone on for a while with some breathless pauses, he starts to mumble, repeating the same word: stab, stab – why is he saying that, in English? – or is it: ich starb? –
As he moans and talks more and more, getting gradually louder over half an hour or so, I finally understand: ich sterbe – I’m dying. He says this over and over, interspersed with more moaning. The nurses come in to check on him several times, and try to manage him, give him more pain medication, do what they can to calm him down. None of which, however, works well: they are giving him simple, rational instructions that appeal to his self-restraint, which might work well in a Lutheran context; but he is, of course, in a grandly operatic, Catholic, more highly colored fashion, projecting a world of torture, tragedy, misery. Although, by their medical standards, he is not in bad shape – and, of course, as nurses they can probably afford to have only so much empathy for pain, and not much at all for fear or despair – their feeble attempts to control the situation, to tame him and his cries, go nowhere.
After they have come in several times, then left, his moaned monologue gradually extends to phrases that sound like apocrypha extracted from some lost version of Woyzeck: ich sterbe, sterbe… wo ist das Messer [where is the knife?]….
Tragic, and a bit hard to listen to, even for me. I’m mostly uncomfortable rather than disturbed, however, and I try to help, talking to him and adjusting things for him; at this point I can get out of bed without too much trouble. He starts to pull at his drip, at his tubes (an impulse I can understand, as I’ve been resisting doing that myself); while moaning on about dying and knives, he pulls the drip pole over on himself. I move surprisingly quickly, finding myself at his side, preventing him from pulling on tubes, holding the tilting pole at an awkward angle, telling him again to calm down, pushing the button repeatedly for the nurse.
One nurse comes in, then another and a third, they cluck over the dramatic scene (we are like some baroque painting, arranged in a triangle – the horizontal body, the other leaning over, holding the pole at acute angle); they thank me for helping and hustle me back to bed: this has clearly caught their attention (finally), and one of them goes and gets the Chefarzt as the other two try to talk him down.
And now there is an entire grand operatic scena for the ensemble, two or three nurses, two young doctors, and the Chefarzt talking to Silva, discussing his case, telling him to calm down, trying to figure out what to do; the nurses point out that the Herr Professor (that is me, in case you have forgotten) helped out, pointing at me proudly as though I’m a child who has done something unusually mature that may be praised but shouldn't be overly encouraged… at which point the Chefarzt looks up and says, So why on earth is there another patient in this room?
I think: hmm, that’s kind of how I feel about all this.
The Chefarzt asks the nurses, are the other rooms on this hall full? They look at each other, uncomfortable, and one starts to explain: well, E 12 and E 14 are empty, and… But he is not interested in the details, and lays down the law: Silva should be alone in a room until he is less difficult to manage, and of course until he stops moaning, crying out, disturbing other patients.
The nurses move me rather than him, as I seem more manageable at this point. I am taken to the room where I will spend the next week, and in fact where I will be until I leave: a quiet room three doors down from Silva (whom I will hear moaning, crying out, at night, for several more nights, ringing down the hallways; and I am glad I’m not right next door to him). A room designed like the other, though its mirror image, and with an unused, even slightly abandoned, feel: there will be sunlight in the mornings across my bed.
And there will be no more roommates, for the rest of my time here: the Chefarzt has spoken. Although I haven’t paid for a single, once again, prestige and favoritism rule. And I am grateful for that….
The first day with a forecast of 70°, and with the east window thermometer showing 75° (my neighborhood is always warmer than the forecast – I think the weather station must be near the river – though, unhappily, the coming week will drop back down to 59° or so): I laid on a lawn chair in my back yard, in the sun, next to the herbs and pots we bought yesterday, which I will organize and replant in a day or two.
I thought this morning, on waking: minor aches and sleepiness are making it difficult to write, and as I can expect aches, pains and the low energies of age and intersecting illnesses to worsen over the coming years, it would be amazing if I ever finished this book, let alone any other. Ah well; perhaps that's just how it is.
But summer (or even a fragment, a taste, of summer) in a northern clime is such a vast change, and such a pleasant gift: I can't worry very much....