On Illness

I hate hospitals.

One of my earliest memories is getting my hand smashed in the side of my great Uncle’s hospital bed. I can distinctly remember the exact shade of red of my grandfather’s blood when he sliced his leg open with a chain saw–dark like oil, with only hints of red around the outside edges of the pools…so shiny I could see the ceiling light reflected in it. If I sit quietly enough, I can transport myself back to the night when I waited at my aunt’s house while my dad, my best friend, was behind an oak door that suddenly seemed twenty feet tall and weighed 5,000 pounds. Bed sores, ventilators, and chemo were words tossed around as casually as ‘hotdogs,’ ‘TV,’ and ‘sock’ in my house. Memories of Christmas in the hospital mingle with those of Yuletide gingerbread and hot chocolate. It never seemed strange to me that I used to study for my SOL tests in the hour and a half car ride to Richmond–never once occurred to me to read the blaring neon sign which read “Cancer Treatment Center.”

What did I know of cancer at eleven years old anyway?

Whether it was a result of self-absorption or a general misunderstanding of normalcy, I didn’t know that other children did not spend as much time in hospitals as I did. In high school, when I started to make friends with whom I felt I could share the information of my after school whereabouts, I realized that my friends saw going to the hospital as an alarmingly drastic event, whereas it had become as regular as going to church for me.

All it took was a phone call.

I can remember each time my mother answered the phone and said, “Hello?” which was then followed by a long pregnant pause, a weary sigh and finally, “Okay, hold on, we’re coming.” At which point, I would have to put on my sneakers (which was quite an ordeal for me when I was younger) and I would carefully select which books I would take with me. I’d then clamber into the car and look out into the darkness of the night while Dad drove us on the 5 minute route to the hospital.

Yet being around the sick and shut in did not get easier.

I imagine some people see hospitals as places of hope. You go in, they mend you, you get better, you go home. But I see humans pretending to be God, reviving the dead. Resuscitation can give you a second chance at life…or it can leave you brain-dead and glassy eyed. I see doctors and nurses undervaluing Black patient’s pain levels and well being, releasing them when they ought to be watched more, neglecting them…and I am never surprised when it happens. I have heard the kind of screams that I wish I could forget, erase from my memory. Hospitals have the smell of death in them, that you just can’t wash off, no matter how much you wash and scrub. I used to cry because my clothes would still smell like the hospital and my parents would look at me, baffled, because they smelled really smelled like Downy.

I have heard too many last requests.

I drove like hell to get a jar of apple butter to my dying  maternal grandfather; I stayed and watched cartoons with my  paternal grandmother; and, today, I have heard my paternal grandfather plead to see me, his only granddaughter “before he goes away from here.”

As I face yet another ICU, the stench of antiseptic, the chill of the waiting room, the steady heartbeat of the monitors, I pray for strength. The strength to walk through those automatic double doors again, to not sink to my knees when I turn the corner to the ICU, to speak when I press the call button and ask to see my grandfather.

Because I know when I arrive, I will hear the screams in the back of my mind, hear the tick of the clock as I waited with bated breath, hear the shallow breaths.

I just pray to move forward.



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