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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Several Faces of Tragedy

Almost four years to the date of my last hospital stay, I spent about a week in the hospital earlier this month. In the intervening years, the hospital lost its religion (used to be Lutheran) and became NYU Langone. For this NYU alum, all that purple felt comforting.

My first roommate was out of for a procedure when I was admitted and for hours afterward. When I first noticed she was in the room, I had awoken in the middle of the night, and she was slumped over the bed – she fell asleep watching some animated film and the TV operating instructions were playing on a loop, inexplicably in Spanish.

The next morning we introduced ourselves and we talked and laughed for a couple of hours. Then her husband came and we had an animated conversation. She let me use her cell so I could call Mom and put her at ease that I had a good night and sounded better. I even got to chat with the lady’s daughter on the phone for a minute. The laughter was easy and plentiful. It was joyful—a shared bliss in meeting the sun another day.

Then they released her and, tragically, I was all alone…

Soon another roommate came and she slept as a man and a woman hovered over her and spoke to each other in Greek. The woman, a tall and lanky blonde, seemed just a little angry all the time and spoke to the man with unveiled contempt.

After they settled the sleeping beauty, the blonde left and only the man remained. Hovering. Lost in sadness and anger. At the end of the evening, he kissed the patient’s forehead and left. The next morning, the man was back, with the same pained look in his eyes.

We nodded. Soon we were exchanging pleasantries. I asked if the patient was his mom. To my horror and embarrassment, he replied, “No! That is my wife.” He looked at her lovingly and added, without a trace of rancor, “We’ve been married for forty years.”

Apparently, having put a foot in my mouth further depleted my oxygen saturation and I got stupider, and instead of apologizing—or better yet STFUI doubled down on the stupid: “Oh, I guess I thought the bossy blonde was your wife.”

He looked at me for a moment, thought about it and, after a long pause, laughed. “Yeah, that's her sister and she’s always like that… She thinks she is everybody’s boss. But it comes in handy with all the doctors. Nobody talks down to her!”

He soon forgot and, having Brooklyn and this hospital stay in common, we were soon being sociable and forgot my faux pas. And soon, just as some of my neighbors, he was able to ignore my vague ethnicity and began to spew all sorts of racist crap, which I politely ignored because I realized he had bigger problems…

The love of his life was wilting before him and after forty years, I suspect his bravado and denial masked anger, sadness, and fear.

I can’t write romance, but I could visualize a tiny Greek beauty fresh from the old country taking his breath away and how she still does; and so she still believes she is that pretty young thing (plus she is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s). Their love affair is slowly turning tragic because he is losing her: her body is failing her, her mind is failing her, and he believes he can bring her back by reminding her about what their life has been. And he thinks he can care for her on his own because no care facility cares more than he does... (This may be partially true but also will be his undoing, and realistically will lead to more tragedy.) He doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to. Her sister calls her a "survivor" and does not see that her sister is deteriorating. 

And again I find myself staring at wounded love broken by this illness and reminded that I wanted to write a story of a mind trapped in it. I may still do it, but staring directly at that face of tragedy requires a courage I have not mastered yet.