My mouth fills with more mucus than I can swallow. My nose runs and the machine sounds a dreadful honk. Rikki is pushed aside by a nurse who quickly stops the awful noise and suctions me. More alarms go off—they’re always going off. Are they mine? Does anyone know; does anyone care?
The nurse, in her rush, neglects to close the curtain. So Rikki sees the suction tube jammed in my mouth, then in each nostril. Her face contorts with the effort to hide her anguish. I want to tell her that it’s okay—that things are not as bad as they look. I want to hold her in my arms to comfort her. Instead, I wink again. I cannot speak. I am totally mute.
She holds my hand. “The doctors say you’ll make a full recovery. You know you’ll make a full recovery.” It is more of a plea than a statement, but I nod my head in agreement. I need no reassurance. I know I will recover.
“Do you want me to stay all night?” I shake my head no. She looks exhausted. Her blue eyes seem dull with worry; her blonde hair looks lank. She’s a trim, athletic woman, normally full of pep but this has been a long day. What would be the point of her staying?
“There are no visiting hours in this part of the hospital,” she tells me. “You can come when you want and stay as long as you want. I can stay.” I vigorously shake my head no! I want her to take care of herself. She is my love.
Again, the flood of mucus is overwhelming me. “Nurse! Nurse!” Rikki cries. An Indian nurse comes in and starts opening the clear plastic box, containing the suctioning material. Hurry, please, hurry. I’m drowning again. Look at her! She’s taking her bloody, sweet time opening the fucking box. It’s as though it holds something precious.
She asks Rikki to leave, then closes the curtain.
I can’t stand this. Jesus! Finally, she’s suctioning my mouth. Oh, thank God! Oh, the relief! Wait a minute you dumb bitch, what about my nose? Don’t leave. You forgot to suction my nose. I try to lift an arm to point to my nose, but I can’t. I don’t have the strength. I try to stop the respirator, to breathe against it, but it is too powerful for me.
Rikki is back. I want to show her something is wrong. I shake my head—I move my leg. Jesus, do something please. “Nurse, nurse!” she cries again. I’m swallowing gallons of mucus. The stuff covers my upper lip. Alarms are sounding somewhere.
The Indian nurse responds. “What’s wrong, darling?” she asks. Her voice is so sweet, her touch so gentle. My nose you bitch! My fucking nose! “Do you know what’s wrong?” she asks Rikki.
“His nose is running terribly.”
“Oh, yes, I see,” she says gently. “I suction.” Again, Rikki must leave and the curtain is drawn. Everything this nurse does is slow fucking motion, slower than the beat of the respirator. She opens the box. She dons the gloves. She inserts the suction catheter into the vacuum tube. Now she’s suctioning my nose. “There darling, isn’t that better?” she asks me, throwing away the catheter and her gloves. No bitch, my nose is fine but now my mouth needs suctioning.
“Your husband is okay now,” she tells Rikki as she leaves. But I’m not okay. My mouth is full again. I can’t swallow all this stuff. I can’t. I shake my arms and my leg as much as I can to signal Rikki. Again Rikki calls for a nurse. This time we get a young girl. Quickly, she suctions both my mouth and nose. Some difference!
Rikki is reluctant to leave but Dr. Fields is telling her that she should go and I nod in agreement. Now the Indian nurse is stroking my head and talking to Rikki. She says her name is Doria. “I take good care of your husband tonight. Don’t worry. I take good care. Go home and rest.”
Rikki wants more. She wants to establish some human contact with this nurse. “Are you Indian?” she asks.
“Oh yes I am.” Doria’s voice is a singsong.
“My husband was in India recently and he loved it.” I didn’t love it but it fascinated me. I know Rikki is trying to give the nurse a reason to like me.
“Where was he?” They’re talking about me as if I’m not here.
“Bombay.” Oh, no, it wasn’t Bombay. It was New Delhi. I’m shaking my head no as hard as I can but they don’t notice.
“How long was he there?”
“Just one day but he visited the Taj Mahal. He loved that.” Oh, Jesus, Rikki, you can’t visit the Taj from Bombay in a day.
“Are you sure he was in Bombay?” asks Doria. She realizes there is a geographical error.
“It was Bombay, wasn’t it darling?” I shake my head no so very weakly.
“New Delhi?” Doria questions. I shake my head yes and mucus spills from my mouth and nose. She asks Rikki to leave and again the curtain is closed. This time she suctions both my mouth and nose, but it’s slow.
Now Rikki is back. “I fly to New Delhi tomorrow,” Doria tells Rikki. “I go home for a holiday with my husband and baby.” I’m overjoyed by the news.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” says Rikki. “After tonight you won’t be able to take care of Bob.” Has Rikki lost her mind?
“I come back in a month. I take care of him then. Don’t worry.” Doria says. I’m outraged. A month! I won’t be here in a month. How can she think I’ll be here in a month?
“Bob won’t be here in a month,” says Rikki in a shaky voice. “He’ll be better.” Of course I will.
“I hope so,” says the nurse, “but if he’s here, I take care of him.”
I don’t have enough strength now to push the call button. They’ve rigged a string to it so I can pull it to call a nurse. The first time I try, I find I’m even too weak to do that.
Rikki realizes that isn’t going to be a way for me to summon help during the night. Doria promises to check me frequently. Rikki says I should twist my left leg vigorously if I need help. It’s the only part of me 1can still move with any strength. “Don’t worry,” says Doria.
Will Rikki ever go? “You’ll be all right. Doria will take good care of you.” She is trying to reassure herself. “Are you sure you want me to go?” she asks again. I nod yes. “I could stay. I could spend the night,” she pleads. I nod no.
It is pointless. She needs sleep. The dog has to be walked, usually my job, and fed, her job. There will be phone calls on the answering service about skating lessons—orders at the post office for our mail order business. To the rest of the world this has been an ordinary day.
“Good night darling,” Rikki says, fighting away tears. “I love you.” I cannot respond. “You love me, don’t you?” she asks. I nod my head. God, do I ever! I watch her go.
I need suctioning. I twist my leg violently. Where the fuck is Doria? I hear the sound of my respirator. Alarms are beeping all over. The bells are ringing for me and my gal. There is mucus running from my nose and mouth. Why did I let Rikki go? How will I get help? I twist my leg as hard as I can. Maybe someone will come. I see nurses passing, but no one notices my turning leg. I swallow more mucus. Now there’s a bell ringing near me. It’s one of my alarms. A nurse comes to check, to turn it off and sees I need suctioning. Finally, relief!
There is a night in this tomb. As the hour grows late, they turn off some of the lights but it is nowhere near dark. It grows quieter, but it is nowhere near silent. The public address system stops paging doctors. I hear my respirator if I listen for it, but already it has become part of my life. Its rhythm is now my rhythm. Could I breathe without it? I don’t know. Alarms ring and nurses move about. The sound of something going kerplunk comes from the nurses’ station. Because I am lying down and can’t move my head, my visibility is very limited.
“Mr. Samuels?” asks a young, bearded doctor. I try to answer but of course I can’t make a sound. Doria materializes from somewhere and confirms that I am indeed Mr. Samuels.
“Mr. Samuels, my name is Davis. I’m a resident here. I’m supposed to give you a nose tube so you can be fed while on the respirator. Do you understand?” I try to nod but I discover I can no longer even do that. I can’t respond. “Mr. Samuels, blink your eyes if you understand.” I blink. “Mr. Samuels, I have to give you the tube because you can’t eat normally while on the respirator.” I blink again.
They put up the back of the bed, which pitches my head forward. Mucus pours from my mouth and nose. “Nurse, Mr. Samuels needs suctioning,” says Dr. Davis.
For a change, Doria hustles. She’s afraid of the doctor. She pushes my head back and it hits something with a conk. It is strange to hit your head and not be able to rub it. A sensor rips off my chest and an alarm sounds. She puts the sensor back. Now I feel a pull at my penis. Something has snagged the tube attached to the catheter and pulled it out. No alarm-sounds for this and there is no way for me to tell them. But all I really care about is lying down again. Sitting up is incredibly uncomfortable. Hurry, please hurry!
Under the glare of a strong light, Dr. Davis slips the plastic tube up my right nostril. He works smoothly and easily. “I have to be sure you have this thing in your stomach and not in one of your lungs. That could cause real problems,” he says.
The nose tube is in place. He attaches a rubber bulb to its end and places his stethoscope against my stomach. Then he squeezes the bulb. I feel my stomach rumble. “It’s in the right place all right,” he says. “I can hear it. You’re all set.”
He senses my discomfort and quickly gets Doria to help him put me back on my side and get me settled. Oh Lord, sweet relief! He’s gathering his stuff to leave. He doesn’t know about the catheter! I’m blinking like crazy, trying to get his attention.
He notices. “What’s wrong? Something’s bothering you, isn’t it?” I blink once. He looks around the bed and spots the problem. “Jesus,” he swears softly, “one of us pulled out your catheter. “Thanks for letting me know.” I blink again, trying to say you’re welcome.
The catheter is back in place. Dr. Davis has gone. I miss him. He’d talk with me and I’m lonely. No one is around. Things are quiet—quiet as they ever get. I hear just an occasional kerplunk from the nurses’ station. I know that noise. What the hell is it? There’s some white stuff flowing through the nose tube into my stomach. I taste nothing. I’m not being fed, I’m being filled.
The nose tube has set off a fresh eruption of mucus. The alarm sounds. It’s insistent. Doria responds, she suctions, the mucus flows, the alarm sounds, Doria comes, she suctions. On and on it goes. Just when it seems it will never stop, never even slow, it does slow.
Time passes. I think of my father and my stepmother in Cuernavaca, Mexico. They found the ideal place for them to retire. They have such a nice life there. Jesus, it would kill my father if he knew where I am.
Suctioning, I need suctioning. How the fuck does this happen so quickly? One minute I’m fine, the next I’m drowning. I twist my leg but it only moves a little. The myelin must be burning away there too. “The lights are going out all over Europe,” said Winston Churchill at the beginning of World War II. Now, the lights are going out all over me.
Where the fuck is Doria? I’m going to die before she comes. Oh, Jesus! “Medic! Medic!” they yell in war novels. I can’t call.—I can’t even whisper. That dumb goddamn fucking Indian cunt! Get your fucking ass over here! Jesus, this thing is making me a racist sexist, a delightful combination. It’s so damn difficult to breathe. I say, Doria darling, while you’re up get me suction.
The loud respirator alarm is sounding. She can’t ignore that goddamn thing. It’ll wake the dead. Who knows, in this ward maybe there really are dead to wake. “Where is Doria?” asks a young nurse. “I wish I knew where Doria disappears to,” she sighs after suctioning me. “Let me look at you.” She peers down, brown eyes moist and sympathetic. “You’re Mr. Samuels, I heard about you. You’re sick now but you’re going to make a complete recovery.” You’re fucking A right, baby, fucking A! You’re my kind of nurse.
“You’re a mess,” she tells me sweetly. “You need a bath. Doria should do it but I don’t know where is but I’ll clean you up. We can’t leave you this way.” She draws the curtains around my bed and brings a basin of warm water, washcloths and towels. Now she pulls back the bedclothes and, with gentleness, strips my hospital gown, all the while talking to me. Her name is Jenny, she tells me. She’s been a nurse since June when she graduated from Rockland Community College. She is getting married in the spring.
Jenny loves working in the ICU, enjoys the twelve-hour shifts, and the time off. I adore her. All the while she’s talking she’s washing my body. She touches me gently where no one but lovers have touched me since I was a child. Although she is young and very attractive, there is nothing sexual in this. Even so, her touch is personal. She’s not washing a car and she knows it.
I smell the Ivory soap and, as always, the odor brings back memories of my mother. She had bathed with Ivory too. I remember that although I was just in kindergarten when she died during an operation for stomach cancer.
Many primitive peoples believe that as long as someone remembers you, you are still alive. Although I reject the mystical and have no belief in a hereafter, I think there is an undeniable truth to this.
So, because of my hazy memories, my mother lives again and again. Some of the things that evoke her for me—her monuments—are Ivory soap and her favorite foods, corn on the cob, coffee ice cream and lamb chops. They say she had a marvelous sense of humor. I think those things would have made her laugh.
Before Jenny can get a fresh gown on me, I need suctioning. As she starts to do my mouth, Doria pushes through the curtains. “What are you doing with my patient?” she demands in a voice that whines into an indignant squeal.
“You weren’t around and he needed suctioning,” says Jenny, a little defensively.
“What happened to his gown?”
“He also needed to be washed. He was a mess.”
“I’ll take care of my patients. You take care of yours!”
“Fine with me,” says Jenny, whirling on her heel, and pushing out of the cubicle.
Doria stuffs my arm through the sleeve of the gown. She’s angry and rough. Electrodes pop off my body, an alarm sounds. “You are my patient, you understand! I don’t want you with her!” I feel guilty,
like a cheating husband, but what the hell have I done? It’ll make a funny story when it’s over.
I have to remember to tell it to my father. I’ll see him soon. Rikki and I have reservations to go down in February. We’re spending three days in Cuernavaca with him and my stepmother, then four days alone on the beach in Puerto Vallarta. We’ll certainly be ready for a vacation. This’ll seem like a bad dream by then.
My father is a great storyteller but he also loves to hear a good story. I have several I’m saving for him. One involves our answering service machine.
On a recent evening, Rikki was waiting impatiently as I arrived home from work. She had gotten in a little before me and had played the messages on the machine. “There’s a call I’ve been saving for you. You have to hear it,” she said, switching on the machine.
“Rikki,” began a pleasant sounding male voice, “I have feelings for you. Do you have feelings for me? If you have feelings for me, I would like to get together with you.” Then the voice added, “There is no need for Robert to know about this call.”
Of course, Robert, me, was listening and I immediately recognized the caller. Rikki is poor at identifying voices but she agreed with me about who it was. The incident would be perfect in a John Cheever or John Updike short story: attempted adultery on an answering service.
We thought of having a dinner party and inviting the caller, his wife, and several other couples. Toward the end of the party, we’d announce that we had a something we wanted everyone to hear. “See if you can identify the mystery voice,” I’d say, playing the message through our stereo. We didn’t do it. We erased the tape.
My legs ache. I’m so uncomfortable. How long has it been since I saw Doria? I don’t know. There are no clocks in this place. Without glasses, if there were I couldn’t read the time. Besides, a curtain Doria carelessly left partially closed, blocks any view. My secretions are building, but they’re a long way from setting off the alarm. Where is Jenny? She won’t help me now. Bitch Doria!
I have to move off this side. Rikki would help if she knew. Why did I let her go? I could blink my eyes and she’d understand I need help. She would try to find out what it was I wanted. She’d call Doria. She’d do something. She wouldn’t have left if she’d known what would happen. She wouldn’t have gone.
Charlie would help if he knew. Charlie, our only child, is a student at the University of Maryland. If he knew, he’d break in here and ask why they weren’t helping me. He’d be polite—he’s always polite — but he wouldn’t let them ignore me. He’d demand they help.
To think of Charlie, is to smile. He’s everyone’s favorite kid, not just mine. The best brief description of him was my father’s: “He has your optimism and Rikki’s enthusiasm,” he’d said.
JESUS, BITCH DORIA! I have to move, don’t you understand?
Charlie doesn’t know. Rikki wouldn’t tell him. She wouldn’t tell anyone, not yet anyway. We’re both like that. We have many friends but we seldom open up with any of them. Maybe we’re so close that we don’t need anyone else. We’ve always been open with Charlie, but why worry him now before we know how bad things are? Why worry anyone?
I’m drowning again, Goddamnit! The alarm is going to go off. It’s so hard to breathe. Can you actually drown this way? I don’t know. No, you can’t, they wouldn’t make a respirator that would let that happen. You’re so naive. You’re an asshole, a real asshole. They’ve knowingly built cars like the Ford Pinto with deadly design defects. So why wouldn’t they build hospital machines with fatal flaws? I don’t like to think this way. I could die? I could die! I don’t believe that—not really. But why doesn’t the alarm sound? How the fuck should I know. Oh, it’s so hard to breathe.
Who’s this? “You’re really juicy, aren’t you darling?” I blink a yes. The nurse is older than most, heavier. She suctions me quickly. Now turn me, please. No reaction. I demand you turn me! “There, that’s better,” she says, gathering all the disposable suctioning junk. Turn me! Please, get me off my side. I’m blinking as hard as I can. She doesn’t notice. She’s away, off into the gloom.
First I brood, and then I console myself. After all, there have been some net gains. I no longer need suctioning and she’s pushed back the curtain. Although I can see, there isn’t much to see — some other beds, the nursing station lights and the occasional ghostly figure of a nurse, moving quietly, almost floating. As each passes, I strain to see if it is Doria.
Can this really be happening? I have a profound sense of detachment. But this is not a Franz Kafka short story. This is not The Metamorphosis. This is me! This is happening! I still don’t believe it.
I see bitch Doria. Turn me now and I forgive you everything. I’ll love you forever. I’m blinking frantically. Don’t you see me bitch, cunt; don’t you notice? “You don’t need suctioning,” she says. Brilliant fucking observation, brilliant! Now turn me, bitch! “I’ll be back in a short while to turn you, darling,” she says, moving silently away. There is hope now. She knows I’m here and she’ll be back soon.
What time is it? I haven’t slept. I’m not the least bit sleepy. How can you sleep when you’re so uncomfortable? Uncomfortable, hell, I’m in pain. This is all so unreasonable. No one’s ever told me anything about this kind of hospital experience. All the complaints I ever heard about nurses have been somewhat humorous. I never heard a story about a horrible nurse like Doria. People don’t remember the terrible things that happen to them.
Where the fuck is Doria? Has she already left for India?
Do I have a better memory for bad experiences than others do? Maybe I do. In 1955, after graduating from high school, I joined the Air Force. It was only a couple of years after the end of the Korean War where Air Force took some heavy ground casualties. The generals said those losses occurred because airmen weren’t given any combat training.
They were determined not to repeat that mistake with us. Our training was brutal. Everyone said the Air Force was trying to make it tougher for us than Paris Island Marines had it. As far as I’m concerned, they succeeded. I remember them telling us that no matter how unhappy we were then, we’d remember all we were going through fondly.
As they were saying it, I knew that I would never forget the raw fear, the humiliation and the bone weariness of that terrible hot summer. I wouldn’t let sentimentality cheat me out of a real memory, no matter how awful. But they were right: most men remember basic as if it were a hilarious fraternity party. When I was there, I didn’t see anyone having fun.
Within months after I finished my training, the Air Force forgot the lessons of Korea and returned to its old, sloppy ways. It cut basic training down from 12 to six weeks and relaxed the discipline. So it is with the military mind.
Just as I remember basic, I will remember this night. Doria, I will remember you forever, you bitch. There is someone here. It’s Doria! She didn’t forget! She came back! Oh, God, she’s turning me. Oh, ecstasy! I love you, Doria. I’m drowning again but you’ll save me. That’s it, baby. Suction, suction! Better now. Sensors are yanked away. Alarms sound. Another nurse is helping Doria replace the sensors. Now I’m sweating—terrible sweats. Swimming. They change my gown. They’re filling me again with white stuff through the nose tube. I prefer ham and eggs with home fries, please.
Sweet Jesus! I hear Rikki! Could the night be over? They’re turning more lights on. The night is over!
I can’t see her yet, but she’s arrived. I hear her. She’s thanking Doria. As soon as I can talk I’ll tell Rikki how awful it was. How I was ignored. “Your husband is a nice man. When I come back next month, I’ll take care of him again.” Never!
“That’s very nice of you,” Rikki says, “but by then he’ll be back home. He won’t need a nurse.”
“I hope he’s better,” says Doria, “but I think he’ll still be here.” Fuck you, bitch! What the hell do you know? Are you a doctor?
Ralph’s friend was in the hospital three months. Don’t think of him.