Hazy, wakeful moments staring out the window over Central Park mixed with slipping into a stupor were only interspersed with periodic x-rays and deliveries of food. Mike, the x-ray tech was young, tall, and handsome and always surprised me by appearing while I was asleep, mouth agape, likely drooling. I would try to compose myself, but knew it was hopeless. I stunk, from the inside. All the medication had made me putrid and I sweat out the smell. Every morning I sponge-bathed but was not allowed a shower until the chest tubes were out. My unwashed hair was piled on top of my head like a bee’s nest, patiently waiting.
‘Here she is!’ he would call out cheerfully, as he slipped the cold hard board between my back and the bed. ‘The girl with the million dollar view.’
‘I heard this was the best hotel in New York,’ I would whisper back hoarsely, trying to inflect humor.
He wore scrubs, like all hospital staff, except his pants were unique with the words HOSPITAL PROPERTY printed all over them in random directions. I would joke with him, ‘How long do I have to be here to get a pair like that?’
Mike would chuckle.
‘I think I’ve put in my time,’ I would defend. ‘I’m kind of hospital property.’
The other regular interruptions were for food. Each afternoon an overweight dietician in her fifties, who maneuvered around slowly with a walker, would enter breathlessly, cross the room, sit down heavily in a chair beside me and begin to ask what I wanted to eat the following day. It was a futile conversation, as I had no appetite. My taste buds were destroyed from the anesthesia or some other process of the surgery. Everything tasted salty, and the morphine dried out my mouth so food simply stuck there on my tongue, absorbing the last bit of saliva and then I was unable to move it anywhere. I ignored the choices, spitting back a response, and when the food arrived I drank the apple juice, and pushed the rest of the tray away.
Hateful fluid continued to drain from my chest, filling the clear plastic containers, more yellow now than red. Each time a nurse checked the box I looked hopeful, and she would shake her head. Anesthesia had long worn off; morphine was useless. Via pain signals, I could acutely track the formation of scar tissue where the tubes were. My body hunched forward, as if forcing concavity would create space and alleviate the agony. On the morning of the fifth day, a nurse asked me if I had been using my spirometer, a plastic contraption we were supposed to blow into to exercise our lungs. I told her it hurt too much to breathe. She insisted so I tried, pathetically, in front of her. She saw beads of sweat at my hairline, against the pasty gray skin of my face and shook her head. It was time for another morphine pill, and my momentary respite into oblivion.
Some time later, long after that morphine had worn off and before I could beg for another, I was told to walk down the hall to a meeting for patients who might be discharged the following day. Gown flapping about me, stooped over, clutching a drain box to my middle, it seemed unlikely I would be discharged any time soon. Jonathan and I shuffled slowly and were late. Three other patients sat with a spouse. They were all older and ruddier, they looked relaxed, and, most strikingly, they did not have chest tubes. Breaths came and left the upper part of my chest in gasping bursts—I was winded after the walk. A Physician’s Assistant whom I had met before the surgery was giving instructions on what to do at home. None of it seemed to matter to me. They had said chest tubes would come out days ago. They were still in and I was behind the curve, evident from the healthier patients beside me. I had no reason to believe I would ever be discharged. Far from worrying about what I would do when I got home, I had yet to believe I ever would go there.
In my state, I stared at the floor mostly, until the wife of the sixty-something-year-old male patient across from me spoke. A Jersey accent gave her away as she asked the PA a question. She managed to preface the question with a long-winded account of her husband’s health issues, emphasizing double valve repair twice, each time looking directly at me. I recognized the competitive stare from places like: Organic Chemistry finals day in college, high school basketball games, the playground in kindergarten. Averting my eyes back to the floor, I was overwhelmingly sad. I thought here I would find kindred spirits, some others who understood. I couldn’t fathom what she was fighting for and why I looked like an opponent. Did I not already look defeated?
I plodded back to my room and went through the routine. As I was already up, I went to the bathroom, then shuffled over to the bed. I sat on the bed sideways, leaning my right shoulder into the back of the bed. Then I lifted my legs onto the mattress, as I let my upper body roll over the shoulder until my back was against the upper part of the bed, that still remained at 75 degrees upright. I covered up with a blanket and took a sip of water from the cup that was placed on the rolling side table next to me.
After the meeting, lying my head against the pillow and closing my eyes, I felt even more alone. Soon, opiate blanket, my only understanding companion, wrapped me up and carried me away.
I had always gravitated to rising before the sun. I floated to a memory of a morning at college in New England, when I woke before it was light, grabbed my coat and walked down the unnaturally lit hallway. Stepping outside, I was stunned. Every tree and every branch of every tree was encased in ice. The ground was ice, the dead grass on the slope behind the men’s dorm was ice. The barest light of the sun, just beginning to glide towards the horizon, shot angular rays that struck the world around me and reflected back in infinite shards of brilliance. I stood there rigidly, intent on absorbing every shimmering moment of it, as the sky went pink, and I became a queen in a winter fairyland, aware of the silence around me, feeling that I was completely alone in a perfectly glittering, momentary world.