Part 47: The Hospital, 2012.
My beautiful son is now three. He has soft, curly, blond hair, almost transparent blue eyes, and is a giggling machine. He wakes up early—usually around six AM—while I slumber away, still wanting to spend the day in bed at the age of 43. He runs free through the house, with every new discovery a surprise, from the falling snow to being told it’s the weekend. He says things like “yeah!” and “yippee” when you tell him that we are having pizza or going to the playground. He has a sly smile that he inherited from me and, like me, he has no idea that he has this secret, charming tool in his arsenal. It took me having a son to realize that if I had one physical attribute that women found attractive, it’s that smile. He slays people with it, and has no idea. Unbeknownst to him his charms can blow a bad mood asunder.
Thinking back to a time in my life when it was not uncommon for me to wake up pants less in the bushes, or making desperate 4 AM phone calls to someone, anyone who could assuage my fear of being alone, I could not foresee what has become my life. It is different in so many ways. While my circumstances have changed, the strains of being a father, the effort of being a husband and keeping my addictions at bay, is in some way more of a challenge than hiding in the bottle or in the arms of a one-night stand. But back then I always woke up dreading the day and facing what happened the night before; it was a constant reminder of my emotional shortcomings. It was as if I could barely communicate, holding my breath in every relationship until whoever I was with learned that I never learned the proper rules of engagement.
Bruno sits on my lap, telling me in his fractured vocabulary what happened today at school, everything shaded by his imagination and perceptions based on innocent and basic emotions. His fears are of ghosts, of the lights being out. His favorite word is “spooky”, and in his world everything is spooky, from the cover of a book on about gorillas to the sound of a hemorrhaging muffler that croaks by our house. Bruno’s fears are in stark contrast to my own. I have no fear of ghosts or the devil—it is hard to be scared of the things I no longer believe in or even think about. Nonetheless, fear shakes me awake at night. I dream of the dead and of leftover resolutions that were never resolved as I am besieged by my past. I dream of Jerry and he is always dead. I encounter a roomful of records as I am transplanted back to Used Kids, trying to resolve the misery that I felt leaving that community. At other times, I dream of shitting and vomiting. I tussle with dreams of being “discovered” that I still don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, despite being a forty-three-year-old man with two young children and three college degrees. I strive to be spiritual but I’m drawn to the physical. I am still a boy wondering just what the hell I am doing.
Bruno looks at me with benevolence, surrendering himself to what he thinks is the vessel of all knowledge, his father, who struggles to find the patience not to scream at his wife, “I just want to sleep! That’s all I want, for everything to be quiet!” I hold him; he is an exquisite hugger—one of the best I have ever known. A few nights ago, he rolled over and held my head tight in his arms, my ear pressed securely to his chest. It made me wonder, just who was fathering whom?
Bruno talks in his sleep, yelling out to his mother and, at times, giggling, which is a most wonderful sound. I stare at him sleeping, my wife next to him, and listen to them breathe. Invariably I turn to my side and either drift off to sleep with my back to them or wander downstairs to stuff chocolate into my face.
I once had a dream that I had to beat the devil—I literally had to conquer him. In the dream, he was completely black, like a shadow but also shiny and metallic. He had no features, just a solid mass of black, marbled metal. But I felt him as I hunted him down, I felt his presence, and in the dream I could feel the hairs on my arms stand at attention as I came face-to-face with the devil. In an instant, I realized that I would be consumed by the devil if I could not think of how to beat him. I thought of my young daughter and all the love I had for her while I hugged the devil, and that, the action of love, a love with no-strings-attached, was what beat the devil. The evil from the devil melted away in the dream—I had beaten him. I woke up thinking, “That was a crazy fuckin’ dream.”
Jenny calls me. Her voice is hoarse, tired, and cracked like piece of plastic that has been sitting on hot asphalt the entire summer, faded around the edges, brittle but still with the essence of itself. “I’m in the hospital again,” she croaks. She is tired and speaks feebly into the phone. Her voice on other calls may sound the same, depending on how late in the day it is. If it is late afternoon I know that she is drunk, no matter what she says. I have made it my profession to understand drinkers and addicts. If it is morning, she is usually lucid and able to display some of her caustic wit. We laugh hard at these times, sometimes enough to make tears stream down my cheeks. These times are fewer and fewer and on most occasions when I talk to her, I am resigned to the fact that she is drowning in the sea of addiction
“Which hospital?” I ask, as I slowly turn my car out of the downtown parking garage. I am annoyed by her call. Annoyed that it is ten till six and I have to pick up my two children from school in the next ten minutes or pay a fine. Annoyed that the motherfucker with the inappropriately large 4 X 4 truck from another county has no idea how to drive in the downtown of a city of 1.4 million people. Annoyed that I didn’t finish all the work I needed to do. Annoyed that I have yet another phone call that is asking me for help.
“Hold on,” she replies. “I’m downtown. Grant, that’s it. I’m at Grant. I’ve been here for about three days but only felt well enough to call now. They took me by squad again; they should just park one in our parking lot because of me and William.” I picture her in a hospital bed with tubes stretching out from her arms, hair matted, and a tray of half eaten Salisbury steak and applesauce in front of her.
With a pause that would swallow the ocean, I maneuver through the outbound traffic, spying the time on the dashboard, the clock’s blue lights yawning at me to hurry up. I ask her what room, knowing full well that I will forget it and just ask at the desk. “I dunno, it’s Grant. I’m at Grant, the hospital.”
Another pause as I close my eyes for as long as the road will let me. “I know that.” Now I am obligated to ask what room again. “What room, I said?!” Even though my wordy prowess may be stronger than her drug induced lethargy, she will still win this verbal tennis match, as her obliviousness is far superior to my impatience.
Another pause. “Oh, what room? I thought you asked hospital. The hospital is Grant. I don’t know what room I’m in, but I’m pretty sick. I was puking for about two weeks.” I can hear her struggling with the equipment that is dug into her arms. I can almost see her wince. “Ah, fuck,” she mumbles, “I ain’t doing good. They don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
Mutual history with addiction and mental illness doesn’t always give a person the required composure to remain calm. Although I have been trained to stay calm in my profession and in my own Buddhist practices, this all flies out the window when I talk with Jenny like this. I say, “Okay, um, I’ll try to come by tomorrow.” I start to hang up the phone, as I have arrived at the children’s school with two minutes to spare before the fine kicks in.
“Wait! Wait!” I hear her screeching into the phone.
Closing my eyes again, and injecting my words with a heavy dose of discontentment, I say, “What? I have to get my kids!”
She is shifting herself in bed. I can hear the phone slipping and her voice gets small for a moment, as if she is laying at the bottom of the bed and crawling towards the receiver. “Hold it, hold it,” I hear her say. “Okay, so I had to tell you one more thing, so hold on, just hold on. Sorry.”
Pulling open the door to the school, I shake the snow off my shoes. “Okay, go on., you have about a minute before I have to hang up.” The hallways are strung with construction paper artifacts of volcanoes erupting, dinosaurs, and handsome colorful drawings of gardens punctuated by glitter scattered amongst the flowers. Small girls wheel by me in the hallway, rushing into the gym where the older children will have their winter dance this evening. Kids are lugging backpacks that are larger than them—they look like ants carrying giant morsels of food. A few parents smile at me as I pass. I wanly smile back as Jenny tells me how William and her little brother smuggled a bottle of vodka into the hospital earlier in the day, a stunt that had the Columbus Police searching her room.
“You wouldn’t believe it. I woke up and I had this bottle of vodka in my lap, under the covers, and the cops start looking around and they start asking me where William and my brother are. I mean I feel like fuckin’ death. I can’t believe they did that. I mean, my brother and William.”
My first thought is to ask her, well, did you drink any? But I let this thought float by. “Well, you sound very sick. Just do what the doctors tell you to do. If they want to call me they can.”
“So, where are you?” she croaks.
“At the kids’ school. I’m picking them up.”
After another pause, and with a far away voice, she says, “They must be getting big.”
With that, my daughter runs into my arms. “Daddy, daddy, guess what? We got our Daisy forms to sell cookies. Can we sell some this weekend? Can we call Grandma and Grandpa?”
“Of course,” I say.
Bruno is infatuated with music. He sits at the piano at six AM, plinking away, blows through a plastic flute when wandering through the house, and is always getting out his ukulele and an old guitar that Jake from Moviola left behind when we bought the house. He loves to watch his grandfather play guitar, and for Christmas he got a guitar from him. He started lessons about a month ago. There are no real expectations, just that he practices when he can and make it to his lesson every week. Carrying his guitar, he looks and walks proud, with a purpose unusual for a three year old. His steps are careful as he climbs up the porch where he gets his lessons. When Sean, his guitar teacher, opens the door, Bruno stays back, hiding behind my torn jeans, themselves relics of a past that seems far more distant than the gray hair on my head.
He acclimates himself rather quickly and well. As I sip coffee with Sean’s wife, I can hear Bruno strumming vigorously away on his acoustic guitar, sounding not too different from the opening strums of Phil Ochs “Pretty Smart on My Part”. He stares up at Sean looking for approval. Although he can’t yet count very well, his effort is noticeable. The routine is to get lunch with daddy afterwards, but on the way to lunch I say, “Bruno, we have to go see Jenny in the hospital.”
Bruno replies, “crazy Jenny?”
“Yup.” He hasn’t seen her in almost a year, as she lives in a part of town we only come close to when we drive by on the freeway. As I back the car up, Bruno shakes his head. He is frightened by the size of the hospital.
“Daddy, let’s go eat.”
Pulling him from his seat, he hugs me and I reassure him, “Hey, we’ll only be a minute.” He clutches me and won’t let me put him down as we stroll to the front desk. “Jenny Old, what room is she in?”
“Hmmm, let’s see…there it is, room 535. Go down the hall and the first elevators on your left. If you see some on your right, you’ve gone too far.”
“Wow, Bruno, we’re going to ride an elevator.”
“I don’t wanna. Let’s eat.”
It’s still morning, so we are the only people in the elevator. As we get off the sign reads “Gastric and Pulmonary.” We wind our way through the hallway. Bruno starts to shake, “I don’t wanna go, Daddy!” The hallway is crowded with a plethora of machines, all with wires and beeping noises; nurses have serious looks on their faces. “No, Daddy, let’s go!” he yells.
“Hey, look, we’re here,” I say as I try to subdue his struggling. Entering, we see a woman rolled on her side, a bare arm hanging to the side; it is as thin as a small branch, with bruises up and down the wrist. “Hey, Jenny” I say quietly.
Bruno is shaking his head, whispering, “Daddy, I want to go.” Jenny turns and smiles broadly, her matted hair is unclean and mussed. Her face is red, with deep lines over her forehead, and her skin is blotchy.
“Don’t worry; I look like shit,” she says. “I think I was in the ICU before they put me here. Hey, little Bruno,” she says softly. “It’s your aunt Jenny. My, did he grow.” Bruno looks at Jenny, eyes wide as he takes in the apparatuses that are plugged into her arms. I gaze at her arms; they are so thin, like those of a starving child in Africa. Noticing, she answers my stare, “I haven’t eaten anything solid in a few weeks. Everything comes up.” Pause. “Of course it’s my liver, my pancreas, and something with my intestines. They don’t know what that is.” Pause. “And yes, they say I have to quit drinking.” Her lips are chapped, bits of white skin flecked out from her bottom lip. “I’m so thirsty but I can’t really drink, so I crunch on ice. You should have seen me yesterday. How did you know I was here?”
Smiling, trying to put something positive into the room, I say, “You called me. Listen, have the social worker call me and I’ll see what I can do to help. They should be able to get your Medicaid started here.”
Straining her neck, she says, “She was in this morning. I can have her called.”
I kiss Bruno on the head. “No, it’s okay, just have her call me.”
Bruno whispers in my ear, “Can we go now daddy?”
Another kiss. “Yes, of course.”
Jenny smiles at Bruno and me, “Thanks for coming, hearts.” I look down at her in the bed—hearts—and we leave.
“Thanks, Daddy,” whispers Bruno.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Jenny was discharged later that day and took a 45 minute bus ride home. The social worker never called.