More from the Short Story Unit

categories: Cocktail Hour


My nurse

Penny was my nurse.  She wrote her name on a dry-erase board along with the name of her assistant, also my location: the short stay unit.  I thought in my haze that it said short-story unit.  And I thought that was really very sweet that they had put me in a writer’s ward of some kind, or named the unit in my honor, even if temporarily.  I’d gone into the operating room at about 7:00 a.m., and now it was suddenly one.  I remembered the x-ray, but that was all, six hours lost.  Someone named Nutrition brought in a tray of food and this was amusing, like I was going to eat.  Drew sat in a stiff armchair in the corner and told me he’d called my dad and various friends.  (Later, I’d see my dad’s email to the family–he thought he’d spoken to my surgeon, delightful in that Drew is a scientist and speaks with authority always, and in that my dad was very impressed with the surgeon for the personal touch that was not.  In fact, I wouldn’t see the surgeon again.)

I lay there happily and Drew and I chatted.  I full of the feeling that I could be so happy because none of my worst fears had been realized, and because I had every hope that I’d end up better than I’d been, and that many, many others came out of much more harrowing surgeries knowing they were only going to be better in a temporary way, better a little longer on their ways to dying, say, or repaired as best as could be managed after an accident or other coup de foudre. My mother-in-law, for example, who couldn’t find her way home one evening in New York.  A young man found her confused on Columbus Avenue, asked if she had a cell phone.  She did, but numbers made no sense to her.  The young man kindly found her listing for home and called, got her address from the housekeeper, walked her there.  Shortly, tests confirmed a huge brain tumor, a glioblastoma, which surgeons removed immediately, only to have three more grow rapidly in its place.  In a few months, she was dead.  And so I understand why my surgeon and his people are so very calm with me–my case represents the happy stories in his practice, mere carpentry.  So many others involve much worse disasters, and much more than carpentry, more like sailing in a hurricane with stainless-steel instruments.  And for some reason, probably the pain meds or retreating anesthesia, a man came to mind, just a stranger pumping gas somewhere in central Pennsylvania, one of many driving trips between Maine and Ohio back when I worked out there.  He helped me with the broken air machine, that’s all, a very dark-skinned man with heavily inflected English and two long, thickly beaded scars across his face, one reaching from hairline to chin straight through one clouded eye and across his nose and split mouth, the other across his cheek.  When he bent his shirt rode up and I saw further long scars across his back.  We got the air in the tires and I thanked him.  He wouldn’t take a tip.  He didn’t shake hands when I offered.  I said it was a nice day.  He said he liked the blue of the sky in Pennsylvania, like nothing he’d ever seen.  I asked him where he was from.  A cloud crossed his face.  “I am from nowhere,” he said.  End of conversation.

Juliet dropped Elysia at our friend Melissa’s house there in Portland, a plan we’d made in case I wasn’t presentable to a ten year old, which I definitely was not, or in case the news would take heavy preparation, which it did not: Daddy was going to be fine.  The kid got to hang out with Melissa and her new baby and was delighted.  Juliet came in just after I’d tried some applesauce and had barfed.  She made a joke about my hair, and we all laughed.  I looked like Donald Trump, or maybe Beethoven.  And she sat in the opposite stiff chair from Drew, or maybe Drew got up and sat on the windowsill with the ocean view.  I think I’ve mentioned how nice the short story unit is.  We all talked and laughed a lot, though I remember nothing from the discussion, nothing at all.  Just the laughing.  We laughed and laughed till Penny came in and gave a stern look.  I remember this part.  She said, “Everything all right in here?”  And I said, “These guys are so funny.”  And Juliet said, “Well, you’re funny, too.” She meant me.  “And you’re okay with it,” Penny said.  And I said I was.  And Juliet said, “You look like Meryl Streep.”  She meant Penny, not I.  And Penny said, “Oh, thanks.  People used to say that.” And Penny relaxed a couple of notches and just hung out with us fifteen or twenty minutes, joined the general banter, but I don’t remember any.  And Drew took a picture of me holding hands with Juliet.  And Juliet took a picture of me holding hands with Drew.  I had the idea to get a picture with every nurse and assistant and PA and nutritionist holding my hand, but that didn’t work out.

Penny was in and out.  She really did look like Meryl Streep (b. 1949), who used to live near me when I lived in SoHo many years ago.  I’d see her on Spring Street all the time, one of the few actresses who is much more beautiful in person than on the screen, that crooked smile of hers.  But this was the older Meryl Streep we were talking about, the Meryl Streep of Mamma Mia, a different category of beauty.  Also in the neighborhood was Daryl Hannah (b. 1960), one of those actresses less beautiful in the street, 17 or 18 at the time.  Daryl and Meryl, what can you do, just another West Broadway rhyme.

I dozed and woke and dozed some more and each time I woke Drew and Juliet had changed seats, or one or the other was missing and then it was night suddenly.  After a while, Juliet left to go pick up Elysia.  The two of them were going to stay at the same hotel Drew and I had stayed at the night before.  $54.00, if you want to picture it.  I hadn’t eaten, but I wasn’t hungry.  My neck had been sliced into, but I didn’t care.  I had to pee but could not and didn’t mind.  Drew and I talked quite a bit, no idea about what, finally left so I could take a nap and he could get back to Farmington, which is 81 miles straight north of Portland.

When I woke, it was time for the BCS bowl game, something I’d been sad I was going to miss.  But here I was not going to miss it after all, similar to not dying, though not on the same plane, of course.  I tried some more apple sauce and puked again, just as the night nurse entered.  She will be played by Queen Latifa when the movie of this post is made.  “No need to hide,” she said.  Somehow she had a barf bag in her hand, a kind of miracle, I thought, though probably I’m forgetting whatever led up to this moment.  The barf bag  looked like an enormous condom with a plastic rim.  This made me think of the cow I saw in college at the Cornell Vet School farm (I went to Ithaca College), a regular-old Holstein milker with, like, a gas-cap in her side.  You could open it and reach in for stomach contents, do whatever experiment you were about.  Another cow had a window built into its side for viewing the rumen in action.  I filled the barf bag–I’d just drunk a ton of water.  It wasn’t even gross, just apple sauce with water, pretty clean, nothing like college.  The new nurse inspected it clinically, guessed at the volume, wrote it on my chart.  And said she’d leave me to my game, but that I’d have to have meds in the fourth quarter and go back to sleep.  “I’m not a college-football fan,” she said.  “If it’s not the Pats, I don’t care.”

And I watched the whole game without interruption, and without any impromptu naps.  I didn’t have any feeling of being lonely or alone, nothing like that.  I just felt grateful for the great surgeon who hadn’t killed me and for the minor nature of even this major thing in my life (careful incisions as opposed to machete wounds), and for the short-story unit, the existence of which still amazed me, and which I still hadn’t yet thought to question.  Oh, no, wait.  There was an interruption–but at half-time, these careful staffers.  It was the new nurse’s helper.  She came in and touched my hand as if she knew me.  I said, “I’ve been puking.”  And she said, “Still?” And I must have looked puzzled because she said, “I was in the recovery room with you.”  I said, “And I was puking?”  Really, that was the most seraphic possible look she gave me short of grace at that moment, saying wordlessly as it did, that yes, I’d been puking in the recovery room for two hours, puking and probably worse, and she’d been the one to take care of all that.  Something about the next unsaid phrase, and so I said, “Did I say stuff to you?”  I know myself to be a talker to women, and I knew from her very small smile that I had said stuff to her.  “You said some things, yes,” she said.  Clearly, she was going to keep whatever it was I’d said to herself.  And what could be more intimate than having a secret with someone so kind and warm and amused while having no idea what the secret between us was?

The second half of the BCS championship bowl game was as fun to watch as the first half, pure focus far from my wounds, no one to bother me, Bill R. just leaning back in the short-story unit quietly watching and listening and making the wildest possible associations (the defensive formations facing the offensive looked like a code, and the game itself a message I somehow began to decipher).  I even managed to pee a little in that plastic thing they give you, very amused by the whole idea of a penis, the crazy flexibility.  Another bite of apple sauce.  And more vomiting, just as Auburn scored yet again, no need to call in the troops.

I texted Drew: “I just puked again.”

And he texted back: “Auburn makes me puke, too.”

  1. Richard Gilbert writes:

    Reminds me of the time the doctors knocked me out with something that induces amnesia. When I woke up, I asked my wife how it went. She explained. As she finished, I asked her the question again. We did that five times. At least during that episode I had an excuse for my gender-induced “not listening.” And I was, listening, and mercifully didn’t get angry at her for failing to answer my burning question. I could remember my question, evidently, or it occurred to me anew each time I forgot it but realized I was in the hospital, but couldn’t retain anything I heard in reply. In the midst of our Who’s on First? routine, a laughing nurse told my wife, “Honey, he’s not going to remember no matter how many times you tell him. Go home and get some rest.” So she did.

  2. monica wood writes:

    Oh, Bill! I’ve been on an Internet fast and had no idea this was happening. (Hannah told me to check in here.) Sweetie. Honey-boy. I’m so sorry. True, compared to a machete attack this is minor, but compared to what we lucky ducks have come to view as a normal life this SUCKS. All good thoughts coming your way, my pal. XXXOOO!!!!!!

    • Bill writes:

      Good for you, an Internet fast–I was on one, too… Thanks for kind words… We are lucky ducks! I’m doing pretty well three weeks out…

  3. Dave writes:

    Did Nutrition ever come back?

  4. hannah holmes writes:

    Furthermore, that Meryl photo inspired me to pluck my eyebrows. Thanx.

  5. Peter Peteet writes:

    Glad the “mere carpentry”beneath the follicles that hold those long strands left you still able to swing the words and drive the punctuation of a story with spires reaching to the crooked smile of Meryl Streep and a foundation deep as the man from nowhere -spanning to the idea of a penis.Sailing the hurricane of life the short term memory instrument is an interesting one to lose or break;like being stoned or in advanced Alzheimer’s what’s left is undiluted-as long as someone is there to care for you or you’re in a place that’s safe you can ride the huge swells one at a time without the panic of awareness that you’re in an f-ing hurricane.A big ship in deep water, the pain passes over,under and around you with nothing to smash you into;or as L.Cohen described the f-ing in New York”far from the soil,but dreamy and courageous”.Welcome back to port,sailor.

  6. Roseann writes:

    Great post, Bill. Wish I could forward to Meryl Streep and she actually could come up and visit you and your family (but alas I don’t have her address). Good to see you’ve got your punctuation and formatting back. I guess it is a short story unit.

  7. Teresa writes:

    My sour mood is gone after reading this post. I can only hope that if I ever need surgery they’ll put me in a short story unit for recovery; a place where, with the right combination of medication and secret codes, the stories will be beautifully written and make perfect sense.
    My favorite line: “She will be played by Queen Latifa when the movie of this post is made.”
    Sounds like they fixed your spine and left your sense of humor intact!

  8. Dona Seegers writes:

    laughing and laughing….great episode from the short story unit. Me coming out of anesthesia once…. the nurse suggests ice cream as a soothing food after a lung biopsy. I look at her and reply – oh yes I love Starfucks ice cream. I glance over at Erin who has her head lowered and her hands over her eyes – that’s not my mother.

    hope you are doing well now…..

  9. hannah holmes writes:

    Bill, I hope you stay in the Short Story Room for a Long Time! These short stories are fabulous!

  10. Randi Karson writes:

    Hi, Bill —-

    Sorry to read about this, however, it sounds like you are recovering nicely and have retained your wonderful writing skills and sense of humor !!!!! 🙂

    Well wishes to you from Southbury, CT,

    Randi Karson