Misery Loves Company
Norman A. Rubin
The day was one of the ordinary days of the quiet routine of the hospital ward. Throughout the morning and early afternoon hours medical attendants saw to the needs of the patients; orderlies saw to the changing of linen, attending to the required diets, and seeing to the cleanliness both to the ward and its occupants.
During the morning the routine of the ward was disturbed when a medical orderly wheeled in a new patient. He was taken from the wheelchair to a bed fitted with traction paraphernalia. The attendant gently assisted the sufferer to lay onto the hard mattress; then he lifted his left leg encased in cast plaster onto raised weighted slings. With every movement to his limb the patient would groan at the sudden pain and he would curse under his breath.
He placed a warm coverlet over him tucking it under his head and the bed was tidied. The attendant, upon finishing, looked upon the injured man and asks if he had any requests, only to receive a gruff answer in reply. Quietly the orderly made their way to the door of the hospitable ward, trailing the words, “The nurse will be here shortly.”
The disabled just lay flat on his back and stared at the white ceiling. Then he tossed his head about for a moment or two; the patient’s face was etched in deep anger, with patches of iodine hiding his florid features. With one hand he brushed his mussed thinning greyish hair and called out in the hoarseness of his voice without directing his words, “It was the fault of the other driver! He should have given a signal to a right turn. Ha, he threatened to sue me. We’ll see to that.” As he spoke he tried to shift his corpulent body only to cause a sting of pain to his leg.
The patient stopped for a few moments in his anger and his deep-set, brownish eyes searched out the twelve-bed ward. He saw by staring through his somewhat blurry sight the other patients in the ward. Some were seated on their raised beds either reading or just gazing with wide-open eyes; others were flat on their bed with all sorts of tubes and electronics attached to their bodies. The ward was rather still with only the sound of rustling periodicals or the soft moaning from those in pain; a whispered word was uttered off and on by two bed partners. And there were two that were mobile holding trolleys with drip bags held high by thin steel rods with a hook attached.
The beaked veined nose of the infirm tweaked to the smells of ward mixed with medicaments and human waste, and the slight corruptness of death. But a sniff to his body by him would reveal that the odour of his unwashed body contributed somewhat to the smells of the infirmary.
The patient’s search was short-lived upon the appearance of the nurse’s aide at the side of his bed. With pleasant words to her lips of a “good morning” and an inquiry of his comfort, she raised the back part of the bed, putting him in a sitting position. Then he had to endure a cold steel bedpan followed by a lukewarm sponge bath. The sufferer was changed into a new open-ended hospital garment and before he was able to utter a word he was forced to open his mouth to accept a thermometer. Soft hands then applied pressure bandage around his arm while the attendant pumped it with air according to measurement in the small gauge, taking the pulse with a stethoscope. The thermometer was taken from his mouth and, without uttering a word, the nurse’s aide recorded the data on his chart. Then she removed the varied medical paraphernalia and the covered pan of human waste and quietly departed with equally pleasant parting words to her lips.
“Now that is what I call quick service,” he chuckled through his thick lips to himself.
Boredom reigned and he turned his head to the right to an elderly man, whose bed was near the large open window of the ward; he was raised in a sitting position and just looking through the glass without a blink to his eyes.
The disabled took a chance and called to the elder, hoping for a bit of confab to wear away the slow moving hours.
He called loudly in the roughness of his tongue to the fellow sufferer. “The name is Ted, Ted Rance. Had a bit of a run-around with a crazy driver at the crossroads. Lucky it is only a fractured leg. Shouldn’t be long in the hospital. What do they call you?“
The other man, sitting up on the raised bed, was simply staring through the window when he heard the hail. Somehow the elder understood that the loud voice was directed at him. He answered in a whispery voice without stopping to direct his sight to the outside. He stated as loud as could that his name was Jeb. “Cancer, they told me. No chance of leaving this place on my feet!”
“Sorry, didn’t know!”
The in reverie he continued in the slur of his tongue, “I be going on eighty this coming spring. Lived a fairly good life with my wife Mabel; the poor dear departed about three years ago. I am not blessed with children. Pity! Tis a lonely life those past three years without her; what kin and companions I had forgot that I am alive. Then the black sickness crept upon me. Been through many operations and treatment. Very little hope as it being too far-gone. But I won’t be lonely anymore when I meet my darling Mabel again way up yonder.”
The two men exchanged words talking about the weather, the sports of the day, a touch of politics and a bit of general interest. An hour passed in genial conversation; their talk was short-lived as trolleys with food was wheeled into the ward signalling the lunch hour.
“Boy, I’m hungry,” Ted exclaimed.
Trays were distributed to those that were able to fend for them selves. A medical attendant served those in need. As Ted gobbled his food he noticed the elder wasn’t served; only a plastic bag with a concoction of coloured liquid was lifted above the prone elder and a tube fitted to his veins.
The following day when the octogenarian was allowed to sit up, only for an hour to permit drainage to his body, there were quiet conversations between the two.
It was after the visits by the family of the accident victim; but the offered reading material was put aside. Preference for him was the small talk he had with the elder. They talked through the whole allotted hour until Jeb’s eyes closed in tiredness and he had to be lowered flat on his bed by an orderly.
At first those hourly talks centered mainly on Ted’s family, his home, family and job. But within time Ted learned about Jeb’s life;
Jeb, it seemed had been a top officer in the military, and his exploits in the second great war earned him many commendations. It was later in a peacetime mission that he suffered a major injury and was pensioned off. Ted didn’t ask of the wound as he considered it to be painful to reveal. But he did learn that despite Jeb’s handicap, he became the mayor in his town for three consecutive terms. A quiet life entered after politics, and Jeb and his ever beloved enjoyed their mutual activities till untimely death separated them. Then cancer entered.
Ted commiserated with the old man and expressed it in words.
“Don’t be sorry for me!” This boney, wasted body isn’t any use for living anymore. I am just breathing day by day sustained by tubes that feed me and tubes to take away my crap. This is not a life, and I wish earnestly for the presence of Father Death.”
Ted looked earnestly towards the elder, “You’re lucky in your outlook, wanting to end your misery. I can’t! My life is a living hell! Never know the troubles I have. Boring job with a boss that’s always on your back, ‘Do this, do that.’ Never know when I going to get the boot and me at forty-four.” His complaints carried on that mentioned a harridan of wife, unruly kids and a neighbor with a barking dog.
Jeb continued to stare out the window and with a louder tone to his whispery voice said, “You shouldn’t talk so much or even think of your so-called troubles. I am at death’s door whereas you have a full life ahead of you. There is no comparison of my miseries and yours. I don’t understand why you are full of complaints. So shrug them off and be content with the blessings you have.”
Jeb cleared the phlegm in throat before continuing. “I heard the sweet voice of your beloved when she inquired of your health and she had tears of happiness when she knew that your injuries weren’t so severe. The tinkle of laughter of your children at their play was delightful music to my ears. You have a boy and girl; I guess their ages to be about twelve and eight.”
“Almost right! My boy Jimmy is going on eleven this month and my little Debbie is only seven. Have you any children?“
Jeb continued to stare out the window, as he talked, “No, I am not as fortunate as you My Mabel wasn’t able to bear any children. Still I can enjoy the sight of children. Like those youngsters down below parading around in some sort of a game. Oops, one fell and I suppose he is crying on his hurt.” And a tinkle of laughter issued from his thin lips. “Now he is getting up, rubbing his bottom....”
Days passed tediously by in its humdrum medical routine; only the hourly talks between the two enlivened the lonely periods. True, the accident victim had visits from family and friends and even a session with two police officers, but the talk of the elder held his interest. He was also content to hear the simple talk about the doings on the outside of the hospital grounds denied him by the traction.
The elderly man sometimes winced in the discomfort of pain when he outlined the mood of the day, which told at times of a blue sky or one when the dark clouds sent their rainy message.
The senior liked to tell of the passing scenes on the passages below. He told of laughing children at play, housewives toting heavy bundles, and of young lovers walking hand and hand. The elder’s phrases pictured tall trees with leafy branches that graced the landscape; he described a fine view of the city’s skyline that could be seen in the far distance.
Ted would lie content on the flat of back as he let his mind wander though the parade of events that was portrayed in a descriptive manner by the elder. And he accepted the senior’s words: “My dear friend, there are beautiful things to be seen this world. So there is no need to be angry with the minor faults; just ‘grin and bear them’ and enjoy the good things in life.”
At times the senior was unable to finish talking when the head nurse accompanied by a distinguished looking doctor came to the side of his bed. They would bid a good day to the patient with an added, “How do you feel today?”
“Couldn’t complain,” were the usual words in return.
The nurse then encircled the area in a thin plastic curtain. Ted stared at the plastic sheet and wondered on the events behind. He only heard the soft talk of the doctor as he gave instructions to the nurse. A quarter of an hour passed and the curtain was drawn back. The nurse was seen adjusting the dress of Jeb and covering him with his blanket. As the doctor looked on she adjusted the drip bag and the electronic tabs around his head and chest. He noticed the doctor’s shake of the head to the nurse when the two left the sleeping patient.
There was a time for healing. It was a cloudy day when Ted’s foot was removed from the traction, albeit with a bit of stiffness in the knee. The orderly placed him in a wheelchair and took him to an examining room where his cast was removed and his leg examined by the surgeon. Upon the approval of the doctor he was wheeled once again and down an elevator to a large room headed on the door Physical Therapy Dept. Within the confines of the hall filled with the implements of therapy, Ted had to endure two hours of rather painful treatment to his leg by the therapist.
He was fitted with a cane and again placed in the wheelchair where he was wheeled back to his ward. With the help of the orderly he was lifted from the carrier, but he disdained help in entering his bed, “Want to try out this cane!”
Ted, with a bit of effort, managed to straighten his body and hobbled a few a steps. “That’s more like it!” Then he remembered his bed companion, but when his clear eyes were sighted he only saw a stout cleaning lady removing the sheets from the bed of the fellow patient. He took slow careful steps toward her and inquired to the whereabouts of his newly found friend.
The woman was quite talkative and she told all as she worked, “The major passed away early this morning. Poor dear! He suffered many years with the black sickness, never complaining. Always a good word from him. Always telling of the good things even though he was bit tetched; sometimes he spelled out his fantasies. Could have gone to a veteran’s hospital. No siree! The good man wanted to be with the spirit of his wife; she died in this same hospital.”
A call for her attention was heard and she gathered up the bundled soiled linen and left with the trailing words, “Be well and have a nice day.”
Ted then hobbled to the window and he looked outside only to see a blank wall of a nearby building separated by a narrow passage, sided with scraggly patches of weedy grass. He put the flat of one hand on his cheek as he realized the nature of Jeb’s war wound.
Copyright © 2004 by Norman A. Rubin