They all look different. An old woman with greasy tufts of hair shuffles along the hallway, dressed in a faded brown house dress. A middle-aged man in jeans and sandals sits on the bench playing with the ends of a light blue scarf casually folded around his neck, obviously not there as a fashion statement. An old man lies on the stretcher with a pillow underneath his head, his torso dressed in a white and blue pajama, showing a few grey hairs on his chest, while his fingers firmly squeeze the metal edges, his knuckles white from effort. Another stretcher supports the petrified form of a man of indeterminate age, only his head visible from around the corner, his eyes frozen on the ceiling. Leaning against a post is a beautiful girl in her twenties, the purple in her head scarf matching perfectly the hue of a big straw bag, her sandals, and loose blouse falling in waves over her white jeans.
Some of them arrived with family. Some of them hold their wife’s or husband’s hand. Some of them were accompanied by a close friend. And some of them came alone, like the beautiful girl in purple, who defiantly chews her gum and flicks her gold loop earrings with her manicured nails; or a man in his sixties, dressed in a dated navy suit coat with a hand-knitted blue vest showing underneath, his gait uncertain, his rough, peasant hand gripping the railings of the parapet. He looks resigned and accepting. Another pair of eyes darts back and forth landing on every face for a second, not able to hide enormous fear and panic. Few of them look around with disdain, as if they did not belong there. Some of them stare at the floor tiles, counting the rows immediately in front of their face, never once glancing up.
When I close my eyes, I can hear a cacophony of sounds, unrecognizable snippets of conversation, a barely audible whisper, a surprising burst of laughter, a rustling of the snack bags, cell phones ringing in tones of Mozart over here, a folk song over there, a bubble-gum balloon popping, an echo of clogs briskly traversing the corridors, and, somewhere in the distance, a faint and painful moan. The air is barely moving, but still saturated with old-lady perfume, the overpowering smell of moth balls, the coconut fragrance of sun tan lotion, the salty aroma of potato chips, and a thousand variations of the stench of summer sweat.
A stranger coming off the street might mistake this oddly assembled group with people waiting at the bus station or waiting to renew their driving licenses, if not for an occasional thick piece of gauze securely held in place by a cross of tape, a small breathing tube protruding shyly from someone’s neck, the unmistakable and unbearable odor of disease surrounding them.
They all look different. They are young and old, they are sophisticated and not so sharp, they are classy city dwellers and earth-bound farmers; they are poets, and lawyers, and cashiers, and surgeons, and retired housewives. They live around the block, and they travel six hours by a tired bus whose windows are welded shut to prevent some random draft of fresh air from penetrating and killing insidiously the dozens of people riding it.
The only thread that connects them is the big shopping bags that each one of them holds close to their bodies. The bags are cheerful, advertising companies and grocery stores, featuring big bows and flowers in celebration of someone’s birthday. They are recycled from the previous trip to the computer store, saved just in case from the year before, when the kid got his first pair of skiing shoes. These are the biggest shopping bags, new, shiny and resplendent in all colors of the rainbow, hiding their ominous content deep inside.
When I first entered the spacious room and read the words Oncology and Radiology Ward, I saw the famous line from Dante’s Inferno inscribed instead: Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’ entrate. My knees wobbled and I stumbled, unable to hold the tears back when I noticed all those big shopping bags, each one hiding a mortal life inside. And now, as regulars, we join the group, Father dutifully toting our own big shopping bag, all silver and navy, holding a file that keeps getting thicker every day and a grayscale set of X-rays, MR film, and CAT scan readings.
The waiting room of the ward is light, the walls are painted white, and large windows allow the cloudless blue skies of late summer to enter unencumbered, letting the early morning sun play with the metal frames and throw blinding reflections haphazardly. There are lush potted plants in every possible shade of green tucked in the corners, and the nurses are all young, pretty, and unbelievably kind. When they breeze through, their pony tails swing from side to side and all the faces turn to them expectantly, breathing in the inebriating scent of youth, hope, and subtle summery perfume, feeding on their energy and warmth in their smiling eyes.
The air stirs as the first patient’s name is announced and one of the bags disappears through the door that houses the three member committee, a Supreme Court of MDs, all stern and serious, who pass the judgement, prescribe the therapy, and grant admittance to the Ward, or a dismissal. The rest of the group moves closer to the door in expectation, the bags leading the way, fighting for a better spot. As the minutes go by, the bags move along and vanish, dispersed or kept in the hospital, their contents regurgitated and examined again and again.
When our turn with the Consilium is over, we collect the documents with their verdict, and stuff the file back in the bag. As we retreat slowly down the corridor, my Brother skillfully and gently pushes Mother who is seated uncomfortably in a hospital wheelchair that is missing half of the spokes and both foot rests. Each one of us has a specific role and we perform like a well-practiced team, pretending that we can control at least something in this danse macabre. Her heart slowly returns to an approximation of its normal beat and she immediately starts cracking jokes, relieved, and buoyed by the thought that we are on our way home.
Somewhere between the hospital entrance and the car, Father surreptitiously takes the latest freshly printed document with the newest diagnosis and recommended course of action, and studies it intently with innate professional calmness, revealing nothing to our inquiring eyes. Perhaps he is strictly a doctor in this moment and not a husband, not an old man, not retired and afraid. Perhaps, but that’s a tough sell. When we arrive home, he will get every single piece of paper out, carefully go over every line in Latin, hoping to find something he missed. But until then, the file will rest ominously behind the back seat of my Brother’s Audi and rustle in the wind all the way home, 146 kilometers away, reminding us that this is just a short respite.
I cannot fight the bag and the monsters that hide within. But I can make the world around my beautiful and brave Mother appear normal. I can sit in her room and play mindless computer games while she rests in her bed. I can dig up the memories of our childhood and prompt her to reminisce. I can coerce a smile on her face so often distorted with pain by mentioning any one of our youthful peccadillos. I can make sure that her beloved plants are still the pride of the neighborhood and that all of the magnolia leaves have been swept off the tiles in the back yard.
I want her to know that she still runs this household, with me holding the duster and hanging up the laundry on the line to dry. I come to her for advice on some culinary matter, even though I can find my way around any kitchen. I greedily write down her instructions and copy the recipes on a notebook I keep on the coffee table in her room. I just hope that I can return even a smidgen of the love and dedication that she offered when she prepared countless breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks for us which we, in our selfish sense of security, took for granted. But then, that is the measure of parental success, that our children take us for granted. They certainly should.
Father buries me with fruit from his ranch and I am in constant search of canning jars. The shelves in the pantry get another row added to them almost every day, as I frantically try to save the essence of all sweet, fresh, ripe produce that miraculously appears in the basket on the kitchen chair closest to the back door. I’ve made plum, peach, and pear compote, and the jars are nestled comfortably next to cherries, quinces, and apricots that my Aunt Sonja managed to preserve before I arrived. When all the fresh fruit is gone this winter, I want Mother to open a jar of compote I made and taste my love and devotion, the only weapon I can wield against the horrors of this sudden new world where even shopping bags do not contain anything anyone wants.
- Fruit of your choice
- 3 Tbsp sugar
Wash and stem the fruit. Peel peaches and nectarines, cut them in half and take the pit out.
Sterilize the canning jars by heating them in the oven on 100C (200F) for 10-15 minutes. Boil the lids for several minutes and allow them to dry. Prepare the preserving pots by putting a kitchen towel on the bottom. The pots need to have walls taller than the jars by 2-3 inches.
Put the fruit into the jars, pushing the pieces in as much as possible, to have nice, tight rows. Pour the sugar on top and fill with water. Put the lid on tightly and place the jars in pots. Pour the water to reach to the rim of the jars and heat on high temperature until it boils. Turn the heat down and simmer for 15-20 minutes.
Carefully pull the jars out of the water using the special preserving tongs and turn them upside down on the counter. Leave them like that until they cool off. That will make the lids seal and prevent the oxygen from getting in. If a jar is not properly sealed, use the compote immediately, or keep in the fridge for a week (if the lid is not sealed properly, it will click when pressed in the middle).
A year ago I wrote about Blueberry Buttermilk Pancakes in the post I Found My Thrill