A bad turkey sandwich. The taste of it. Teeth that haven’t been brushed. Pink pitchers of ice water. You ask them to hold the ice. Beeping. Tea-stained grout in the blue-tiled bathroom. Going downstairs without your ID, again. A yellow construction-paper visitor’s pass. But you are not a visitor. You live here. The family kitchen and its immaculate microwave. Thermocol plates. Forks wrapped in plastic. Making the couch into a twin bed, then sharing it. Feeling cold. The awkward sociality of the 6th floor nurses’ station. Room service macaroni, in little brown plastic bowls.
Cottage cheese. Coming back to life on a diet of cottage cheese. Realizing that part of you did register the image of Jennie Garth on the TV playing in the lounge. Realizing you are the only one watching. Wheels rolling. Footsteps. Doors opening.
Closing. Whirring. The resident’s $1200 dollar pager. A siren. A metronome. An alarm. Purell dispensers at every door.
Electrodes. The red glow of the monitor on her big toe. The nurse affixes it with tape. Perfusion. The year it takes for the thermometer to ding. The year it takes for the blood pressure cuff to make its reading. Or rather, its best guess. Watching the numbers on the monitor like waiting for Sunday’s lottery. Heart rate in green. BP in blue. Perfusion, blue. Breaths, white.
Dial 4-3000 to place your order for mashed potatoes without salt. Jello in a plastic cup. Strawberry yogurt. Apple juice. Milk. In a room littered with syringes. Lift and squeeze to release the side of the crib. You squeeze, then lift: nothing.
Dregs in the bottom of the coffee, which is almost undrinkable. You drink it. Regretting a sausage and egg breakfast sandwich, because the smell is everywhere. Sausage in your nose. Eating cold oatmeal. Eating standing. Eating out of unmarked brown bags that appear in the room spontaneously, like life-giving weeds.
The numbers on your yellow wristband grow faint. It loosens and threatens to drop off. The elevator is talking to you: “Don’t forget to say hi to Remoc in the lobby. Going up.”
The worst headache you have ever had and ever will have. The most expensive room you will ever sleep in. The longest hour you will ever spend. Fear like a canker sore you worry with your tongue as it grows. Growing accustomed to the sting of it, so much so that you almost don’t remember it’s there. Hours pass. You’ve done nothing but wait. Days pass. A week. You have the idea of cutting your nails.
Accidentally calling the hospital “a hotel.” Moving in. Bringing friends: alpaca, flamingo. Bringing toys: shape sorter, My Learning Tablet, a shelf’s worth of books. Mommy Mommy. Llama Llama Red Pajama. Go, Dog, Go. Pat the Bunny. Reading books aloud in the dark by heart. Singing, as much for you as for her. Realizing you are holding your breath and counting hers. Making deals with the Almighty and quoting Thomas Hardy’s “Hap:” “These purblined Doomsters had as readily strown / Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.”
Then, tears. Then, adrenaline. Marveling daily that you are able simply to be and to bear it. “Rollercoaster.” That’s the word you use. “Two steps forward, one step back.” That’s what you tell people. Removing her earrings in the sedation unit. Understanding clichés: heart stopping, skin crawling, stomach sick, a dagger in the heart.
Apologizing. Holding her swollen body pumped full of fluid, bolus after bolus. Not recognizing her face, her eyes puffed shut. Quoting Sharon Olds to the neurologist: “Once you lose someone it is never exactly / the same person who comes back.” Googling the attending doctor. Reading César Aira by iPhone flashlight.
The worst night of your life, you hope. 2 a.m. and the lights flipped on and eight unknowns rushing in to rush her down to the ICU. Confusion. The kind of calm that attends panic. Frozen and warm. Speaking slowly to delay the response. Asking “why” ten different ways, then asking again all over. Asking for something with which to tie back your hair. An urgent ponytail. A life-saving one.
Dory, with the ponytail holder. Sarah, with the pearl earrings. Liz, the smaller pearls. Allison, glasses. Annie, with the spray tan. The ophthalmologist with his four eyes. The nephrologist pale as Pandu. Infectious diseases with a five o’clock shadow. When the masks come off, the lips don’t match the eyes. The mustaches surprise. The faces change, the cheeks twist and distort. Nobody’s face is symmetrical in this place.
Waking up when she’s woken up. They’re checking her vitals, again. A masked figure in yellow gauze and purple gloves. Contact precautions. A hundred masked figures in yellow gauze and purple gloves. Anybody’s nightmare. Bright lights and IVs. A bolus full of blood. Kilograms and milligrams. Thinking they should recycle the yellow gauze. Being told that you must withhold water and food in the interest of Precedex sedation.
EEG. EKG. MRI. MRA. CRP. ESR. CBC. IVIG. KDSS: Kawasaki Disease Shock Syndrome. “Difficult to diagnose.” “No known etiology.” “Systolic hypotension for age.” “More-severe laboratory markers of inflammation.” On a scale of 1-10, her condition is 11. Infusion. Transfusion. Resuscitation. Quoting W.H. Auden: “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters: how well they understood / Its human position; how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”
Broccoli and cranberries in pita bread with hummus. Mint chocolate red tea. Lying out under the trees on someone else’s university quad. Registering flowers. Breathing. Trying to pray. Knowing that this is the time for it. Forcing it. Coming up short. Begging an idol for mercy. Setting up a remover of obstacles next to her sippy cup.
Wanting her to wake up, to be happy to be awake, but fearing hearing her cry. The certainty of your inadequate response. Impotence: the feeling of it, the fact of it. You go to her. You take her in your arms. You offer immeasurable thanks.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley. Mrinalini is home from the hospital.