I was late. I should have been there at 10:00, but the digital clock in the kitchen showed 9:55 and I was still gathering up my things. I didn’t really want to go. This was my 5th day in a row going to the hospital to visit Eric in ICU. When I was in his room, I felt useless and bored. But he knew I was there, and attitude is everything. I was his wife. I needed to be there. He was counting on me.
I walked around the house quickly, closed the dog gate and doors to other rooms to keep Bart in the kitchen while I was gone. I refreshed his water bowl. I picked up my computer bag, dumped out the detritus from the day before and threw away some papers. I checked my purse for money, reading glasses and mints. I filled a water bottle. I picked up my coat from where I had thrown it on a stool the night before.
OK. I glanced at the clock. 10AM. I really needed to get going.
Walking to the door, I stopped, returned to the kitchen and grabbed a family-sized bag of potato chips which hadn’t been opened yet. I would just snack on few as I drove to the hospital. I loved potato chips. But I tried to limit how much of the high calorie, salty, crunchy rounds I ate. I dropped the chips in the passenger seat of my car and took off.
As soon as I turned onto the main road, I grabbed the bag, ripped it open, and shoved a handful into my mouth. Cheeks bulging, I crunched my way down the road, then licked my fingers one by one. At a stoplight I innocently looked forward and stopped licking my fingers, as other drivers pulled up next to me. As soon as the light turned green, I reached into the bag and grabbed another handful.
By the time I reached the hospital parking garage, I had eaten half the bag. I curled the bag shut, disgusted, and threw it into the back seat. No self-discipline! I scolded myself. I licked my fingers one more time as I maneuvered up the parking ramp.
The hospital was the same as always; this was Eric’s third stay (in addition to trips to the ER) and I had become familiar with all the hallways, elevators, café, coffee shops, and nurse’s stations. I knew which rules could be broken and which could not. Dazed visitors wandered in the lobby looking like they had slept in waiting rooms in their clothes; or whispered somberly, clutched together in seating areas. The marble floors gleamed. Elevators beeped. Medical staff in a rainbow of colored uniforms walked briskly in the hallways, chatting and laughing with each other. A well-oiled machine for caring for ill and decaying bodies.
If I had arrived at the hospital at 10:00, there would have been an hour or so when Eric would have already finished his breakfast, nurses would have changed sheets or given meds, and he would be alert for a while. I missed the window of opportunity today; it was almost 10:45 when I was buzzed into the ICU hallway.
I entered Eric’s room quietly; his eyes were closed. I tiptoed to the other side of the bed to the uncomfortable chair which I had occupied for the last four days. White light poured in the windows and machines hummed. I put down my things, took off my coat and approached the side of the bed.
“Are you awake?” I asked in a whisper.
He opened his eyes and nodded. He had beautiful eyes: grey-blue and intense. Today though they were shaded and tired. He attempted a smile, but the gauze around his neck and his chapped lips did not smile with him. He raised a hand in greeting just barely bending his wrist but keeping his arm on the bed. His emaciated legs stretched out under the white cotton blanket.
“How do you feel today?” I asked. It was a trite and lame question for a man with advanced cancer.
“Ph-retty good,” he replied, an inadequate answer for his true condition, a forced positive response to a routine question. His ability to form words had deteriorated during his stay, but I could still understand him. We continued to act out our play.
“Did you have a good breakfast?”
He made a face. He was being fed mostly through a tube into his arm, but still tried to eat a bit.
“Oatmeal. Apphle sause.”
“UMMM! Yummy!” I forced a grin, then didn’t know what else to say. “Bart says Hi,” I added.
He nodded his head and gave me another half-smile.
“Isss he being gooh?” Eric asked.
“Yes, but he doesn’t like being left alone all day when I come here.” Eric nodded and gave a slight shrug of his shoulders.
I gave him a kiss on his cheek and held his hand. In a few minutes his eyes closed and he was sleeping again. I backed up and sat in the chair, retrieved my computer and opened email. It would be another long day.
Late that afternoon after he awoke, I gathered up my things to go home, but assured him I’d be back that evening. I needed to go home to feed the horses, let Bart out for a few minutes, and run a load of laundry. I was tired, although all I had done all day was sit by Eric’s bedside, read magazines and work on my computer. I’d stand up, look out the window for a while, then sit down again. The nurses who breezed in hourly were a welcome break.
I left his room with a mix of guilt and pleasure. The freedom to walk out when I wanted to was something he didn’t have. Even if he had the freedom to leave, he’d be in a wheelchair. I walked out in strong, quick steps and breathed more deeply the further I got from the ICU. I pictured him in his bed as I walked the distance to my car.
Before I had even exited the parking garage, I grabbed the bag of potato chips from the back seat. Steering with my left hand, I reached into the bag with my right. After pushing a handful of chips into my mouth, I let my fingers smear grease all over the steering wheel. Who cares? I thought. I chewed at stoplights, ignoring stares from other drivers. Crumbs fell into my lap and down the front of my coat. My eyes teared up but I kept on chewing and swallowing. My mouth was dry and salty, and quivering. I ate like this would be my last meal; handful after handful, until the bag was empty. When there were no more left, I breathed in with a jagged breath and blinked away my tears. I carefully smoothed the bag flat and laid it gently on the passenger seat. My greasy hands gripped the steering wheel. This time I did not scold myself.