My nephew was involved in a serious car accident this weekend. As I write this, the full extent of his injuries isn't known, but the prognosis seems to be serious, but not too serious. He lives about three hours away. I asked my brother if he thought it was necessary for my sister and me to come over, but he said no, there'll be plenty of visitors.
I don't envy my brother or his wife. They have days ahead of them doing hospital duty, the most depressing thing a person can do.
I'd visited people in the hospital before, but my first real encounter with hospital duty came in 1987. For several days, my dad's left side had been swelling up like something from an early Cronenberg movie, but he steadfastly refused to have it looked at. When the swelling srarted to reach cartoonish proportions, he agreed to a trip to the ER.
Long story short: colon cancer.
Surgery was performed that very night. All my siblings were there, some with spouses, nieces and nephews, Dad's brother and sister. Any of those people individually were easy to talk to, but having all of them there, and for such a grim reason, made conversation difficult. Forced small talk seemed best. If you talked about what was really on your mind, the mood would get weird. There's no protocol for situations like this.
So we sat. We waited. The surgeon appeared, told us the tumor had been removed but the situation was not good. He tried to be upbeat even while presenting a worst case scenario. The details were specific, but the words, the inflections, even his mien felt canned. He'd done this plenty, and chances are he knew that after he used the word "tumor" our brains would go numb anyway.
The main thing I remember about that night is wandering around the parking lot and down deserted hallways. This was after visiting hours, and in a small county hospital. It was like everything had shut down except for our private grief party.
(Dad made it through, but more hospital time awaited him. It was heart failure, not cancer, that took him in '96. )
My most recent stint of hospital duty, of course, came with the discovery of Mom's cancer. Last summer she spent time in four different hospitals. She was in a fifth when she died this past winter.
When you're visiting someone who is very ill, inevitably the time will come when they are taken for tests or grow too tired to talk or simply fall asleep. Those are the worst times, because it leaves you with nothing to do but contemplate your surroundings. The bad art. The ugly color schemes. The other visitors walking the corridors, their eyes usually cast downward. TVs turned to Matlock reruns. Families gathered in corners, ashen-faced, sometimes crying. Overpriced soda machines. Flowers everywhere.
It all conspires to remind you why you're there. Someone you love is sick. Someone you love is mortal.
And worse, so are you.