I suppose in this day and age, it’s not so strange, but I felt as if I had been hit by something big when the strong, assertive woman’s voice said “INSERT YOUR DEBIT CARD” right after I had pressed the debit card option on the parking ticket machine. I looked around. There was no giant woman. I felt like Jack at the bottom of the beanstalk listening to the giant randomly threaten anyone who was in the vicinity.

I decided that the voice must be coming from inside this green parking machine. There must be a miniature dwarf woman with a giant’s vocal cord. Rather unique, really. That must have been how she got the job. Though, on a hot day like today, she was probably pretty uncomfortable in there.

I inserted the card. A woman with such a voice must be obeyed.

TAKE YOUR TICKET WITH YOU. VALIDATE YOUR TICKET BEFORE EXITING THE PARKING LOT. The voice intoned. Yes, it was coming from the green parking machine. There was no way I would have left my parking stub in the car, on the dashboard. You have no idea what a woman like that might do to you if she knew you had disobeyed….

I was only slightly late for my appointment. I should have been early – I’d left two hours to come from my home in the Fraser Valley – but I arrived forty five minutes early in Richmond for my Pre-admitting appointment. I thought I could spend half an hour of that picking up some Fruitcana vegetables and take the remaining fifteen to get to the Hospital and park.

I like these produce establishments wherever they are, because the fruits and vegetables are so fresh and inexpensive. Fruiticana is managed by East Indians and there are wonderfully exotic spices and foods there besides. I’ve picked up great curry sauces that you can hardly get elsewhere.

I eat lots of vegetables, so ergo, it seemed like a good idea to me. But I got carried away. Some of the things are easy to select – parsley, celery, a big bag of onions – but other things need an expert eye and a trained hand in order to get the best. I turned over I don’t know how many leeks to get two that were long, slender and white with less deep green at the top, although I usually slice up the leek tops finely to make soup. They are always interesting to look at as the leaves fan out one after the other while at the transition from white part to green, the leaves looks somewhat like it has been neatly braided.

The avocados and tomatoes needed palpitating in order to find ones that were firm, flawless, and ripe but not too ripe, and inspection for bruises and nicks that start the spoiling. The green beans need to be selected one by one to ensure there was none starting to go mushy, and to chuck aside the ones with mottling rust. These deteriorate and get drier faster. The cauliflower needs to be inspected. I choose ones with no mould, a firm solid feel and the brightest white available. For broccoli, I want compact flower heads without a trace of yellowing and short, cropped stems since most of the stem is waste.

In the fruit department, plums need to be inspected to ensure there is no must developing and that the fruit is not too soft. Apples need to be firm and rosy, with out knicks or scabs; the pears need to be hard and green, as they quickly ripen at home. The soft ones will squish on your way home. I think I hear the pastry in the fridge calling for an introduction to the prune plums. It would make a fine pie if they got together. Mr. Stepford next door loves prune plum pie and both he and Missus have been extremely good to me. It’s my way of giving back.

The prices were so good, I picked up some vegetables for Mrs. Stepford as well. The prices in my new hometown are rather expensive. I haven’t yet found a produce store here to rival Fruiticana or Rightway markets that I was using before I moved here. But these two are so far away that it doesn’t make sense to drive so far to get them. Now that I was in Richmond for my Pre Admittance appointment, it made perfect sense to take this time to shop.

Twelve minutes before I had to be there, I remembered the appointment. I’d had far too much fun inspecting and feeling the vegetables, enjoying their colours and textures, that I’d forgotten. I hadn’t yet been through the till. Now I had to hurry.

I’m going in for surgery next week. Just a little bit of day surgery. Nothing to be concerned about. Just a few feminine bits to examine and tinker with, like tuning up an old car, giving it new oil and a new hoses or fan belts. I’ll be as good as new afterwards.

I’ve gone for rounds of tests. Blood tests, X-rays and an EKG. I’ve had to sign a dozen papers saying I won’t hold them responsible (What? They are going to tinker but they have no responsibility?) Each time I have to produce my driver’s licence and a Care Card. So how many people have been defrauding the system that we need to verify everyone’s identity. What’s happened to honesty and integrity, I ask myself.

Today I had to go to pre-admission where they ask about your name and address a dozen times even though they are holding on to papers in their hands that already tell them that. It’s as if they are testing whether your memory is any good or not.

I met with the admitting nurse.

“I’m Colleen,” she introduced herself. I found I was doing quite a lot of hand shaking as every “associate” in the hospital presented themselves in a friendly manner intended, I suppose, to put nervous patients at their ease.

“I need to take your blood pressure and have you weighed in,” she said, and she let me take off my belt, with money purse and cellular phone attached so that the weight of it wouldn’t be counted in.”

“I bet that weighs two pounds.”she offered. Out of curiosity, I plunked them on the scale. We both peered at the results.

“One” I announced simultaneously with her “Two!” as the needle on the machine hovered at one and a half.

“Anyway, I’ll be taking a few pounds off,” she said as I stepped onto the scale and she wrote down the results, lowering the result by two pounds. She wrapped a new-looking blood pressure cuff around my upper arm and tightened it. As it slowly let out air, it registered on a machine. I passed that test too.

“Do you know why you are coming in here?” she asks. I tell her, all the while saying in my interior, ironic voice Of course I know why I’m coming in here. Are there people who don’t know?

“That’s right,” she confirmed. Then, off the paper she was holding she read the medical terms for the same, but there was a something-or-other -scopy tacked on the end.

“I suppose once they are in there looking around they are going to take some pictures. Just check what’s there, to see if everything is OK,” I volunteered. I scored a point on that one, too. So far I’d gotten 100 percent.

She rattled off what was going to happen to me in the most minute detail. I was going to come in an hour before my surgery. I was going to see the admitting clerk. Someone would take me down to the pre-surgery and give me a gown to get into and a key for a locker. The hospital would not take any responsibility for credit cards, money, jewellry, or possessions of any kind. I would get undressed then get into the hospital gown then put my clothes in the locker and pin the key to my gown. When a nurse called me, she would lead me to the operating room. I would lie down on the operating table. The nurse and the surgeon would be there as well as the anesthetist. After my EKG was completed, I would meet with the anesthetist in just a few minutes.

Doctor, anesthetist and nurse would do their thing. The gurney with me on it would be rolled into post surgery. A nurse would be checking all patients to make sure they were alright. When I awoke, I could go home. I’d need someone to pick me up because I couldn’t drive legally for twenty four hours. I’d be pretty groggy and incapable of paying attention to the road.

She said all that in a single breath, it seemed. She must have repeated it a million times, day after day, month after month, year after year. It rolled off her tongue without hesitation. She would be repeating it after I left and tomorrow and the next day into nursing eternity. She would be a wonderful actress. She has a prodigious memory. She wouldn’t make mistakes in a long soliloquy, I thought. Despite the repetitiveness of it, I hoped she would be an admitting nurse for a long time. She was kind, patient and friendly.

“You take this paper down to coronary treatment,” she said, directing me down the hall past a bit of renovation construction to double doors; there I should turn left right down to cardiology for the EKG. “Just hand these papers to the technician.”

I walked down a long hallway past some unpainted plywood hoardings that hoved the corridor in half. At the end, there were double doors. I turned left. The technician took the papers and bade me lift my top so that he could affix sticky blue things high up on my bosom. He attached them to my legs and one to my finger. In seconds he was done, tearing the blue things off my various body parts.

“Don’t throw them out,” I pleaded. “I make goofy art work with these kinds of things. I thing they are interesting. I once did a work with cut up credit cards.”
He laughed at that but said, “They are contaminated,” shaking his head in a negative gesture.

“But it’s only my skin.” I persisted. “If I’m contaminated, it’s only my contamination. What’s so bad about that?”

“I’ve touched them, too. You don’t know what germs I have, ” he said and he handed me some new ones. “Here take these.” And as he handed me them, I thought, But now you’ve touch these as well. Where does it stop, this being so careful? Yet, I’m thankful that they are being that careful.

He left me with a new paper, closed the door so that I could rearrange my clothing. I made myself presentable then went back the way I came, only to get lost at the double doors. It didn’t look the same coming as going and I couldn’t see the construction hoarding.

“Sorry!” I said to a passing man and woman, “Do you work here?” The man kept going, saying, “I’ll see you tomorrow” and the woman hesitantly came back towards me. I had the idea she was late going back from her break and I was a further delay.

She pointed me further down the hall to different double doors, to the left and then back to Pre-admitting. She went back to the ward she had been heading for.
At pre-admitting, a short man got up fromhis chair and graciously offered it to me. I’d put my back out earlier in the day and was quite willing to take it, glad to sit down, glad of the chivalry that still existed in the middle aged and elderly. He had been there before I came and was still there.

An elderly Oriental man came out of the anesthetists office looking bewildered; the nurse handed him his papers and sent him, too , to the EKG, with complicated directions. But he either was unable to understand English and he stared at her silently, puzzled and frightened. All the patients and their friends were watching. One of these, another man with a thick eastern European accent, took the him by the arm and led him to his next destination. It was a kindly thing to do. Probably he was glad of something to break the monotony of waiting and waiting.

It seemed as if everyone in the room had been there since I first came, still waiting, while I had been back and forth with the various tasks the patient had to accomplish. A very pregnant woman came out of the anesthetist’s office doors supporting her extended abdomen with both hands. Her husband shuffled behind her, dressed in a tattered red plaid logger’s jacket. She was so neat and he so untidy. I wondered how their life would be with a new baby in it.


A new couple came and stood at the entrance. There were no chairs left. They were both tall and slender. She wore a black, long-sleeved cardigan over another sweater with a V-neck which suited her shoulder length black hair that framed her face. Below, she wore a white skirt with large black polka dots on the waist to knee portion and then there was a slight ruffle with smaller black polka dots. I tried to draw her as a reminder without being noticed. No one wants to be in pre-admittance, much less to be noticed or stared at. I worked at understanding how the folds in this fabric truncated the black circles as the fabric folded over in soft pleats for my drawing, then ended up simulating how they go because I couldn’t stare.

A nurse came, called my name and took my papers. She led me into the anesthetist’s office and signaled me to a chair. I sat and looked at the creature before me. So this was an anesthetist! She must have come right out of the operating room as she was garbed in largely fitting green garments of some polyester-cotton variety. She was already short and then, sitting on her stool, she seemed even shorter. I pegged her age at about thirty-five, calculated more on her years of education she would have had to do than on her looks. Those were no assistance to the calculation.

As she asked me questions about my other hospital stays which were few and far between (1973, something minor; 1976, pneumonia in Holland at the beginning of my first year in Europe; and oh yes, I had forgotten, the dental surgery in the doctor’s office, in 1978). All the while, I was observing and having this other conversation with myself.

Whew! This one would need an arranged marriage. She had missed out in the looks department. Her face was unusually squarish and black facial hair crept up the left side of it which blended somewhat into her deep brown skin. Her lips were thick and her eyebrows as well. She must be mightily intelligent to become an anesthetist. All that intelligence would scare most men away.

Nothing in her physical appearance was aide by the wrinkled scrubs that she was wearing, the O.R, mask that fell below her chin, unlaced on the top two strings and sitting like a badge-of-office necklace. She still wore the ugliest headgear possible, an O.R. wrap that resembled a Russian winter hat with ear flaps down, but this was not made of leather and fur. It was made of pink, yellow and white-flowered cotton, a print typical of the ‘sixties made for aprons and curtains. Was there no consideration for visual aesthetics in the operating room? What would this woman look like in outside day clothes? In a long gown at a charity ball? She was five foot nothing, I estimated and heavy set.

She mentioned something about the pace of her work and not having had time to spend on herself. I chastised her, feeling motherly and sympathetic about working women who too often ignore their own health and well-being in their drive to be considered “as good as” their male counterparts; and in their home responsibilities to keep family, if not their own children and mate, then elderly and failing parents.

“You must take care of yourself,” I chided. “You must take time for yourself. I’m a perfect example of what happens if you don’t – burn out and health problems. I wouldn’t even be here for this if I’d taken time to look after myself six years ago. I just kept making excuses one after the other about my responsibilities and ignored my own needs. Now I have to have an operation, already.”

“I know, I know ” she commiserated, but I knew she would not. She deemed there was no time, at least, time she could afford to “waste” or spend.

We warmed to each other in this exchange.

I’d had difficulty in figuring how I was going to get to the hospital and then go home. I’m living on my own now. Mrs. Stepford next door is legally blind until they put her lens back in and can’t drive. Her husband is working long days. I didn’t want to ask them. My sister and her husband had offered to come, but they are a five hour trip away and it’s not an easy matter. I’m not talking to my brother, Otto, at all. He’s been so twisted and vindictive over Mother’s will that anything I say is distorted and thrown back at me. I don’t want to share the same space in a car or a room with him, much less ask a favour of him that will be held over my head until eternity. Hugh has moved to Ottawa to get his Masters. Ron works ten hour days. A recent friend has offered her services, but I’m reticent to ask a new friend to do what a family and long term friends ought to.

“What I’m guenna do for you” she said, then repeated in that odd accent that was difficult to place, “What I’m guenna do, because of your sleep apnea, I can justify keeping you overnight for observation. I’ll get you on the slate for the earliest operation. Then the next morning, the twenty-four hours of your sedation and local will have sufficiently worn off for you to legally drive yourself home. We will have observed you all night, just to be sure that you have breathed properly even though you have been sedated.”
“Oh, that would solve everything,”I gushed. “Thank you, thank you. That would be wonderful.”

I wondered what she would have done for me if she had been able to hear my tertiary conversation in my head observing her facial features, her marital options and her hospital garb. Would she have been so accommodating. I had the feeling that it was a favour she was doing me. It’s a pity we too often judge people by their exteriors. I felt that this woman probably had been judged too often and dismissed, though I felt she was warm, caring and intelligent. I thought she might be so interesting to get to know. I was sure she had stories to tell about her determination to gain standing in her profession; about her family and their support of her extraordinary intelligence; about her travels that had brought her to Canada. Was she or her family a refugee? A refugee with money that had allowed her to study in a very expensive field of endeavour?

I felt that she had been watching me, carrying on her own tertiary conversation somewhere in the back of her head, judging me. My initial reactions had not registered on my face. I had treated her courteously as she had me, until we had established a friendly banter and an openness that had paved the way.

“OK, that’s it then,” she said. “You are free to go. We will let you know about your place on the operation schedule so that you can be there in good time.” I rose to leave. We exchanged a few more words and I was gone.

On the way down the corridor, I saw that extremely pregnant woman and her husband sitting, waiting. I started to walk backwards, more slowly, towards the door as I passed them.

I said, “When is the baby due? Your first?”

“This week. It’s my third,” she replied.

“You will be glad to have it over with.” I commiserated.

“I’ll be glad,” she repeated in reply.

“Well, God bless and good luck with it” I said as turned and reached the door.

I was still clutching that parking ticket, afraid to lose it, afraid of how much that VOICE would charge me if I lost it, against all her loud and clear instructions. I took it to the nearest payment box, green like the ticket dispenser, and paid with my credit card. Just to the right of the entrance, there was a brick path to a coffee stand. The path wound around some lovely Oriental inspired gardens, terminating in a red brick patio filled with umbrella covered tables. What a lovely place for patients and their care givers to idle away waiting time, I thought. Someone had done a good thing in designing this into the hospital structures.

I picked up my coffee, dosed it and left. My car interior was warm from the September sun, a refreshing and relaxing warmth seeped into my back and I luxuriated in it while I sipped a bit of my coffee. Hospitals are a good place to care for you but they are a good place to leave. I was ready to go and thankful that one more chore had been done.

I turned the key in the ignition, backed out of the parking stall and was gone.


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