Every crossroad is an orifice that pulsates white or red lights into the dark conveyor belt of a highway. Under the dark sky, there is nothing clearly visible but headlights coming head on, or tail lights, following. Vehicles seem not to be powered of themselves, but drawn on by an inevitable force. I joined this slow procession at Laity Street at five thirty in the morning, crawling with all the other singly occupied cars at a pace not registering on the kph scale. It seemed as if a tap had been opened and could not be shut down until the last resident was floating city-wards on this sea of commuters. I was awed by the number of residents in our community that took to the roads at five a.m. and crawled in this fashion to work in the city.
East of the highway, the direction I was coming from, the beads of red lights bobbled mesemerizingly. At such close distance to the one in front, one had to pay attention. A blurt of acceleration could result in a rear-ender bringing traffic to a halt. Not enough acceleration could annoy the road-rager behind you, and provoke an angry reaction, to be avoided at all costs so early in the morning. It was better to gently let the car drift of it’s own, inexorably forward, crawling, adding to city’s blood supply, joining the arteries that connected Vancouver with it’s worker bees.
The road was clogged for many miles like this to the highway at the Port Mann Bridge and again until Brunette Avenue and then magically, the press of vehicles was gone. There seemed to be no reason for it. Where had the cars gone? There hadn’t seemed to be a large turn off of vehicles along the way. I was acutely aware of how dark it still was, a deep midnight blue at six in the morning. Only the car and city lights pierced the darkness. Where had September gone to, so quickly, that now the sun would not rise until seven?
I had offers to drive me to the hospital and to pick me up. My sister would have come in from Sechelt, but it was too far to ask her to come, and she hadn’t been home for the last month with vacationing, so it was a bit much to ask her. Mr. and Mrs. Stepford offered, but of course, Mrs can’t drive because of her failing eyesight and Mr. works. He’d jut been away for ten days on a business trip and needed to be in his office, not running around the peripheral communities of the mega-city looking after me.
My dilemma was solved when the anesthetist insisted I stay overnight. And so it was, o I drove myself in and parked in the hospital parkade for the twenty four hours plus that I would be there. It’s illegal to drive within 24 hours of having anesthetics administered. I was happy with the arrangment. I need to be independent as much as possible so that when I really need something, my offerers won’t have exhausted their willingness.
And so there I was, daylight just lifting as I entered the parking lot at the hospital at seven twenty. O only as I was leaving, the next day, did I realize how absolutely lucky I was in finding the first parking stall open and waiting for me. Tuesday, I watched cars circle relentlessly waiting for someone to leave so that they could take over the stall.
In the admissions hall, I was provided with two hospital bracelets – a white one with the date and time of surgery, my name and a other undecipherable hospitable data. The other was orange and listed drug and food sensitivities and allergies.
Next, I was instructed to wait in the pre-operation lounge. There, I tackled a Sudoku puzzle to keep my mind off the upcoming fiddling the gynocologist was going to do, and when that was done, I leafed through one magazine after another, looking for something to read.
An hour later, a nurse asked me to come and to change into their crumpled, blue cotton hospital gowns, one put on open at the back and the second, open at the front. I was given long green socks that came up to my knee. These had a peculiar seam at the toe end that sliced over on a strong slant. I was led to a chair where this same nurse massaged my hand until she could find an artery to insert a needle which would connect up to the intravenous equipment.
“Stop jerking your hand!” she commanded. “If you don’t, I won’t be able to get an artery and we’ll have to call the operation off. Besides, you will have scars all over the top of your hand. ”
I forced myself still. She taped the needle to my left hand and put Scotch tape over my mother’s thin, plain, white gold wedding ring. I had been instructed to bring neither jewellry, nor money, nor credit cards. I had not been able to get this ring of Mother’s off, not even lubricated with soap. Someone would have to cut it off to take it.
I asked the nurse about the curious socks.
“It’s so that all sizes of feet can fit into the one design,” she explained. I said nothing but thought that if they had been sewn straight across, they would have done exactly the same thing without leaving this curious green elf-like extension at the end of my feet.
There was still a paper hat much like a shower cap and paper feet covers to go on. I didn’t want to think about anyone taking a picture of me in this curious garb.
Across from me, two patients were installed in similar booths to mine. When privacy was needed, a curtain could be drawn around. These patients each had a spouse seeing them, cajoling and comforting them up to the last minute of their surgery wait. I silently cursed my pig-headed stubbornness that had led me to come head to head with both Franc and Otto in the last few months. Franc was supposed to bring me in, stay with me and drive me home. But that was off. I hadn’t seen him since July – almost three months ago now. And I’d quarrelled with Otto about the will and it’s fairness. He’d resorted to calling me nasty names. Darned if I was going to get Otto to do anything for me. So there went my back-up plan. I consoled myself that neither of them were hand holders.
A dark curly-haired nurse came in and introduced herself. She looked sweet. She connected me up to a plastic pack on the IV stand and brought me a couple of pills to swallow to keep my stomach from revolting at the anesthesia.
“You look really familiar,” she said. “I’ve wracked my brain to remember where I know you from. Then I saw your name on the chart. We used to rent the apartment from you. I’m Kathy O’Brian,” she said.
I cursed my feckless brain that kept items of remembrance like a sieve kept water. I hadn’t recognized her.
“So you got on here permanently?” I said.
“And how is Ken. Is he still piloting? You’ve changed your hair. That’s why I didn’t recognize you.”
“Ken’s fine . And yes , he’s still a pilot.”
Small world, I thought, and a good thing I’d had such a lovely relationship with those tenants, as she went on to the other patients waiting for their turn. You never know when someone you’ve met will turn back up in your life.
An elderly, bearded man came in dressed in a white lab coat. He bade me to get up onto a gurney that he wheeled away to the operating room, all the while holding the IV bag high above his head. He had unhooked it from the stand and then held it high in a pose dignified for the Statue of Liberty.
There in the operating room was the anesthetist dressed in that same set of wrinkly ,green scrubs, that pink and yellow floral hood with ear-flaps down around her chin, the two unironed strings falling beneath her chin waiting to be tied in a laughable bow. Beside her was my gynecologist, a motherly-looking East Indian woman with bright red lips. Both looked curiously short, not more than five foot two, and I wondered at the marvelous success each of these women had met in their lives, each having a highly skilled and respected profession, and neither having my generation’s stereotypical appearances of a doctor.
“Wriggle down to this spot here,” the doctor directed and I did so. The anesthetist explained what she was going to do and then the doctor. I don’t remember any single thing that came after that, not even being administered an anesthetic, until someone said, “She’s stirring.”
“Take her to the maternity ward on the third floor,” said a voice.
Maternity ward! It was too late for me for the maternity ward. I was wheeled down the hallway to the elevator and transported to the third floor. The same elderly man pushed me into a ward room that was big enough for four beds but there was only one bed in it by the window.
A nurse came and encouraged me to get off the gurney and walk. My arthritic feet did not want to stay silent as they creaked back into service. They pinched; I winced; and so I limped a little.
“Watch her! She’s pretty unsteady.”
I was feeling quite clearheaded. I’m not befuddled, I thought to myself. It’s just these feet haven’t been active in a few hours and they are complaining.
I slept then for a couple of hours. I’d left the house at five thirty. I’d driven all the way in over a period of two hours and been so sleepy on arrival that I’d had to shake myself awake in the last mile or two of the journey. I’d been to bed late the night before, fussing about what to take and what to leave at home. I was ready for some catch-up sleep.
I awoke some time later and felt some compassion for my mother who had become obsessive about time and date. I looked at my watch and found it was gone – left at home, I knew. In the hours that followed, I must have looked twenty times, never finding the watch – automatic reaction – and me remembering too late that I had not brought it.
An aide came in with snacks and drinks. She left me some juice.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“It’s about two thirty.”
I was getting peckish. I hadn’t eaten since eleven the night before.
“We come at four thirty with dinner,” she said in reply to my query about food. I slept a while longer and soon dinner arrived. A nurse came in to check on me and inquire about my aches and pains. There were none and she was satisfied. I’d brought my own pyjamas and changed into them. The hospital garb was depressing. I began to feel more normal with more normal clothes on.
At four thirty, dinner was left on a narrow tray table that rolled across the bed so that one could eat sitting up. I activated the bed controls but no matter how high I pushed it, I could not find a suitable position to use whereby the food could actually travel from the tray to my mouth without becoming breast-shelf decoration. I gave up and sat upright on the edge of the bed, feet hanging over, and ate.
There were three very thin, machine sliced pieces of pork roast, more peas than I’ve ever seen on a dinner plate before, and a small round ice cream scoop of mashed potatoes. All was covered in a puddle of instant gravy. It was warm and food. I hadn’t had a bite nor a drink in sixteen or seventeen hours. I ate it all.
The meal came with two short plastic cups of milk sealed with a foil top which I hoarded for later. Despite my orange band proclaiming my allergy to caffeine, there was a fruit flavoured tea bag sitting beside the blue thermal mug, and a few portions of packaged sugar. I drank the tepid water.
When the aide came back, I pointed at my orange band and then at the tea bag.The tea was not decaffeinated. A fruit flavoured tea did not mean that it was herbal.
“It has to say decaffeinated on the package,”I protested.
“I don’t know,” she said. ” You marked it on your menu. But I don’t put anything on the tray. I just bring it.”
“I’m just asking that you say something to the kitchen people so that they understand,” I replied. “I know it’s not your fault, but they need to understand and not make the mistake again. ”
In the three offerings I got from the kitchen, each time this fruit tea arrived. The message did not get through. So, when the nurse came, I went through the same conversation.
“The government has decreed that we use contracted services for cleaning and for food services. The same employees that previously worked directly for the hospital are working for them, but the contractors are only interested in doing the least work for the most profit. Things like this go by every day. You should see how the cleaning has deteriorated,” she complained.
She took me to the little kitchenette down the hall and across on the other corridor. She explained that the corridor made a rectangle that one could walk all around. In the core of it were more offices and service rooms. I had to cross to the far side for this kitchenette.
She opened the fridge and showed me a shelf for nurses’ and staff lunches, not to be touched, and above that, sandwiches that people had not opened and not eaten from their trays. There was tuna, chicken or ham. There were more of those short, foil-covered milk containers, yogurt and orange juice. In the freezer there were three long loaves of white marshmallow bread.
There was a toaster and a microwave oven. If I was feeling hungry later on, I could take a sandwich or make toast. In a drawer, there were hundreds of plastic picnic knives, forks and spoons. There were individual portions of peanut butter, jams and honey. A box filled with individually packaged teas and two portions of instant decaffeinated Sanka was tucked in the front of the drawer. She encouraged me to have my coffee. But I had just eaten. I would savor the coffee later
I went back to my room and sat in a visitor’s chair on the other side of the room from my bed where the light was good for reading. I was wide awake and alert. Far away down the hall I could hear a raucous sound like a Stellar Jay complaining. Soon it dissolved into a baby’s cry.
I pulled out my novel, a romantic tale of two noble children who love each other and are promised in marriage. Then the the father of the girl falls into disfavour with King Henry III and the boy is made to marry another. She becomes ill, wastes away and dies. The peril of autocratic politics and the descriptions of medieval life were interesting and the story was told quite well. I finished the book then reached for my crossword book just as the snack angel wheeled her cart back into the room.
It was about seven o’clock now. Outside it was black. It felt as if it were midnight. This late in September, the evening light had fled. She offered me yogurt, orange juice, milk, cheese sticks and digestive cookies. I took cookies for later and ate yogurt and cheese.
I finished one half-done crossword puzzle and I had enough.
I returned to the kitchenette looking for a hot drink. Styrofoam cups were the only kind available to heat hot water in the microwave. Fearing a melt down and a splash of scalding liquid, I had to find something else. I wouldn’t be able to cope with a mess. So I retrieved my yogurt container and hoped it would be somewhat less likely to melt. I made my coffee and downed two Sankas in rapid succession, thankful for its hot sweet taste. I was conscious that in the morning, there would be none left to drink for breakfast. There was a sturdy supply of fruit teas remaining in the little box. I’ll get out of here as early as possible and go down to Starbucks in the lobby, I promised myself.
I made two pieces of toast and loaded them with Becel, peanut butter and raspberry jam. I was still thirsty. It must have been the anesthetic and the fact that I’d had nothing to drink for sixteen hours . Creative hospital cooking was required. I took two containers of milk, heated them and sweetened them with raspberry jam.
On my way back, I passed a dark skinned, short man cradling an infant so small it seemed that he was rocking a blanket with out a baby.
“She’s colicky” he said in a whisper, looking up as I stopped to look at father and his new infant.
“She’s quiet now” I replied just as quietly, as I continued past him, back down the corridor.
Back in my cavernous room, I reflected that it was good to take a day or two to do nothing, to sleep, to meditate, to read, to observe, to think. I began another crossword and quickly bored with it, I returned to the bed to sleep.
I awoke in the middle of the night, remembered that the nurse had mentioned I could always see the time by the television if I just turned it on. It was four thirty and I was wide awake. I had no interest in the puzzle and my book was finished. I put on my slippers and went to the window, all the while listening to the strange raspy sounds of discontented infants on the other side of the walls.
The night was a canvas of midnight blue with four sodium vapour street lights pouring orange halos around and about themselves. There were other neon and fluorescent lights that seemed like pin pricks in the fabric of the dark night. Across the way was a street level parking lot with lots of underground lighting. It was late and there was little activity. Occasionally a car would drive by with it’s amber tail lights glowing. Up high, there were two cranes with blinking white and red lights meant to warn planes that a structure was there.
Soon there was nothing more to see. I went back to bed, got the covers arranged around my feet and up to my shoulders and tried to sleep.
About seven in the morning, the food server came round and announced breakfast had arrived. I sat up briefly then promptly lay back on the bed, falling into a troubled sleep. I dreamt that I was in a parkade, driving out of it by driving down a staircase. At the landing, I was having trouble getting the car turned around and realized I should have driven down the ramp. With much manoeuvring, I turned the car around and drove back up and then towards the ramp. A tall hooded figure in a grey cassock held his hand up for me to stop and I did, parking the car, and returning with him to the third floor.
The apartment was motel-like with a balcony just outside the door. I could see down into the lovely garden and across the harbour, just like at the Empress hotel. I heard steps outside on the staircase but could not see who was coming up.
Two women who were with me announced, “Mrs. Stepford is coming. That was her car you could see just now.” But I could not see it. I exchanged banalities with these women about weather and clothing and children. All three of us went back inside the apartment just as two elegant, grey-hooded figures appeared at the door and entered.
In a deft motion, the two women and one monk figure departed, leaving me with a tall, gracious man, clothed in this fine hounds-tooth checked fabric that from a distance had appeared grey. The cowl slipped back slightly to reveal a younger Richard Chamberlain.
He reached his fingers to a stray strand of hair and let them fall slowly, gently down my face. He took me by my shoulders and leaned forward slowly, kindly and brushed his lips against mine. The sensation was warm, sweet and promising.
“Mrs. Kay, your breakfast is getting cold. You’d better get up and eat your breakfast. Call me when you’ve finished and I’ll take your blood pressure and your temperature.” blared the nurse’s voice. I struggled away from the warmth of the embrace and looked into the impassive face of the morning nurse. I shook my head a little for clarity. The dream was gone and the details of it hurried away after it.
Eggs would have been nice. Even powdered eggs are edible. I lifted the blue plastic cover of the food plate. There on the dinner size plate were two unbuttered, soggy slices of bread cut diagonally. I quickly put back the cover on the plate.
There was a blue thermal bowl of cereal. I lifted off the fitted plastic lid and found a lukewarm white gelatinous mass. It looked too much like paper paste and I returned the lid to the bowl. There was a small thin plastic cup of juice. I sipped it to identify it and couldn’t . It was probably made from concentrate and hadn’t been stirred. The water substance therein was unidentifiable. There were two containers of milk and a blue thermal mug of warm water. A fruit-flavoured tea sat beside it.
I drank the warm water. It was time to go.
I pushed the red button that was lashed to the side rails of the hospital bed.
“Yes?” came a booming voice from the intercom system.
“Yes.” I replied, and hesitated. What was I to say?
“The nurse said she want to see me when I’d finished breakfast. I’ve finished breakfast,” I said. I hadn’t eaten a thing. Starbucks in the main entrance to the hospital was calling me.
“She will come when she can” boomed the voice.
I was mostly dressed from the night before; I’d gone to sleep half dressed in my street clothes. I felt safer that way. I completed my dressing including my socks and shoes, packed my few belongings and waited.
I stood by the window looking out on the scene I had looked upon during a waking spell in the night. There was no parkade across the way. Under a flat grey sky, it was a hotel with a covered arcade at the ground level to keep rain off window-shopping customers. Behind the hotel, there were three new buildings under construction covered in the brilliant blue plastic that protects the plate glass windows and doors. High above them, swinging gracefully through the air were two cranes lifting construction goods from the stockpile of materials to other locations on the site. Between the new buildings and the hotel must have been a park with a grove of cedars and firs.
I looked then at the flat roof just outside my window, a narrow roof not ten feet wide terminating in a parapet wall. The lack of maintenance was terrible but beautiful. I regretted not having my camera to photograph the thick moss clumps, bright, newly green and vigorous with the latest autumn rains. It was clinging to the layer of grey pebble ballast that was designed to keep the roof down in windy conditions. Tucked between the clumps of moss were lichens in a soft pale copper oxide colour, the earth colour artists call Terre Verte. Where the moss was thriving, tiny thin tendrils of a coppery coloured flower bunched on the top of the moss. Set in amongst the rocky ballast, a rose filter perched atop the drain to keep out leaves and other debris. It had a lovely geometric pattern of piercings. Oh, where was that camera?!!!
From a Property Manager’s point of view, it was a disgrace; the moss was destructive, reaching it’s “roots, into the tar and ruining it’s waterproofing. From an artist’s point of view though, it was a marvel of shapes, colours, patterns and textures.
The nurse returned and took my blood pressure and my temperature. I was fine to go. Only, she needed my doctor’s permission to discharge me. The doctor had just left ten minutes previous.
“What on earth was she doing here last night?” I asked. “She was here at seven in the morning. You don’t have to have her come back do you?”
“Oh, she was on call last night,” she replied. “I just need her permission to let you go.”
The nurse paged her and fifteen minutes later, I was free.
I navigated back to the elevator, descended to the ground floor, asked for and found the closest exit to the parkade and found the car. I left my goods and chattels in the trunk, locked it all up and went back to the coffee shop for the tallest decaf they had, and a fruit bar.
The rest, my friends, is another story.