Hospital Tea Bags

Every now and then stern reality intrudes on life in my town, but there are still things to learn.

May 2004

I've never liked hospitals.  The floors are too shiny and everybody's too cheerful.

Of course, they do have their moments. I remember bringing back milkshakes for the nurses on the third floor maternity ward. 

But in general, nobody volunteers for a stay in these expensive rooms.

As I walked down the halls, I heard every squeak from my shoes.  I felt guilty disturbing the antiseptic peace of the medical establishment.  I knew the room number I was searching for, but I somehow resented all the signs directing me on my way.  Why should I have to wander the halls, when there was only one important patient in the whole place?

When I finally was in front of the right door, I paused and looked around.  The door itself had a massive hinge. Were they worried about somebody breaking in, or him breaking out?

I took a deep breath, and pushed on the heavy stainless steel door handle.

Mr. Henry looked like a scale model of himself, tucked away in that big hospital bed.  He seemed to be asleep, and I quietly sat down.

"'Bout Goddam Time!"

Well, so much for him being asleep.  I tried to defend myself. After all, I was at work when he collapsed at the Mayflower, and I didn't get the word until Miss Yvonne called me later in the afternoon.

"I came as soon as I knew!"

Mr. Henry thought about this awhile.  I saw him glance up at the clock, and I could almost see the calculations in his head.

"Well, OK then." 

Silence descended over the room.  I couldn't stand it, so I tried to say the appropriate things.

"So how are you feeling?"

"Like shit!" said Mr. Henry.  "I'm in the goddam hospital!  How am I supposed to feel?"

I couldn't think of a good reply, so I just kept quiet.  That was OK, though. I don't think he was looking for a real back and forth conversation.

"And you know," he said, "It ain't my fault this time! I been locked up lots a times before, but they just wanted to dry me out.  This time, I'm stuck in here without even a fond memory of a good drunk!"

I wished he was here just to get sobered up, but I'd heard enough to know things were a bit more serious.

Mr. Henry went on muttering for a while, and then the oppressive silence returned.  I tried to talk about more pleasant things.

"My boy's back from Iraq!" I said, as cheerfully as possible.

Mr. Henry didn't say anything at first, but he did roll over a bit and give me a good hard look.

"So, how's he doin'?"

"I don't really know!  You remember, he's got a wife now, and so I'm pretty far down the priority list.  I haven't seen him yet.  But she says he looks good.  I don't need to see him so much, I'm just glad he's back!" 

I realized I'd slipped into full babble mode, and got a little embarrassed.  Mr. Henry seemed mostly amused.  He wanted more details.

"Did he get a parade?"

I had to think about this.  I hadn't thought about it before.  "I don't think so.  Nobody mentioned one."

"I didn't get one either," said Mr. Henry.  "Only the folks that got there too late to do anything were still around for the parades." 

That comment seemed a bit unfair to me, but I didn't have any standing to argue. I busied myself checking out all the digital readouts in the room.  Mr. Henry had been reduced to a collection of statistics, like a ball player coming up to bat on TV.

"When I'm gone…" said Mr. Henry, pausing for effect. 

I was shocked back to the issue at hand.  "You're not going anywhere!"

"Don't try to Bullshit a Bullshitter, Son!"  He'd never called me "Son" before.  I wondered if it meant anything, or if it was just part of the act.

"Anyway, we all go sooner or later.  And when I go, I don't want anybody to say 'He had a long and full life.'  'Cause I didn't have a long life.  I had about nineteen years of a life, and then sixty years of extra innings.  Now I ain't complainin', I'm grateful for the extra time.  Every day's been a gift, a gift a lot of my friends never got.

"So when I'm gone, I just want people to say they're gonna miss me!"

This pretty much tired him out, and he finally went on to sleep. 

The trip out to the parking lot seemed quicker; even the elevators cooperated.  I drove home very carefully, concentrating on the road to avoid thinking about anything else.  As I pulled into my driveway, I saw the balloons on the mailbox, and remembered it was prom night.  I had been looking forward to seeing my daughter off.

I took a few minutes to get myself in order, acting like I was finishing up listening to something on the radio.  Then I took my well controlled self into the house.

As I walked into the living room, my wife said, "She's gone, you just missed her!"

Well, that took care of my steely composure.   

I suppose a lot of wives would be upset watching their husbands dissolve into an emotional blob of jelly, but my wife has always considered me as the third child, the one who never progressed beyond the age of ten.  She just watched as I fell into the big chair.  "It's no big deal, I took some pictures before she left!" 

Trying to salvage some dignity, I grabbed the remote and found the ball game.

It was the bottom of the twelfth.