The mean nurse, in her starched whites, with a staccato burst instructed that I could go in for a moment, just a moment. It was terrifying, that walk through the chamber of the dying. The first thing that hit me as I entered was the smell. Disinfectant and disease. Synonymous, the smell of pain. Then came the constant high decibel of activity, doctors, nurses, cleaners, running in and out with their sombre expressions and hurried gaits. Like they knew what they were doing. Unlike me, clueless, lost. The beeps of the several machines, rhythmically beating in disarray, for every finite breath in there, giving a constant base to the clattering of trays and the shriek of metal on skin and the hissing of the ventilators pumping life into almost dead bodies.
Sounds that whirred on and smells that lingered day in and day out as patients came and patients went. Or were they people?
I came out of the trance of that rhythm with a sob of a young girl, a silent sob escaping from drooping shoulders as an old cranky patient snarled obscenities at the nurse trying to turn him around to wipe his butt. Pain or regret or shame? Who knew?
A screech followed, as old tired rubber wheels of an x-ray scanner, scratched against glazed tiles and I kept walking through the aisle of pain and despair.
White, wasn’t it supposed to be the color of the angels and the Gods? White and blue? The clouds and the sky on a bright sunny Sunday morning? Maybe that’s why the walls here were white and the nurse’s caps and belts blue and the beds and curtains blue. Maybe they thought the colors would take the pain away? Tell that to the ambulance that had just screamed it’s way into the gates below.
I floated on, past three beds, not daring to look sideways, like a pall bearer marching to the drum beats and the chants, willing the metallic beeping to stop, knowing what it would do it if it did, but still wishing. And finally I was there, Bed No. 32, ICU-Ward A, GGHospital and he was there. Once tall, strong, a symbol of good health and strength, now, broken, shrunk on the bed a yellow sick form draped in starch white sheets, a hundred odd thin fluid filled tubes encircling him, entwined, trapped.
It was nauseating, the tubes, a deep red going into his arm, a mustardy yellow leaving his recently cut open pancreas, a greenish muddy thing leaving his throat, pure translucent entering his nose. A pouch hanging by his feet. A bottle by his head. I bent down to kiss him a hello. To find a patch of his cheek that I had pulled so often while teasing him, now only a bag of skin beneath an overgrown beard, rough like old worn leather. I wondered if I would ever get to smell his old spice after shave again. The blanket slipped a little as I bent, revealing his blue hospital robe, stained and stinking. I wondered if I would ever see him in a crinkle free shirt again. The ventilator trudged on, pushing air and life into his throat. I wondered if I would ever hear the booming candid laughter from that throat plugged with that weird contraption.
The mean nurse, who had accompanied me, unknowingly, like a wraith, bent and whispered something in his ear, insistently, like waking up a child. And reluctantly, slowly, very defensively, he opened his eyes. Eyes that once glittered and gleamed, dark brown balls in a clear white, now dead in yellow. And turned his head as if with a great terrible effort.
And then I saw what I had feared all along the journey, on the flight, on the road, on that doomed walk across the aisle of pain. I saw his blank gaze as I stared into that emptiness. I touched his hand, tubes and all, found his fingers, scaly and wrinkled and slipped mine in his. No reaction. And the lump in my throat and the knot in my tongue melted as I smiled my practiced encouraging smile, a tear escaping the eye as I said, “Hey dad! It’s me… Remember?”