Firstly, thank you to those who have sent kind words and thoughts to my family. They are greatly appreciated.

As I write this, my grandmother’s lungs slowly fill with water. She has now been in the hospital for fifteen days, mostly lying down in a bed that is more flexible than she. To move her up or down for meals, we move the bed with the push of buttons conveniently labeled with enormous arrows. And while her arms are still quite strong, it is getting harder for her to push herself up. Occasionally she will sit up with a sudden, startling swing of her legs to the left side of the bed and point at the bedside commode*.

“Move it here,” she will say, “I’d like to sit for a while.”

At first I wondered why she would prefer the hard plastic seat of the commode to the soft mattress, but I thought to my own preferences when dining out, how I prefer chairs to banquets, tables to booths. Squashy seats take away any strength you might employ in your core, the muscles of which enable you to sit up straight and feel dignified, part of regular society. Sometimes she just wants to sit up in bed, but most of the time, if she has made it this far, she wants to sit on the commode. Not use it, just sit on it.

So whomever is at her side will stand behind the commode with arms outstretched in case she falls backwards and wait as she lifts herself up and off the bed, stands for several shaky seconds on her soft legs and turns around inch by inch, the bulk of her weight supported by her strong arms pressing down on the mattress until finally, her bottom is aligned with the top of the commode. With a heroic exhalation, she sits herself down. Panting. This has been for the past two weeks, my grandmother’s main source of exercise and movement, as well as the maximum distance traveled: less than a foot, from bedside to commode.

For all of us with clean, clear lungs and strong, straight legs that can take us from here to there, and even for those of us in physical states similar to hers, my grandmother is a paragon of patience and endurance. A single night in the hospital has me crawling for fresh air, release, sunlight, and did I mention fresh air? The room is like a vault of stale, overused air, far from sterile and filled with the smells of a million different medications, over-boiled hospital food, and of course, other patients plus all that they emit. It is perpetually dim, even near the window, which hospital administration thought necessary to coat with a darkening agent, as though sunlight was the last thing recovering patients needed. As such the interior is brightened only by the  light of two fluorescent bulbs, one deemed “room light” and the other “reading.”

The Improvised Field Hospital     Jean Frederic Bazille, 1865 Oil on Canvas

There is a cheap grey cabinet where patients and family members can store their things, upon the doors of which hang plastic dry erase boards where at every change of shift an energetic nurse comes in with a marker and rigorously erases the last nurses name and writes her own. The board is a bare bones overview of every patient’s “needs,”: the name of the doctor, an elusive man named Hsu; the patient’s diet preferences which in my grandmother’s case is an unappetizing category called “mechanical soft,” and laughably, the “activity for the day,” which is more or less nothing, though hospitals prefer the term “bed rest.” Beneath it all is a row of yellow smiley faces, though not all smiling: they represent a range of emotions: a smile, a grimace, a frown, and a cartoonish scowl meant to signify extreme pain. This is the pain scale – and every patient has a “pain goal,” ranging from 0 to 10, though understandably, a 0 is written on every patient’s board.

To the side, there is a height-adjustable table with difficult wheels, for meals, and a single, vomit-colored chair for visitors. These cramped quarters are meant to accommodate two patients. In the past, before enormous hospital beds and giant breathing machines were invented, this might have been a semi-comfortable set up, but now the machines take up more than seventy percent of the space, forcing nurses and family members to do an awkward dance each time the patient needs something. A dingy yellow curtain divides the room in half, though only by sight, leaving everything else that ought to be blocked (light, sounds, smells) from the other side and the outside, utterly available to torment you and your neighbor. Due to the lack of space, the curtain almost always drapes over something: the vomit colored chair or the commode or the table where your food is placed. You wonder if the hospital ever launders that yellow curtain which is probably as old as the hospital itself and when you arrive at the conclusion, “Probably not,” shake the thought away because it is the wise thing to do.

Most awkward of all, as though privacy and the rest that might result from such privacy were, along with sunlight, unnecessary for full or at least partial recovery, is the fact that even if the room next door is empty, they will always fill the spare bed in your room first before using the empty room next door.

Thus for the past two weeks my grandmother has had a half dozen roommates whose faces she has never seen and some whose voices she has never heard but whose presence and sicknesses can be felt because they are less than three feet away. In years past my grandmother was always the first to leave. She was the one whose health rebounded quickly, astounding doctors and nurses alike. When she left, usually in a wheel chair, they would pat her on the back and say, “Don’t come back,” and she would nod happily, “Of course not.” But now the other patients have come and gone, come and gone, and my grandmother remains.

*For days I called it the “bedpan,” until a frustrated nurse corrected me. “This is the bedpan,” she said, holding up a plastic bedpan, “And this,” she pointed at the aluminum frame that held a plastic toilet seat which sat over a plastic tub for waste, “Is the bedside commode.” I stood there with my GRE textbook and said dumbly, “Thank you.” 

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