"Ward in the Hospital at Arles" Vincent van Gogh, 1889
“Ward in the Hospital at Arles” Vincent van Gogh, 1889

When she first left the ICU grandma was the new roommate to a rail-thin elderly woman with a shaved head. We guessed that she was a cancer patient, though it was hard to say. She just had very little, very short hair, and for most of the day lay in bed with her eyes closed. At first we felt terrible about all the noise we made – Grandma was arguably the most visited patient in the hospital (at one point a curious nurse tapped my mother on the shoulder and asked about grandma, “If you don’t mind, who is she? Is she famous?”) – and kept reminding each other to hush because of the sleeping woman in the next bed, but she never stirred, never complained, and when she did open her eyes, would stare blankly out the window or at the ceiling. As far as we knew, no one ever came to visit and we thought for sure she was a medical lost cause – perhaps just waiting to die. Until one evening I came to spend the night with Grandma whose oxygen levels were beginning a gradual descent, and I saw the woman shuffle around in her bed as though she were searching for something.

Her thin, papery arms patted around the sheets, which seemed to drown her, and she made slight huffing noises. I put my book down and walked slowly to her bedside, not sure if by now my face was familiar to her. I had made a point to smile at her each time I walked by her bed to use the sink or throw something away, though she never smiled back.

“Do you need help?” I asked in Chinese.

“Get up,” she said to me in mandarin with a slight Cantonese accent, “Get up.” She reached her left arm toward me and waved her hand. I understood that she wanted me to grab it, and so I did so, though gingerly. Her skin was much drier and looser than I expected, yards away it seemed, from the bones inside. There was hardly any flesh and I understood where the phrase “bag of bones” came from. I was afraid of tearing her apart, but I smiled and was rather surprised by her strength. Apparently she did not want me to pull but to pull on me; she needed me to hold my arm at a more convenient angle than the railings of the bed were, and with just my resisting falling into bed with her, she pulled herself up and swung her legs over. She was surprisingly agile, though by then I had gotten so used to waiting for my grandmother to lift herself inch by inch that this woman’s movement felt speedy in comparison. She stood up without effort and with a funny, bow-legged gait, walked quickly to the bathroom, a freedom my grandmother had given up along with lung capacity. I watched her cartoonish image from behind: open, free-flowing hospital gown, baggy white panties and gnarled, chunky hospital socks flopping along the linoleum.

In the evening her dinner tray arrived and she sat herself up slowly, a small figure dwarfed in the giant fold of the hospital bed. With a thin arm she lifted the heavy lid of the plate warmer and looked at the hospital’s offerings. Clearly, she still had all her teeth – her diet had only one specification: low sodium, while my grandmother’s was mechanical soft without any simple carbohydrates, which meant mushy protein, mushy vegetables, and mushy oatmeal. The other woman however, had a plate with vegetables that were still somewhat green and two thick slices of what seemed like roast beef, and a hearty scoop of hospital-grade mashed potatoes. Grandma was still sleeping, and when she awoke would need a good half hour to work through everything on her plate, if at all, but I watched in amazement as her roommate opened the small square of margarine and smeared it over her roast beef. Surely this wasn’t a normal practice at home? She sliced the beef into rather large bites, each of which she speared and topped with vegetables and mashed potatoes, making a small mountain of each forkful. With a steady hand and without so much as a dribble, she delivered each bite into her disproportionately large mouth. She chewed methodically and without expression, like a cannibal psychopath, and I recalled a doctor friend’s declaration that a patient’s recovery depended on their appetite.

“If they don’t eat, they can’t get better,” he said.

The woman was definitely getting better and I wondered what in the world she was hospitalized for, though at this point, it didn’t seem to matter. Whatever illness she had seemed far behind her, or at least had retreated enough not to hamper her appetite. It was clear she would be discharged in the next day or two. In less than fifteen minutes her plate was sparkling clean; she had mopped up the excess juice and sauce with the dry piece of wheat bread that came with every meal, and in the grandest of grand gastronomic finales I’ve ever seen in dispatching a hospital meal, scooped out the rest of the margarine with her butter knife and ate it with a resolute smack of her thin, wrinkled lips. Then she pushed the tray away, leaned the hospital bed down, and went to sleep.

The next afternoon when I returned to the hospital, the woman had gone home. My mother remarked that a young man, the first family member we’d ever seen at the woman’s side, had showed up to take her home and that they’d left quietly, exchanging no more than a few words. Now a much younger woman with the most severe black eye I’d ever seen lay in the next bed, though apparently she had other injuries on her body so severe that the bed could not even be slightly tilted, and she needed the help of two nurses to use the bedpan. My immediate thought was domestic violence, though later a nosy nurse asked the question for me and the woman answered, “Car accident.”

Her youth made her stick out like a sore thumb amongst the rest of the patients on the floor, most of which were aged 70 and above and on some sort of life support. Her youth was also testament to her inexperience with hospital systems in general: that unlike in TV medical dramas, beeping machines and flashing red lights were a frequent occurrence, often ignored or at least, responded to with delay; that nurses were not like flight attendants, despite the implied urgency and convenience of the nurse call button, which the woman used at the slightest discomfort; and that hospital personnel worked on tight schedules of their own rather than at each patient’s beck and call. Her black eye had perhaps blinded her to the other patients in the system and, as young people are wont to do, she saw herself as the sun around which doctors, nurses and physical therapists revolved around. Her voice was always heavy with irritation, as though she couldn’t believe the routine questions the nurses were asking her. Wasn’t it obvious she was in pain? Wasn’t it obvious she needed to be cleaned “down there?” Wasn’t it obvious she was eating and that no, she would not do physical therapy right now and yes could the therapist please come back later when she was not eating? (She finished eating less than ten minutes later, by when the therapist was already on another floor, working with another patient who was more than happy to set her lunch tray aside for later, being better attuned to the way hospitals worked. The woman fumed). Needless to say she was our least favorite roommate. We were thankful when two days later, her youth enabled her to heal quickly and be moved home.

Next came an elderly gentleman whom I never caught a glimpse of because he was moved in at 8PM one evening, soon after I’d left the hospital. My mother was spending the night and was there when the man’s daughter arrived, a stone-faced woman who didn’t smile or say hello to my mother on her way to her father’s bedside. She never touched the man, only sat straight down and took out of her expensive handbag a Kindle, which she read until 9PM, when she stood straight up and said to him, “Okay, I’m leaving.” She was there for less than an hour, and my mother, just one of my grandmother’s four uber-filial children, wondered if the woman was in fact his daughter. They obviously had a strained relationship.

My grandmother slept more soundly than usual that night, which meant my mother could sleep as well, until at 2AM she was gently shaken awake by a wide-eyed nurse. Beyond the nurse’s dim face, my mother heard hushed, hurried voices of two other nurses who seemed to be struggling with the patient on the other bed.

“It hurts,” my mother heard the old man cry, his voice high and gravelly, “it hurts,” followed by the incessant beeping of a machine my mother did not recognize. What was going on?

“I’m sorry about this,” the nurse said, “but we are having some trouble with the other patient. We will need to move your mother to the next room.”

My mother nodded sleepily and got up, preparing to gather my grandmother’s things. She unexpectedly brushed the parting curtain back and saw the man’s face and was instantly wide awake. His face was contorted, frozen in a pained expression; eyes widened and rolled back, mouth agape. Despite the nurses moving around him, he lay unnaturally still. The heart rate monitor showed a flat line.

By the time my grandmother was rolled out of the room, she too, was wide awake, eyes no doubt adjusting to the bright lights of the hall and then the new view in the new room. Now she was next to the window. My mother wondered if she should explain, but something about grandma’s resolute silence – she did not seem fatigued – told her not to bring it up. Grandma asked no questions about the move or of the patient. This, my mother said later, was uncharacteristic of my normally inquisitive and very nosy grandma. A half hour after grandma’s bed had been locked into place in the new room, she turned on her side and shut her eyes.

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