West Jeff: Passing the hours



“We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep. It’s as simple and ordinary as that.”*

It’s not their fault, really, but I shun this hospital. I hate the chairs and the smell, the parking lot and the cafeteria, the long corridors and the long waits. I hate Emergency.

After dozens of doctor’s appointments at West Jefferson Medical Center — none mine (because that’s a choice), but for my mother, grandmother and uncle — I admit that the place seduces me. I feel its foreboding pull from the West Bank Expressway, so that even when I drive past, with out-of-town guests for a Swamp Tour or with my husband to his hometown of New Iberia, I know it’s there, this mausoleum of waiting and loss.

“A few jump out windows, or drown themselves, or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us are slowly devoured by some disease, or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself.”*

The Soul Group, 1996, 36x24
  • Mignon McClanahan Wolfe
  • The Soul Group, 1996, 36x24

Over the years, I examined IV’s in my loved ones and remained calm, maybe too calm, within ambulance rides and lines in Emergency. I listened to screaming strangers and family, to final requests, to good-bye’s, to I-Love-You’s, to pleas for water, chips of ice, doctors, pain medication, answers, miracles, and to desperate cries:

“Wendy, don’t leave me!”

During my mother’s first surgery for hip replacement, I read Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, the entire book in one day. I hid from the crowds and cell phones in the chapel, a place interminably quiet and empty.

“There is just this for consolation: an hour here or there, when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult.”*

As I finished the novel, the nurse called my name. I walked into recovery thinking of my grandmother, remembering her bulging eyes and the sunken face of cancer, the newest shade of Estee Lauder red on her nails, and the clear way she spoke to my dead grandfather, as though he stood at the edge of her bed.

I stared at my unconscious mother. She all but levitated above the sheets in the paleness that comes from trauma, loss of blood, and my need (unknown to me at the time, a premonition) to see her as an angel.

“She might, at this moment, be nothing but a floating intelligence; not even a brain inside a skull, just a presence that perceives, as a ghost might.”*

As human beings we all face death and suffering, desperation and helplessness. This hospital loathing is not unique to me. Fate plays a game far less tolerable, in fact, on the hospital staff and volunteers. They watch many patients die, and they save many others. Rather than despise their workplace, no doubt many look forward to making a positive difference in our community. They face their own lives and loved ones at the end of their long workdays (and worknights); yet they respond with kindness to my impatience, because they want to help. I hate this hospital, but it’s not their fault.

This week I sit in the West Jeff chapel once more, waiting while a scared loved one has surgery. I tell myself that he’ll be okay, that I’ll recognize the signs this time, and that I’ll break this pattern.

“But there are still the hours, aren’t there? One and then another, and you get through that one and then, my god, there’s another. I’m so sick.”*

Wendy (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)

*The Hours by Michael Cunningham, Picador Press, 2000

for a related post see "Mignon's Flowers"

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