Mere Mortals | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Mere Mortals

My hospital roommate and I didn't have much in common except that we were stil both alive.

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I'm probably going to get some of this wrong, but I was in pain and just a little high on hospital drugs when they brought me back from the recovery room after my kidney-stone operation. I saw that I had a roommate, an old man flat on his back with tubes running in and out. He didn't look like anyone I would want to know.

It could have been worse. Down the hall another man was crying out oooo, oooo, oooo, each cry almost like the last, but occasionally rising in volume, much the way my neighbor's dog barks when it's been locked in the yard and forgotten. I could have ended up with him.

Against all common sense I struggled out of bed and headed for the bathroom, dragging catheter and IV post behind. I'd already tried this in the recovery room; it hadn't worked.

My roommate raised his head. "Better watch out. You'll break your neck."

I didn't break my neck, but I didn't make it to the bathroom either. Not that it would have done me any good. By the time the nurses had me safely on my back again, I'd got the message. No matter what I thought my body wanted, it wasn't going to be able to do it for more long hours than I cared to think about.

My roommate had been through a prostate operation, though he wasn't quite clear on what had been done, "They whittled away," he said.

We were in opposite corners of the room, our beds at right angles. When he raised his face I could see he was older than me by more than a few years and a bit livelier than I'd expected.

"I was getting up eight times a night," he said. "I came in with a heart attack, and they talked me into this."

We compared the sleepless nights and the hourly trips to the bathroom old men know so well, but it seemed to me that I was the only one listening. "I'm 85 years old," he said, not so much as an excuse, but as if he were describing another affliction.

I was impressed. I'll take 85, I thought. I'll take 16 more years.

I planned my evening. The Bulls were playing Boston on Channel Nine. I called my wife and told her to bring my false teeth and a dish of prunes when she came to visit. Less than two years into our marriage, and I was asking for things like that.

Teeth or no teeth, there was no eating what the hospital finally served. "Take it back," my roommate ordered, without even looking at the tray.

"He's 85 years old," I told my wife. "He's my hero." Talking was difficult. The pain kept coming in waves, and most of it was associated with bodily functions I couldn't perform and shouldn't write about. When the game started I sent her home. I know too well what a deadly chore it is to visit the sick, who often want only to be left alone. "Get some rest, sweetie," I said. "You've been up since five."

"She's a good woman," I told my roommate after she left. I wanted to brag a bit, but he didn't seem interested. He wasn't interested in the game either. Each bed had its own television, for which you were charged $4 a day, and he'd declined the bargain.

I watched the Bulls win. I listened to my roommate use the phone. By now I knew that he was a widower, but he had someone on the other end of the line he spoke to in familiar tones. His daughter, I thought. He'd mentioned a daughter. An 85-year-old man could have a daughter darn near as old as me.

The pain came, and it came, and it came. I could count on it every hour. Bladder spasms, the nurses explained. They gave me Tylenol 3 and a little blue pill that took a half hour to kick in, which held off the spasms for less than an hour.

Sleep seemed impossible, and as if to ensure that, a little speaker above my head kept calling out to someone who wasn't me in a metallic voice. But after a certain hour even a hospital finally gets quiet. We turned down our lights, and I set myself to ride out the night.

The human body is a work of art, I thought. We admire ourselves in mirrors, flip through newly developed photographs to find our own, and can't resist a store video monitor. Yet we still think of ourselves as spirits trapped in mere clay. Year after unremarkable year the marvelous engine of the body converts the energy of the sun into that mysterious maelstrom we call thought. And what is it that constitutes our individual souls if not a complex pattern of electrical impulses that has somehow been organized into significance?

Somewhere in the middle of that ever-lengthening night it occurred to me that I might die. Not later, as I have always promised myself, but right then. Things were bleeding and convulsing inside the body I faced every day in the mirror--organs and vessels whose functions had never been quite clear, mechanisms whose existence had never quite caught my attention.

I could see the Ravenswood el from my window. I could sense the lake beyond. I could imagine the thousands and thousands of living souls out there, some peacefully asleep, others confidently going about their business. I began thinking about the dead, my dead--my mother, my father, my sister, my first wife, her parents, my brother-in-law and his brothers, all those friends, relatives, and fellow workers from the distant and not-so-distant past. Would I see them again, or would I merely join them?

From time to time I turned on the television. No sound necessary. Men were selling used cars, hair restorer, and salvation. Panels of talking heads silently mouthed "the Clinton administration."

Then the convulsions would start again, and the pain, and the need to do what I couldn't do. I pressed the night bell again and again, but every time the nurse showed up--at least this is how it seemed to me--my roommate would raise his head and call her to his bed first.

The night nurse was a fine lady, large and warm and gentle. She brought me a bedpan, which I couldn't use but somehow found comforting. She brought me painkillers and more little anticonvulsion pills, almost as many as I wanted. And she brought me prune juice.

I must have slept after all, fitfully. I dreamed short, wild fantasies, all of which ended with me in search of a bathroom.

Suddenly it was gray dawn and my doctor was over the bed. He was a young man, younger than my sons. It's almost frightening to think I trusted someone so young to stick something he called a telescope up the smallest opening in my body, then attempt to extract a stone with something he called a basket.

The stone, all five millimeters of it, was lost now, possibly floating around in my bladder. "We think it broke up," the doctor said. "Anyway, we don't want to risk any more damage."

"Oh, no," I said. "Don't do that."

He removed the catheter, unhooked my IVs, and told me I could go home as soon as I proved I could urinate by myself. That didn't happen until four o'clock in the afternoon.

My roommate had another night to go, but he too was planning his exit. Several times he called his friend; I now learned she was not his daughter. We were at last talking somewhat freely. He'd been married 60 years to one woman. I'd been married 45 to one woman. We spoke of these dead wives and our lives with them. Neither of us could quite figure out how to describe such enormous experiences.

My wife showed up to take me home, but I couldn't leave until the nurse pronounced me fit. We watched the noon news, heard the latest White House gossip. It occurred to me that my roommate and I hadn't spoken once of politics, of Kenneth Starr, or of President Clinton. Nor had we discussed the economy, the environment, foreign affairs, crime, the crisis in education, abortion, capital punishment, the media, religion, the arts, or any other current topic. We hadn't even discussed social security and medicare. Here was a man I knew to be of my own working-class background, and I had no idea if we would agree on any of these things. Probably not.

Finally my body began to work again, and after calling my doctor, the nurse declared me a free man. I wanted to hug her, or at least exchange high fives, but I don't hug people often and almost never give high fives.

As I was packing up, my roommate's friend arrived carrying the clothes he'd asked her to bring, the largest sub sandwich I'd ever seen, and a shopping bag filled with craft items she'd made, mostly tiny plush animals and paper flowers. "How's the old crab?" she said.

My roommate swung his bare legs over the side of the bed. He still had his catheter hooked up. "Go ahead," he ordered in a proud voice. "Pick one out for your wife."

My wife had stepped out of the room. After a moment's hesitation I chose a tiny plush lamb, or maybe it was a rabbit. "My wife has a new grandson," I said.

"Oh, give her a flower too," my roommate's friend said.

"Get those nurses in here," he said.

My nurse, my wife, and a second nurse all gathered around my roommate's bed while his friend spread out her wares. "Oh, take a flower for your hair," she told my nurse. "You have long hair." She said the same thing to my wife.

Suddenly these women, who didn't even know each other's names, were all wearing flowers in their hair and laughing and looking beautiful.

"Oh, thank you," I said to my roommate, to his friend, to the nurses. Eighty-five? I meant to try.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Jim Flynn.

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