from Hospice
Gregory Howard

At the Chateau, Mrs. Taylor still wasn’t talking or taking her pills. This did not seem to be much of a problem for anyone. When she filled out her forms and handed them to the head nurse, the nurse would scan them, make a clicking sound with her tongue, and then return to whatever it was that she was doing.

After a while she grew bored with her duties and began to wander the hospital. She checked in on other patients. Surely, she thought, there must be better patients, patients who would respond to her prompts and advances. But the patients at the hospital were mostly the same. There was a woman who complained loudly about her gout and a woman who kept asking people if they wouldn’t mind giving back her arm. There was also a woman who limped around the hospital calling after a kitty. Here Isabel, the woman called. Here sweet pea. Mommy wants to repay you for what you did. These were the kinds of women there were. The ones that talk, she decided, were worse than the ones that didn’t. Eventually she came back to the small woman and her pills and the window. Together they sat in silence until it was time to go.

But then one day Mrs. Taylor spoke.

This isn’t my first time in the hospital, she said. Her voice was soft and hoarse. No, she said. Not at all. When I was younger, I used to make it a habit of visiting my sick friends in hospitals. I liked visiting these friends. It made me feel alive, she said, quickened, as they say, like I was touching something electric, but in the good way. Like when you touch something you can’t stop touching. In fact, Mrs. Taylor continued, after a moment, I liked it so much that, for a while it’s all I did! I would go from one hospital to the next with my daisies and my chocolates and I would just sit in those rooms, those wonderful sterile rooms, and listen to whichever friend it was ramble on about their health and their dreams and their fears until it was time to go to the next visit, where I would do the same thing. This would go on all day and into the night. And when there weren’t any friends in the hospital, a tragic but not unusual affair to be sure, I would just go to one, any old random hospital, and make a friend, just so I could visit. It wasn’t easy, let me tell you. The business of visiting sick friends in hospitals, it’s a serious one. You have to have patience, physical stamina, emotional fortitude. You have to have a willing ear. And if you’re visiting people you don’t yet know, well, then you have to be prepared. Often I would stand outside and listen in on other people’s conversations. I’d stand outside and smoke like I was a patient or a worker and try to piece together names, so then I could go in for a visit. Or, I’d borrow a friend’s dog and walk right in and tell them the therapy dog had arrived. This was more difficult, obviously. Because you have to find a place to put the dog while you visit the patients. A dog will only get in the way of a visit, you see. The whole thing becomes about the dog. Look at the dog. What’s his name? Isn’t he a good little doggy? These are the things people say when there’s a dog present. You don’t get anything of significance from the patient. You don’t feel wanted with a dog in the room. So, the important thing was to find a room to stash the dog while you visited. It wasn’t easy, like I said, but I had my ways. I had my ways.

Mrs. Taylor stopped for a moment to remember her ways. She looked out the window like she was peering into the porthole of a mysterious yacht. She chuckled.

Anyway, she began again, all of this was mine. The hospitals, the patients, the exhilaration of the taking of life’s fading pulse. It was a grand time to be young. But then one day it all changed. One day, I visited this particular sick friend. He was a young man—we were all young then of course—who but the young live in this way—but this sick friend seemed to me particularly young and he had been in the hospital for so long that it seemed he had been there all his life. But even though he had been in the hospital, in and out of the hospital, you see, for so long, even though this was true, I had not yet visited him. He had called me several times to come visit, pleading to come visit, but I had ignored him. It was a busy time. I was visiting other friends, friends with diseases much more serious than his. I didn’t tell him this, of course. You can’t be cruel. Plus you never know when a mildly sick friend is going to blossom into a truly sick friend. You have to keep your options open. And sure enough, eventually my patience was rewarded and this young man, call him Frank, finally took a turn for the worse. So I borrowed an automobile and drove all the way out to the hospital where he was staying so we might, at last—what do you call it?—commune. The hospital was a mean two-story building located at the apex of a cul-de-sac, a kind of irregular, oblong cul-de-sac, an ill designed cul-de-sac to be sure, that itself was at the end of a long industrial road, with rigorously spaced trash cans on either side. The intention of the trashcans and their spacing were unclear to me, but it seemed like, as a patient you were intended to dispose of everything, strip away everything as you went, your jackets, your shoes, your hats, your caps, the soda cans in the car, the coffee cups and old newspapers, your overnight bags, even that, in order to arrive at the hospital in a state of pure anticipation. This, at least, is what I imagined. So when I walked in through the front doors of the hospital I imagined what it must feel like to have left everything behind, to come in ready. This should have been my first clue that things were about to change. This should have been my first clue to turn right around and find a usual hospital. But I was intent, you see. I was blind with desire, and I kept right on going, right through those hospital doors. Inside, the hospital felt—how can I describe it?—damp. Maybe even moist. My friend, Frank, was located in a small and dull orange room on the second floor, which he shared with an old woman on a ventilator. As I mentioned this friend of mine was young and because he was young and probably for other reasons too, he held out hope that now that he was really bad off, in other words, that this thing making him sick might be killing him. But not only this! He held out further hope that the thing killing him would be singular to him. He told me all this right off the bat. He said he hoped while singular to him this thing would after it was done killing him go on to kill other people too, perhaps many people, although perhaps not in hideous ways. If he was to be honest, he said to me, he hadn’t really thought about that part. While his own dying had not yet been hideous there was no telling what lay around the corner. Things that lay around corners are usually hideous and horrible. Lurking, that’s the term for corners and their things. In any case, the point was this: the more hideous and horrible this unknown thing inside my friend, the better, he thought. Because the more hideous and horrible this thing inside him the better chance that other people, the people who would later succumb to it, and the people around those people, and the people who merely read about sick people, would speak his name with fear and reverence. That, in the end, is what he really hoped for. To be the name of a strange and perplexing disease! What do you think of that? I’ll tell you what I thought. How fantastic! That is what I thought. Just when you think you have heard everything a sick friend has to say, out comes one with something so extraordinary, he might as well have been speaking Swahili. I remember, Mrs. Taylor said, that I wanted to capture every single word of his, to savor his unique perspective. But it was hard to concentrate in that room. First there was the sound of the ventilator stuck to the old woman’s face. Whush Whush was the sound it made. Whush Whush. Plus under those horrible regulation fluorescent lights, the dull orange color took on a dream-like quality. Here he was, my friend, what’s-his-name, describing how his life’s ambition to be recognized was, with some good luck, finally coming true, and all I could think about was my own hands. But this, it turns out, may have been the point. Because it seemed that at this particular hospital there were different color rooms corresponding to the patient’s proximity to death. Orange was closer to death than pale yellow and yellow closer still than pink. This much I gathered on my own. I walked from room to room and snuck looks at the patients’ charts. I watched as patients were transferred, fairly regularly, from one color room to another. However, no one could really explain the purpose for these color-coded rooms. One orderly told me about a plan implemented some time ago by the hospital administrator. He said that idea was to correspond each disease with what the hospital administrator called its adversarial color. You see, every disease, the administrator reasoned, was thought said to have an essential color and each color an opposite and adversarial color, which, when applied to the area surrounding the disease would act as a tonic. So, if a patient came into the hospital complaining of kidney problems, he would be placed immediately into a green room because green is the opposite of yellow, which is the color of kidney disease. But if, once in the green room the patient’s condition got worse, well then that patient would transferred to a yellow room under the assumption that the problem was not the kidneys but instead the liver. Unless, of course, the problem was not the organ per se, but the disease attacking it, like let’s say kidney stones rather than kidney failure, and so the shade of the color, in which case the patient would be transferred to a room with a lighter or darker shade of yellow or green, which explained all the different colors and movements. But that, according to another orderly, was hogwash. The colors were established by a different hospital administrator, and meant as homeopathic cures, much in the manner of early treatment for madness, in which a caged red bird was placed next to a patient for a predetermined period of time in order to attract all the red sickness from the patient’s body and then, having completed its task, was decapitated so that the madness died with the bird. This, according to the orderly, was the reason for all the trashcans. After a patient was better they would strip the room and burn the paint chips in the garbage cans. Oh yeah, his friend said, then why don’t we see nothing burning? It’s done in the wee morning, the orderly said. Administrators don’t do nothing in the wee morning, his friend replied. They don’t get up before noon. Can you believe that? Burning paint? Administrators? The wee morning? What wonderful men! By this time I had lost complete track of my friend. Truthfully, the hospital had become way more interesting to me than any old sick friend. Even one who hoped to one day be a terrible disease. By the time I remembered him, he had already been discharged. Because he was better or because he was worse? I asked the discharge nurse. But she only shrugged. Who knows? is what she said. A little while later I received a note saying my sick friend had indeed died. But not of any disease, known or unknown. After he was released he threw himself under a bus or train or possibly into a lake.

Mrs. Taylor stopped again. This time she looked at the wall. She sighed.

The point is: I never found out the reason for the colors, she said. For some reason, without my sick friend, the hospital was difficult to negotiate and ever more difficult to find. Every day I drove to it and you would think this would make it easier to get to, in the way that daily commuters can drive long distances and not remember a single thing about the drive or the distance and yet still arrive, right as rain, at their desired destination. But the more I drove the harder it became. At intersections, I would idle, confounded by the direction to take, horns behind me honking away, but still I would just stay there and try to think of the hospital. Think, I would say. Hospital, I would say. But the only thing this conjured up was the image of a dog in the moonlight on a neighborhood street. Sometimes I drove for five minutes and ended up back at my own home. I am becoming a loon is what I thought. This may or may not have been true. What was most certainly true was that the hospital was avoiding me. Because here was the truth of the hospital: it was a living dream. The whole point of the hospital, it finally occurred to me, was to produce that strange state I had experienced on my first visit. This was the reason for the colors and the lights and the ventilators and the intermittent sounds of breath and weeping. To ease the patients’ passage into death. The closer you get to dying the more dreamlike everything becomes. You cease to be you in the way that you have always known, the you tied to structures like houses and jobs and people, and more and more dissolve into ideas, thoughts, and memories. You become pure. The hospital, it occurred to me, was designed to create this sensation early in an illness, to ensure the patient experiences their own most perfect self for as long as possible. The hospital was designed to be a long corridor to death!

Mrs. Taylor paused and looked triumphant. Then she looked weary. Finally she looked sad. She turned back to the window and looked outside.

It was this discovery that ultimately undid me, she said softly. Because this was also the reason why the hospital was avoiding me. Who doesn’t want to live inside of a dream? Who doesn’t want their mind to be the world? If word got out about such a place there is no telling what might have happened. The poor hospital would be overrun with people desperate for a somnambulant life. People like me. Of course no one believes me, the woman said. Who could? But I know it is out there. I know it is waiting. I can hear it, she said. Calling me home.