The Shock of it All

The sheets felt stiff and cold; industrial sheets, sturdy and practical.  Oh, how I longed for my lavender sheets with the tiny yellow flowers.  They made me feel safe and connected somehow. Wrapping myself in those sheets as the sun peeked in around the edges of the drapes, I knew I was home.  The house was my domain.  I might not have made it past the sixth grade, may not be able to do many jobs out in the world, but I knew how to keep a house neat and clean and running smoothly.  The secret was keeping on top of it all. Every day consisted of cooking breakfast and packing lunches followed by a kitchen cleanup, making beds, and a quick tidy everywhere else.  Then a different task each day; Monday – laundry, Tuesday – kitchen and bathrooms, Wednesday – vacuuming and dusting, Thursday – bedrooms and sheets.  Saturday the girls helped clean the whole house while Paul and Michael worked on the yard.  As long as nothing happened to disrupt the schedule, I could entertain any day of the week.

But this wasn’t my home, my bed, my sheets.  This was Surrey Hospital, the place for crazy housewives and alcoholic senators.  White sheets, white walls, black nurses.  Men nurses too.  I guess they needed strong men to contain the crazies when they got out of hand.  When we got out of hand.  Would I be manhandled and forced back in my chair when I needed to scream the demons out of my head? 

Sometimes the only way to make sure you were still visible was to get a reaction out of another person.  Screaming until someone noticed your existence worked pretty well, but of course it could backfire too.  A few residents (patients) made such a fuss they were confined to their rooms, their only human interaction being the twice-daily nurse visits with medication and the orderlies delivering three square meals a day.  I couldn’t handle that.  How much more invisible would I become if I didn’t have people to talk to?  You couldn’t rely on visitors.  They might have every intention of visiting, but everyone had their own lives. Paul had to take care of the kids and the house, along with working and maintaining some sort of normalcy with the neighbors.  The best I could hope for was a weekly visit from Paul and maybe the kids.  Talking with the other residents (patients) was my only real option to keep my sanity.  Imagine, trying to find my sanity in a hospital for crazy people! Just the thought of it set me off laughing.

“What’s so funny, Mrs. Hess?” the pretty black nurse asked as she brought in my breakfast tray.  “You have such a nice laugh.  Can you let me in on the joke?” 

 “Oh, you know, if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry,” I responded, showing my bravery with a wide smile. 

“Mrs. Hess, you’re such a hoot!”  she called back while heading out the door for her next delivery.

My standard meal of whole wheat toast, two eggs, and coffee sat in front of me, looking as lonely as I felt.  My roommate wasn’t wasting any time scoffing down her breakfast, devouring it like it was her last meal.    Why can’t I enjoy having my breakfast brought to me in bed like her?  I could pretend to be on holiday, in a fancy hotel with room service.  Of course, then there would be real silverware, not plastic knives and forks.  And there would be butter and jam, not this little plastic square of margarine sealed in foil and impossible to open when your hands are shaking because your meds haven’t kicked in. 

I got down to it, slowly breaking the plastic seal married to the foil and peeling it back to reveal a little square of hard yellow margarine.  A pale smear followed behind my plastic knife, scraping a scar into the bread. The lukewarm scrambled eggs piled on top of the toast with each bite filled a void, followed by weak coffee that didn’t have quite enough sugar or cream to mask the bitterness. 

Looking around the room, I noted the flowers by my bed could use some fresh water.  They might last a few more days before the petals start dropping off.  Paul had brought me roses in my favourite shade of lavender, but I wished he would just buy me a plant instead.  At least that wouldn’t die in a week.  Maybe he felt a plant was too permanent, that it meant I was here for a few months, not just a few weeks.  What would he do if I couldn’t get better?  What would everyone do? The girls were old enough to take care of the baby, but they still had school, and I couldn’t expect Vi to take care of Kasey forever.  She needed to be with her family, with her momma for Christ’s sakes! I needed to get better and get back to my home.  Even if that meant eating this dry excuse of a breakfast every morning for the next six weeks.

When they came to take away the breakfast tray, the nurse handed me a little white paper cup, ruffled around the sides.  It contained white, yellow and blue pills of varying sizes.  She filled a styrofoam cup with water from the pitcher and handed me both. 

“Down the hatch, Mrs. Hess.”

I stared at the pills, wondering what they were each for, knowing that if I asked I would be considered ‘willful’ or ‘difficult’.  I poured the ruffled cup of meds into my mouth, took a long gulp of water, and stuck out my tongue to show I’d swallowed them all. 

“Good job,” she stated mechanically and threw the paper cup into the trash bin.  She turned to my roommate and performed the same ritual before rolling her metal cart into the hallway and over to the next room.

“So, what’s on the agenda today?” my roommate asked.  She was a younger version of myself, a wife with two young children who needed a rest after her third child was stillborn.  Sarah started hearing voices telling her that none of her children deserved to live and she should drive them into the lake before their evilness took root.  When she mentioned it over dinner one night to her husband, he brought her here the next morning.  I’m sure she didn’t really want to harm her two little boys, but her mind had to find a way to understand why God would take away a perfect baby girl that she had waited so patiently for. 

“I think we have Group this morning,” I repled.  “But Dr. Chelsea is supposed to come see me soon to tell me how my morning session went.” 

“Oh, that’s where you were!  Did it hurt?  I think my first shock session is tomorrow.  I’m frightened out of my wits!” 

“It wasn’t too bad actually.  I counted back from ten, then felt a slight buzzing in my ears and my body tensed all up like there were fireworks going off nearby.  The hair on my arms raised up with goosebumps and then I felt kind of limp.  After that I fell asleep, I think.”

“I’m surprised you remember even that, Mrs. Hess.”  In the doorway was a man in his forties, dressed in a suit with a white lab coat over top.  He had dark hair with just a sprinkling of grey at the temples and wore wire-rimmed glasses like my husband.  Referring to the clipboard he carried, Dr. Chelsea shook his head.  “The anesthesia we give before the treatment should have made any recollection of the procedure impossible.  Can you tell me anything else you remember?”

I closed my eyes and thought back.  “I remember the smell of the alcohol they rubbed onto my temples and how the rubber discs stuck to each side of my head.  I remember the nurse’s eyes were blue, almost the same color as the mask over her mouth.  She looked at you and turned a dial on a big machine against the wall of the room and then I felt the tingling sensation I told Sarah about.”

“Remarkable,” Dr. Chelsea commented.  “I would like to explore this further with you in private, Mrs. Hess.  I’ll schedule a session with you this afternoon.  Otherwise, you seem to have come through the procedure quite well.  Your blood pressure is normal and your heart rate is strong.  Are you feeling anything off that I should know about?”

“I don’t think so.  I wasn’t that hungry when I got back, but that probably has more to do with the pitiful food and not the treatment.”

Dr. Chelsea chuckled.

“Touché, Mrs. Hess, touché. I will see you at Group in about an hour and again this afternoon in my office.  We want to make sure you get better and return to your family as soon as possible, don’t we?”  Dr. Chelsea turned away and started talking to Sarah, dismissing me with his back.  I moved my gaze away from the half-drawn bed curtain and their conversation.  I had enough to deal with and didn’t need to add Sarah’s issues to my list. 

Outside the hospital window was a wintery scene of bleakness.  Some might find it beautiful, but the low, grey clouds and bare trees always made me sad.  Cold days meant bundling up in layers of clothing, covering up your soul and your voice.  It meant grey days with no sunshine to warm your face, or fresh air to make you breathe deeply.  Isolation from friends while you stayed inside to do laundry, iron clothes, and watch soap operas.  I couldn’t wait for the first days of spring when everything started growing and I could walk outside again. 

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