During the first few days of my two-week hospital service stint in early September, I ran into my father’s nurse, a brown-haired woman in her 50s with a kind face and a gentle manner.
I was in a patient pod (a large space with six glass-doored patient rooms around a central nursing station) in the second floor Intermediate Medical Care unit. The IMC is a patient ward reserved for very sick patients who aren’t quite sick enough to need care in the intensive care unit but who need more intensive monitoring than on a regular floor.
I was there to see a patient, an older man who had been just diagnosed with a devastating and advanced cancer. I had not met the man yet; this would be the first time. I was there to tell him about his cancer. I was there to tell him exactly how bad his diagnosis was, and how short he was likely to live.
I had not been in the IMC since the end of February, when my father was a patient in that very pod, and when my family was on the receiving end of the bad news. I was fully aware of this fact, and I’d been trying to suppress the emotions that kept trying to surface ever since those automatic double doors to the IMC swung open to allow me entrance.
My father’s nurse stepped out of a patient’s room. We saw each other in that same moment, and I saw recognition on her face. She smiled, and then her eyebrows furrowed and her smile faltered as she recalled why she knew me.
She had been my father’s nurse on the morning I recognized that he had had a stroke and called it to her attention. She was there when the team of neurologists came to sugar coat his prognosis, only answering the hard questions after I insisted. She was there when the nurse from Hospice came to meet with us. She was there when he was wheeled out of the unit on a spindly stretcher, arms strapped in under a thin white sheet, discharged to the Hospice inpatient center.
“How are you?” she asked, moving closer to give me a hug. She smelled clean, of shampoo. “How is your mom?”
“Oh, I’m good. We’re fine,” I said, my heart in my throat. My eyes were suddenly wet as I was overwhelmed with emotions and memories.
My father in that hospital bed, gesturing to me with his right hand – the only one that worked – but unable to speak.
My mother and I sitting quietly in my father’s darkened room, watching the beeping monitor above his bed, hoping it would reveal something, anything, that could give us comfort.
The cardinal that fluttered at his window, seemingly trying to get in, as though it needed to be with us. As though it needed to tell me something.
We embraced for a long minute. She could sense that I needed it. When I pulled back, I wiped the tears from my eyes with the back of my hand.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m really okay. I’ll be fine.” She looked doubtful.
I took a moment to compose myself, took some deep breaths and tried to remember why I was there. The nurse moved away, resuming work at the desk in the center of the room. I could tell that she wasn’t sure if she should say more or give me space.
I would see her again, several times, over the course of those first two weeks in September. That first time was the hardest, as I should have expected it to be. It was another in a series of firsts, after all – like that first Father’s Day without him – and I had been caught off guard. Later, his nurse and I would be able to smile at each other, to say hello without my sadness overshadowing the moment. It would become easier to be there, in that space where my father became lost to me forever.
“I’m good,” I said again, mostly to myself. I shook my head, trying to shake off those intruding memories that had come at the wrong time.
I tugged the sleeves and hem of my white coat, though it did not need straightening. I smoothed my hair, inhaled, and then exhaled. I squeezed a dollop of hand sanitizer gel into my hands and rubbed them together vigorously, as if trying to rid myself of more than just potential germs. Then I entered my patient’s room, a room opposite from the room that had been my father’s.
The lights were dim and the monitor above his bed spoke its own language of digital beeps. The man looked up at me from his bed with curiosity and hope. Inside, I cringed.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m Dr. Markham.”