During my twelve days in the hospital, I outlasted five roommates. The last one had attempted suicide in a particularly violent manner, and ended up with abdominal surgery.
Through the curtains, I heard the doctors say it was a miracle she'd missed any major organs. It was a miracle she was alive.
Through the curtains, I heard her awaken, surprisingly greedy for life. She wanted a turkey sandwich. She wanted the 18 karat gold chain that had been taken from her neck in the ER. She wanted the clothes that had been cut from her body. Maybe they could be repaired.
But most of all she wanted her boyfriend. It was a fairly complicated process, but the nurse dialed the long distance number she provided. No answer. They tried the woman's sister, her "best friend," but there were no answers at those numbers either.
The woman slept fitfully, guarded by a paid suicide watch, but she opened her eyes every hour, always with the same words: Call my boyfriend. Please! I need someone to call my boyfriend.
The paid watcher was a young nursing student who busied herself with homework. The only time she spoke to the woman in the bed was to report that there had been no answer. Again. Not from her boyfriend, or her sister either. The friend had apparently taken the phone off the hook.
Had anyone called the hospital to see if she was all right? the patient wanted to know.
No one, the nursing student said and went back to her homework, looking slightly troubled. When her shift was over, she was replaced by a middle-aged woman who liked to watch cartoons--at a loud voiume.
Call my boyfriend, the patient said to her middle-aged watcher--as if it was a new request.
By the time the fourth shift arrived (another college student) I knew that the the boyfriend would never take her calls. Nor would her sister. I also knew she would keep trying.
When the nurses came in, the watcher told them that he wouldn't take these shifts again. They were too boring.
Slowly the patient and I began to talk. She told a story about children born and vaguely "lost"--like a misplaced passport or a wallet. About a life that began in a distant country and had wended its way through many exotic locales, leaving little but chaos and loss in its wake. About the boyfriend who drank too much and couldn't work because he was haunted by the ghost of his dead mother.
Her suicide attempt was "a stupid mistake," she said. But it was "over" now. Besides, she needed to get home. If she didn't get to work on Monday, she might lose her job.
The watcher, who was being paid to care about her life continued to underline his text book in yellow marker. I wondered if he was listening, and what he thought about this turbulent life so different from his own. I wondered what I thought. It was a story I couldn't completely understand, and certainly could not judge.
How had she ended up so alone? Why didn't one person care if she was alive or dead? But one thing I understood was her desperate need for connection.
Do you have a cell phone? she asked me. Because you know, I really need to call my boyfriend.
I knew that once I gave her the phone, she'd use it incessantly. And of course, I also knew her quest was futile, but I tossed her the phone anyway. As she clutched it to her ear, I felt the endless ringing in my brain, in the pit of my stomach, in my heart.
No, her boyfriend said to her. No, her family.
She left at the same time I did. Left in an oversized sweat suit that had been given to her by the hospital and a pair of padded socks on her feet. Left in a cab she couldn't pay for that would take her to the place where the phone had continued to ring in emptiness. Despite her violent effort to hurt herself, she seemed remarkably resilient--both to the psychiatrist who released her back to her old life and to me.
People have told me I've been courageous in dealing with my ordeal, but I haven't been. Not particularly. All of you would do the same. You would hear the most challenging news, as some of my roommates did, and then an hour later, you would be on the phone finding a way to explain it to your family and to yourself, looking for the bliss. You WOULD.
But I wonder if I would have the kind of courage my abandoned roommate had. I wondered if I would comb my hair, and put on my make-up, wanting to be attractive even in the sweatsuit that didn't fit, in an impervious world. I wonder if I would have waved as cheerily as she did when she left.
Good luck to ya, I told her. It was what my grandfather used to say in place of goodbye; and he always managed to imbue the words with such deep sincerity it makes me cry to think on it now. I tried to do the same.
You, she said, almost like an accusation. You already have good luck. After two surgeries in a week--the last one tenuous at best-- and twelve days in the hospital, I wasn't feeling particularly fortunate at that moment. My smile was probably pretty weak.
She glanced at Ted before looking back at me pointedly. Your kids come to see you and your boyfriend is here night and day. You think there's better luck in the world than that?
No, I suppose there's not. How could I have forgotten?