Bernie and I wait in the pre-op cubicle at Mercy Hospital for the surgeon and anesthesiologist. On the other side of a curtain a young aide tells a nurse that she has failed her classes but the college is giving her another chance. Then she comes in, plump and baby-eyed, and eyes Bernie on the bed.
Hi, sweetie, how are ya? Without waiting for an answer she takes his blood pressure and measures glucose, all this time not looking at him once, then disappears behind the curtain once more. I’m going to come back, sweetie, just going to get my thermometer.
Hospitals are the great equalizer; you learn who’s boss very quickly. The need for reassuring connection—for meeting one’s eyes, for deep listening—is matched only by its loss, when someone handles your body without much thought and dialogues with you as though she’s talking to herself. Every hospital I’ve ever been do has a few such on staff, even Mercy Hospital, run by the extraordinary Sisters of Providence of Holyoke, a community of nuns that has been caring for people in Western Massachusetts for over 140 years. The order seems to be finally dying out, like many orders of nuns, but I still remember their current Superior, Sr. Caritas, visiting Bernie at the Rehab Center almost two years ago, telling him he is in her prayers. Thin, small, humble, and well over 90, she maintains a work schedule that scares me.
In contrast, later I’ll have a conversation with the anesthesiologist nurse, who will wake Bernie up from his anesthesia and report to me about his matter-of-fact calmness. That conversation will be like an interview with a Zen teacher, she being the teacher.
But it’s still early and the young woman comes back. And this is your wife? You have a wife?
I don’t know if I have her, says Bernie. She has me. I guess we have each other.
How did you two meet?
Well, we both study Zen and we met for that, he says.
Oh, so you met in a class. That’s so nice.
And it gets me to thinking about how tough it is to capture a life in a thumbprint, a quip, a brief sentence. My life is so much narrower now, often monotonous, yet the smallest events seem to bear such great significance. How to express that to someone else? How to express what lies behind?
In the hospital, doctor’s reassurances notwithstanding, I can’t help but feel some fear of loss. And even as I bear witness to that, there’s something so big to that less. In fact, there is no less that isn’t, in some way, more.