I’ve never been good with hospitals. I shiver when I walk their corridors, reading scary signs on doors – Blood Drawing, X-ray, and Pathology. I feel vulnerable, small, and human. And yet over the past month, as I’ve come to visit my father in this vast Veteran’s Hospital outside New Haven, CT, something strange is happening.
My perception has shifted, although some things remain the same. Always in the lobby, along hallways, and in rooms are male patients. A few are young, but most are older, sitting in wheelchairs, walking with canes, some using walkers. Many have wives and family members with them. Patriotic pictures and slogans line the walls.
There are also light touches. A man plays tunes on a lobby piano. Care dogs walk along corridors on leashes. Sounds of laughter can be heard from the cafeteria.
The nurses in my father’s ward are kind and quick to joke. They flirt and compliment my dad on his “Frank Sinatra blue eyes” which brings a delighted grin to his face. Dad has advanced Parkinson’s and I’m happy to see anything that makes him smile.
The other day Mom and I wheeled him to the recreation room where a heavyset veteran played boisterous hymns on a piano. A young African-American woman, hair woven in tiny braids sang along, her voice sweet and clear. A white care dog named Bentley trotted in, allowing all of us to scratch behind his ears and touch his wiggly tail. I’ve heard he’s trained to jump on beds and cuddle with patients.
I look around this vast room. Dozens of model airplanes hang from the ceiling. A huge fish tank sits against a wall. Books, games, and artwork abound. There’s a tiny greenhouse. Every Wednesday a special brunch is served and once a month, there’s a Courage Ceremony with medals given to those Vets the staff deem most deserving. Everything’s designed to help people forget they’re in a hospital.
My parents and I play Trivial Pursuit. Dad’s mind is sharp as ever and helps my mother beat me. I think of how many memories involve my parents and me sitting around a table, just talking. With staff’s permission, Mom feeds my father what he’s requested from the outside world – a toasted corn muffin with melted butter, a Starbucks coffee drunk through a special straw. I watch as he relishes every mouthful.
I watch my 82 year-old father and think of the young man from New Hampshire who sailed to Japan at 17 during the Korean War. I remember pictures of him in his white sailor uniform, young and brown-haired, smiling for the camera. Now life has brought him full circle with other vets, a few who were in the same place at the same time. Sometimes they swap stories.
After a while, my father becomes quiet and my mother and I note his fatigue. The same nurses who flirted and kidded before now ease him to bed, murmuring words of comfort. I hug my parents goodbye and exit through this labyrinth of hallways bustling with patients, nurses, doctors, staff and visitors.
A thought strikes me as I walk along. What looked like such a formidable place when I first entered is really a thriving community. What I thought of as a sad facility, a dead end for the sick and dying is actually very alive, buzzing with life, full of hope and healing. I’m impressed by the diversity of it all, by the constant river of young and old, black, white, and brown, men and women, those who need help and those who dedicate their lives to helping.
Outside the February air’s cold, but the sun’s strong. I fetch my keys from my purse and glance back at the huge silver complex behind me, full of men like Dad, hunkered down, some for short stays, some longer. Some will leave. And some won’t. My father’s fate is uncertain.
I walk to my car, feeling sad he hasn’t felt fresh air in a month. It’s now a big deal to have a Starbucks coffee and toasted corn muffin. And yet the nurses laugh and care for him. There’s the sound of pianos and nuzzle of a dog’s wet nose. There’s a greenhouse and artwork and books and games.
And strangely, this hospital soothes not only my father, but my mother and me as well. I get into my car remembering how scared I was when I first came here. Now the thought of coming back is at least easier.
(Postscript: My father passed peacefully away in July, 2015).
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