I’ve never been good with hospitals. I shiver when I walk their corridors, reading scary signs on walls and 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 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.
The other day Mom and I wheeled him to the recreation room where a heavyset veteran played boisterous hymns on a piano. A young woman with 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.
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.
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, men and women, those who need help and those who dedicate their lives to helping.
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 isn’t so bad.