“Good morning,” I try cheerful first. Cheerful is always better. She hasn’t slept in the bed again. “Still on the couch?” I ask, as if I’m surprised. I’m not. Once she spent nine months on my father’s couch, moving only to nibble at food and go to the bathroom.
Her eyes lock on me. She murmurs something. Good morning, I suppose. “How do you feel this morning?” Stupid question.
After a long time, she replies, just above the threshold of my hearing. “Not too good today.” Same answer, different day. I push the cart away, the remnants of her breakfast coagulating under the stainless steel. She doesn’t blink.
I try small talk. It supposed to rain today. Did you watch the baseball game last night? Sometimes my questions just get sucked up into the air register. Sometimes she answers, after long pauses. I’m learning to be patient again. The space between our words is like the space between planets, between atoms, the endless nothingness that is the universe or God or just plain old nothingness.
I open the shade and the light pours in. It’s a private room on a regular floor. After ICU and
PCU, she has graduated. Next stop? Discharge.
She has no insurance, no Medicaid and the social worker told me that they need this bed. She said that she would write on her chart that there was no safe discharge plan. That’s because I don’t have health care power of attorney. I don’t have anything in fact. HIPPA means they can’t tell me anything. She is technically in charge of her own fate. The only problem with that is she is quite mad.
She sits up after awhile and begins rubbing her face furiously. A small blemish start to bleed and I hand her some Johnson’s Baby Lotion. “Here, I bet your skin is dry.” She fumbles with it and I take it back and squeeze the pink lotion on her palm. She rubs again. And then she rubs her hands together furiously. She never stops rubbing for the next two hours.
I read her the paper. It never took that long before and now, in the age of Internet news, it takes even less time. The city election will have a do-over in one of the wards because seven people voted who shouldn’t have. I read her the article about Jay-Z suing David Ortiz. She likes country rock, but she knows her baseball. I think she nods.
I skip the editorial about James Madison. She doesn’t care about federal power or states rights. “I’m not feeling too good today.” I put down the paper and look at her. “What feels bad?”
Silence, except for the laughter of the nurses outside the door. The hostess (hospitals have hostesses now) comes by to take her dinner and breakfast orders. I guess that means she’s going to be here another day.
I start on the sports pages.
Why is mental illness so scary? This is a disease, like any other. Cancer or Parkinson's or Alzheimer's ravage the body and soul, but they do not have the terror that comes with madness. Maybe it's because I know it's hereditary. Maybe because I struggle with my own dark side, always terrified that I, too will slip off the precarious path of normal into the bottomless pit. It happened to my brother. Sure he was always a little peculiar, but then one day, without warning he tried to kill his boss. Am I going to find my hands around someone's throat when the levees of the genome finally break?
I cry most of the two hours back home again.