|I am not very confident about this.|
I went to the ER a few weeks ago, in the middle of the night, with a friend who is my Dad's age. Having friends outside of my age group isn't a new practice for me, but...well, here's the story.
When I pulled up to his apartment complex around 1:30AM, the first thing I thought was that M looked old. He didn’t perform any bravery, or any fear. He seemed tired. He was in pain. He told me his fever had spiked and it burned when he peed. He reported these symptoms with equal emphasis. I immediately thought of my dad. How he suffered those horrible weeks before a diabetes diagnosis finally changed his lifecourse. That horrible panic he felt getting up to pee all night, and how hard it was for him to talk about.
I said to M, "Well, I’m glad you called, because that sounds a lot like my dad’s symptoms before getting diagnosed with diabetes."
Then I told him my dad hid his illness from me and my sister for weeks, until he’d finally gone from his exasperated eye doctor to his regular doctor, who told my dad he’d been "this-close" to a full-blown attack. I remember asking Dad what might have happened? "Oh," he'd said casually, "it’s when your system shuts itself down." As in, kidney failure. Anyway, I told M, I would have loved to get a call from my dad at 1:00AM for a ride to the ER when he was feeling bad. M grunted in that sweet affirmative way he has.
We had a confused exchange outside the ER, when he tried to send me home. He told me he would take the bus back, and I said, “I’m sorry, but no thank you.” He said okay to my staying there, immediately. I told him if and when he got information that made my leaving make sense, then I would go. I couldn't imagine what that information would be. Maybe something like: Sir, we are giving you this wonder pill and sending you home with a free car service!
M went into the ER building to pee again while I parked in a deactivated parking structure. I pushed the button twice before I realized the gate was already open, and that seemed both silly and poignant. I was very careful to notice where the car was. Not the time to lose the car.
The glass hospital doors swished me in and a woman in a pink scrub top sitting behind bullet-proof glass asked if I was with Mr. M. I was startled by her saying his name to me. He is in the restroom, she said, to my fumbling. Thank you, I said, moving away from her.
I sat in a mid-room corner seat. Strategy: (1) M could see me from the bathroom door and (2) it was a seat I’d be okay to stay in for a few hours. I could see the whole room. Not too bright. A table on one side, a row of empty minty-green vinyl chairs on the other. The lobby was empty except for a guy sleeping in another corner, his head and entire body, save his black sneakers, concealed under a thin white hospital blanket.
Almost immediately, a discouraging scene: initially quiet, gentle security guards progressed from asking the sleeping guy to leave, as he had been discharged, to telling him he had to turn over the blanket because it was “property of the hospital,” to threatening to call the police, if he didn’t get off the premises immediately. That interaction range, from helpful to threatening was achieved in under one minute. M emerged from the men's room fiddling a plastic pee cup into a plastic bag as that unhappy cluster of people, blanket not yet relinquished, moved out the front door.
M sat a chair away from me and put his pee on the chair in between us. He didn’t seem to notice my noticing it there, or if he did, he was done caring. Pain. Age. Institutions. Why the hell should I care about this perfectly bagged, sterile, unthreatening substance. Well, I didn’t. I just didn’t want HIM to become embarrassed. But he wasn't. Where was the embarrassment coming from then? Oh, me again.
When the nurse came for him, M and I had another confused exchange, which resulted in my accompanying him through the patient doors.
I followed M and the nurse to the exam room. Why would he ask me to join him? I considered: loneliness? Feeling scared? Wanting a familiar person to anchor him down, even if he didn’t talk about his feelings or even seem to have them? Maybe pragmatism: he was very sick and might not remember what they told him in there, it would be good to have another witness for any instructions. Maybe he just knew hospitals are businesses and hoped I'd act as an advocate. I could offer allyship. Muscle, even.
So I thought about how to show this place who was boss. How to find an employee who would take us on. How to help M get good care. When the nurse told him to undress, in my presence, I slipped out behind her. A minute later, his head appeared out of the green curtain and he told me I could come back in. He adjusted his body onto the bed in his blue gown, ankle length. Nice look, I said. Yeah, he said, and chuckled.
After a few minutes, a nurse took his vitals and he mentioned the chill of the room. She ignored that and left. I hunted for the linens, found them, and put a sheet over him and his bare feet. He seemed genuinely surprised. I couldn’t understand why. Because I touched hospital property without asking? Because I believed a man could and should have his purpling feet covered in a motherfucking hospital bed? Maybe it was smaller, simpler: he was so exhausted and sick he’d stopped solving problems, stopped pushing. When I did it for him, he had to adjust a little, because he's used to being self-sufficient. Who knows. Maybe I made up the whole thing and he wasn't surprised at all. Talking seemed to hurt him, so I didn't ask right then, although normally I would have.
I listened to the anxious beep of M’s heart rate monitor cutting the silence of the floor. I tried to describe that particular misery: the neo- indeterminate waiting period of post-waiting room waiting; I made an out-loud offer to read to M from the book I had in my bag. We discovered our shared love of Walter Mosely. I read M pages from Bad Boy Brawly Brown with some explicit sexuality in them, inadvertently. We both seemed successfully unembarrassed that time. At least, my twinge was more amusing than painful.
It is very difficult to communicate my desire to offer care in situations where I really don’t know what would feel good to another person, and particularly in moments when it’s pretty clear that pestering someone for instructions on how to help them would ironically undermine the caring project by increasing their suffering. But I've felt it so many times: I really need you to help me help you! Use your precious energy to figure out how to tell me what to do!
The doctor’s name was “Mechanick.” It tickled M. The doc asked me to leave for the exam and so I exited the curtain, again, sat three feet from my last chair, and heard them both talk about M’s prostate, bladder, and other medical history, very clearly. I went into email-land on my phone, tuning them out, to try and give M some actual privacy.
Linz, who was away in Europe, was online for a brief moment! “Why are you in the ER?” she wrote. I lost the connection while trying to explain.
Minutes later, M appeared in the doorway, dressed again. “A doctor named Mechanick,” he said, smiling, with his green hoodie pulled low over his forehead. Now he looked strangely and adorably young. He mimicked the Mechanick-doctor, in a show of false confidence, gesturing at an imagined patient and declaring, “It’s your plumbing!” Clever. But did he mean doctors treat people like cars to be fixed with interchangeable parts? Or was it a joke about all of it: bodies, houses, cars, interlocking parts, jesus, Vanessa, mechanics don’t know plumbing, plumbers know plumbing. Ok. We were both delirious. I had no idea why it was funny, and still. I wanted to say it too, so I did, “It’s your plumbing!”
Then I realized: it was his plumbing. The doc was sure M had a urinary tract infection, at the least. I might have just participated in a joke about his prostate without meaning to? I checked his face for discomfort, but having the one manageable, diagnosed condition seemed to have cheered him.
I drove him around the corner to the pharmacy. He ambled up to a 24-hour pill window with his hoodie up. A small child wandered rather far from whomever might have been attached to her. It was still so dark out. It was after 3:00AM. I thought about how empty that ER had been, and wondered where the people were. Maybe Tuesday nights were slow. Maybe ER workers had superstitions like we strippers do, plausible but specious explanations for ebbs and flows of business. Tuesday is when people feel their illnesses, Friday is when they get injured...
I had to admit to my utter lack of internal compass while pulling out of the parking lot. “Go left,” M said, “back the way you came in.” He closed his eyes. We didn’t talk in the car. We listened to Leonard Cohen sing, “I’m going home without my sorrow/going home sometime tomorrow/going home without that costume that I wore.” It is a beautiful song about dying. Inappropriate? Oh, probably. Inward sigh. Usually I'd mention it; I'd ask him what he thought about listening to songs about death when driving out of the ER.
The gate guard waved us in and I dropped M at the curb near his building. He thanked me in the loudest voice he’d used all night. "Of course," I said. "I’m glad you called," I said. I meant it. I hoped he believed me.
W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about "double consciousness" in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. It's a complex theory of racial prejudice and stereotyping which I am not trying to invoke in total here, but there is a structural definition from it that is deeply helpful to me in conversations about "decolonizing the mind," or "deprogramming," or any of the things I say about challenging dominant cultural norms within my own self. Du Bois wrote"It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity."
I am not claiming that being insecure and self-conscious are the same as having a double-consciousness. I do notice that my small moments of confusion during our ER visit were usually predicated on cultural values I don't actually hold but thought M might, such as: men who are not related to you shouldn't undress in front of you, or, it is a big imposition to take someone to the hospital in the middle of the night. These little rules are, in my experience, the senseless "politeness" ideas that don't actually communicate anything but conformity to dominant hetero-normative, capitalistic, individualistic, ageist, white supremacist, sexist, classist, etc. etc. etc. culture. M and I talk freely about these things (we are friends, after all), so I really noticed that night's tensions because I had decided not to talk about any of it in the moment of his being in such pain.
Still, I got self-conscious because I couldn't tell if I was helping M in the way he wanted, and I trusted him to know what he wanted, and, I trusted that what he wanted was what was best for him, whatever that was. It sounds like deferring to patriarchy, maybe, but I experienced it so differently: I was trying to support his self-determination in a totally dehumanizing institution, and not add to his suffering. I'm sure my little struggle was visible in some way as a tight smile, a jerky body motion, or something, despite my efforts.
I think I got the take-home message right here: It's hard not to stress people out when I'm trying so hard not to unnecessarily stress people out so that when the big stressors come, we can all deal with them without stressing each other out. Trying not to stress out is pretty much the same as stressing out. And "stressing out" is the euphemistic way to talk about anxiety over false problems (ego concerns, capitalistic concerns, etc.). M's health is better today, and our friendship matters as much as ever. I'm pretty embarrassed by this blog post. I'm going to try not to stress about that now. Shit.