I call Bob and ask him to check my dresser for the ring box with the thing in it and bring it to me the next time he comes. Two days later, Bob and the kids come for a visit. He places the ring box on my nightstand without commenting on it and sets a suitcase at the end of my bed.
“I hope I brought the right clothes,” he says.
I didn’t expect to be staying that long. “Thanks.”
I sit on the bed in my hospital gown smiling at the kids lined up against the wall with Bob taking the only chair. Their faces scared, nervous, not knowing what to say. It would be easier if they were little and didn’t know what was happening. As adults, I forced them to face my reality. Why do women do guilt? Our bodies cram into this small space packed with our emotions, facing each other with no squirming room.
“You guys know my bad sense of direction?” I say.
“Yeah,” Bob answers.
“Well after my first meeting with the psychiatrist, I walked out of his office down the hall looking for my room. I’m 206, right?”
“Yeah,” Bob answers.
“And you’ve seen the partition that juts out just before my room, right?”
“Yeah,” Bob says, a frown deepening the crease between his eyes.
I look over at the kids. They’re smiling. “Well, I’m walking toward the partition and skirt around it into my room. Both beds are rumpled and there are clothes, and books that aren’t mine. I figure, wrong room and go out and look at the room number. It’s 207. So, I poke my head around the partition and it’s 205. Across the hall are only therapy rooms, no patient rooms. Where’s 206? My room has disappeared.”
“Why would you think that?” Bob asks.
“I knew my room was here and now it’s not.”
I smile at the kids and they smile back. It isn’t in mocking, they are waiting for the rest of the story, anticipating. David, the sensible one looking for the logic but loves the funny, Andrew goes with the flow, but passionate and Kameron unpredictable with her reaction. They like how I can turn situations into a funny story for them.
“So, a nurse walks by but instead of telling her my room has disappeared, I ask where is room 206? Let her find out 206 isn’t there and then there’ll be two of us who are crazy.”
The kids smile broader and Andrew snickers.
“What did she say?” Bob asks
“She said odds on this side, evens on the other side of the therapy rooms and the nurse’s station which are in the middle.”
“All the times you’ve been up and down these halls, you never noticed it before?” Bob says.
“When I realize I’m in the odd number hall and walk farther down, I see Room 204 in the even hall, across from the nurse’s station. Well, I start laughing. You can’t do that here. A nurse gets out of her chair and sticks her head out the window partition to look at me. She’s staring and it makes me laugh more. Then I think, they’ll be getting me a straitjacket and hope it’s one size fits all cause it would be embarrassing if it didn’t fit. And that gets me laughing even harder.”
“I don’t see how that’s funny,” Bob says.
The kids laugh. It’s good to see them relax and I can see the tension leave as they scramble to find more chairs or plunk at the end of my bed. They catch me up on what they’re doing while Bob leaves to speak to the psychiatrist to arrange a day pass for me, so he can take us all out for dinner and a movie on the weekend.
After Bob returns, we hear the rattle of dinner trays rolling down the hall on a trolley. That’s the signal our time is up. They give me a hug goodbye and walk me down the hall following a parade of people to the dining room and then leave.
The metal framework forms a wide arch for the wheelbase trolley accommodating five shelves each with four dinner trays. Name tags are visible on each tray next to the dull chrome dome lids. I watch as people circle the trolley to find their name and wait until most claim their meal and enter the dining room. My tray is easy to find amongst the three unclaimed meals.
There are four round tables in the dining room. I choose one with only one open chair; safety in numbers. The woman across the table from me complains, “They gave me fish again. I told them I don’t like fish. Does anyone want to trade?”
“Do you like chicken?” the man beside me asks, the words struggle through his phlegmy, smoker’s cough.
When she nods yes, he pushes his tray to her for the exchange, his thin sinewy arms coloured with crude tattoos.
I lift my dome lid. Pasta in a canned tomato sauce: wheat smothered in sulfites and nitrites.
When I see a nurse walk by the doorway, I jump up to flag her down.
“Excuse me. My dinner has arrived, but it’s all the things I am allergic to.”
She sighs heavily. “I’m behind on my paperwork and haven’t even gotten to Mrs. Bothan who can’t feed herself. You have to speak to the nutritionist.”
There is no dinner conversation when I return to the table only the sound of cutlery, and movement: opening creamers, crunching wrappers, chairs scraping the floor. The absence of humanity at this normally social event conspicuously missing. I look around at all their plates and think, there’s nothing I can eat. Even the vegetables are canned or floating in a cream paste.
Pushing food around on my plate, I don’t eat anything and instead, watch the others put their empty trays back on the trolley. Two women stay behind rummaging through discarded wrappers and containers like scavengers picking through the leftovers to find any untouched packaged foods: crackers, cookies, peanut butter, creamers, or uneaten fruits. They have armloads of goodies they take to our mini kitchen.
I join eight people who are in the living room watching TV but can still see the two women across the hall in the kitchen adding cookies and crackers to top up a basket of similar treats. The sugars and creamers go beside the coffee maker and pop and juice go into the refrigerator. A loaf of bread is beside the toaster with packets of peanut butter, jam, and butter in a basket next to it.
There isn’t anyone in control of the remote and we watch whatever comes on next without complaining. If I don’t like the show, I read one of the many magazines thrown haphazardly around the room. I’m trying to read when a young girl sits beside me on the couch asking, “What are you in for?”
We are no names with only our stories of how we got here.
“I went crazy,” I say.
“Well yeah that’s how you get here, but what did you do? It was my 21st birthday, and I drank a fifth of gin, some coke and meth and just went crazy.”
I wasn’t sure what I did and then remembered the bag of vitamin pills the doctor had stared into. I say, “I did vitamin A, C, D, E and two homeopathic liquids.”
She looks at me confused. “There has to be more than that. You had to have done something.”
I put my magazine on the coffee table to give myself more time to think. What else did I do?
“No, there’s nothing else.”
She leans in closer as if the whispered privacy will make me confess.
“I don’t know what I did,” I say.
I lean back against the faded floral cushion thinking this couch had probably been in someone’s basement for the past 20 years before they donated it to the hospital.
“There’s a reason for everything and you don’t go crazy from vitamins.”
“That’s what I thought too.”
We sit in silence until she picks up the magazine I discarded and moves over to a chair across the room. I don’t know how I offended her, but she seems to want nothing more to do with me. Did she think, I was somehow mocking her with my vitamin overdose? I pick up a couple of magazines and head to my room wanting to stay out of trouble.
In the morning, medicines are dispensed at the nursing station. I’m not on anything, so I don’t have to report there. I call down to the kitchen and ask to speak to the nutritionist. I’m told she is busy and will call me back. To put in time, I go to the craft/dining room.
A young woman sits at a table surrounded by, according to the picture and description on the box, 1,345 small puzzle pieces. So much of it is grass and trees, it looks like an impossible task. She doesn’t look up at me just pushes her long blonde hair behind her ear. “Want to help?”
I’m normally not a puzzle person but what else do I have to do. “Sure,” I say.
I sit down at the table with her. Neither of us speaks for over an hour. Our heads are bent in concentration and occasionally, she will exclaim gleefully, “Got one.”
I’m just getting used to the silence when she tells me, “I had a baby.”
“Really; well you look great, congratulations. Babies are so much fun.”
“I’m not a good mother. I don’t feel anything for her.”
We continue to separate the straight-edged border pieces into one pile. She is concentrating on the blue-sky pieces. “I have to go home and see her for two hours on a supervised visit this weekend. I really don’t want to, but my husband will be there, and I want to see him. She takes up all our time when she’s there. I can’t do anything. And they watch me. They won’t leave me alone with her. But that’s okay cause I don’t want to be.”
I study the picture on the puzzle box. “Babies are a lot of work. But it’s fun doing things with them.”
I’m losing interest in this annoying puzzle especially when I consider how long it will take; we can’t ever possibly finish it.
“You can’t do anything with a baby. And they stop you from doing what you want to do.”
Our heads bent looking for the pieces, we never engage each other as in a typical conversation. It is like we talk to the puzzle pieces.
“You got to keep doing what you want to do but make the baby portable,” I say.
“Got one,” she says, looking up at me. It is the only time we acknowledge each other.
Back to the puzzle.
“When I had my second, I didn’t want to stop doing things with my oldest guy, so we carried on. I put the baby in the buggy with bottles and diapers and we were ready to travel. I took the baby to the ice rink, and I even skated pushing the buggy on the ice. We did mini golf, the beach, anything we wanted. And a lot of places have daycare: my aerobics class, mother’s support group, even at some malls. Play dates are fun with the other moms too. You meet new friends when you have kids, going to all their things. It’s fun.”
I don’t know her name, she doesn’t know mine. I take it that’s how people want it, so I’m not going to ask her. But for me, she’s Puzzle Girl.
Another hour and I still haven’t found a fit.
“If I stare at this thing any longer my eyes are going to permanently cross,” I say, pushing my chair away from the table. “See you later.” I get up and leave.
It doesn’t matter what day or time I walk by the room; Puzzle Girl is there working. The puzzle takes up the entire table, but at mealtimes, people respect that and go to other tables even if it means being crowded. I come back and help her with the puzzle often. She has it in her head that when she finishes the puzzle, she will be cured. So, she has to finish.
My routine is broken up when a nurse comes for me to have an MRI done and then a doctor comes to take my blood pressure and sets me up on blood pressure medication.
For a bunch of crazy people, we are quiet and civilized. The drama is reserved for the lockdown room. From our hallway through a big picture window we can see into the nurse’s office and through her glass partition to the lockdown room. Sometimes it gets loud and once I saw a guy screaming at the nurse and jumping on the bed with his arms flailing wildly. Those are the times when security is called. When the security guards come on the run, we get out of their way. Mealtimes are the other exciting part of our day; waiting and listening for the trolley to find out what is under our dome lids. It’s always a surprise even though we pre-order our food. After three calls to the nutritionist with no reply, I have long since forgotten about allergies and just eat everything I’m given.
I’m called into the psychiatrist’s office again. It has been a week since I last saw him.
“Do you have no any concerns?” he asks.
“I am sure I have Cushing’s Disease. I have all the symptoms. Can I be tested for Cushing’s just to rule it out? If it’s ruled out, then I might have a parasite.” I must figure out what’s physically wrong with me and what better place than a hospital? “Two days before coming here, I went to the bathroom and there was this strange thing in my underwear. It looked like a dried-up insect with four legs, and a see-through head and body. I showed it to Bob, and we looked at it under a magnifying glass. But we couldn’t make out if it was an insect or maybe just some dried up stiff thread from my underwear. I asked Bob to bring it to me, so you can examine it. It needs to be looked at under a microscope.” I place the box on his desk.
The Psychiatrist scans the room from one side to the other. His eyes never resting on the box or me.
This might be the answer to all my medical problems and weird behaviour.“I could have a parasite.”
The Psychiatrist finally looks at me. “How your emotions are feeling?”
“Bob brought me that thing. It’s in the box.”
He pushes it aside to the corner of his desk.
“Do you have microscopes here or are they in a different department?” I ask.
He doesn’t even open the box to look inside. One would think he would at least be curious.
“How long do you think it will be before you can examine that thing?” I ask.
“Tell me five upsetting instances in your life?” he says.
It strikes me that he said that sentence properly. It must have been something he had learned to memorize.
“When my Dad died.”
“It was when we were at the funeral home. Dad loved to tell stories about things that happened to him and he always made them funny. We all started re-hashing Dad’s stories, and he was there in his casket, but it was like he was still there with us. It wasn’t until we went outside on the porch and stood there waiting for the ushers to wheel the casket by us that I realized he was gone forever. I didn’t want to cry in front of everyone. The emotion was welling up in me. I tried to choke it down. It was more than a cry. I was afraid I was going to wail but then this sound came out of me. It was a laugh. I couldn’t stop myself. Then my sister, Jackie, started laughing too. It was so bizarre. I was so upset. I could never figure out why I acted so disrespectful and was so ashamed of it.” I wait a few minutes for him to catch up because he’s writing this down.
“Then one day, I was watching Dr. Phil on TV and he explained that when someone is so upset like at a funeral where there are lots of people and they want to cry but don’t think crying in public is acceptable, but the feelings are there then something has to come out and it comes out in a laugh. Because laughing in public is acceptable. Weird, eh?”
“What else Dr. Phil talk to you about?”
“No, not to me. He’s on TV. It’s a TV show.”
“What Dr. Phil talk through the TV to you?”
“No. Someone from the audience asked him why they laughed at a funeral of a family member and that was what he told them. He said it’s common. But I’ve never seen it.”
The Psychiatrist stops flicking his pen long enough to write a few words on the paper in front of him. It seems that he is satisfied for now.
“You go,” he says.
I stand in the doorway, then look back at him. His head is down, and he is writing.
“Do you have any idea when you will find out about that thing in the box?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t look up at me; he just waves his hand to dismiss me.