We met in the emergency room at the Prince Howard Hospital on the outskirts of Portland when I was twenty-two – not the most romantic of beginnings, though a memorable one and a great dinner party story. I guess you could say this was God’s response to my groveling prayers – that I’d do things differently in the next life, that I’d be different. I had been slipping away for so long, my soul leaving my body so long ago, it really was like being born again. And in that hospital, so full of new life, who knows what miracles happen?
Perhaps Cupid had been visiting the ER that day too, in the bustling, open space with us, a sly stranger in a dark jacket with an agenda. There were many of those types in the room, and I was scared. I called my mother, who explained that she couldn’t make it to the hospital that evening, as the buses had stopped for the day, a rather inconvenient occurrence that plagued the outskirts of the city and our everyday lives. The stranger next to me took pity and squeezed my arm to show some small kindness – when I looked up at his face and noticed that his leg was missing, I envisioned a rough man with a rough past. Our lives together would be difficult, but we could hopefully find some support. When he was called up to see the doctor, I stood by his side to help him balance. I’ve never left.
While I’m very glad I lived through the ER – some don’t - perhaps it would have been easier to die, to hope reincarnation would be my eternal grace. For one, I wouldn’t have to deal with the consequences of living. Life is pain, life is suffering – life is goddamn expensive. What I wouldn’t give for the angels who gave me new life to have paid my ER bills that day. I’d go through all the hurt again. What’s even more cruel is that in this world even dying is expensive.
Ironic, isn’t it, that this meeting place is where we leave each other, tangled in each other’s warmth, waiting, sobs masking louder wails of helplessness. Behind the doors of the ER is the solution, and we wait out here for our turn with a nurse, whose general pleasantries do little to fill the gaps under curtained beds and mask the wretched smell of life without a cure. I try not to worry about the little things – these are our last days together. I just wish they’d be more comfortable. Here we are now, past the ER doors, through tangled passageways I cannot untie myself from. The single bed wobbles from our combined weight, though we are happy it is visiting hours and I can stay here undisturbed, a moment of dignity in one without. 20 years after we met, we leave one another.
Together we fall.
I only started working here at the hospital a few months ago, so my coworkers are still giving me all the shit jobs. Fair enough, I’d do that too if I was them. This isn’t the best job I’ve ever had, nor the worst – so it’ll do for now. I didn’t have a job when my husband passed away, so that was a bit of a problem. The media department got in touch with me when they learned my late husband and I had in fact, met at this very hospital, back when it existed in the suburban glory of the 1950s. I did the interview, and pestered them for a job. Hence, me being here today.
This morning has been a relatively ordinary one - I flipped through the news channels to find one that wouldn’t set off the crazy dad whose son swallowed a matchbox car, whose wife has taken too many Xanax after the ordeal and passed out next to him. If I ran this place, I’d segregate the ER patients by type – the angry, pissed off men and women in little cubicles to themselves, the worrying mothers together so they could commiserate their bad parenting with each other instead of to me.
In many ways, these waiting room inhabitants are not customers. They don’t shop around, they get what we give them. They come to us because it’s the closest public hospital in a 20-mile radius. There is talk among the staff that a newer, cleaner, shinier facility will be built in the richer suburbs on the other river bank. I’m sure when the current election is over we’ll be left with the same problems and more. If they’re repeat customers, it’s not because they love our product – though they’re dying for more.
The worst days are the ones where I hide under my desk. The weak fear the strong and so they attack. People walk in with guns and take their protests. People take out their anger on the government. People whose wars have taken them to the other side of the world and so deep into their brains they are lost in confusion and no longer know how to channel their hate so instead let the fires bubble and froth. They are out for blood – to their credit, we have a lot of that here.
People say I run this joint, the big boss man around town. I am in fact, the boss woman, and I pride myself on keeping the state’s most efficient hospital, one in deep suburban crisis at that. Despite its antiquated fittings, fifty years old and ailing, we provide the best care we can. Of course, that is no easy task. If a corner can be cut, and so few would notice, why not? We are not a fountain of youth, even if the birthing wing would argue otherwise, nor a morgue, though we have one of those, but simply a public hospital constrained by the ebbs and flows of government resources and the political capital they see hospitals as bolstering their platform from.
This hospital is a cornerstone of our community – employment for our citizens, health for our people, safety in times of crisis. It disappoints me when we can’t do everything we can to serve their needs. People only see the problems. I laughed the day our state representative came into the facility. He was appalled at being taken into such a pedestrian joint, not the cushy private institutions he toured for the cameras. He reminds me of the angry dads I used to see as a receptionist at this hospital, set off by an eye not downcast and destitute like the others. To be fair, he was given a bed in the leukemia wing since we didn’t have any in the cardiology department which he reckoned would be a bad political optic. In crisis, we are all equal in the eyes of hospital bed allocators.
I am the queen of a fortress. It’s simply a technicality that even though I live here, it’s not the address on my drivers’ license - I haven’t left in 2 years, and my mail is all directed here. I know my neighbors, and we do normal neighborly things for each other, like celebrating birthdays and keeping an eye on one another’s properties. Although, I’d say this area is rapidly gentrifying with all the new residents constantly arriving. The brutalist façade is a great security system – who could break in when there is layer upon layer of security like my afternoon Sara Lee pastry? Who’d even want to come inside such an unattractive building?
My room is my sanctuary, although a depressing one at that. We keep personal possessions to a minimum – for sanitary and safety we are told, but for a permanent resident, one needs the comforts of home, like tea cozies and blankets to soften the place. Hospitals are hard, sterile – home should be the opposite. I think the other residents like popping in here because I’m not afraid to flaunt the rules – they can’t kick me out like the others. I am an anchor on a breaking tide, stable in the face of the flurry of activity present in any hospital passageway. The Grim Reaper would get lost in this hospital finding me, though I move slowly in my old age made even more difficult by the sloping floors and confusing signage, repainted with names of new medical technologies and donors.
I reflect on this hospital each day, it has been a part of me for so many years. I met my dear husband here as a young woman and was there when he passed. I worked here as a young woman, until I became the Chief Operating Officer, and here, I will die like so many others before me. It’s a pity I couldn’t have softened its walls in all this time, left a human footprint in its plasticky floors. It is unknowable.