On growing up in hospitals

I wrote this during Jessica’s recent hospital stay, so don’t worry, she’s not back in the hospital.


We are in Jessica’s hospital room and she is in pain, but it’s an hour before she can have any more meds, a fact that I don’t argue with the nurses over although honest to zeus you would think pain treatment would have come further than this in the last two hundred years.

“She is stoic,” they say, but they are not holding her hand as she suffers. She has learned how to corner the pain, to pin it down and keep it from overwhelming her. A game, I think, that she devised a long time ago, in another hospital room like this one. I am not sure it is stoicism, mastery of emotion, so much as it is resignation; there will be pain, and no one will do very much about it, and so there is no point in making a fuss.

Today she is more alert, and so I try to distract her, but she doesn’t want a movie, and she doesn’t want me to read to her, and she is extremely annoyed when I try to get her to help with the crossword puzzle. So I line up the stuffed animals next to her in bed, the stuffed animals and the Jasmine doll, and I ask her what the new addition to the menagerie should be called. We have already called the black dog Galadriel, from The Lord of the Rings, and of course Jasmine is Jasmine, but Jessica is undecided about what to call the purple bunny.

I ask her if it’s a boy bunny or a girl bunny and Jessica says she doesn’t know yet, so her father suggests that she should call it Pat, and he and I burst into laughter remembering the old SNL skit, but Jessica is not amused. So I begin to tell her a story about Galadriel, the elf-Rottweiler, and Jasmine, the princess, who are friends, and Jessica decides that they are on a quest, and she supposes the Pat is on a quest, too, and I suggest that perhaps Pat is on a quest for gender identity, and Jessica is still not amused, but I am entertained.

But Jessica is not content to let the animals and the doll have all the fun, so she decides that she is Frodo – she is always Frodo, because she understands what it is to be appointed a task you have no wish to carry out – and she says her father is Sam, and he rolls his eyes, because Sam is a bit of a comic character. But I know why Jessica has named him Sam. He and Frodo embark on their quest together, and when Frodo cannot go on, Sam carries him.

The neurosurgeon is Legolas, she decrees, a worthy warrior, one of the fellowship, and she asks me, “What time do you think Legolas will get here in the morning to see me?” and the asking cracks her up, and I say, “I think Legolas will get here at 8:30,” and I know there will be a bewildered nurse later when Jessica asks if it’s true that Legolas will stop by after breakfast.

“You are Gandalf,” she says to me, slanting me a sly glance, and I know her father is wondering why he doesn’t get to be Gandalf, the imposing wizard, the wise one. But I know. Gandalf may be wise but above all he is impatient; it is one of his most telling characteristics. More than that he is on a separate quest from Frodo, and Jessica knows this is true of me as well. Try as she might she cannot enter my life as a writer; she can enjoy looking at the books or even reading them, and she can listen to me talk about the struggles and the triumphs, but when it is time to put the words on the page, that is my task alone, and one she is not part of. It is just the same as when she runs the pain down and pins it to the ground. I can hold her hand, but it is her task alone.

“We are on a quest for recovery,” Jessica announces, and asks what the first step will be.

“We are already on the path,” I tell her. “And the next step will be to get out of this bed and go to the bathroom.”

On a quest, going to the bathroom is not nearly so prosaic and mundane as it is in real life. None of the steps are, not the sitting in the blue chair, or the walking down the hall, or the getting dressed in her own clothes. They are part of the quest, and she tackles them as if they were orcs or goblins, with determination and vigor. There is an air of intense purpose about her as she sets her mind to her recovery.

The trees outside the window are winter-bare, and I think of all the winters I have spent in hospital rooms, although I know I have spent other seasons in them as well. Still it feels as if it is always winter, when I am most tired and weak, that the tests come. But this time feels different. This time is the first time I no longer think of my daughter as a plaything of fate, the victim of a cruel and capricious universe, but a warrior rattling her sword in the face of whatever the days might bring against her.