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Northeast Corridor

Hospitals take the life right out of you. The huge sliding doors, the phalanx of clerks and guards, the waxed linoleum. And that smell. All on a rainy Memorial Day.

I rode the commuter trains down to Philadelphia, and got off at the wrong station, figuring that Temple University Hospital and Temple University were the same thing. I walked through Temple's empty campus, massive concrete buildings and brick sidewalks, not finding the hospital. On reaching Broad, I took a left; I found out later that I should have taken a right. I gave up when I reached Center City, and hailed a cab.

There in the hospital was my grandmother, 87, her shoulders bare under hospital sheets, her hair pure white. She didn't know who I was, but she smiled, and wriggled her feet in their little brown socks. So small I could cup her in my hand.

My mother, my brother, and his wife were there. They laughed at my wet brown shirt, soaked through, and listened to me tell the story of walking miles the wrong way in the rain. My grandmother came in and out of sleep, and we introduced ourselves to her many times, showed her a newspaper, prompted her to read a few words, to speak, telling her she was in the hospital, that she was with her family.

After a few hours, we each kissed her forehead and squeezed her hand, and went for dinner at the Country Squire, a massive diner in Newtown Square. We ordered comforting food: turkey, chicken, spanakopita, food that feels good to the mouth.

My mother had snapper soup, and we each tasted it. My brother remembered how my grandfather had once caught a snapper out of the Brandywine. He decided to show my brother the right way to kill a snapping turtle. First, he applied some sort of gentle, time-honored method of teasing out the snapper's head. But the turtle would have none of it, and stayed inside its shell, away from the fishing knife. That game continued for a few minutes, until, frustrated, my grandfather decided on another approach. He reached into the shell with pliers, grasped the snapper's skull, and yanked, ripping the head right off the body. “You could hear the little turtle bones cracking as the neck stretched,” said my brother, beheading an imaginary snapper with his hands, and we laughed hard, together around the table.

That night, I stayed with old friends, glad to have people so close, glad for their conversation, and for their ridiculous, bug-eyed Boston Terrier. It leapt, licked, and snorted around us, filling the room with goofy life. The next morning I went from Paoli to 30th St, 30th St. to Trenton, Trenton to Penn Station, then took the F home. Each train platform felt a bit more desolate, and each connection delivered another dose of melancholy.

I am one of those men who keeps his feelings for himself, for evenings alone. I can't feel things as they happen. And I prefer this; for all the times I was admonished not to dress my cat in an apron and to feel good about crying, as a boy in the late 70s and early 80s, I feel stronger when I store things inside, when I drift through the situation and shelve my reactions, taking them down when the moment is over, and I can make sense of what I've seen.

Admonitions to live in the moment, to carpe diem, make me suspicious. Each moment is full of fractures and strains, confused intentions, desires and uncertainties. Time is moving water; it is unseizable. How do I speak to this woman in the hospital bed when she isn't sure who I am? Do I stroke her hand and talk about the lunches she packed for me when I was 10? Do I try to ask informed questions of the nurses, like my sister-in-law (herself a nurse), or weep a little, like my mother? Do I lean by the window, firm and reassuring, like my brother?

What I do is stand there, confused and afraid of doing the wrong thing. I listen to my grandmother whisper her replies to my mother's questions. I wonder what it's like for her, looking up at us from her pillow, an oxygen tube in her nose. I try to see myself as she sees me, so that I know how to act: does my body, looming over her bed, comfort or perplex her? Should I move closer or farther? I meet her eyes, and look away, embarrassed, then look back.

Assembled around the hospital bed with its stainless-steel rails and electronic controls, we each try to communicate the same thing to this fragile, baffled person: that she is loved and not forgotten. We do this even as she has had so many memories and abilities cut off by the sudden force of the stroke. I hope, as everyone in the room hopes, that the tender essence of our message will get through, that it will find its way past the injuries and settle within her mind. We are saying: it is no problem if you forget us, because we will not forget you. Okay?

Back in Brooklyn at two in the morning, with a bottle of water to my right and a cat at my ankles, I take the last two unseized days, days wandered through, and tease them apart, unbraid the knot in my stomach and examine its fibers. I sit in my chair and live in the moment deferred.

Before we left, they moved my grandmother to another ward, another room. The new room had a window looking out on a Greek Orthodox church, its gold dome gleaming as the rain, for a moment, receded.

Being moved shook her badly. In her first room, the room where she began to recover, she'd started to piece together a world. In that first room, to fill the absence left by the stroke, she made new, tenuous connections between light and language, between people and words. But now, presented with a new set of white hospital walls, all of these connections were thrown askew, and she was forced to start again. It pained her, and it pained us to see her so lost, immune to explanations.

I think through this moment, and its sibling moments, rebraiding sensations into a tentative understanding.

Going back and forth to Philadelphia, I was motivated by familial duty, operating out of a desire to do the right thing. But I stayed up late tonight hoping to get past duty, to probe the place in the mind that inspires duty. I remembered that the root of duty is love—here, it is the love I feel for my family. I stayed up because, more than I needed to sleep, I needed to connect that love to the gentle woman in the neurology ward, the retired middle-school teacher with lost and milky eyes, whom I've known, from earliest memory, as Gram.

If I was a different person, I would not have to look for that connection; it would have been waiting there on Broad St., on the 4th floor of Temple University Hospital. But I must think in order to feel. Duty saw me through the last few days, until it was replaced by love and compassion. That is how I learn, how I know what I feel. And how I feel is, you know. Just very sad.


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