by Angelique Stevens
Walking through the doors of the V.A. hospital where my stepfather is a patient, the air settles, resigned like the sun’s afternoon descent. Dust flecks float in and out of golden afternoon rays. In the stillness, I can almost follow one from foyer through corridor, up and down lifeless hallways until it finally settles on a rusted radiator. I walk cautiously like I might break the building’s trance. The building, its dirt collecting in forgotten baseboard crevices is lined with plaster walls, their cracks covered with layers of paint. An old wooden bench sits in the foyer where people remove boots and unbutton coats.
Along the right wall are two bulletin boards. One posts the day’s schedule “10:00—group meeting, 12:00—lunch: corn, meatloaf, and onion soup, 2:30—movie: Harrison Ford in Patriot Games” The other overflows with old pictures of current residents. One photo, cracked and worn, shows a young man newly pressed and proudly uniformed with an elbow on the nose of an old fighter plane. In another a young man, no older than 17, stands next to his parents. His mother lingers in the back, indifferent. World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam—they all stand, young and strong, next to the armaments of their era.
In the silence, I tip-toe unconsciously. The nurse’s station in the next corridor is empty. The other workers have all gone home to their families for the weekend. Unused rooms are darkened and office doors are closed. Further down the corridor, a man slumps in a wheelchair blocking it where the sun’s rays are the brightest. He wears gray pants with dark stains that reveal his secrets. A slipper covers one foot, a cast the other. He doesn’t move to greet me; he only stares in expectation at the slit of light on the floor.
On my father’s ward, patient doors are open. In front of me, an old Asian man wearing only a hospital gown, back opened walks out of his room. His skin drooping over his body like a child wearing oversized clothes. He wheels an IV on a portable pole to the bathroom unaware that I am behind him. In the bathroom, a man sits on the toilet groaning. The nurse stooped over him tells him he has to work with her if he wants to get back to his room. In another room, a man lies on his bed with nothing but a diaper on watching a Sunday game. His eyes are glazed. I understand that look. In this place, time stills, where the future is certain and the past is left for contemplation.
I enter my stepfather’s room and he doesn’t notice me. He, like so many others, is lying on his bed staring at the ceiling. He is holding the phone to his ear and reciting a prayer. I wonder who he’s speaking to. I wonder if he’s speaking to anyone. I let him be for a moment until I realize he is repeating the same line over and over again.
“Ouh fathah who aaht in heaven, hallow’d be thy name…” his Boston accent still thick after 30 years in New York.
“Dad!” Like being pulled out of a trance too quickly, he comes to wide-eyed and fearful. I wonder where he is. But then his eyes soften.
“Dad, who were you talking to?”
“Nobody”, he says. I believe him.
We chat for a bit, catching up on the week’s activities. I tell him how my college classes are going. He listens. His stories have already been told. I offer one of the chocolate kisses he keeps hidden in the drawer. Trembling fingers fumble with the wrapper so long that it is melted when he finally opens it. Chocolate runs down his chin and onto his stained hospital gown. Soon he is asleep and I am left talking with myself.
It doesn’t take long for the line to blur between patient and visitor. I move toward the window to let the shade up. As my father sleeps, I keep my own time watching the sun creep in streaks and slants along the floor. A curtain walls off half the room. His roommate is on the other side visiting with his wife. I can see their reflections in the mirror on the wall. She feeds him dinner. Silent and motionless, his mouth gives him away as he chews. She talks to the nurse about the war. She is telling his stories for him. I wanted to tell her I have stories too. There was the time just after Pearl Harbor when my stepdad was searching for wreckage… or the time the tornado came through town and the policemen walked street by street getting the number of the dead. But instead I sit silent.
My father wakes and wants me to get the nurse immediately. He has to go to the bathroom. His voice is tense as he tells the two nurses to be careful. They tell me to wait out in the hall. Instead, I walk down to the basement where an endless maze of underground corridors joins the buildings on the VA compound. On the weekends, the machines in the central area of the compound are the only place to get a cup of coffee. When dad was in better shape, just last year, he used to shuffle along with me to the café area or smoking lounge. Sitting in the little smoke-filled building we listened to others tell stories of the past.
Now, he can barely move and is plagued with bedsores. I noticed them yesterday when the nurse turned him over for a shot. He can only get out of his bed for the bathroom, and even then he needs two nurses to pick him up and put him into his chair. When I was younger, my sister and I would try to wrestle him down, but each time we lost. In the end he always told us, “Theyah will nevah come a day when yah can beat me.” All those years he took care of us, like we were his own. Now I watch him weekends as he shakes to put a fork to his mouth or sip ginger ale through a straw.
Back upstairs, he’s screaming, “Put me down!” It sounds like anger, but I know it’s fear and shame. Inside, his two nurses help him into a bed from the chair. He yells, “Holy Jesus! Oh Lord!” I try to calm him, “Dad it’s ok, they’re not going to hurt you. Just relax” Anxiety suffocates his breathing and his screams come out in choked sobs and half breaths. Growing up, I never saw him cry.
I too visit with the ghosts while I am here; one cannot help it after a while. Instead of hearing his screams, I focus on the past. There was the time he thundered into my principles office after a boy on the playground hit me. When I was hit by a car, he visited me every day for six weeks. Later, after I was released from the hospital in a body cast, he carried me up the stairs to our apartment. Once he stormed the park to find the bully who stole my sneakers and threw them in a dumpster. The man struggling in the bed is not that man I remember who came home every day at 7:00PM—his blue uniform soaked with engine grease, hands calloused, feet battered, worn down and dirt tired.
My father and I take turns being half there. He has taken his oxygen and is finally dozing off again. Thinning amber slants on the floor tell me evening will soon be here and it will be time to go. He wakes up again in a terror- screaming. He calls for me and tells me he’s ready to go now. He says, “come on get my things, we’ah leaving this place” I try to tell him he’s having a dream but he gets angry instead, “ I wanna go home NOW!” he demands. My calming words have no effect and soon he is telling me to get out of his. I kiss him on the head and hold his hand. I too am crying. He shoves me away and says “Get out Get out get out!” I told him I loved him and walked out.
Walking back down the corridor that last time, there was the bearded man again staring at the ceiling, leg shaking, still muttering. The older Asian man had made his way to his bed, but another had replaced him in the bathroom. There was the old man in the wheelchair still in the corridor keeping time. I stopped to say hello to him; but he didn’t move. Instead, he stared tired-eyed at the sun’s dying rays.
Angelique Stevens teaches Creative Writing and Literature of the Holocaust and Genocide in Upstate, NY. An activist for human rights, her travels have taken her across the globe. She lived in Chiapas, Mexico to be a witness for peace with the Zapatista Rebels, volunteered in an elephant refuge in Thailand, studied the Holocaust in Israel, and evaluated water wells in South Sudan. She writes about her travels and her experiences growing up in Upstate New York. Her work can be found in Shark Reef, The Chattahoochee Review and a number of anthologies. Her essay “If Nothing Changes” appears in Issue No. 8 of Cleaver.