THE WARS, Barbara Ruth

by Barbara Ruth
What is your name again?” I ask the nurse who is being so kind to me.“I’m Esme.” She straightens my pillows and sheets so gently, her hair, black and long in two braids which meet in the back, like in the Diego Rivera painting of the woman with the white lilies. Camellias? Lila is beside my hospital bed, her hand on my knee, her face distraught. I doubt she knows about the flowers.

I ask Esme, “Do you know Diego Rivera?”

She laughs. “The Mexican painter? I never met him personally. I’m not THAT old!” I’m guessing she’s somewhere between 25 and 52 but the construct that a certain age looks a certain way seems completely ridiculous.

“That’s who I mean. Your hair reminds me of that painting of the woman with her back to the viewer and white flowers in front of her. Are they lilies or camellias?”

“Hmmmmm. I thought they were orchids.”

“They’re calla lilies,” Lila says. “You had that on a calendar I gave you last year, I remember. I think it’s called ‘The Flower Seller’. And the woman did have braids like Esme’s..”

I try to focus my eyes on my beloved Lila but the eye-brain connection is still tenuous. “I feel so bad for underestimating you.”

A cloud of confusion and embarrassment envelopes her as she mumbles, “It’s okay. I just remember that painting is all.”

“Does Mrs. Robins need you today?” I ask Esme. “She had a hard time last night.” Night, Mrs. Robins, her Dilaudid dreams of death floating into mine… “She’s still here, isn’t she?”

“No. Mrs. Robins died last night. She was very sick. Did you talk to her?”

“I’m not sure. I dreamed about her. Did she die in her sleep?”

“Yes. She died about 3:30 in the morning. You were probably sleeping too then.”

Why did the Angel of Death decide to take her but not me? If they give me Dilaudid will I die too? This hospital – all hospitals – are portals between the worlds. Birth and death swirl around the hospital, spirits going and coming and hovering in confusion. Hungry ghosts, windigos, rock stars, bodhisattvas. All here.

“Do more people die in the night?” I ask Esme.

“I think there’s something about 1 to 5 AM that’s particularly significant, but I’m not positive. I should know that. I’ll ask the other nurses and tell you what they say.”

“Honey, were you afraid last night?” Lila’s got on her Jewish worry = love voice. “Oh Izzy, you’re going to get well.”

I’m too tired to reassure Lila. Why can’t she just be interested in death as a phenomenon? Here I am in a death house; I want to understand this place.

“I’m just thinking about the big questions,” I tell her, making my croaky voice as light as possible. “You know, life, death, eternity, how many places there are in ∏.”

“Let me see if I can give you two some privacy for the big questions.” Esme finds the rolling curtains I remember from the ER. Wait: that was Stanford. This place doesn’t have the Stanford vibe. As she draws the curtains around Lila and me I ask, “What’s the name of this hospital again?”

“Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. Here, look.” She shows me SCVMC on her badge. I squint, trying to keep my eyes on the letters, but they stray to what seem to be characters from Angry Birds on her smock. “And you have it on your hospital gown too.” Sure enough, my gown has a left breast pocket with the same letters, though no computer game characters I can see. If only I can remember what the letters stand for the next time someone in a white coat asks me where I am.

Esme finds a wheelchair for Lila, so she can go to the bathroom, get a Diet Coke, whatever, without having to use her crutches. I wondered if Mrs. Robins would have died if Esme had been on duty last night. Maybe Mrs. Robins’ fondest wish was to die with Esme’s face the last thing she saw, Esme’s voice the last sound she heard. What prayers would Mrs. Robins want said on her behalf? The answer comes: to never again be lonely, in pain, unable to communicate. I bring my hands to prayer position. “Mrs. Robins, I wish that for you.”

Lila squeezes my arm, careful to avoid the IV line. Worry transmits from her fingers to my triceps.

“What is the date?” I ask. “Is the war over yet?”

“What war? What are you talking about, Izzy?”

“Wouldn’t it be great if all the wars were over. No more mountains of carcasses and sorrow. I guess that’s too much to ask for, so what about us? Is the war over between Izzy and LilaTov?”

“Honey, we’re not having a war. Why do you think that?”

“We had a really bad fight. I thought we might still be mad at each other, or maybe we forgot in the health crisis, and once I’m out of the hospital we’ll remember.”

“No, Izzy, we didn’t have a fight. We’ve had some tense conversations because I’ve been trying to get you to drink water and eat and take your meds, just like Yvette and Sunshine have. But none of us are fighting with you. There isn’t any war.”

“There are many wars. I’m sure about that. I mean, if you were Yoko Ono and you said, ‘The war is over because we wanted it to be’, well then maybe I’d think there had been the great shift in consciousness that brings real peace, but you’re not Yoko Ono and we’re just here, trying to have our lives. Amy Goodman would have told me if all the wars were over. Democracy Now wouldn’t be the War and Peace report anymore. It would be ‘All the Peace News All the Time.’”

The curtains open. Enter the psychiatrist, with clipboard and clicking heels. Another combatant.

Barbara Ruth is a housing justice warrior in Silicon Valley, a long time resident of California, a native of Kansas, an armchair traveler, and a lesbian everywhere she goes. Barking Sycamores is her artistic home. She looks forward to having a physical home of her own as well.

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