Dear readers; Bryn and I saw two field mice zipping through the parking lot near the library: the sight of them triggered a memory I thought I’d share again. This column shall serve as my 2018 annual rant. I always indulge in one per year.
I’m nestled in my favorite chair, watching firelight create interesting shadow-pictures on the walls. They make me reflective. I’d been researching mice- especially field mice, who have a peculiar set of back legs reminiscent of kangaroo legs, and a little tuft of hair right at the end of their tails.
What a year 2010 was! One memory remains particularly vivid.
I lived in England for the first half of 2010, to be near David, my late mother’s English husband, who’d had a stroke. (He died in August of 2010.) During his last February he was temporarily transferred to a small hospital forty minutes away, because Ross Community Hospital, much closer to David’s home, had been plagued with a virus and needed disinfecting, from ceilings to sublevels. It would take weeks to scrub it down. When the massive job was done, he would be transferred back.
Meanwhile, I motored daily to this far-away, much smaller facility...
and found a surreal scene in David’s wing. Eight elderly men, who, as far as I could see, had working voices, active minds and movable limbs (they could sip tea and munch biscuits just fine)- who lay propped up in their ward beds, four to a side, in the immaculate room. As usual, there was no medical equipment in sight. Paper cups housed various pills.
There was nothing to look at- no magazines or newspapers, no television, no soft BBC radio music/patter, no joke-y nurses, nothing to think about, or to see or do.
Here’s the weird part. Nobody made a sound, though most were awake and alert. I couldn’t even hear them breathe.
It gets stranger. Their Visitors were silent. They just sat there by their loved ones’ bedsides, exactly like spellbound Hobbits. Reflecting now, I suppose that they, being naturally reserved around so many other strange men, and having zero privacy, had chosen to say nothing at all. There weren’t even sheeted barriers between the beds to encourage whispers, or maybe a kiss?
But no. Only stares were exchanged. Everyone was too shy to say anything.
I was witnessing an extremely slow-motion checkout- death from boredom.
If I were in charge, I’d offer some good gossip! Who were these elderly men going to tell?
How about passing along village news?
How about bringing along a young child who could chatter about her day at primary school?
Why not have a caregiver offer to read short stories for an hour every day? It would be a highlight, I bet.
Or, why not trade life-stories? Those long-lived men could relate some pretty lively episodes, I thought. Each man might await his turn with something like- anticipation.
But oh, dearie me, it was not the British way.
This silence was toxic. It can still give me nightmares.
Sometimes British stiff upper lips are a huge pain. The British dislike making a fuss, and so were politely queuing up to meet Dr. Death. Chuckles and relaxed chatter were as unlikely here as dormice in teapots. All that was missing were eight coffins and some dirt.
Lunch and tea were served, ever so quietly. I seriously considered dropping a teacup, just to shatter the silence. Maybe I could pass gas. Or bring a radio to play some great music.
Jeez. I’d go absolutely bonkers in here, in a New York minute. (David would endure it for nearly three weeks.)
I blew in every afternoon to chat, but he’d opted out. In fact, I never heard his voice again after that experience.
The head matron was crisply unhelpful when I asked why he slept so much. Questions, especially from meddling foreigners, were unwelcome. Was he given sleeping tablets? She wouldn’t confirm or deny it. Any medical information was closely guarded.
The doctor was, as usual, unavailable. (British doctors regularly insulate themselves from patients’ families. One asks ‘matron’ to notify his office, which is often in another part of town. Then the doctor’s receptionist rings to fix an appointment for perhaps a week later. By then one’s question is irrelevant.)
American docs are infinitely more accessible. In fact, one often bumps into them on their hospital rounds.)
Fighting back, I chose crackly brown paper to wrap a book of outrageous cartoons by George Booth, which I presented to David with a ta-da flourish. (This went over poorly. The British don’t do ta-das.) He remained determinedly asleep. I understood. This gangrenous silence was surely to blame. It was very like a pseudo-death. If waking up offered the same dreary blankness that sleeping did, why bother to wake up?
Perhaps that was the point.
The British National Health System is long past bankrupt. Though old, sick bodies are tidied, kept warm and decently fed, old minds are abandoned.
There are no funds for “frills.”
A nurse told me this.
One day, fed up, I brought along two realistic wind-up mice and placed them on his taut top sheet. They busied themselves circling. David didn’t notice.
A nurse delivering pills did, but wasn’t amused. I didn’t care. “Everyone here’s dying—of boredom, ” I commented loudly.
One bedridden gentleman looked astonished at my boldness, but by God, he nodded. Nurse pursed her lips. Typically brash, rude American, she thought.
I knew the indulgence was stupid. With this mouse silliness I risked making David’s life more difficult –but- how could his life be worse than having to endure these naked green walls, the bare air, and this dead-silent room?
Two days later he was transferred back to Ross’s antiseptically scrubbed hospital. I was so glad! At least it bustled with activity and visitors, mostly farmers who sometimes chuckled in the big ward.
Sometimes there was radio music.
The starched Matron here was surely glad to be rid of me. I was disliked, mainly for talking out loud and actually being inquisitive.
But I had the last laugh. I left those mice with two patients. Intrigued, they quickly palmed them. Other men noticed. At least one pair of alert eyes twinkled.
I will always wonder what happened next.