Recently I spent twelve days in the hospital. One thing I discovered is that there is actually a limit to the number of Law & Orders you can watch. But, when I turned off the TV, I discovered myself awash in some of the most profound and moving stories I’d ever heard.
People who go to hospitals are in crisis. They’re dealing with difficult situations, not just with their health, but also with the people who care for them. Or don’t care for them, as the case might be. Visiting hours start at noon and end at 6 p.m. so if you have a roommate, (and I had six of them over the time I was there), you find yourself in a very intimate relationship with a person you can’t even see most of the time because a screen is drawn. You listen to the phone calls, you listen to the way the doctors talk to them. You hear them at 3 in the morning, praying or crying. And vice verse. My husband has a loud voice and he’s a lawyer with a tendency to cross-examine everyone, so random people would come into my room and say, “I heard what your husband was saying…”
One of my favorite roommates was a very old woman who had not much time left to her and she decided to call each of her relatives and give them parting advice, and her advice was terrific. I tried to write it down, but unfortunately I had a fever of 105 at the time, so what I wrote looks like hieroglyphics. But I do remember she was both empowering and harassing and it seemed like her family was listening to her.
My other favorite roommate was a nightclub singer. Her husband was a very eccentric looking individual and they had been married for 45 years. She might have been famous because people came in and said they’d heard her sing. Her husband was absolutely devoted to her. Come 6:00, when visitors were supposed to leave, he didn’t want to go, and so he pulled a chair into a corner and sat very quietly, I guess hoping no one would kick him out. Which they didn’t. But I could see his shoes under the screen and I found that so moving. Those shoes, so still, watching his wife.
I could go on, but I’ll stop here. Except to say that people are inspiring and I like to think of that as I write.
Susan Breen is the author of the Maggie Dove mystery series. Her stories have been published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. She teaches novel-writing at Gotham Writers and is on the staff of the New York Pitch Conference. www.susanjbreen.com