I spent last week in New York with my parents after my mom had surgery to remove a benign mass from her colon, and also that whole portion of her colon, and then had a hernia repaired, too, because why not? Everything went as planned and she was quick to return to her normal self. Fresh out of surgery and barely able to talk, she whispered to the phlebotomist who drew her blood, “You’re good. Don’t let it go to your head.”
She was in the hospital for most of the week, which means my dad and I were also in the hospital for most of the week. And after going through a similar stint back in September, I’ve come to a conclusion about hospitals:
If life is a sheet cake, the way we soften reality is the frosting. And hospitals wipe the frosting clean off the cake.
By “soften reality,” I don’t mean “lie.” It’s not malicious; it’s human. It’s the kind of softening that makes it possible to get through a day without having an existential crisis. The kind that convinces us that life goes on forever and we’re in control.
Hospitals don’t play that game. They make you sit in fragility—both your own and that of the people you love most—and make you stay there for days or weeks on end, waiting for an unknown outcome. It’s startling and humbling and exceedingly raw.
Because emotions are so close to the surface, people seem quicker to laugh in hospitals. They’re quicker to cry without shame. They’re ready and waiting to offer a helping hand or a kind word because they understand how much you need it. It’s like, for once, we’re all laser clear on what matters and what doesn’t. And nobody has the time or emotional capacity to pretend otherwise.
Three prime examples:
You know Jim, the guy who announces the prizes on Wheel of Fortune? The registrar who gave my mom her pre-surgery instructions was basically him, right down to the way he proclaimed, “In a few short moments your family will be ushered back to see you, one. at. a. time, for those all-important huuuuugs and kisssesssssss!” His demeanor was so out of place that, for awhile, I wondered if I was dreaming. But then someone came up to the desk to tell him how much she appreciated his spirited approach and he said, “I know the agony of sitting here, waiting for your parents to get out of surgery. I’m also a cancer survivor and know the agony of waiting for surgery yourself. So I try to make the experience as pleasant as I can. I imagine myself being part politician, part border collie, part game show host.”
I met Pat when I went downstairs to eat lunch in the sun one day. She was in a triad of comfy chairs in direct sunlight so I asked if I could join her. As I unwrapped my sandwich she asked, “Is it the corned beef and cabbage? I had that one yesterday and had to take half of my half home. It was huge!” We then proceeded to talk through lunch—a turkey wrap for me, an iced coffee and cookie for her. I learned that she has an esophageal tumor and is receiving radiation treatments five days a week. Her husband’s health is failing so he’s in a nursing home nearby and most of her other family is in North Carolina. She was a teacher for 52 years. 52! And she was sitting there for the same reason I was: to soak up the sun and take a break from the world for a minute. At the end of lunch, Pat said, “I don’t like to just sit and stare at people. It seems better to get to know them.”
Judy was my mom’s roommate for the week, and I knew I liked her from the second I heard her on the other side of the flimsy room-separator curtain. She’s a straight shooter with a sharp wit and only a few months older than my mom. After hearing me talk with one of the nurses about being a writer, she told me she used to be a writer, too. I asked what she liked to write most. She replied, “Whatever people paid me for.” We instantly understood each other.
When Judy was in her bed, she wanted to be covered (horizontally, not vertically) by a lilac prayer shawl that was crocheted by the ladies at her church. Later in the week, she recruited one of those church ladies and me to break protocol and move her from a chair back into her bed—during which time they hatched a plan to find me a husband, preferably one of the more attractive doctors.
Most memorably, when I was hesitant to leave on the night after both she and my mom had surgery, Judy offered to watch out for my mom overnight—even though she had just had a malignant, baseball-sized tumor removed from her colon. Her selfless compassion in one of her own darkest moments will stay with me for a long, long time.
I don’t know how any of us are supposed to do this. I don’t know how we’re supposed to live in a place where cancer happens to people we’ve known and loved for hours and people we’ve known and loved for years. I don’t know how (or if?) the beautiful moments outweigh the ones that threaten to break us.
This is a thing I think about a lot, and I don’t have an answer for it.
But I do think we need more Jims and Pats and Judys in the world. And I think embracing the plain sheet cake of hospital life can help us get there.
There is something essential about serving cake, straight up, to the people around us—and to ourselves. Because the frosting is sweet, but it’s impossible to see through. It covers the reality we’re so quick to forget: that everything is temporary, and everything is precious, and everything—or at least everything that matters most— is almost entirely out of our control.
But we still have cake. And people to share it with. And the ability to serve it with humor and joy.