Soon after I met the man who is now my husband — it was our second date, I think — Peter explained one of his chief requirements in a woman: “Let’s go to the library. We’ve got to be able to read in the same room together.”
This may not be everyone’s idea of romance, but through the years we have sat reading quietly in many rooms: at home, snuggled beneath the covers; abroad, in luxurious hotel rooms remembered best for the adequacy or lack of reading lamps; in countless public libraries; in other people’s fragrant back yard gardens; and, as I write these words, in a cramped gray hospital room filled with the faint odor of ammonia.
It is not the first hospital room — there were two cancer operations for Peter, two pregnancy losses for me — and because we’re mortal, it won’t be the last. It is always the hardest place to test our concentration. As Peter dozes, I give up on the book whose words have begun to seem like gibberish, flip through a magazine, turn to a newspaper with which I immediately lose my battle to smother the sudden crackling of the pages. Does Peter hear something? He turns to face me now, and as he waves, his white hospital bracelet catches the glare of the afternoon sun. He would wave more vigorously, I think, if it were not for the thin, clear I.V. tube, restricting him to his bed.
I almost wince at the thought, but I restrain myself — for Peter, for myself. Instead, I open the novel once more and attempt escape. I bury myself in the made-up problems of imaginary strangers in some strange land, and I wonder if reading is the most sublime form of salvation that exists: it saves both Peter and me from worrying out loud.
It’s a kind of game we play; our books are our props in our mutual deception. I know that he knows that inwardly I’m shaking; and he knows that I know what his fears must be. But why should we scare each other more than we are scared already? How better to keep each other’s spirits calm than by acting calm? And how better to pretend we’re calm than by something, anything at all? The tests so far have shown nothing; more tests are scheduled. It’s probably nothing, the doctors assure us; but then again, it could be something. We’ve lived through this script before; no doubt we will again. But as long as we read — as we always do — we can also pretend that we are as we always are. And so the book, unread, remains propped open on my lap, and at least a part of our life goes on, remains unchanged.
Pretend as we might, however, we have entered a different world here. More precisely, Peter, the patient, has been forced to create a world within this world. It consists of that corner of the room containing his bed, night-stand, tray-table, and green plastic guest chair. Because he is hooked up to an I.V. tube, it is difficult for him to reach, much less dial, his telephone. Above him, the miniature television set supplied by the hospital hangs from a flexible metal arm; inevitably, whenever a nurse or doctor appears, it is shoved far from view, farther from reach. Needless to say, there is no remote control. And when the cord he must pull to call the nurse drops to the floor, he is truly alone. By then he has long since learned the universal lesson of all hospital patients: that the only comfortable position is lying down, and the only activity is waiting to go home.
“A hospital is no place to get well,” an old saying goes. And it’s true that each patient must fight not only pain and despair, but the tedium of the unending rounds of doctors, nurses, orderlies, and hospital trays. How quickly a hospital transforms a person into a patient. First, you don your uniform — the thin blue and white cotton gown which stubbornly refuses to snap shut, the hospital robe which you cannot properly don because you are hooked up to the I.V. Need to go to the bathroom? Here’s a bedpan; see you later.
Out of necessity or shyness, we turn away from these little indignities of hospital life. To dwell on them too much is to lose what dignity is left. And so, without naming the new roles in which we have been cast, we simply act: I help Peter bathe, bring him news of the world outside, keep watch over those who keep watch over him. He assures me he is feeling better, reports his doctor’s latest report, smiles. Our lives are as bound together here as they are at home; the only difference is that, unlike him, I am not for the moment bound to an I.V. tube; for the moment, I am truly his other half.
Amid all the whirl and clutter of this place, there is hardly room for the patient himself, much less a visitor. In the private struggle to retain some sense of order, of dignity, Peter carefully combs his hair, shaves, finds a place for every object: “The comb? It belongs in the top drawer. The magazines go in the one below. Would you hand me my shaver? It’s on the shelf behind me, along with the mirror.”
For a visitor, there is a certain sense of trepidation in entering this foreign land, a shock in seeing so familiar a face set against the white glare of the hospital sheets. There is something about these monumental white beds that shrinks even the largest figure, casts a pallor over the ruddiest complexion. Sometimes, as I enter, it’s hard not to wonder for a moment if I’ve come to the right room. It’s like looking in the mirror after a bad night’s sleep; could that really be me? I learn to recover quickly, though: I smile, plant a kiss, take out the daily papers and my book, and we begin our charade once more: we are simply reading in a room together; everything will be all right.
Eagerly holding to this final illusion, we turn page after page, even if it is only the pages of TV Guide. And for a moment, we try to forget that the pages of our own lives are suspended between chapters — awaiting a test result, a doctor’s visit, a specialist’s consultation.
We turn the page once more. We chat about a columnist’s analysis of Dwight Gooden’s arm, or the peculiar plot turn in the novel I’m still pretending to get through, and for a moment we succeed in creating a familiar world in this foreign land.
Perhaps it’s not the “real world.” But our lives are our lives; we live them even as we conjure others in imagination, courtesy of the books upon our laps.
The plot is simple: Peter and I sit reading in his hospital room, dreaming we are in some other room. We wait and wait. Finally, the doctor hurries in. He is smiling, he extends his hand. Yes, he assures us, this novel’s happy ending will be our own.
And then we eagerly turn the page to begin the next chapter, the next room, the next book in this very real story of our lives.