Robert stood at the door to his room, his right hand clutching his IV stand as he cautiously stretched his neck to glance into the hallway. He could see the nurses huddled far down the hall near a check-in desk, their faces momentarily free of the cold, calculating thoughts that usually overwhelmed them. Their laugh’s sounded forced as the receptionist finished a story, but nonetheless was a welcome break to the monotony and quiet of the hospital walls. With their rounds done for the moment, Robert felt a shiver of thrill climb his spine as he took a decisive step into the hallway.
Or maybe that’s the medicine working, he joked. A small throatily chuckle escaping his chapped lips as he turned away from the nurses end of the corridor and walked towards a glass paned double door at the opposite end.
Robert kept his eyes on the ground as his feet shuffled noisily along the white tiled floor. He was sure the nurses could see him, and knew where he was going, but this daily escape had become a sort of ritual for them.
“Robert, you escaped us again!” They would say in a pretend huff when they eventually found him.
A smile crept across his face in expectation.
Each door he passed stood open wide to the patients within. They were always silent. Sometimes he couldn’t tell if they were ever truly occupied. He glanced into one of his fellow wing-mates rooms and saw a bouquet of wilting flowers sitting near the door. He bravely took a step inside, checking to make sure the tenant was asleep, and yanked a small daisy from the vase. At that moment, a loud snore erupted from the patient’s open mouth making Robert jump. He glanced over, wondering if he had been caught, and his eyes alighted on the doctor’s file hanging off of the patient’s bed.
“Alzheimer’s” was scrawled into the paper with almost illegible handwriting. Feeling his heart jump in empathy, Robert nodded his thanks for the flower and slowly exited the dispiriting room.
Robert pushed through the double doors and entered another dimly lit, warm corridor. He continued his determined shuffle as he passed room after room, door after door, of just another patient waiting for another nurse to return with more medicine. Every once and a while, a pained shout would echo from a room when Robert’s shuffles were heard. Mistaken as a nurse, the patients would call to him. I’m in here. I’m in so much pain.
Robert came to an elevator. His IV stand clanged to a stop as he shakily pressed the “Up” button and waited. He could feel a cold draft wrapping around his ankles as the sounds of the elevator’s mechanics began churning behind the door in front of him. Looking at his warped, mottled reflection in the metallic sliding doors, he could see the harsh whiteness of his hospital robe and the shock of grey hair sticking up like seedlings reaching for the sun. He hastily patted them down and tried getting a better look at himself in the doors. Did he look okay?
Before he could answer, the elevator slid into place and the doors clanged open before him. Luckily, there was no one inside. He slowly climbed aboard the harsh metal contraption and pressed the indistinct “5” button until it lit beneath his fingertip.
Robert could remember the first time he made this trip. It felt like it had been years ago. That first day, he had had the number “5” running around in his head all morning- it was something he knew, without a doubt, that he could never forget. He had snuck along the corridor, a little faster that time, as he hadn’t been burdened by the IV, rode the elevator to the fifth floor, then walked the couple of doors down to her room.
Robert felt a warmth seep into his chest as he remembered her lying there in her bed. She looked the same as always, so serene and content, just like when he had woken to her beautiful face for the past 53 years in their own home.
The news of his illness, oh so long ago, had also brought with it the news of her own impending disease. They had joked that this was God’s way of keeping them together, in sickness and in health. Not long after their diagnoses, they were both admitted to the same hospital to keep their sicknesses in check. And not one day had gone by that he hadn’t made the trek up to her room to spend as much time with her as the nurses allowed.
The elevator played a soft “ding” at the arrival to the fifth floor, and Robert felt a steady beating in his chest as his heart began to race. It was always thrilling, seeing his wife so early in the day. He loved the look on her face when she saw him, of surprise mostly and then of deep, affectionate love. He knew she appreciated his presence and his perseverance most of all. It’s what had kept them together for so long, through everything they have had to endure.
This hallway was much brighter and much more open than the wing Robert’s room was in. It made him happy that his wife’s room had a bigger window and the curtains were always drawn; since she couldn’t wake up to his smiling face, he was happy she at least had the sunshine to wish her good morning.
Robert looked at the numbers next to each door.
The walls were a bright, lavish white that reflected the sorbet colored rays of the morning sunrise. The tiled floor was dotted with rugs they had brought from home, and so Robert smiled in familiarity as he began to weave steadily through the room, trying not to catch his IV stand on the colored mats. He always like this wing because the patients were never concealed behind curtains. They seemed to relish in the hospital community and were always chatting or calling to one another or asking the nurses about the TV news. It was a much more active wing, and Robert was happy his wife had people to talk to and to chat with.
He walked by the first bed in the room. His wife roomed with one other woman, he knew, and he glanced down at her doctor’s file.
Lung Cancer, then jotted down next to it, Coma, with an illegible date.
He couldn’t remember his wife’s neighbor going into a coma. Had she mentioned this to him? He hated his illness, sometimes, especially when he forgot things like this. Robert briefly thought about getting his wife moved to a different room, then felt his heart melt as his old, dying eyes alighted upon her.
She was sitting up in bed, her hands holding tightly to a book that looked just too large for her. He could see the liver spots on her skin and the frayed edges of the eyeglass cord that held those large frames onto her nose. The sheets around her had come untucked, so he shuffled up next to her and began gently pushing the sheets under her small frame with his right hand.
“I don’t want you getting cold, honey.”
Robert watched her watery eyes meet his, and something flickered across her weathered face. “Robert…”
“Brought this for you,” he held out his other hand with the daisy. Its bright white ray petals and strong capitulum were too heavy for the little stem, and so the flower resembled a cat’s lazy tail.
His wife gently took the flower and looked at its glossy petals. She didn’t say anything, with her book in one hand and flower in the other. Robert felt an uneasy stirring in his chest as he watched her placid face. Did she not like it?
“Remember the first flower I brought to you? I thought it was an exotic white feathery plant from across the world… you told me it was Baby’s Breath.”
Robert chuckled, looking for some sort of appreciation or recognition from his wife. She remained unmoved. She merely stared at the flower.
“Do you want me to read to you?”
His wife finally shook her head and looked away from the flower to focus on something across the room, avoiding his loving gaze. Maybe she was lonely? Mad, that she didn’t have anyone around? His visits only lasted so long, until the nurses found him. He cursed himself for not remembering her neighbor’s coma.
“I’m sorry I forgot about your neighbor. I wish I could be here all the time with you… Do you want me to get you a new room with someone you can talk to? I don’t think we can find you one with as much sunlight, but it might make you happier if you have a friend around. Don’t you think?”
Finally, she put her book and flower down and shakily put her hands on his. It took her a moment, but eventually she looked up at his face with a serene smile and that familiar calm came over him.
“Robert, you must be having a bad day. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine darling, why do you ask?”
“Robert… Please don’t be alarmed.”
Robert could hear the constant shake of age in her voice and genuinely felt concerned for her. “Is everything okay?”
“I’m fine, Robert. But, I am not your wife. My neighbor here, is your wife.”
Like a shutter closed, his brain went blank and his heart seemed to have stopped. He could hear the blood rushing through his ears like waves in a hurricane and his hands beneath this strangers warm ones felt numb.
“It’s okay, Robert. It’s just your Alzheimer’s,” this old woman said.
He glanced behind at the woman in the bed, the older lady stricken with a coma. She didn’t look familiar. She didn’t look right. He glanced back at the woman before him and began to shake his head. Confusion took over his thoughts and nothing seemed to make sense. “Aren’t you my wife?” Was all he could say, before tears began to slide down his face.
The older lady took his hands in hers and shook her head solemnly. “No, Robert. It’ll be okay.”
As if on cue, the nurses from downstairs rushed into the room and saw the panic on their patient’s face. He started shaking, his old body racked with emotion. The flower he had given this woman was caught between their intertwined hands. In a rush of fear, his hands clamped down and began to squish the woman’s hands beneath his own.
“What happened? Why didn’t I know?” he began to mumble, her eyes suddenly wide in pain.
“Robert, you’re hurting my hands…”
The nurses ambled forward and took Robert between them. One grabbed his hands while the other positioned themselves in front of his face.
“Robert, you need to let go.”
His unseeing eyes were racked with guilt. He glanced over at the woman in a coma and felt an unforgiving, hollow, racking sob escape his lungs. He didn’t know. He didn’t know her.
His body let go. He looked down at the ground, ashamed of his reaction, of his confusion, and most of all, of forgetting himself and his wife. But is it true? Was that really his wife? Doubt and unknowing sewed into his mind like poisonous seeds as he was gently escorted from the room and into the hallway. How many times has this happened? Has he forgotten her before? Each nurse held him tightly. He was stopped in front of the elevator where he was forced to listen to the harsh metallic clanging of the ferocious chains behind the door, and stare at his distorted, ugly reflection. He couldn’t see his face in the shining steel doors, but he could feel the uncertain tears soaking his wrinkled cheeks.