I like to wake up early, but not early-early. I like to get out of bed when the rest of the house is still asleep, at an hour when the whoosh of a car up the street is noteworthy, but also when neither of those states will hold for long. It’s the best time of day to write and also to read, when my brain has the liquid quality of the newly-awake. It is especially excellent if I’ve planned ahead, if I’ve ground the coffee beans the night before, filled up the kettle, and set out a pair of sweats. I don’t manage it often, but when I do, the high of it lasts all day. Yesterday I did it, and Ash remarked that I was very “chirpy and chatty” — a good thing, they quickly added. Waking up early is not so good, though, if I didn’t intend to be awake — when there’s a baby to feed, for instance, or a sick child to care for, or the electronic lady-voice of the smoke detector in the hall suddenly announces LOW BATTERY, that semi-annual event that only ever occurs between the hours of one and four in the morning.
I’ve been caring for a loved one who had surgery the week of Thanksgiving.The morning of the procedure, I woke at 2:30 to pee and, counting the minutes until my alarm would go off at four, I never fell back asleep. At 3:45 I gave up and went to dig for my bathrobe in the hamper of clean clothes that we’d left on the living-room hearth in a so-far-unsuccessful effort to force ourselves to fold it. It was night-dark outside, clear and very cold; I could tell by the way light fell cleanly from the streetlamp, nothing to slow it. I lit the candles on the table and read a book, Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait, while I ate my bowl of cereal. The neighbors two houses down the street had strung their Christmas lights, I noticed, though it was only November 21. The bulbs were the big kind, primary-colored, plump as gumdrops. Surely they’d been there the night before, visible from the dinner table, but I hadn’t noticed. There’s a quality to the very early morning that allows a person to see things she doesn’t see at other hours. On a shelf behind where I sat were two puny dahlias in a vase. I’d cut them from the yellowing stalks in the front yard three days earlier, the last holdouts of a generally puny crop. The last dahlias, overlapping with the first Christmas lights! I can’t decide if I like it or not.
In my family, when someone is in the hospital, you stay with them around the clock. Surely it wasn’t always the case among us — I’d bet my mother or my aunt started it — and of course there are sometimes conditions that require a patient to be in protective isolation. But if we can, we stay. I was 24 when I learned how to stay with someone in the hospital: when to push the button for the nurse, when to do the given task myself, that there is always ice if you ask for it and a vending machine if you look hard enough. I learned it when my father was dying, which he did twenty years ago today.
He went into the hospital late that September to have a tumorous kidney removed, and then he got stuck there, the pain of his bone metastases a riddle that the doctors couldn’t solve. He was in for six weeks, and I don’t think we ever left him alone there, not for more than a couple of hours and not overnight. There is much that can happen in the two hours between vital-signs checks. Even with the best nursing care, who was going to notice when he pulled out his nasal cannula at 3am? Who would wrestle him gently, by the E.T. light of the pulse oximeter on his finger, back into the hospital gown that, egged on by some pre-dawn hallucination, he was set on stripping out of? It is terrible to be in a hospital room, even when you are not the patient. I would rather be anywhere else, if circumstances were otherwise. But when circumstances are not otherwise, I will stay. I have never regretted staying.
I will admit that, when walking down the hallway of a hospital, I am a person who looks in the open doors of the rooms I pass. I’m always shocked to see patients alone, no visitors or company. I know it’s a jerk move to pass judgment on the basis of a drive-by like that; a visitor might have run to the cafeteria, gone home for a quick shower and a decent meal, even passed me in the hallway a second before. I am indignant anyway. I tell Ash, Don’t you ever leave me alone in a hospital. I make them promise.
It is difficult to read in a hospital room. People magazine was the most I could muster when my dad was sick. But the week before last, by the glow of my small clamp-on reading light,I managed to read nearly the whole of The Marriage Portrait. It’s full of cruelty and damask and duchesses and murder and descriptions of the protagonist’s hair, and every night on my hospital-issued folding cot, I fell asleep thinking about it. When I finished it, I snapped a photo of the cover and texted it to a book-loving cousin with the caption, “Best book I read this year!” Rather than reply, she called to politely confess that she’d disliked the book so much, found it so flowery and predictable, that she gave up partway through. I knew what she meant. It was perfect hospital reading. I even jotted down this passage from page 101, in which the protagonist kisses her mother’s cheek, and which reminded me of my own late grandmother: “The cheek is cool and soft, the texture of an overripe apricot, with that same slackness and deliquescent give.” I know it’s not supposed to sound appealing, but let it be known: I would like to live to such a literally ripe old age that I, too, have apricotty cheeks.
Now I am home again, the hospital behind us. I got up early again this morning, not early-early but early. I took the dog out and, standing in the still-dark beside the house, remembered today’s date and had an unexpected cry for my dad. I don’t always feel something on December 7; twenty years is a long time. Today it passed quickly, lasted only a few minutes in the morning air, though I’ve spent most of the day writing this, circling around the loss of him, trying to record its texture. I’m glad I woke up in time to feel it.
On a whoooole other note, tomorrow (December 8) at 10:00am Pacific I’ll be baking on Zoom with my dear friend Luisa Weiss, making Bethmännchen from her book Classic German Baking. It’s our third year of this virtual holiday bake-along! You should join us. You don’t have to bake; just come, listen, watch, or ask a question. It’s free, but you do have to register through Book Larder:
Also: this Saturday, December 10, at 7:30pm, the Bushwick Book Club Seattle is hosting InkAloud at Hugo House, an evening of music inspired by the work of three local authors — and The Fixed Stars is one of the featured books. Tickets required.
And is doing well, thankfully. Please don’t worry.
If circumstances find you in a hospital room (or anywhere else that has weird and/or dim lighting), may I recommend a small gooseneck reading light, the kind you clamp onto your book. Mine charges via USB, is dimmable, and gives off a vaguely pumpkin-colored light, much gentler on the eyeballs than cool white.
I bet you’re wondering, so I will tell you: yes, I have also read O’Farrell’s Hamnet, as well as I Am, I Am, I Am! She’s brilliant.
I’m commenting from my wife’s hospital room, where she is recovering from a major and much wanted and needed surgery. I was clearing out my email inbox, as one does while spending time next to an oft-snoozing loved one in the hospital, and discovered I’d missed this missive - what a gift to come across it today!
My wife is normally the type who prefers to be very much left alone when ailing, but for whatever reason this time around she’s wanted me close at hand. So I have spent three rather unexpected nights on a fold-out hospital sofa, eating somewhat rubbery eggs and watching television shows about New Zealand customs agents and brushing my teeth in the harsh glow of the hospital bathroom. It has been a very comfortable stay, with wonderful staff and a nice view out the window, and yet I am still wrung out. And also so grateful to have been here. Your writing so captures this liminal moment so many of us experience. It is very true.
My wife has been doing slow ambling loops in the hallway, preparing for her discharge to an extended stay hotel nearby. In one room there is an older woman alone, always alone, door always open. Whenever my wife passes she yells out, “Great job! You’re looking great! Keep going!” Today we stopped briefly to speak with her. She said, “I don’t know if I’ll ever get out of this bed! You have to walk for me!” And my wife said, yes, yes. I’ll walk for you. Hospitals offer moments of shared humanity and grace that bring me to my knees.
Thank you for sharing this. And thanks to the universe for bringing it to me today.
Twenty years is a long time--and no time at all. My dad has been gone for 23. ♥️