I had borne with decreasing humor the thousand and one gaffes of the hospital’s kitchen staff.
Lest you, reader, surmise that I had somehow raised their ire, know that the first such buffoonery was on the first night of a six-week confinement at B______ Hospital. It was then that I was provided with three drinking straws, but no drink. On the second night, I was granted a knife and spoon; this for meatloaf. On the third night, I was bestowed no dining implements whatsoever.
Each breakfast, lunch, and dinner presented the kitchen staff with a new “incompetunity,” if you will. Two pats of butter accompanied a dinner roll that had, by some sleight of hand, vanished. The chicken salad sandwich that I requested transmogrified, in transport, into egg salad. Tomato soup had miraculously transubstantiated into potato bisque—accompanied by a fork with which to eat it.
Had the meals appetized, I would perhaps have borne these ineptitudes with grace. Surely, even a hospital cook has some pride of workmanship? Not so. The “pizza” was a sodden affair of French bread used to sponge up catsup and a cheese-like substance. The “meatballs” atop my spaghetti were each a spitball of breadcrumbs and bouillon, without the suspicion of ground beef.
The broccoli side dish was a particularly sad little offering, which called to mind a baby bird I had witnessed to be pushed from its nest on scorching hot day. This broccoli stalk, lacking a floret, was as naked, limp, and hopeless as that fledgling. I felt as spurned as the bird was by its mother. But alas, no giant presented himself to clap a hand over his eyes, grit his teeth, and end my wretchedness under the heel of a boot. (I was, after all, confined to an institution dedicated to the preservation of life.)
A sympathetic sister of the hospital advised me that frozen dinners were available—not from the menu, but upon request. O! Do not curl your lip at Salisbury steak in a celluloid tray, before you know the sting of desperation. I ordered that meal, and its blandness was exquisite. Heated as the meal was in a rotating and radioactive oven, the brownie was reduced to a tiny brick, which had shrunk from the sides of its compartment. But a mélange of the mashed potatoes and corn niblets, with three pats of butter, was at least inoffensive.
And so I surrendered any true enjoyment of breakfast, lunch and dinner. These I traded for the comfort of a full stomach and counted myself fortunate, as others with my affliction must surrender entirely to nausea, and nourish themselves via an infusion of sugar water in their veins. My appetite was always mightier than my slim stature, and was mightier than leukemia itself. Besides which, I simply could not lay down my head without having eaten something. How much appeasement to the invading force of blood cancer could I bear?
Thus, I surrendered to a repetitive menu, knowing that I would have flavor again, some weeks ahead. Meanwhile, I must beg for eating implements, butter, and drinks from the good sisters. And the dinners’ frozen state introduced a wholly new incompetunity, to whit:
Inmate: (Realizes the dinner tray is frozen.) I beg your pardon—this isn’t cooked.
Kitchen Staff: (Minces and curtsies, speaks with an indeterminate accent.) I thowwy! (Turns to leave.)
Inmate: Where are you going? How can I eat this?
Kitchen Staff: (Smiles broadly, curtsies again.) I thowwy! (Opens door to leave.)
Inmate: You “thowwy”? That’s not good enough! Please…
(Exit Kitchen Staff, smiling and mincing.)
I had not been served by this creature before, but she had left me furious. The usually-young people who brought me my trays were ordinarily a civil and respectful lot. They entered quietly, lay down their conveyances, and exited before I had a chance to discover the day’s missing items or unwelcome substitutions. They knew not what they did. But she of the curtsy, who smiled more broadly and lisped more childishly as my upset grew—her kind gave Our Lord vinegar when he thirsted for water.
Those were ten days of cyclical blandness, alternating between the Salisbury steak and the boneless fried chicken, broken here and there by an uninspired but inoffensive hamburger. The young men and women in their black-and-blue uniforms conveyed them to me with murmured politeness. They were too numerous, their visits too brief, to know them by name or even mark their faces. All but for one.
She of the curtsies and broad grin arrived and set before me my tray. Had I imagined a guileful flash in her eyes? She backed out of the room rather than simply exiting, telling me “Good evening, Thir! Here you are, Thir! Will there be anything elth, Thir? Enjoy!”, thus leaving me alone with the tray.
I lifted the green dome that covered the dish to find bone-in fried chicken, rather than boneless; a breast, accompanied by mashed potato and corn niblets and a brownie brick. But this was not the moist, steaming breast of a plump and pampered chicken.
Imagine, if you will, a chicken that had been tossed off some chuck wagon as being too scrawny to justify its feed. Imagine this abandonment had happened in the Nevada desert. The hapless fowl might peck for a day, two at the most, finding nothing in the dust for succor. In time, finding neither water nor worm, the poor beast would fall forth upon its scrawny breast, and there pant away its life. Somehow, a Mr. Swanson happened along with his wagon, and rather than waste the corpse, saved it for his processing plant, and that chicken found its way to my Boston bedside.
The aforementioned boneless fried chicken was manufactured into an oblong ingot, tapered slightly at an end. The meat was fairly tender, the breading soft and golden, owed largely to food coloring, I am certain. It resembled a live bird in no way, and the idea that it had once lived was a comfortable, distant abstraction.
But this breast had the form of chicken indeed; one that had lived a hard life, and died a miserable, solitary death.
Appalled, my appetite destroyed, I did not bother even with the mashed potatoes and niblets. I pushed away the tray table, and rolled over to sleep.
Now, it is not my custom to doze after dinner. But when one is bedridden, one learns like a dog to sleep at all hours of the day, for lack of other amusement. Yet, sleep eluded me.
I rolled onto a side, facing a wall, attempting to clear my mind of—?
Despair. And terror. I would never leave this room; of that I was suddenly certain.
I prayed—called upon God the Healer and Jesus, the Divine Physician. I had borne my illness remarkably, so my healers told me. I had simply refused to entertain death and refused to go in so bland and commonplace a way as to succumb to a blood disorder.
And, of a sudden, Satan’s twin imps of Despair and Terror had found their way.
I called for a nurse, who, seeing my state, brought me a sublingual tranquilizer, one which should calm me in seconds. She seemed truly distressed; what had gripped the stalwart fellow in Cell 7B? “Lorazepam never fails,” she soothed before leaving. But alas, the ministrations of man were no match for the worst of Satan’s brat children.
I at last threw off the bed covers and sat up, determined to grab hold of and strangle the beasts, each in a hand. How? How after so many weeks had they found their way!
My eye fell upon the dinner cart, and the answer was clear. They had crawled under a pale-green dome and onto a pale-green plate, and been delivered to me by a grinning grotesque who, if I accused her of such calumny, would undoubtedly curtsy and declare “I thowwy!”
I pushed the rolling dinner cart to the furthest corner of my cell, but eight feet away, and lay down again, my face turned from it. The chicken couldn’t get me from there. But a freed imp is like a bat in your parlor. It finds the far corners and terrifies you from there, and eludes you upon your every approach.
I pushed the dinner cart out of the room entirely—a superfluous gesture, for the imps had escaped their green dome. And, switching cells would do no good, for while Terror had distracted me, Despair and flown into an ear and lodged itself in my psyche. While I batted that side of my head, Terror had stuffed itself into the opposite ear.
The twins danced merrily, unreachably, in my skull. They thundered about like brats in an attic who had pulled up the ladder behind them. But rather than empty the trunks of Granddad’s Army helmet and medals and mockingly parading about in them; rather than don Grandma’s wedding dress and destroy it by trailing it through inches of dust; the imps found trunks of horrific visions, and screaming with delight, tossed them out one by one like so many doilies and handkerchiefs.
A vision of my corpse, bald and bloated by 50 lbs, in a double-wide casket.
A vision of my parents standing graveside, my father wearing the 80-year-old face that I was destined to have, but never reached. Whatever grief I had caused them in a youth, this was the ultimate grief.
A vision of my darling Sadie Mae, alone and in widow’s weeds, in a silent parlor where for countless evenings I had stroked her feet in my lap while music or some entertainment played.
“Not that one!” I cried. But that only encouraged the imps, and I was treated to a vision of Sadie Mae walking our greyhound, ‘Teo, in the mornings (customarily my duty), with his eloquent brown eyes belying his simple thoughts, to whit: “Little One, where did the Big One go? What will I do without him? He was a soft touch when I wanted a biscuit! Please tell me he’s coming back.”
“They will run out of steam in good time,” I reasoned, and simply lay still, determined to wait them out. But no, Terror and Despair are supernatural beings that gain strength from their own mischief.
“I must sleep eventually, through sheer exhaustion,” I thought. But imagine a maelstrom at sea, in which your bunk sways and pitches wildly, and you are uncertain but that the ship will founder. A maelstrom betwixt the ears is just so, overcoming all weariness.
“Logic!” I cried. Terror and Despair are ground easily under the iron wheels of cool, immovable logic! True so far as it goes; but if we were to trust if/then statements, and statistics regarding my diagnosis, well, logic had it that I should have perished already. Terror and Despair tittered gleefully at my failure.
What remedy was left me?
Like many a soldier, through time, I attempted to pray, to whit:
“Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil; what’s the rest of it? The Lord Is my shepherd, I shall not want…”
Decades of indifference and spiritual neglect worked against me. I imagined Jehovah being startled out of his heavenly rest at 4 o’clock to say “Look who comes knocking! Gabriel, arise! This will amuse you!”
Such was the scolding, loveless Jehovah I imagined.
But perhaps he was the Jehovah of the parables, who welcomed the prodigal son with a fatted calf. Who wept and embraced and kissed the top of a head and said “Stop telling me your sins, I care not. I have awaited you so long. Come, everyone! Look who is here!”
A pastor had stopped by my cell some days before, and left with me a cheaply-bound New Testament, with miniscule type and Jesus’ words in a barely readable pink. In its last pages I found the Concordance, and in the Concordance, “Fear.” I had heard a good many of the scriptures. Psalm 23 (on which I had called imperfectly) bid:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (Ps. 23:4)
The Apostle Paul had written in Romans:
If God be for us, who can be against us? (Rom. 8:31)
Alas, as unpracticed as I was in faith, these old bullets flamed and misfired. I searched for newer ammunition, something I had never heard, which had not become an old chestnut. And there it was:
For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. (2 Tim. 1:7)
This bullet, fired into the air, caught the twin imps’ attention. Rather than shriek and laugh in my skull, they snarled, for I was being a spoilsport.
Imps could wear out a man’s faith as surely as they wore out his body. But the Father of Imps himself had been conquered, had he not? Had not Christ himself showed us how, when Satan so mercilessly tempted him in the desert? “You are starving, turn stone to bread!” “All will believe you at last—just toss yourself from the temple roof and angels will catch you!” “I will give you dominion of the world, to shape as the paradise you wish—if you will but worship me.”
And so I called aloud, in my cell: “Get thee behind me, Satan, thou art an offense to me! For it is written that God did not give us a spirit of fear; He gave us a spirit of power, and of love, and of peace of mind.”
Silence. The imps had been slapped like fresh brats, and were startled.
A second time, a third time, a dozen times, I repeated my prayer. I shot holes in the visions with it, fired it relentlessly, which drowned out the imps. My ammunition was limitless, and I kept firing. A good sister entered to check my fluid drips from the bag atop the Cancer Christmas Tree, and I held out a palm for silence; I must not relent. Her duty done quickly, she exited in silence.
Perhaps it was forty-five minutes, or an hour, when at last I stopped to listen.
No shrieking. No snarling. Nay; the imps had gone.
I lay my head tentatively upon my pillow. For safety, I pulled a watch cap, a gift of Sadie Mae, over my bald head to cover my ears, lest another imp find ingress there. But instead, I passed the night in dreamless silence.
Perhaps I had invited Satan’s imps; goaded them; for I had already welcomed the imp of hubris.
“How can you bear the isolation?” friend J______ had inquired, some days before.
Proudly I declared, “I’m a writer, and a reader. I pity the mountaineer confined like this; but I can have pen and ink, and books, wherever I go.”
True, as far as it goes. But where a vivid imagination is a writer’s strength, it is the cancer-afflicted’s weakness. And so, I now answer that question, “I bore up tolerably well, with one terrifying exception. But I armed myself against it,” and wave The Word like a six gun.