Sister’s Keeper, iv (Longest Day)

As I write, it’s Friday, June 21, the first day of summer and longest day of the year. In the short time Amanda has been in the hospital, we’ve come to appreciate the length of a day.

Amanda developed a way to communicate beyond improvised sign language. If we can’t understand her speech, she texts. This morning she wrote a letter to her doctor on the iPad detailing the reasons she shouldn’t be discharged yet. I helped her fingers find “f” and “j” and she typed it with her eyes closed since opening them was painful. The letter was longer and more persuasive than most freshman comp essays, probably because she’s so invested in her argument. When recovering from bilateral joint replacement, managing pain is what’s at stake.

On the other side of the argument, I’d love to go home. My lower back aches from sitting, my neck is stiff from sleeping on the vinyl couch-bed, and I’m desperate for sunlight. The doctor will make the discharge decision this afternoon. While I yearn for my own bed, I get my sister’s concerns: at home we don’t have the convenience of IV drugs. Pain is the realest thing in the room right now.

The night-shift nurse showed me how to grind up pills, dissolve them in juice, and shoot the cocktail toward the back of her mouth with a syringe. The responsibility of care-giving is becoming scarily real. In the hospital I’ve been practicing presence, which is not nothing. But at home the actual work begins.

***

Due to swelling, the gauze wrapped around her face and head has become very tight. Two days ago, she looked like a wounded Yankee soldier, but now she looks like a round-faced nun with ample, rosy cheeks bulging out from a wimple. Although this is a Catholic hospital, I haven’t noticed any nuns; my sister is the only one back in the habit.

Sister Mary Amanda of the Order of Perpetual Inflammation has shown a remarkable ability to laugh at herself as a patient, but this swelling is no joke — her throat is constricted. She’s trying to stay hydrated after surgery, but she can’t swallow more than a tiny hummingbird-sip of liquid. Both of us are frustrated and anxious.

When the doctor finally removes the wrapping, Amanda is visibly relieved. The swollen tissue has someplace to go. The incisions in front of her ears and in the crease of her neck are now visible, the stitches dark like spider legs. I’m astonishingly cool: no puking, no fainting, no problem.

***

Awaiting the doctor’s discharge decision I head down to the chapel, which is bright and empty. I love the shiny tiled floor and mid-century coldness. Even the crucifix looks pale and drained, adding to the sterile atmosphere.

I walk along the Stations of the Cross, admiring the mosaics and eventually realizing the story is moving backward. Apparently the Stations start at the other end, silly Protestant.

In a way, we are moving in reverse. Having had the surgery to alleviate pain, Amanda will endure several weeks of worse pain before reaching the other side. Sometimes the way of suffering is one step forward, two steps back. Often, the only way out is through.

Late in the day, Amanda indeed gets her discharge papers – just in time for us to join rush hour traffic. It’s raining, and the stop and go of the clogged highway does not agree with my patient. I speed across the Musial Bridge, impatient for Illinois, exhaling when we reach the east side.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” I’ve said before, trying to keep worry at bay. Well, we’ve crossed the bridge, and we’re nearly there. Let the real work begin.

Jesus feetNote: This is Part 4 of a series. If you missed the beginning, start with Part 1.