Checking a chart in the hallway, before I go in a room, I like to imagine what the patient will look like. What shade of death will this one be? On a chart is the patient’s age, weight, race, and medical history. I usually end up picturing some aged face that looks more or less like my parents did before they passed away. And they do: shriveled-up, big-eared globs of loose, veiny skin held together with tubes and machines and wasting away in a hospital gown. It’s sad, too, that we struggle to be unique our entire lives, with clothes and hair and makeup and muscles, only to shrink into identical balls of dying clay.
That’s what Mr. Thompson looked like when I met him this morning: a dying old man. He arrived during the night. His chart was the same depressing story that’s on the back of every other door: Renal Failure. Stroke Victim. Heart Disease. Being blind from birth seemed like a joke lumped in with such heavy afflictions.
I always check the chart, though, before I go in. They are sent up to my office when the patient arrives and I make sure to read them thoroughly, but I see so many patients that I need little refreshers before a visit. It can give me something to ask them about – How’s the leg pain? – or something to not talk about, as you wouldn’t want to mention smoking to a person dying of lung cancer. In fact, it’s best to avoid specific topics altogether and keep the conversations as general as possible. How are you feeling? What was for breakfast? Nice day out, isn’t it?
And even though I keep it stupid simple, I have a lot of respect for the patient’s efforts. God only knows how they manage to even keep their eyes open battling constant pain, mind-numbing medication, and looming death.
But for me, my job is like channel surfing: each room, each patient is another channel to sift through until I’ve checked them all. Because the visits are one right after the other, they seem connected - like a singular narrative that runs through all the patients: Mrs. Neely’s complaints about how cold her room was during the night lead into Mr. Phelps noticing how warm it looks outside and prompts Mrs. Sanderson to want to go for a walk in that nice warm weather, despite the fact that she can’t make it the four steps to the toilet and is, like almost every other patient, bed-ridden.
But it’s important. Or, it helps some: a daily hello. The families come too often or not enough. The patients like my regularity. It’s something to look forward to. People are here to die and I never forget that – it’s the unspoken force that hangs over everything that goes on here – but the ones who are lucid enough to care are desperate not to die alone. So I like to be there, if I can.
Most stay for a few weeks or a few months and then pass on. I don’t get very attached, with a few exceptions, especially a sweet old lady named Maggie, who far-outlived her prognosis and became a fixture in my daily rounds for over a year. But, for the most part, the patients come and then go and others take their place and the play continues with new actors on the stage. Rhonnie, our buxom, larger-than-life head nurse, likes to say, “We got job security those delivery nurses ain’t got, honey. No guarantee babies gonna keep coming, but you best believe people gonna be dying.”
When I entered Mr. Thompson’s room, he was on the bed, propped into a seated position, palms flat on either side of him. Though his head was drooped down, his face was stuck in an intense mode of thinking: a furrowed brow below tufts of sparse white hair. He didn’t startle when I entered the room, unlike the others. In fact, he didn’t react at all. He just sat there without movement, staring into his lap.
I walked across the room to the windows and pulled up the blinds and sunlight invaded the room. It was a hot day out: a breezeless June scorcher. I dragged a folding chair from against the wall and set it up next to the bed. The metal legs of the chair screeched against the tiled floor. At this noise, his head swung in my direction, but rested at too high an angle, like he was looking at something behind me or out the window. His big, grey eyes shimmered in glossy repose and I realized I had forgotten that he was blind. I sat down in the chair.
“Hello, Mr. Thompson. My name is Peter and I’m the resident psychiatrist here at the hospital.”
His face was unmoved and I could do nothing but stare back at those useless grey eyes that I knew couldn’t see me.
“I heard that you came in last night, so, I figured I’d come down and say hello and see how you’re doing.”
Nothing. I waited a few seconds.
“Well, if you’d prefer to be left alone, that’s perfectly alright with me. I can always come back another time.”
I waited again, waited for any sign of life, when suddenly his left arm lifted and extended towards me. In a deep, coarse voice, he said:
I looked down at the chart that was now in my lap: Harold Archibald Thompson. When the patient knows his name, it’s a good start. It’s a baseline of lucidity that means the person isn’t unreachable, not stuck in some unforgiving memory box that precludes participation in reality. It’s not a waste of my time.
I shook his hand. His skin was soft and wrinkly and familiar.
“Well…Harry. It’s nice to meet you.”
He nodded slowly.
“Are you originally from around here?”
“Somewhere else, then?”
“Oh, I’m not quite sure where that is.”
He waited. And then:
“Oh, that’s great.
“Oh, that’s a shame. It’s such a great place.”
His voice was low and strained to produce mumbled whispers.
“So…do you think you’ll—“
His hand suddenly shot up to his face to catch a fit of throaty coughs. I found myself talking too loudly, something that I did unconsciously from dealing with so many patients who are hard of hearing, to compensate for lowness of his voice.
“You okay, Mr. Thompson?”
Once the coughing passed, he lowered his hand and then bent forward to drag it against the bed sheet, leaving a small trail of wetness on the light blue fabric. Then he bent backwards and nestled into the vertically arranged pillows, folding his hands on his lap.
His head continued to face forward. It was distracting; I wanted him to look at me when I spoke.
“So…you must be a die-hard Packers fan, then?”
“Oh, well then, you shouldn’t feel too bad about being stuck in Bears country. But, I have to warn you, people take their football pretty seriously around here.”
I forced a laugh but it came out too high-pitched. He continued facing forward, not laughing.
“Well, anyways, I think you’ll like it here, Mr. Thompson. The nurses here are just the best.”
He finally turned his head toward me.
“The nurses. Any lookers?”
His mouth widened into a smile. His teeth were long and mostly brown. I wanted to ask him what difference it made to him what the nurses looked like.
“Well…they’re all nice, friendly ladies, so yeah, I’d like to think they’re all cute in their own way.”
His face relaxed.
“But, I can guarantee they’ll take care of whatever you need. They really are a great bunch of gals.”
There was more silence. Then he said:
“How bout a smoke?”
“Well...obviously there’s no smoking in the hospital. But, if you’d like to go outside, I’m sure we can set something up for you.”
Lots of patients ask to smoke. Where he would get the cigarettes or the lighter…I don’t know. It’s just a hollow promise the staff keeps repeating until the patient lets it go, forgets, or dies.
His face contorted into a grumpy pout. He knew as well as I knew that he would never smoke a cigarette again.
“So, like I said, my name’s Peter and I’ll be coming around everyday to check up on you. And remember, I’m not a medical doctor, I’m just here to say Hi.”
Randomly, an image of my eventual tombstone popped into my head. Scribbled on the stone was my name, the years I lived, and in small, curvy letters: Was just here to say Hi.
“If there’s anything you might need from me, don’t hesitate to have them come get me. I’m here everyday, just about.”
I saw a glimpse of desperation in his face. He knew I was making my exit. The grey eyes were searching, but vacant.
I stood up.
“So…It’s been great meeting with you, Mr. Thompson. A real pleasure.”
His head drooped back down and he breathed a few short words too low to make out.
“What was that?”
Once more he burst into a fit of coughing. Once it passed, the inaudible words were repeated.
He sat up a bit straighter.
“I said, ‘Can you stay a little longer?”
I stood at the foot of the bed, knowing I had to visit twenty other people just like him today before I could go home to my apartment. I sat back down.
“Sure…Mr. Thompson. No problem.”
He settled back into the pillows.
“Is there anything you want to talk about?”
His neck arched up slightly to think.
“Anything at all.”
He smiled, not the hot nurse smile, but a meaningful, sincere smile. The brown teeth were like thin, lined-up arrowheads.
“Okay, sure…family. Do you have any children?”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Wasn’t for us not trying. Just didn’t happen.”
“You and your wife, you mean?”
His lip jerked slightly and I knew I made a mistake. Rule number one is: Do not upset the patients. Most people who come through the hospital have a dead wife or dead husband. To them, hearing the word “wife” or “husband” is a call to the nameless despair that devours those who lose the ones they love.
His hand raised to his face as if to stifle a cough, but instead rested gently against his chin.
Long seconds passed.
“Yeah. My wife.”
Longer seconds passed.
I felt the momentum of the moment lead to these words in an inescapable rush of emotion. The ether surrounding us popped with meaning: a dying old man talking of his dead wife. But, once said, the moment collapsed and it felt like since the words had already passed between us, the conversation would settle downward towards a comfortable level of truth.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It was years back.”
“About the kids, too.”
“Well…we did try. Even thought of adopting. Picture that: two blind coots trying to raise someone else’s kid.”
I flashed back to Jimmy Blanton. He was a year below me in grammar school, but lived on my block, so we hung out. His parents were both blind. I remember thinking that it made sense, because they had so much in common. Some summer nights I’d stay over at his house and Jimmy and I would sneak around the house while his parents slept and write things on the walls: funny drawings, swear words, or just our names. We thought it was hilarious to wait and see how long it took for someone to tell Jimmy’s parents about our graffiti. He spoke and broke me from my reverie:
“How ‘bout you?”
“I’ve got two kids.”
“Ummmm…I think Nicole is fourteen….so that makes Peter Jr. twelve.”
“Wow, must be a noisy house.”
“I couldn’t tell you. They live with their mother.”
He paused. And perhaps in his way of being polite, ignored what I said.
“Yeah. I bet it’s real noisy.”
I changed the subject.
“So, what did you do for a career?”
“Yeah, what did you do for work?”
“Well…I guess you could say my career was in paint.”
Instantly, I was confused, struggling in my mind to imagine how a blind man could make a living as a painter, how that would even be possible, but, as if he could sense my misinterpretation, the brown teeth came out and he hacked out a few more chuckles.
“Don’t get the wrong idea. It was a paint factory.”
“Yeah, was pretty simple. They sent the paint cans down the belt and I popped a lid on ‘em.”
“Oh…I see. And how long did you do that?”
“Forty-two years. And the damndest thing is that it’s probably all done by machine nowadays.”
“Not really, machines take over all sorts of jobs nowadays, I wouldn’t be surprised if they could build a robot to go around and do your job someday.”
“No, I mean…that’s not what I mean.”
I didn’t know what I meant. It was just strange.
“I don’t know. It’s just…someone canning up paint for forty-two years who can’t even see what color the paint is. It’s strange.”
He looked offended.
“What the hell does that matter?”
“The color of the damn paint. Who cares?!”
“Well, I mean, you worked there for so long sealing up something without even knowing what it looked like.”
“I don’t know if I could do that.”
He looked angry.
“It’s just a job! I never even thought about it!”
Then we both sat there, thinking about it. I checked my watch. I’d been in the room for over fifteen minutes. I would have to cut Mrs. Neely short. I decided to be direct and stood up.
“Well, Mr. Thompson, I have other patients to visit today, so—“
“No! You sit your ass back down.”
“Excuse me? Mr. Thompson, I don’t think you know how—“
“Oh…trust me. I know how things work.”
His coarse voice was raised into a gravelly grind of increased volume.
“You aren’t going anywhere until we’re through. Cuz you got me thinking.”
“They used to call me Blue Hare."
"Hare. Like a rabbit. Hare was short for Harry.”
“Well, whenever I spilled a can of paint, they always told me it was blue. That’s how come I was Blue Hare. I'd spill a can and some guys would shout, 'Blue Hare's struck again!' The other guys would say, ‘Blue Hare, you’re lucky Louise is blind too, so she don’t gotta see how much blue you get on yourself.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well, you’re right. They said it was a crazy coincidence that the random cans I’d spill were always blue and I took their word for it. I never knew what was in them damn cans, so I’m thinking maybe they mighta been lying.”
“About it being blue paint?”
“So…you think it could have been all sorts of colors, but they just told you it was always blue?”
“Why would they do that?”
He considered this.
“I don’t know…cuz they’re assholes!”
I considered this.
“Maybe it was just for fun.”
“That’d be even worse.”
I was still standing over the bed but it felt as if he was talking down to me, as if I was a kid all over again, getting yelled at by my parents for writing “boobs” on the inside of Jimmy Blanton’s front door.
of the Blue Hare stuff, everyone assumed I liked the color blue, even
could have given a rat’s ass about the color blue because I
couldn’t tell one
from the other. But when Louise heard
about the Blue Hare nonsense, she took to thinking everything in the
be blue, even though she couldn’t see it either.
She got blue couches, blue wallpaper, blue
everything. When she passed, I ordered
blue roses. Had to fly
the damn things in from
He stalled, clearly thinking about those blue roses and the stone they had been laid against. Then he said:
"Seems like a waste if they were making up all that blue stuff for fun.”
But, I didn’t see. I didn’t know what he wanted from me.
“What do you want from me?”
He paused to get the right words.
“Well, I’m thinking now that I want to know what blue is.”
“How do you mean?”
“What is blue?”
What is blue? What the hell was I supposed to say to that? I finally sat back down in the folding chair.
“You act like you’re a smart enough guy. I want you to tell me what blue is. So I can know for sure if it was blue paint on me all those years back and all those blue objects weren't a waste.”
Images flashed through my head: the blazing blue
stillness of the
“But…I’m not sure I can do that for you.”
“It seems like a hard thing to do.”
He scrunched his face - an effortless motion wrought from a life full of people and things that held him back and let him down.
“Just try. That’ll be enough.”
I paused. Then tried:
“Well, I don’t know. Okay…I guess it has kind of a darker tone to it. Just straight up blue, that is. There are lots of different shades of blue, you see, from lighter to darker. They all look different but they have something in common: a sort of coolness; a breezy sense that all blues share. Lighter blues are kind of innocent and dreamy. Darker blues are more serious and emotional. Maybe it’s just me…but blue has a feeling to it. It’s like being out in open air, but safe.”
He continued to stare straight ahead, sitting in silence, listening to my words.
“Look, I’m sorry Mr. Thompson, I just don’t know what to say.”
He sat there cycling through what I said and I turned and looked out the window. The rains had stopped and June had been full of long days of burgeoning sunshine. The well-cut grass in front of the hospital ran off in every direction. Extending to the limits of the grounds, the shimmering field of green held the extent of the window’s view from side to side, but was pinned underneath a brilliant, cloudless sky.
Blue! How could I ever describe to this blind old man what blue was? How could I tell him the way blue can get inside you and fill you up with little pockets of air that float you off into daydreams? How could I describe the endless waters of an ocean, stacked with layer upon layer of darkening beams of solid blue? How could I make him feel the fluffy white clouds of heaven that are stuffed inside the never-ending pillow of soft blueness that is the sky? If I thought about it long enough, blue was the color of God and everything worthwhile that he ever created.
After he spoke, I turned back towards the bed and saw that he had reclined it into a laying position. His hands were folded over his chest and his eyes were closed. I felt relieved.
“Okay, Mr. Thompson. I’ll be back tomorrow to look in on you.”
There was silence from the bed and he lay perfectly still. I stood up and quietly folded the chair and placed it back against the wall. I put the chart back in its holder on the door and gently pulled it closed behind me.
I walked down the hallway and up the two flights of stairs to my office. Once inside, I sat in my chair. There was a new chart on my desk: a woman named Gladys who is arriving tomorrow.
I stood back up and walked to the window, which also looked out to the front lawn. Instead of that, I bent my neck upwards and looked at the sky. I felt different. I felt somehow important. I decided that on the way to work tomorrow I would stop at a gas station and pick up a carton of cigarettes. Then, patient by patient, whoever wanted one, I’d make secret deals:
“Don’t worry, I’ll light it for you. I’ll open the window. No one will know. You’re the only one I’d do this for.”