There is a sort of romanticized myth that everyone is tragically tense, alert and faithfully on the verge of tears when waiting for the recovery and healing of, answers and resolutions for a beloved struggling in the Intensive Care Unit. Reality is that life is far more like Neapolitan ice cream. Multiple flavors in one box….nay, in one scoop….and even if you wanted to, you can never get just the chocolate. There’s always a bit of strawberry in there somewhere, infecting the purity of the chocolate. Such is the nature of the world! All is mixed together and comedy and tragedy dance their respective choreography upon the stage simultaneously. Side by side.
Such was the nature of my world as I sat in the ICU waiting room. My family and friends had departed and the room had been blissfully abandoned save for myself and one other young woman in her mid twenties who had been hounded by her family most of the day. We guarded one another’s precious solitude by brief eye contact and knowing smiles but no conversation. Our mutual respite from chaos was jolted by the addition of three women who were sort of poured into the room together by a police officer. All loud. All upset. All…. Well…. Colorful.
The mother and older of two daughters were blonde. Very blonde. Smelling of cigarette smoke (an aroma readily detectible by one who was in the ICU for her mother with COPD) the two blonde women spoke in raspy, tired voices that sounded as though they had been rode hard and put up wet a few too many times. Immediately, the blonde daughter determined that coffee from the machine in the corner of the room was most vital to the continuation of life and began her best attempt at interpreting the ever so cryptic picture instructions designed so that an illiterate person who does not even speak the language can discern how to make a cup. These well crafted images apparently had not, however, taken into account other types of impairment. Giving up on her ability to lean over to see what to do for fear that she would topple over, she finally just dropped to her knees in front of the machine to see the pictures more clearly and make herself a cup of espresso.
“Espresso,” she said, her voice just traced with whiskey. “That is coffee, right?” She was wearing what could only be described as a type of eveningwear. A spaghetti strap, ankle length number with wide black and grey stripes arranged in such a way as to form repetitive Vs down the dress’ front and back. This double knit polyester garment was completed with a slightly too high split up the side and a too deep v neckline. Certainly, it had been a very glamorous purchase from K-Mart around 1982.
I once presided at a wedding where the mother of the bride wore an almost identical dress. She had come to the wedding straight from her job as a stripper. She was what my mama used to call a “poll dancer”. Not to worry, though, she had changed out of her work clothes and into her best dress! A dead ringer for this one.
The blond daughter managed to get to her feet without spilling out of her dress or making a face plant on the floor, which was a near miracle, and actually did accomplish getting some espresso into a Styrofoam cup. Along with about six packets of Splenda. “Well, yeah, that is coffee” the mother responded. “But you gonna get wound up with that!” The bleached and too tan mother was gruff and grumpy but her words had a softened slurryness lent to them by alcohol.
This was the point at which the other daughter drew my attention. She wore a blue work jumpsuit, the kind people wear in a wear house, and a bright blue bandanna on her head like an old fashioned cleaning lady. You could see the very tips of black hair poking like spikes out the back at the tails. She was shouting into her cellphone at her girlfriend about abandoning her in a time of need. She stormed out of the waiting room and continued her dramatic lover’s quarrel in the hallway. The mother and blonde daughter dissolved into giggles at the daughter in blue. “She’s been a bitch ever since she turned gay,” the mother slurred. “I really need a cigarette. Wonder where the smoking patio is?”
The blonde daughter began to dump everything out of her purse looking for nicotine and, finding none, began to devise a plan to get cigarettes from her sister. “She ain’t gonna give you no more! You always bumming cigs off her!” the mom said. “You just wait! I got her number!” her daughter giggled, evidently finding herself to be hilarious.
Throughout all of this, there was no mention at all as to what had motivated their abrupt presence in the ICU waiting room. No conversation about ‘grandma’ or an accident or even a disembodied pronoun. No un-named ‘him’ or ‘her’ barricaded within the rooms across the hall to give a clue as to what brought them here. I wanted to be polite and ignore them but, as my mama used to say, when people are acting like that, they want you to look at them so why not oblige?
The blue daughter came back in, obviously still upset and her sister came over immediately to console her. After a bit of ‘aww’-ing and a few “no way!”s and even one “that little bitch!”, the blonde sister insisted that what would make her feel better was a good smoke. The blue sister played right into her hands and they got up to leave just as the cop came back to get them. “Come on,” he said in a far more patient tone than I would have expected from his expression. The blond daughter leaned over to pick up her purse, stepped on her dress and nearly fell over. The blue daughter was swearing as she answered a text message. The mom pretended to scold them both and then did her very best to stand up straight and not sway as she followed the officer, carefully placing each foot in front of the other as though the floor might be too soft or moving just a bit too much.
Just as the door shut behind them the two sisters began to bicker about how many packs of cigarettes one had given the other over the past few years and their voices were finally shut out by the second set of double doors going into ICU. I looked sideways at my twenty-something friend and we both laughed out loud for just a minute.
A brief moment of entertainment. A respite. “How is your mom?” I asked her. “Better,” she said, “and yours?”
Now, it is three days later and I’m in another ICU waiting room. This one is smaller. I am alone. My mother has died. They are preparing her body now; disconnecting the machines and monitors, closing her mouth, straightening out her legs and arms from her curled position, smoothing the sheets. The path before me looks simultaneously truncated and endless. I look at the elaborate coffee maker in the corner and all the simple pictures start to meld together in some kind of crazy nonsense. Sad and anger and tired and relief also meld together. I do my very best to stand up straight and not sway as I follow the nurse back to the room, carefully placing each foot in front of the other as though the floor might be too soft or moving just a bit too much.
In the end, when Neapolitan ice-cream melts, it’s really nothing but yuck.