Authors: Jodi Picoult
When I tell Syreta that I want to try to use the bathroom, she raises a brow. “Easy, cowgirl,” she says. “One step at a time.”
So instead I beg for water, and I’m given a damp, spongy swab that’s moved around my mouth. I suck at it greedily, but Syreta takes it away and leaves me thirsty.
If I’m good, she promises, I can have a swallow test tomorrow and my feeding tube might come out.
If I’m good, physical therapy will come in today to assess me.
I resolve to be good.
In the meantime, I just lie on my side and listen to the beep and whir of machines that prove I’m alive.
Even though I’m alone, when I soil my adult diaper, my cheeks burn in humiliation. I scrabble for the call button. The last time I needed to be changed (my
even thinking that embarrasses me) it took forty minutes for Syreta to come. I didn’t ask why she was delayed; it was written all over her face: disappointment, exhaustion, resignation. Sitting in my own mess just doesn’t compare to another patient who’s crashing.
To my relief, this time the door opens almost immediately. But instead of my day nurse, the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen walks into my room. He is young—early twenties—with raven-black hair and eyes so blue they are like looking into the sky. Beneath his mask, his jaw is square; his shoulders are wide, and his biceps strain the sleeves of his scrubs. “Need something?” he says.
I feel like I’m going to swallow my tongue. “I…um. You’re not Syreta.”
“I definitely am not,” he agrees. I can tell he is smiling from the way his eyes crinkle, but I bet beneath that mask and shield he has perfect teeth. “I’m Chris; I’m a certified nursing assistant.”
“Why?” The word springs from my mouth before I can stop it. This man could be a movie star, a model. Why would he choose to be in a Covid ward taking care of contagious people who can’t wipe their own bottoms?
He laughs. “I actually like the work. Or I did, before it became a potential death sentence.” His cheeks darken above his mask with a fierce blush. “I’m sorry,” he says quickly. “I didn’t mean to say that out loud.”
I imagine how, in another time or place, patients might have requested him when they wanted to be moved from the bed, or lifted into a wheelchair.
Suddenly I am blushing as much as he is, because I remember why I pushed the call button.
“So, what can I do for you?” Chris asks.
My voice dries up. I weigh the thought of sitting in this disgusting diaper against the mortification of telling him why I needed help.
Apparently, he is also psychic, or accustomed to women making idiots of themselves around him. Because he just nods briskly, as if we’ve had an entire conversation, and efficiently moves to the supply cabinet to extract a fresh diaper. He gently pulls down the bedding, rips the elasticized side panels of the diaper, and swiftly cleans me before getting me sterile and swaddled again. The whole time, I keep my eyes closed, as if I could will away this entire experience.
I hear the swish of debris in a trash can and water being run and the snap of new elastic gloves. “All set,” Chris says lightly. “Anything else?”
Before I can answer, another person comes into the room. I haven’t seen two human beings in the same space with me since I was extubated, and Finn was there. This is a tiny woman who is swathed in PPE, like everyone else. “Stop hogging the patient,” she says. “It’s my turn.”
Chris winks at me. “See you later,” he says.
The woman watches him leave. “Hot CNA,” she muses, “is sex on legs.”
“His name is Chris,” I reply.
She raises a brow. “Oh, I know.” She walks toward the bed. “I’m Prisha. I’m a physical therapist.”
“Nice to meet you,” I say.
“We’ve met, kind of. When you were sedated, I moved your limbs around so your joints and muscles would stay healthy.” She shrugs. “You’re welcome.”
“I want to go to the bathroom,” I tell her. “I mean, not now. But when I have to.”
She nods. “That’s a great goal. But you’ve been on a vent for five days, so we have to see how you’re moving, and how you’ll respond to being upright, first.” Prisha draws one of my arms over my head, encouraging me to take a breath. Then she does this with the other arm. I can feel my rib cage expanding. She gives me a few breathing exercises to try, and I do, until I cough. “We can try to get out of bed, but to do that, we’re going to need a second set of hands and a blood pressure cuff,” Prisha says.
“Please,” I beg. “The bathroom?”
She narrows her eyes, as if assessing me. Then she calls in Chris, the CNA, again. Prisha helps me roll and lowers my legs off the bed. With Chris’s help, she gets me to a sitting position. Prisha slides an arm around me, and at the embrace, I almost gasp. Everyone else—even Finn, that first night—is tentative about coming close to me, as if my skin itself is contaminated. To have someone touch me, so willingly and without fear, nearly brings me to tears.
Everything hurts as I move it, but I am driven. I do not want Chris wiping my ass again.
“Why,” I grind out, “is this so hard?”
“You’re lucky,” Chris says, from my other side. “The other post-vent Covid patients—and there aren’t many—have a lot of complications. Renal failure, heart failure, encephalopathy, pressure ulcers…”
Prisha interrupts him just as I’m starting to get panicked hearing about complications I haven’t even anticipated. “Okay,” she says. “Let’s try sitting up on your own for a few seconds.”
I’m not an invalid; it’s only been a few days. “I just need help standing. I haven’t been in the hospital that long—”
“Humor me,” Prisha says, and she removes her arm so that I have to support myself upright.
For about fifteen seconds, I do.
Then everything swims. Around me, inside me. Being vertical feels like hurtling through space. I see stars, start to tip forward, and Chris’s strong arms catch me and gently lower me back onto the bed.
Prisha looks down at me. “You’ve been effectively paralyzed for nearly a week. When you sit up, all the blood rushes down from your head because the muscles around the blood vessels have been on hiatus and need to remember how gravity works. Baby steps, Diana. You almost died. Cut your body a break.”
I feel exhausted, like I have run a mile. I think about how, on Isabela, I would swim or run or snorkel for hours without getting tired.
But then again, that was fake.
Prisha tugs the blanket up around me. “I’ve got patients who can’t even manage five seconds,” she says, patting my shoulder. “Fifteen seconds today. Tomorrow’s going to be better.”
When Prisha and Chris leave, I watch them through the plate-glass window, stripping off their PPE and stuffing it into special bins for Covid-exposed gear.
The sound of my own failure pounds like a headache. I reach for the smooth plastic tail of the TV remote, fishing it closer. It slips out of my hand twice before I manage to drag it onto my belly and turn the TV on.
The channel is CNN. “At least 215 million Americans are under shelter-in-place orders,” the anchor says. “At this point, the United States has surpassed China and Italy for most known cases worldwide, with over 85,000 cases and 1,300 deaths.”
My mother being one of them.
“One of the hardest hit locations is the New York City area. A hospital official in Queens said that they have only three remaining ventilators, and that if this continues into April, patient care may have to be rationed. Bodies are being stored in freezer trucks—”
I smack at the remote until I hit the button that turns the TV, blessedly, off.
Twice, I see a ghost.
She comes into my room so quietly that at first I am not sure what wakes me. She moves in the shadows and is gone soundlessly before I can even blink her into focus.
So the third time I am waiting. She is a dark blur of activity at the edges of the room, and I turn toward the disturbance and narrow my eyes. An older woman with dark hair and darker skin, who is holding her own shadow in one fist.
“Hello,” I whisper, and she turns. She looks startled.
“Are you real?” I ask.
Like everyone else, she is masked and gloved and gowned. She points to the trash can. I realize, then, that what she holds is just a black plastic bag. That she is an essential worker who’s come to clean the room.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
She says, haltingly, “No English.”
I tap my chest. “Diana,” I say, then point to her.
“Cosima,” she replies, and she bobs her head.
It strikes me that nobody willingly connects with either of us. Cosima, because she is beneath the notice of the medical staff; me, because I’m a walking potential death sentence.
“I don’t know what’s real anymore, and what’s not,” I confess to Cosima, as she wipes down the faucets and the sink basin.
“I’ve lost time,” I tell her. “And people. And maybe my mind.”
She pulls the bag out of my garbage can and knots its neck. She nods and takes away my trash.
There aren’t clocks in hospital rooms, and your sleep keeps getting disturbed, and the lights never really go out fully, so it’s hard to get a sense of time passing. Sometimes I am not sure if hours have gone by, or days.
Instead, I begin to count the spaces between the fits of coughing that leave me spent and exhausted. My lungs may have rallied enough to take me off a ventilator but they aren’t anywhere near being healthy. When I start coughing, I can’t stop; when I can’t stop, I gasp for air; when I’m gasping, the edges of my vision turn dark and starry.
It’s exactly what it felt like when I thought I was drowning.
When it happens again, I press the call button, and Chris the Hot Nursing Assistant comes in. He sees me struggling to breathe and adjusts the bed so I am sitting up. He takes a suction tube, like the kind from the dentist, and slips it into my mouth. What comes out makes me think of hoarfrost, little crystal shards, that I’ve coughed out of my chest. No wonder I can’t breathe, if this is what’s inside me.
“Okay,” Chris soothes. “Now, try to even out those breaths.”
I cough again, my ribs seizing and my eyes watering.
“In…and out. In…out,” he says. He grasps my hand firmly and looks into my eyes. I don’t blink. I hold on to his gaze like a lifeline.
My gasps level out. Chris squeezes my fingers, an acknowledgment. But I still can’t keep that tickle from my throat, that urge to cough, from taking over. “Just match me,” he instructs, exaggerating his breathing so that I can follow along.
It takes a few moments, but eventually, I am doing my best to breathe along with him.
A few more moments, and I find my voice again. Now that I am breathing, he will leave. And I don’t want to be alone again. “Are you single?”
“Are you asking?” He laughs.
I shake my head. “I have a boyfriend. But one day, you’re going to make someone an incredible partner.”
He smiles, clasping his other hand over our joined ones. Just then, the door opens, and as if I’ve conjured him, Finn enters in his PPE.
“Since you just lit up like a Christmas tree,” Chris says, “I’m guessing this is the boyfriend.”
“Dr. Colson,” Finn corrects, narrowing his eyes.
Chagrined, Chris drops my hand. “Of course,” he says, and he glances at me. “Just breathe,” he reminds me, winks, and slips out of my room.
Finn sits down in the chair Chris has vacated. “Should I be jealous?” he asks me.
I roll my eyes. “Yes, because the first thing I’m thinking about after almost dying is cheating on you.”
The sentence hasn’t even left my mouth before I feel a furious blush on my cheeks.
With the exception of how Finn and I met, I haven’t really had a chance to see him in his professional mode. It’s impressive to see him cut a swath through the hospital, but the way he just used his title to bully Chris makes me cringe a little…even though I should probably be flattered by the fact that he was possessive.
What he said or did, though, pales by comparison to the fact that he’s
. He’s in my room; he’s not on the other side of the glass; I’m not alone. It makes me giddy. “Where have you been?”
“Earning our rent,” he says. “But I missed you.”
I reach out my hand to touch him. Just because I can. “I missed you, too.”
I want him to take off his mask; I want to see his whole face as if everything between us is normal. But I also know that he’s already taking a risk being in this room with me, even trussed up in all that gear.
It strikes me that Covid isn’t the only thing that can take your breath away.
I remember the first time I saw Finn in a suit instead of scrubs—on an official date, waiting for me at a table at an Italian place in the Village. When I came in, late because of subway delays, he stood up and the room narrowed to the size of just us. I had to actively remember to draw in air.
A week later, in the middle of a heated kiss, his fingers found the strip of skin between my sweater and my jeans. It was like being branded, and all the breath rushed out of me in a sigh.
Months into our relationship as I reached for him in the dark, I remember thinking how lovely it was to have a body you knew as well as your own. How he gasped when I touched him the way he liked; how
gasped at the miracle of knowing exactly what that was.
Suddenly I realize how lucky I’ve been to have had Finn with me when I got sick. If he hadn’t realized that I passed out from a lack of oxygen; if he hadn’t gotten me to the hospital—well, I might not be sitting here now. “Thank you,” I say, my voice thick. “For saving me.”
He shakes his head. “You did that yourself.”
“I don’t remember any of it,” I tell him. “I don’t even remember being in the hospital before going on the vent.”
“That’s normal,” Finn says. “And that’s what I’m here for.” The corners of his eyes crinkle, and I think that of all the horrible things about the masks everyone has to wear, this must be the worst: it is so hard to tell when someone is smiling at us. “I’ll be your memory,” he promises.
A part of me wonders how his recollection could be any less faulty than mine. For one thing, he wasn’t here the whole time. And, in my mind, neither was I.