Authors: Jodi Picoult
There are experiences our brains probably forget on purpose, so we don’t have to suffer through them again. But there are experiences our brains remember that serve as some kind of red flag or warning:
Don’t touch that stove. Don’t eat that rotten food.
Don’t leave your boyfriend in the middle of a pandemic
“The last thing I remember is you telling me I should go on vacation without you,” I say quietly.
He closes his eyes for a moment. “Great. That’s the part I was hoping you
” Finn admits. “You were pretty pissed at me for saying that.”
“Uh, yeah. You asked how I could even suggest that, if I really believed things were going to get so bad here.”
In other words, everything I had felt in the Galápagos.
“You said clearly we had very different interpretations of a relationship. You kept talking about
Romeo and Juliet
and how if Romeo had just stayed in Verona, all the rest of the bullshit wouldn’t have happened.” He looks at me, confused. “I had no idea what you were talking about. I’ve never read it.”
Romeo and Juliet
Finn winces. “You said that, too.” He looks at me. “You accused me of caring more about the money we were going to lose on the vacation and less about you. You said if I really loved you, I wouldn’t let you out of my sight when all hell was breaking loose. The truth is, I made a mistake. I spoke without really thinking it through. I was tired, Di. And scared about working here, and taking care of patients who had the virus, and—” His voice breaks, and he bows his head. To my shock, I see that he’s crying.
“Finn?” I whisper.
Those beautiful blue eyes, the color of his scrubs, the color of the sea in a country I never flew to, meet mine. “And I’m probably the one who brought it home to you,” he forces out. “I’m the reason you got sick.”
“No,” I say. “That’s not true—”
“It is. We don’t know a lot, but it’s pretty clear some people are carriers and they never show symptoms. I work in a
.” He spits out that last word, and I realize he is nearly bowed over with the guilt he’s been carrying. “I almost killed you,” Finn whispers.
“You don’t know that,” I say, squeezing his hand. “I could have caught this at work or on the subway—”
He shakes his head, still steeped in remorse. “I was so tired that night that I didn’t want to fight anymore. I didn’t try to stop you when you went to bed early, and you were already asleep when I turned in for the night. When you woke up in the middle of the night to get some Tylenol I heard you and I pretended to be asleep, because I was afraid to pick up where we left off. And then the next morning, when I wanted to apologize, I could barely wake you up.” He turns away, wiping his eyes with the shoulder of his scrubs.
Other things that leave you breathless: love so big that it tumbles you like a wave.
“I almost lost you. If I ever needed a lesson that saying goodbye isn’t something you do casually, I sure as hell got one.” Finn brings my hand to his cheek, laying my palm along it, leaning into my touch. “I will never ask you to go anywhere without me again,” he says softly. “If you swear to me you’ll never leave.”
I close my eyes and see two blue-footed boobies, bobbing and weaving in an ancient dance, then snapping at each other’s beaks.
They’re going to kill each other.
Actually, they’re going to mate.
My eyes fly open, my gaze fixes on Finn. “I promise,” I say.
The intensivist comes to see me. His name is Dr. Sturgis, and Finn doesn’t know him very well; he only started in the ICU at New York–Presbyterian at Christmas. He runs down my list of medications; he says my oxygen levels are improving. He asks me if I have any questions.
I am careful not to talk to Betty or Syreta about my memories of the Galápagos, because the response always involves Xanax or Ativan, and I don’t want any more pharmacological interference in my mind. But contrary to what they’ve said in passing about how the hallucinations patients have on ventilators fade away, mine have not. If anything, they’ve been honed sharper and more brilliant, because I revisit them when I am alone in my room for hours on end.
“The…dreams,” I say to the intensivist. “The ones I had while I was on the ventilator. They aren’t like any other dreams I’ve ever had.” I force myself to continue; this is a physician, he can’t dismiss my concerns as foolish. “I’m having a hard time believing they’re not real.”
He nods, as if he’s heard this before. “You’re worried about your mental state.”
“Yes,” I admit.
“Well. I can tell you there’s a physical explanation for anything that doesn’t make sense. When you’re not oxygenating right, your mental status changes. You have trouble interpreting what’s actually happening to you. Add to that pain meds and very deep sedation—it’s a recipe for all kinds of delirium. There are even some scientists who think that the pineal gland, under stress, produces DMT—”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“It’s the main ingredient in ayahuasca,” Dr. Sturgis says, “which is a psychedelic drug. But that’s still just a theory. The truth is, we don’t really know what happens when we medically sedate someone, and how your mind syncs your reality with your unconscious. For example, at some point, you were likely restrained—most of the Covid patients on vents try to rip out their IVs otherwise. Your brain, in its drugged state, tried to make sense of the insensible, and maybe you hallucinated a scenario in which you were tied down.”
What I hallucinated wasn’t confinement, but freedom. Now that I’m constrained again it chafes. I want to wander to Sierra Negra. I can still smell the sulfur. I can feel Gabriel’s hand on my bare skin.
“Neurons fire and rewire during a near-death experience,” the doctor says. “But I can promise you, it was just a dream. A particularly three-dimensional one, but still a dream.” He looks down at my chart. “Now, your nurse says you’re having trouble sleeping?”
I wonder why everyone’s answer involves more medication. This will be Tylenol PM or zolpidem or something that will knock me out. But that’s not what I want. It’s not that I can’t sleep; it’s that I don’t
“Is it because you’re worried about having more hallucinations?” Dr. Sturgis asks.
After a moment, I nod. I can’t admit the truth: I’m not afraid of revisiting that other world.
I’m afraid that if I return there, I won’t want to come back.
I am moved to a step-down unit that isn’t the ICU, which means I no longer have Syreta or Betty or the Hot CNA taking care of me. Instead, I am now in the ward I was in when I was first brought to the hospital, the one I don’t remember. The nurses here are flat out, with more patients to attend to. It is impossible for Finn to sneak in to visit me here, because he’s stationed in the Covid ICU and he’s not allowed elsewhere due to safety protocols.
If anything, I feel even more isolated.
There are a
of codes on this floor.
I realize that the vast majority of patients who move from this space to the ICU do not return. That I am the anomaly.
When a speech therapist comes in to see me, I am so grateful to interact with someone that I don’t want to tell her I can already talk—even if it’s raspy. Sara reads my mind, though, and says, “Speech therapy isn’t just about talking. You’re getting a swallow test. We’ll try different consistencies of food to make sure you don’t aspirate. If you pass, you get to have your NG tube removed.”
“You had me at
” I answer.
By now, I can sit up for nearly a half hour without getting dizzy, which is what makes me eligible for this swallow test. I dutifully sit with my legs swung over the side of the bed. Sara scoops some ice chips onto a spoon and places them on my tongue. “All you have to do,” she says, “is swallow.”
It’s hard to do on command, but it almost doesn’t matter, because the ice melts in the heat of my mouth and drips blissfully down, quenching my raw throat. As I do it, Sara holds a stethoscope up to my throat and listens. “Can I have more?” I ask.
“Patience, young grasshopper,” Sara says, and I give her a blank look. “You millennials,” she sighs, and she holds a cup with a straw to my lips. I suck up a mouthful of water, which is just as satisfying.
By the time we move on to applesauce, I am in heaven. When Sara moves to take the little dish from me I curl around it, hoarding, and hurriedly scoop another spoonful into my mouth.
I graduate to a graham cracker, which requires chewing—muscles that my jaw has to actively remember how to use. Sara watches my throat work. “Good job,” she says.
I wait until I am sure no crumbs remain. “It’s so weird,” I muse. “To have forgotten how to eat.”
She resettles the oxygen cannula into my nostrils as I lean back in bed again. “You’ll have plenty more practice. I’m going to give the green light for the feeding tube to be removed. Tomorrow, you get to eat a whole meal while I watch.”
A half hour later, a nurse I haven’t seen before comes in to remove the nasogastric tube. “I cannot tell you,” he says as he works quickly and efficiently, “how glad I am to see you again.”
I try to read the name on the badge clipped onto his lanyard. “Zach?” I ask. “Did you take care of me before?”
He holds a hand to his heart. “You don’t remember me. I’m crushed.” My eyes fly to his, but they’re dancing. “I’m
. But clearly, I’m going to have to up my game.”
I rub the bridge of my nose, itchy without the tape adhering the feeding tube. “I don’t…I don’t remember being in this ward.”
“Totally normal,” Zach assures me. “Your O-two levels were so low you kept passing out. I’d be surprised if you
I watch him briskly wash his hands in the sink and towel-dry before snapping on a new pair of gloves. He seems competent and kind, and he holds a part of my history I may never recover. “Zach?” I ask quietly. “Would it be a surprise if I remembered things…that didn’t happen?”
His eyes soften. “Hallucinations aren’t uncommon for people who are sick enough to be in an ICU,” he says. “From what I’ve heard, Covid patients are even more likely to have them, between the lack of oxygen and the deep sedation and the isolation.”
“What you’ve heard,” I repeat. “What else have you heard?”
He hesitates. “I’ll be honest, you’re only the second patient I’ve had who has gone to the ICU and survived to talk about it. But the other one was a man who was absolutely convinced that the roof of the hospital opened up like the Superdome, and twice a day light would shoot out of it, and one lucky person would be chosen to be lowered from a crane into that beam of light and get instantly healthy.”
I probe the corners of my mind for hallucinations that are hospital-based, like this, but cannot find any.
“I was in the Galápagos,” I say softly. “I lived on the beach and made friends with local residents and swam with sea lions and picked fruit right off the trees.”
“That sounds like an awesome dream.”
“It was,” I say. “But it wasn’t like a dream. Not like anything I’ve ever dreamed when I’m asleep anyway. This was so detailed and so real that if you put me on the island, I bet I could find my way around.” I hesitate. “I can see the people I met like they’re standing in front of me.”
I watch something change in his eyes, as he puts on his professional regard. “Are you still seeing them now?” Zach asks evenly.
“You don’t believe it was real,” I say, disappointed.
believe it was real,” he says, which isn’t an answer at all.
Although I am still testing Covid-positive—which Finn assures me is normal—he lobbies to get me out of the step-down Covid ward as fast as possible, because if you’re in the hospital long enough you wind up getting sick with something else—a UTI, hospital-acquired pneumonia,
I feel ridiculous being in a rehabilitation unit when I’m not even thirty, but I also realize that there’s no way I’m ready to go home yet. I still haven’t managed to do more than sit upright in a chair, and even that took Prisha and a Hoyer lift for the transfer. I can’t get myself to the bathroom.
To qualify for rehab, you have to be able to tolerate three hours of therapy a day. Some of it is physical therapy, some occupational, and for those who need it, speech therapy. The silver lining is that I will see people again. The therapists are completely covered in PPE to keep them safe, but at least three times a day I will have company.
And the more time I spend with people, the less time I spend replaying my memories of Isabela.
I am moved into a small room with a private bathroom, and I haven’t been there for more than a half hour when the door opens and a tiny hurricane with red hair and snapping blue eyes blusters in. “I’m Maggie,” she announces. “I’m your physical therapist.”
“What happened to Prisha?” I ask.
“She doesn’t leave the hospital; I don’t leave the rehab unit. It’s theoretically a single building, but it is like there’s a special force field between us.” She grins; there is a sweet gap between her front teeth. “Big Star Wars fan here. You watch
“The guy’s hotter with his helmet on,” she says. She has approached the bed and already has stripped back the covers; her hands are firm and strong on my feet as she rotates my ankles. “My kids got me into that show. I have three. One came back home from college because of Covid. I can’t believe it. He’s a freshman; I thought I’d just gotten rid of him.” She says this with another smile as she moves to my arms, pulling them over my head. “You got kids?”
I nod. “My boyfriend is a surgeon at the hospital.”
She raises her eyebrows. “Ooh, better be on my best behavior,” she says, and then she laughs. “I’m just kidding. I’m gonna put you through the paces like I do everyone else.”
As she moves my limbs as if I’m a rag doll (which, to be fair, I might as well be), I learn that she lives on Staten Island with her husband, who is a policeman in Manhattan, plus her displaced college student, as well as a seventh grader who wanted to be a nun last week but has, as of Tuesday, decided to convert to Buddhism, and a ten-year-old boy who will grow up to be either the next Elon Musk or the Unabomber. Maggie says she’s already had Covid, which she’s pretty sure she contracted while volunteering to sew costumes for her son’s elementary school play, which is about a
afraid to tell its parents it is vegan, which is what you get when you take your retirement fund and apply it instead to a private school for the gifted and talented. She talks about her apartment building, and the constantly rotating stream of morons who live just below them. One started feeding a skunk on the fire escape. After he was evicted, a woman moved in who slipped a note under their door, asking if they’d have objections to her putting in a skylight in her ceiling—which, of course, was Maggie’s floor. She keeps me so busy laughing that I do not realize I’ve maxed out my physical capacity until every muscle in my body is screaming.