Carole tried to hoist herself higher, but encountered searing pain and gave up. She pushed the button to raise the head of the bed instead, still feeling she was in the wrong position. Where was her grabber? She located it under the blanket and awkwardly used it to pull the little table over the bed. On this were graham crackers, her book, the telephone, tissues and the hospital menu. It was ten AM and she’d been dozing, which wasn’t unusual after a night of nurses and aides waking one up almost every hour. Or possibly she was still dreaming - that or hallucinating, since wasn’t that Kyle across the room, talking intimately with her roommate Joan? What the hell?
“Kyle?” she called, but he didn’t hear or pretended not to.
He was leaning forward in his chair and (she knew him so well) exhibiting that disdainful but emotional demeanor that used to be labeled “emo.” Now thirty, he was too old for such nonsense. No wonder Mira spent eighty percent of her time exasperated with him.
Joan was in for a lower back operation - she could rattle off the letters and numbers of the vertebrae involved, but that meant little to Carole. During the night, the poor woman groaned with pain, nerves running down her legs torturing her, and an aide would arrive to change her position. Carole, who had to pee every two hours, took advantage of the aides’ visits to use the toilet, since neither she nor Joan were permitted to do so without help.
Joan seemed actually interested in what Kyle was saying. “Hey,” Carole called out. “What are you doing over there, Kyle?”
He gave his mother-in-law a defiant look. “Just talking,” he said. “Something wrong with that?”
“Nooooo,” said Carole, “but I’m just wondering why-”
“It’s okay, Carole,” said Joan. “Don’t forget I’m a retired teacher. I’ve listened to many a young person’s troubles.”
Teenagers, Carole wanted to retort, not young men still pretending to be that.
Kyle lowered his voice, but Carole could still hear. “She married me, but now she wants a different kind of person. She knew what I was like from the beginning, but now suddenly she craves this totally organized type, maybe an accountant or something. Someone with a portfolio and a long future with a firm. I think she’s been watching too much Mad Men.”
“Well, you do work,” said Joan, also keeping her voice low. “You said that you bar tend.”
“That’s just what I do to earn money. Writing music is my actual vocation.”
Yeah, yeah, thought Carole, as she flicked on the TV. Law & Order might wipe the bad taste from her mouth. She rued the day Mira had first brought Kyle home to meet her. Immediately she’d smelled a slacker and Kyle had never disappointed her on that score. And now, in his usual squirrely style, he had come in to see her and because she’d been dozing, slipped over to Joan to charm her into sympathizing with his saga.
“Kyle,” she said sharply, “stop bothering Joan and come over here.”
But before he could comply, the physical therapist entered the room to pick her up in the wheelchair.
By the time she was back in her room, her son-in-law was gone, having left her a Time Magazine, which she had to admit was thoughtful. Though when she picked it up, she saw it was borrowed from the library. Now what? She’d have to worry about returning it? Couldn’t he take his lazy ass to a store and buy her one?
When the nurse came with the pain pills, she took two instead of her usual one, hoping for an hour of oblivion, but that was not to be. The occupational therapist immediately showed up to drag her off for another half hour.
“I hope that Kyle didn’t try your patience,” she managed to call over to Joan who was being piled into a wheelchair of her own.
“Oh no,” Joan said, somewhat evasively. She must have already bonded with him, formed her own sense of “not sharing with mummy-in-law,” when she knew basically nothing of his behavior and how he had driven poor Mira half crazy for four years. “I enjoyed him, actually. He’s a sweetie.”
“We need to talk,” Carole got in before being whisked into the hall.
Carole was tired. Occupational therapy today consisted of Sandy the therapist hiding eight rubber chickens in various drawers and cupboards inside the prop kitchen. Carole’s job was to find said chickens, causing her to gain confidence in moving about. When she got home, she would need to maneuver objects in her own kitchen. A widow for over ten years, she lived alone in an apartment, the upstairs of an old Victorian house. She would also have to climb stairs to get in and out.
Groggy from the Vicodin, she felt as if she were moving in a dream, yet managed to complete the tasks. Her hip was sore, everything felt sore, and what she really wanted was to be back in her bed losing herself in old reruns of Roseanne. But before she could allow herself such luxury, she needed to set her roommate straight about Kyle.
Why should she care? What difference did it make whether this woman she would probably soon never see again had all her facts straight?
What she called her “existentialist mood” again washed over her. Though her mouth moved and she was following Sandy’s instructions on bicep curls and wrist flips, her mind was on the feeling she’d been experiencing since waking from the surgery - she couldn’t feel her soul.
“Okay, now try it with the two pound weights,” said Sandy. “You need a lot of upper body strength to hoist yourself in and out of bed and chairs.”
Before the surgery, Carole had been conscious of her soul, had always been what she called a spiritual person. Not religious, but questing and in habitual touch with God and the Universe. But since the surgery, it seemed that her world had narrowed to a small, dark space. A warm, murky little cocoon where her only concern was personal survival and whatever comfort was possible under the circumstances.
“I feel,” as she had tried to explain to her daughter the evening before, “as if I am just an animal, not a being with a spirit inside. Just a beast like any rabbit or cow that is going to die and that’s it, nothing more, no survival, just dust.”
“Well, Mom,” Mira had said, looking somewhat alarmed. “You’re taking a lot of drugs. You were on morphine, for crying out loud, and now what? Vicodin? Your brain is fogged, what do you expect?”
But Carole had shaken her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t like being this way, but what can I say? Maybe it’s the truth that I’m seeing. Maybe all that soul stuff is hogwash. How much time do I have left? Ten, twenty years? Then oblivion?”
“Oh, Mom,” Mira had moaned. “This will pass.”
“I don’t know,” Carole said. “I hope so.”
“You remember how Aunt Peg saw Uncle George’s ghost? You didn’t forget that, did you?”
Carole shrugged. “Maybe she imagined it,” she said. “The brain might project stuff.”
“But he told her where that insurance paper was.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Carole, losing interest.
Physical therapy was hard. She soon forced herself to walk with the walker to the workout room, impressing the workers. She had a stubborn streak and was used to pushing herself. Once in the room, the exercises were so painful that sometimes she felt faint. Safely back in her bed, she sighed with relief. But they would come for her again an hour or so later. They had told her when she applied to get into the rehab section of the hospital that they would push her relentlessly.
“You’re lucky to be in here,” said Mira that evening. She’d brought supplies - Carole’s favorite chocolate, another novel, news of her friends. “This is a highly rated facility.”
But Carole wanted to talk about Kyle and had Mira pull the curtain shut between her bed and Joan’s.
This action wasn’t as unfriendly as it might seem since Joan’s boyfriend was visiting. He was stooped and seventy, as was Joan, and laughed after almost every sentence out of his mouth. At first this had annoyed Carole, but now she was used to it.
She whispered so that Mira had to pull her chair closer. “Do you know that your...(she could hardly bring herself to say the word) husband was here earlier and over there blabbing his problems to Joan, a perfect stranger?”
“I’m not surprised,” said Mira. “He’s always had a penchant for talking intimately with strangers. It probably comes from bar tending.”
“But don’t bartenders listen instead of talking?”
“According to popular lore, but I imagine that Kyle does a lot of talking. Yet they do seem to approve of him.”
Carole made a face.
“Mom,” said Mira, warningly.
“Well, after listening to you the other day, I should be expected to feel guilty expressing my feelings? What do you want me to do, hear your complaints and then just forget about them and smile on with approval?”
“No, not exactly. But women sometimes need to bitch about their husbands, right? Better to complain than walk out...I mean if the husband is basically decent but just extremely annoying. Right?”
“I never complained about your father. Eddie was wonderful. Too wonderful to live on earth, I guess. The good ones die young.”
“Oh, Mom, I am sure that occasionally he pissed you off.”
Carole crossed her arms. “Very rarely,” she said. “I’m telling you, he was an angel.”
“What about that time he lost all that money in that scheme he went into with Uncle Frank?”
Carole shrugged. “Yeah, there was that, but I forgave him. It could have been worse. For instance, he could have made me support him like someone else I know.”
Mira leaned forward. “I do not support Kyle. He brings home twenty-five to thirty thousand a year from bar tending and the occasional songs he sells.”
“Okay, so he supports himself, but you’re the one who really takes care of everything. What would happen if you got pregnant or couldn’t work for some reason? How would the two of you live on that pathetic income? Sometimes he hasn’t worked at all. You’re the bread winner of the family! I know you secretly hate that.”
Mira looked at her hands twisting in her lap. “Yeah, I do hate that, but what’re you going to do? The real world isn’t like fairy tales.”
“And the sex thing,” Carole added for good measure, knowing she was hitting under the belt.
Mira sighed. She had let it slip a few weeks back that they only “did it” once a month, if that.
“Well, I’d better go, Mom,” Mira said, standing up. She glanced over at Joan but the roommate was deep into conversation with her crusty looking boyfriend.
Carole wondered if she’d gone too far. Was she trying to actually break them up? What was her true motive? Was it because they had never produced grandchildren - at least not yet and now that was unlikely?
The nurse arrived with her computerized cart containing Carole’s and Joan’s meds. After swallowing hers (and wondering if she was going to turn into a Vicodin addict like Dr. House on TV), Carole listlessly watched Law & Order. Normally, she enjoyed the matter of fact manner of the cops on the show, especially in the old episodes featuring Jerry Orbach (nobody could play a cop as well as he), but now, like most everything since her surgery, even Law & Order seemed meaningless. She did not remember feeling this way before.
After Joan had been wheeled off to occupational therapy, Carole called her friend Lynn who lived a few hours away. Lynn was coming to stay with Carole for a week once she was released from rehab.
“I can’t feel my soul,” Carole burst out.
“Huh?” said her friend. A kind and dear person, Lynn was not the intense spiritual seeker that Carole had always been. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m not sure how to explain,” said Carole, “but it has me worried. You see, before the surgery, I could feel my soul. Now I just don’t. I seem to be nothing more than an animal. I could have died on the operating table or any time since with a blood clot or infection and all I seem to feel is a cocoon-like safety in here. As if I’m a little kid being taken care of and have no awareness of anything beyond that. What happened? I’ve read all those writings, including serious studies, on near death experiences, life after death contact, reincarnation, blah blah blah and now all I seem to be concerned with is if I have enough graham crackers in my drawer and are my feet warm. Did the anesthesia turn me into a moron?”
“You still have a soul, honey,” said Lynn soothingly, but what did Lynn know really?
“Then why don’t I feel it now?”
There was a silence. “I’m not sure what it’s supposed to feel like.”
“It was a consciousness, Lynn. A consciousness that I’m more than just this body, that I am connected to the Universe. That when I bite the dust, I’ll keep on going. But now, I’m not so sure. Maybe when I die, and that could come soon since after all I’m pretty old now, that’s the end. The annihilation of Carole, as if she had never existed. Lights out, CLICK.”
“I don’t know how to help you,” said Lynn. “Really, I’ve never felt my soul, I just have faith that what they tell me is true, that it exists and that there is more after death.”
Carole felt herself rile up. “What is this ‘have faith’ crap? I mean they could tell you to ‘have faith’ in the Great Pumpkin! All the religions tell you to have faith in different stuff, so what the hell good is that? I want to feel what I’m ‘having faith’ in! And I used to and now I don’t!”
“It probably is just an effect of all the drugs you’ve been on. The anesthesia takes a good while to wear off and you’re still on pain killers, right? And your world is narrowed to the hospital room. Everything is druggy and small.”
Carole sighed “Well, yeah, that pretty much describes it - druggy and small. I sort of can’t imagine what the point is of going on though. I mean since there might be nothing outside of all this, and I’m only putting time in until the inevitable. Why bother?”
Now Lynn sounded alarmed. “To have some fun, honey! You and I can take trips! We’ll hang out more, you can come down as soon as you’re able and I’ll be up to visit more. We’ll just have fun!”
What Carole thought but didn’t say: one of us will croak and then the other will just wait till it’s her turn, like animals in the slaughter house.
How had this happened, this aging, this turning into helpless beasts waiting in line to die? Just a second ago, she was young and cocky and blazingly healthy.
“Yeah, I guess,” she said instead. “That’s what we’ll do.”
Lynn gossiped a bit and they said their goodbyes. Carole felt bleaker than ever. As if she were alone in the entire universe.
“Your son-in-law is nice,” said Joan as they ate from their dinner trays.
“Hmmmmmm,” said Carole. The hospital food was amazingly good for breakfast and lunch, but lackluster at dinner. Gummy meat loaf tonight.
“He seems a bit upset about things though,” ventured Joan.
She must have changed her mind on the secrecy/loyalty stance, thought Carole. “He comes off real likable; I fell for it a little myself at the beginning, but it boils down to this: my daughter works her ass off and he pretty much lives off her. He doesn’t do anything around the house to help out, nor does he do guy stuff like fixing things. He’s just like a kid she takes care of.”
Joan nodded. “My sister is married to someone like that, has been for decades. He drinks too.”
“Well,” said Carole, “I suppose Mira will be married to this one for decades too. I don’t see her doing anything about it.”
She felt a stab in her hip and buzzed the nurse for an ice pack.
“Maybe it’s just her karma,” said Joan. “That’s what I tell myself about Roberta.”
Karma? Carole used to believe in that...back when she had a soul. It had made perfect sense, though applying it to explain the behavior of an actual person one loved was a bit more difficult than to that of a stranger. But now that she seemed so unspiritual, what did she see? Just people making stupid choices that would trap them for life? But why did they make stupid choices in the first place when there was no basis for it in their growing up experiences? Mira was raised with a father who took care of his family. Why would she be attracted to someone so different from dear, sweet Eddie? Could karma could explain that?
Did she feel a slight inkling of soul again?
If she could once again believe that she does indeed possess a soul, her life would be endless. It would continue past what measly time she had left as Carole Geraldi and then whatever her fellow humans did would matter in the sense of an ongoing story that she could participate in. Everyone was on the lifeline at different places, but the ones closest to death were in fact closer to rebirth.
“Karma,” she repeated, remembering she was talking to Joan. “You think so?”
The nurse arrived with the ice pack and helped Carol tuck it around her sore hip.
“Yeah,” said Joan once the nurse was gone. “I figure that’s why people do things the way they do. They do a lot of apparently stupid stuff. The theory makes sense out of no sense.”
“Maybe,” said Carole.
A feeling of wanting to get out of there rushed over her - an urge to rise up and do all the damn, painful exercises so that she could indeed fly on a plane somewhere with Lynn and see something exotic. Then a warning stab from her leg put her in her place, for the time being.
She was sixty-five years old, Mira’s and Kyle’s problems were their own and not hers at all, she had a hip to get healed and places to go. Would her soul return? Was this feeling why her father, who died at ninety, had said, “When you’re dead, you’re dead, there’s nothing after?”
She opened another packet of graham crackers and chewed as if there was no tomorrow.