Standing in the doorway of Herb’s hospital room, I realize I am ill-prepared for the sight of the tools of intervention that are keeping him alive.
Overwhelmed, I register only the machinery, am blind to the man. Once I get past the respirator, the tubes, the monitor that tracks his heartbeat, I creep up to his bed, see that he is awake, sit down, and start to talk to him. It’s a one-way conversation: hooked up to a respirator, Herb is rendered mute. I talk for a while and realize the ridiculousness of the situation, the hopelessness of communication. Not only is Herb unable to speak but I have lost my argument with hospital staff to be allowed to enter his room without benefit of surgical mask, gown, and gloves. If Herb can’t see my face, or feel my skin as I touch him, then he can’t understand what I really want to say. I run out of conversational steam and sit silently by his bed.
I stroke Herb’s forehead, rub his shoulders, hold his hand. I am distressed at what it must be like for him to feel my latex-gloved hands. Hospital policy enrages me. The nurse insisted I wear all this gear to protect Herb from whatever nasty little germs I might be carrying, but I can scarcely believe that anything I might transmit to him could be worse than the multitude of ailments from which he is already suffering. Actually, I don’t even buy the hospital’s line: I’m pretty sure they’re trying to protect me from Herb, not the other way round. Afraid of being barred from his room, however, I postpone arguing or making a scene.
Herb lies almost naked. I register the smallness of him, and the brutality of hospitals: they’ve taken away his glasses, so he’s practically blind, and several of his teeth are missing, accidentally knocked out, I later find, during the insertion of the respirator; his lips are dry and cracked; his skin is marked with lesions. There are tubes and lines and god-knows-what stuck into him at various points, and his heartbeat peaks-and-valleys across a monitor. He is crumbling beneath the burden of his disease, beneath the burden of this machinery.
Body and not-body. Herb is all body and no body now. He’s a bag of bones and blood and water, a little sinew here, a little gristle there, and a lot of fluid in his poor, spent lungs. Everything that matters about him is body, yet his body has been invaded and devastated, reduced to mere damaged architecture. I feel my skin, my muscles, my arteries reaching for him; I want to open a vein for him; siphon myself into him; slice my essence in two for him. I want to stretch out beside him; to wind my body around his; to reach my arm gently across his thin chest to feel his heart beat against the palm of my hand. But all I can do is sorrow at the fact that we’ve both been sold short by our bodies: his by admitting an illness for which there is no cure and mine by yearning so hotly but so fruitlessly to connect with, to heal, his.
The little failures of his body, the clouding over of his right eye, the gums that are so diseased they no longer contain his teeth, these inevitably lead to the complete and profound failure of his entire body. He knows it, I know it, the doctors know it. In the meantime, I watch him unbecome and he watches me be.
A version of this article first appeared in issue 32.2 of MIX magazine.