The old man
doesn’t notice me when I come into the room. He’s eating his breakfast, and food has always been his number one priority. He chews in the slow, methodical fashion of an elderly person with dentures
-- his eyes are big and wide as he eats, his thoughts focused only on the task at hand. He is thinner than I remembered -- just crinkled reddish tan flesh stretched over his skeleton. His bony arms tremble as he uses them to cut his sausage, scoop up his scrambled eggs
. Despite everything he’s done, I can’t bring myself to feel anything but pity
I step further into the room and he looks up at me. It’s clear he doesn’t know who I am, but he’s trying to place my face. I’m familiar, but only barely so.
”How’re ya doin’?” I say in the faux-cheerful voice of an adult talking to a young child. “They treating you well in here?”
He offers a nervous smile, eyes shifting as he tries to figure out who I am. Finally, his eyes light up -- something clicks. He says my name.
“Yup, that’s me,” I tell him. “Your grandson.”
I pull up the big easy chair to his bedside, and he begins to tell me about life in the hospital. He hates it -- he wants out. But the food is good. They were trying to starve him yesterday -- he had an MRI -- but today they say he can eat as much as he wants. He thinks he might wrap up a couple sausages in a napkin -- you know, so he can eat if they don’t feed him. I assure him that they’re definitely going to feed him. Not to worry.
Over the next hour or so, he recounts his hospital ordeal. About how for some crazy reason, he thought he was at a train station where the conductor was an African American woman. But he doesn’t call her that -- he uses a racist epithet I won’t repeat. His friend John C. was there, and so was my mother. He doesn’t remember how he got from the train station to the hospital.
“That didn’t really happen,” I tell him. “That was a hallucination -- like a waking dream. You were really sick, so your mind made that up.”
I try to explain to him how the arteries in his neck are blocked, how the lack of blood makes his brain do funny things -- see things that aren’t really there.
Just as I think he’s getting it, a man -- possibly in his sixties -- enters the room. He wears a meshback baseball cap that says “USA” in red, white and blue letters, and is missing his top row of teeth and half of the bottom row. I get up and introduce myself to him, shaking his meaty hand. He doesn’t tell me his name, which strikes me as kind of rude. But then, I’m programmed for business etiquette -- I introduce myself to people all the time. Hagerstown is at its heart a small town. People do things differently there than in Washington, D.C.
He sits down next to my grandfather and starts telling him about how he needs to see a local politician about the capital gains taxes he owes on a property he’s sold. My grandfather listens intently, but clearly doesn’t understand a word he’s saying. He nods along, though, and laughs at the appropriate cues. I wonder how long he’s been playing this game -- pretending to know what people are talking about when he clearly doesn’t get it. I should have noticed it before, but even when I was with him before, I never paid attention to him.
The man begins a long tirade about the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. “I hated Bill Clinton,” he says, “and I voted for Bush because I thought we needed a change. But now things are even more messed up than before. Clinton disgraced the office of President, but Bush is doing things that our country doesn’t need.”
I tell him I agree with him, and begin offering my own insights. He blinks and looks confused -- I realize how much my knowledge of politics and foreign policy dwarfs his, begin to feel embarrassed that I’ve said too much. Sometimes I forget what things are like at home -- how different my education and experience and use of language makes me from the working class people I grew up with.
Eventually, the man leaves. I chat some more with my grandfather, and notice the nurses keep walking by and looking in, giggling at me. One of them actually calls me out and asks me questions about my grandfather I know she already knows the answer to -- just to talk to me. She giggles all along and smiles. I’m reminded of Joss Whedon’s TV show Firefly, and how the ship’s female backwoods mechanic has a crush on the dandy cityslicker doctor. I realize that my Steve Madden shoes, gray turtleneck and Danish-made designer glasses must make me look very successful and appealing to a nurse in Hagerstown. I wonder what she would have made of me back in high school.
Not long after, another visitor enters -- a woman from my grandfather’s church. I introduce myself, but again, she doesn’t tell me her name. My grandfather tells her the story about the train station, and she explains to him about how the lack of blood to his brain is causing the hallucinations. Her reaction is almost identical to mine, except in regards to the race of the conductor.
“I never heard of no black conductor before,” she says, laughing.
I realize I am very far from Washington, D.C.
The rest of the day is spent off and on with my grandfather. My relations are due late in the evening, but despite my need to confront them, I decide to go home. There will be time for that later. My coworkers frantically email me with questions, and I have a publication that needs to be proofed. And I miss Pantaliamon and the dog. So I convince my mom to take me back to the Shady Grove Metro station so I can go home.
I stop by to say goodbye to my grandfather. He tears up when he hears I’m leaving -- he’s so afraid to be left alone in the hospital. I assure him that he has more family coming tomorrow -- that he won’t be alone for long.
He seems contented by that. Just as I turn to leave, he catches my eye.
“You know,” he tells me, “I remember being in a train station. There was this black girl working as the conductor -- can you believe it? A black girl? I never heard of such a thing. John C. was there with your mother. It’s the damndest thing, but I don’t know how I got here from that train station. Do you know?”
His eyes are big with fright and wonder. I shake my head.
“I wish I knew how I got here,” he says. “Tell your mother to bring me my jacket and my shoes -- I need to go home. They probably won’t let me leave, though. No, sir. They won’t let you out of prison unless the judge says it’s okay. But maybe if I tell them it’s only for a few hours ... maybe if I say I’m just going to get dinner ...”
I turn and leave, wondering if this will be the last time that I see him. Hoping that it is.