A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I wanted to cancel the appointment, didn’t want to risk exposure. Plus, in the middle of all this, I certainly didn’t want to find out I needed a valve, a stent, or whatever a heart might need if any of the little intricate components aren’t working right. Because I’m not willing to be admitted to a hospital right now, no matter what the doctor-ordered echocardiogram and stress test may reveal.
When I called the cardiology center, hoping they’d tell me the appointment had been canceled on that end, the receptionist told me most people show up for cardiac tests. “Ya kinda don’t want to mess with heart issues,” she said. “Our patients realize the heart is an either/or proposition. They want it working right. Especially now.”
Especially now. I’ve been having some palpitations and mild discomfort. When my blood pressure spikes, I can hear my heart pounding in my ears. So, I show up for my appointment, wide-eyed, noting all the rules for entering the facility: No visitors. Don’t enter if you don’t feel well. Please use the hand sanitizers located throughout our lobby. Please stand 6 feet back from the patient ahead of you when checking in and when seated.
Despite what the receptionist had told me, the expansive lobby is nearly empty. Those waiting have staked out their safe-space, social distancing to the max. There is no nervous chatter as is often heard in medical waiting rooms. Rather, there is eerie silence save for local cable news blaring COVID statistics for all the surrounding communities – a disconcerting ambiance for cardiac patients.
Each of us is alone. Alone at a very vulnerable time, alone with our fears about our hearts and our fears about a virus that makes us susceptible to heart failure should we contract it.
I’m younger and thinner than most in this room, attributes that today only give me pause – why would I be having issues? I take care of myself! I wonder briefly if my symptoms could be stress-related. Side effects of this pandemic: Anxiety. Fear contagion.
Only one person wears a mask. An older man who looks as nervous as I feel. I wonder if he’s concerned about giving something or getting something. Either way, I deem him forlorn. Maybe even pitiful. I avoid eye contact.
I stake out a secluded spot by the large window near the foyer that looks out onto the parking lot. From this vantage point, I can see people coming and going, and marvel at the machinations they go through to avoid touching the door pull. I’d done the same.
I sit and write in my journal. When next I look up, I see that someone has dropped a dark green knit hat in the foyer, perhaps after using it to shield their hands when they opened the door. I see it laying there, but I’m not going to retrieve it because the television just reminded me that the virus can live on porous material for hours, a day even. But my disregard for the fallen item is foreign to who I am. Or was. It violates a basic value my mother instilled in me as a child: Pick up things that fall, even if they aren’t yours. I always do. Or did.
I watch what others do as they enter or leave the building. Most step around the hat or over it; some step on it. But no one picks it up. I feel sad that it’s come to this, and guilty for not helping, but tell myself the hat’s owner will eventually return for it. I’ve got enough to worry about.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see someone stooping over to pick it up. A man. The man wearing the mask! Bare-handed, he carries the hat over to the receptionist, walking slowly as if in great pain. He then leaves the building.
The man in the mask is the only one taking the time and the risk to pick up a stranger’s hat. The man who is perhaps the most vulnerable among us is the one who performs this act of civility, the one who demonstrates his humanity. I feel shame for not showing mine; I wonder how this will increasingly manifest during these uncertain and desperate times.
Ironic that I’m in a cardiology center and didn’t have the heart to pick up someone’s hat. Seems I’m the pitiful one.
* * *
A nuclear stress test can take up to four hours because there are several different procedures involved, and the patient can end up waiting thirty minutes in between each one. So, this corner of the lobby will be mine for the next several hours. This is where I sit when I’m not being injected or imaged. I sit here and journal about being alone in the cardiology center. It’s cold and lonely, but I do have this window.
Through my window, I see a taxi pull up. A woman younger than I, but considerably more debilitated, exits the back seat. Unlike a big city, cabs are not that common in my town so I watch with curiosity. She struggles to open the door, then limps with her cane to the receptionist’s window. I go back to my journal. Twenty minutes later, she’s crossed the lines of my imaginary spatial border. Although still more distant than the recommended six-feet, she’s sitting way too close for my liking.
I scan the room for a place to relocate. But, damn it, this is my space! Why should I have to move? I chose this deserted corner of a vastly-empty waiting room. Near the window. Away from other patients.
She not only sits near me; she wants to chat. (She obviously didn’t notice the dirty look I cast her way when she plopped down here.) She tells me her appointment didn’t take that long because it was just a re-check of the catheter she has planted in her thigh. That segues into a report on her recent breast surgery.
She doesn’t seem to notice that I’m busy – busy writing in my journal about the man with the mask and my shame over my incivility. I’m too busy to engage with this lonely woman. I have my own problems – I’ve been injected with isotopes and am awaiting the scan. The instructions say I shouldn’t hold a baby for twelve hours because I’ll be emitting radiation. I wonder if I can hug my dog when I get home.
The irony hits hard: I’m ignoring this woman in order to write about losing my humanity.
I lift my head to look at her, giving her tacit permission to continue. Not that she needs it. “I live with my daughter and her five children. Her oldest has a disability, and now that there’s no school, he’s falling behind some. But they’re all good kids. I’m estranged from my son – my parents raised him because I got pregnant too young. They turned him against me, told him bad things about his mother. I’ve never met his children, my grandchildren.”
I remain silent but attentive. “I have asthma because the factory in the town where I grew up released little particles into the air. There’s a high cancer rate there, too. But we recently moved from a trailer into a rented house, so maybe I’ll feel better soon.”
I tell her that General Electric in her current town has released PCBs into the Hudson River for decades. “I know,” she says. “They were supposed to dredge it, but who knows how well they did. And now, I’m worried about catching this corona-thing. I don’t have a strong immune system. Not with so much pollution all around.”
Then why in hell are you sitting so close to me? I want to scream.
She pulls out her phone. Oh great, now I’ll get to hear her chat with someone else. How can I write about my lost humanity with her yakking on the phone?
“Hello, yes. I’m already done with my appointment. It didn’t take long. I’m sorry to make you return so soon. But I’m sitting right near the window where I’ll be able see you pull up…Yes, I’ll run right out. Okay. See you in a few. Thank you.”
I soften. She’d sat near the window so she wouldn’t inconvenience the cabbie – not to bug me. And she was simply doing what we all used to do when near another person – making conversation.
Once more, I lift my nose out of my journal.
The cab pulls up. “I hope everything goes okay for you,” she says as she stands to leave. “You be careful.”
“You, too,” I respond. “Thanks for the chat.”
As she reaches the door, she pauses for a moment to look back at me watching her. “By the way, my name’s Karen.”
“Nice meeting you, Karen. Take good care of yourself.” I don’t offer my name.
She slowly ambles toward the cab and struggles to squeeze into the back seat. I rise to stand in the window and give a feeble wave to Karen. She doesn’t look back, already engaging with the cab driver.
My head swivels around. It’s time to image my heart and track the flow of blood through my arteries. As I walk toward the technician, I pass a wall plaque that reads Be kind and kindness will follow you.
I wonder if he’ll even be able to find my heart. I fear I may have lost it during this pandemic.
Patricia A. Nugent’s passion lies in lifting up voices of marginalized people. She’s the author of the book They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad, and editor of the anthology Before They Were Our Mothers: Voices of Women Born Before Rosie Started Riveting. She volunteers to teach writing, journaling, spirituality, healing, and feminist history courses to adult learners. Her blog can be found at www.journalartspress.com.
Copyright 2020 Patricia A. Nugent