I had intended to go to my father’s house first, drop off my things, and have something to eat, but as I got closer I realized I wanted to go straight to the hospital. I got off Rt. 12 at the usual place, but cut up over the hill on the back road to Hamilton instead of heading into Poolville. Soon the forested, uninhabited landscape gave way to lights and the back side of the Colgate campus, and I dropped down into town, turned left, and then pulled into the small parking lot of the community hospital.
Our area of Vermont is served by a major medical center – a huge high-tech facility with thousands of employees, dozens of surgical suites, high-rise patient towers, outpatient wings, a cancer center, research facilities, carefully designed interiors with contemporary upholstery and blond wood and art collections…it even has a helipad. That’s where we’ve gone for our own care, where we visit friends and relatives; it’s what I think of when I think “hospital.” Canada will disabuse me of that image quickly enough, but the little community hospital of Hamilton, New York put a dent in it as well.
I walked through the single power door, past the little gift shop – some stuffed animals and a few gifts on shelves behind the information desk – into a brightly lit corridor where a half-dozen employees in colored and patterned uniforms were chattering at the nurses’ station. The emergency room, just around the corner, seemed to be empty. A man was mopping the floor, and he pulled the bucket out of my way, smiling and saying, “Excuse me!” I went up to the desk and told the seated nurse I was looking for my father. “Oh yes, Howard!, she said. “He’s right down here in 9A.”
She bent her head over her paperwork and I walked down the quiet hall, where patients were beginning to sleep in shadowy double rooms. I passed a vaguely-familiar middle-aged man in a hospital gown, walking slowly in the opposite direction; we nodded at each other. My father, so far, had a room to himself and he was bantering happily with a nurse when I walked in. We kissed and grinned at each other; he was bright-eyed and had plenty of color in his face, and immediately introduced me to the nurse. He was already on a first-name basis with everyone, and knew which town they came from and all about their families. They seemed to have his number, too, coming into the room already smiling in anticipation of a joke or some sort of teasing comment. He also told me about the other patients in the hospital whose families I might know: they’d all been in to see him too. "Your old friend Janet's aunt is here, right down the hall," he told me. "And that was John Anderson - he just went by - did you see him? He was about your age, right? He's having some trouble with his heart or some damn thing, I don't know exactly what it is. Think he'll be OK though." I tried to reconcile the face I'd just seen in the hall with the one I remembered from high school, considerably more than thirty years ago; well, I thought, it could be.
“You’ve had a long drive – can I get you anything?” asked the nurse. “Something to drink? A soda?” I refused at first and then relented, asking for some ginger ale; she immediately brought back a liter bottle and two plastic glasses. There was a college basketball game on the television. Dad and I talked for a while, glancing up at the screen, and then I drove to the lake – just four miles away - dropped off my things, fried an egg and made a slice of toast, and drove back to the hospital. Someone brought me a comfortable chair, and I sat at Dad’s bedside and knitted while he watched the end of the game, and chatted with the various employees who came in to check blood pressure, administer medications, or see if he wanted anything. He was pretty sure he’d be getting out the next day. At 10:00 pm we said goodnight, and I promised to be back before 7:00, in time to talk to the doctor, who I'd never met, during his morning rounds.
The house felt very empty. I washed my face, took out my contact lenses, and did my teeth, listening to the interior silence, and the faint honking of geese settling onto the lake for the night. And then I went to bed, too tired to think much about the fact that this was the first time I’d ever stayed in that house alone.