Monday, May 10, 2010
It was almost time to go home. After spending just over a day in the hospital with my teenage daughter we were ready to be set free. Papers had been signed, her dad was on his way. The room was still and quiet. In a last batch of medical procedures my girl had been wiped out. An aggressive nurse made an uncomfortable test downright excruciating. For a half an hour she’d been subjected to one painful experience after another. Finally, finally, it was over and she was exhausted. Continuous pain, paired with a previous sleepless night, and my girl was spent.
I encouraged her to lay back on the bed, close her eyes, and go somewhere else, maybe a hammock on a beach or a lounge chair by a pool. Anywhere but here. I dug her ipod out of the overnight bag and got her propped up on soft pillows. I turned off the lights and the TV and I shut the door.
Soon we were relaxed in our solitary cocoon. The chaos of the hospital hallways seemed far away as my girl drifted off into a much needed, peaceful sleep. I tucked my head into a book, reading by the slits of light coming through the window blinds, grateful for the solitude.
Suddenly the door burst open. I had forgotten it was dinner time. We were headed home and I could have cancelled my daughter’s meal but the idea hadn’t occurred to me. Our refuge was disturbed as a round woman with short curly hair burst into the room, carrying a Styrofoam tray and talking to herself.
“This isn’t right. I know this isn’t right. What is it supposed to be? I don’t know, but this isn’t right.”
Her simple ways, the way she walked, held the food tray, gestured with her hands, made me wonder if she were mentally handicapped. She instantly reminded me of my mentally handicapped sister. Internally I scolded myself for being quick to judge, wondering if it were even possible for a mentally challenged person to be in charge of handing out food, especially in these days of escalating food allergies.
As she came around our privacy curtain she noticed my daughter’s slumber. “Oh, she’s sleepin’. I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t wake her.” Her apology was sweet but said in a voice just a bit too loud for my comfort.
“It’s okay,” I replied, hoping now that the tray was on our table we could go back to quiet.
“Well, this tray isn’t right. I know it’s not right. I’m gonna figure it out.” She spoke to herself more than me, as she scanned the slip of paper that was tucked under what seemed to be a bowl of clear beef broth.
Before I could protest, she was out the door again. But not for long. Within two minutes she was back, this time carrying a larger tray, dripping water as she came towards me. Very carefully, with deep concentration, she exchanged the bowls, replacing the serving of broth with what seemed to be some form of macaroni and cheese.
“There!” she said, again a bit too loud. “That’s better! That’s what a young girl should have!”
I smiled in reply, not wanting to encourage this loud conversation. I’m generally a friendly person but in that moment I was just a mom, wanting so badly for her daughter to have some peace. I was even bordering on becoming annoyed with the whole food roulette, knowing my daughter would not be eating any of it anyway.
“There you go!” the woman said again. “You’re all set!” I cringed at the volume of her voice.
“Okay…thanks.” I offered, hoping it would make her go away so we could have just a few more minutes of tranquility before I had to rouse my girl and make her trek out to the parking garage, a thousand miles away.
She paused a second, looked into my eyes, and smiled. I smiled back. There was nothing left to say. The food had been fixed, it was time to move on.
As she turned and shuffled out of our room, closing our door with a bang, I sighed, then leaned back in my chair, opened my book, and found my spot under the bookmark.
But it wasn’t over. She was back. Five minutes later there was a quick knock on the door and she breezed back in. This time she was carrying an armful of wrapped items. She moved quickly over to our table and the bowls of untouched food.
Carefully, one at a time, she added to the tray three more items. One wrapped sandwich, one small salad in a plastic bowl, and two small cookies enclosed in cellophane.
“There ya go,” she said, “just a bit more food. For the mama. That lady in the next room? She’s gone home today and she don’t need this food. She was a funny one. Her and her sister. They were really fun. But here’s the food she don’t need. For the mama.”
I was speechless. This woman I was so quick to dismiss, because she was disrupting my life and my daughter’s nap, had gone above and beyond for me. Knowing I might be hungry too, she took it upon herself to bring me food. It didn’t occur to her that we were on an isolation ward and every room is quarantined.
Doctors and nurses couldn’t move from room to room without changing gowns and gloves. I am sure there was a rule about not sharing food. But the cafeteria lady wasn’t thinking about quarantines. She was thinking about moms who might be hungry too.
Before I could squeak out a contrite ‘thank you’, she had another surprise. Out of her pocket she pulled a 4 oz. can of Pepsi. “Oh, and there’s this,” she said, “this little soda was left behind too. You think your girl would like this?”
She started to place it on table, now overflowing with bounty. As she set it down something caught her eye. There was a unique graphic along the side of the can. Three large letters - a J, an O and a Y. The middle letter was the Pepsi logo.
She tilted her head to the side. “Hmmm…Joy. It says Joy. Isn’t that nice?” She seemed genuinely touched by the small word on the tiny can.
“Yes,” I said, “Yes it is. My daughter will like that a lot. She’s had a rough day today and I think that’s exactly what will make her feel better.”
My cafeteria friend smiled at me, then wistfully looked over at my still sleeping child. I wondered if she had children of her own, seeing how tenderly she gazed at my daughter.
“Good,” she said. “Good. I’m glad she’ll like it. I’m glad. She’s a beautiful girl. You have a beautiful girl there.”
I gave her my most genuine smile.
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you for everything.”
It was a rough couple of days, camped out in the hospital room. We saw a steady parade of doctors and nurses. Each had their own opinion, their own influence on our experience. But the most touching encounter came in the last hours of our confinement. From the kindness and care of a woman who really seemed to love her job and, despite my judgments, did it well.
You just never know where you’ll find a little bit of unexpected J.O.Y.