This weekend found Katie, Mom, and I spending most of our days at the hospital, while Dad underwent some basic (stressful, agonizing, fearful) surgery on his stomach. Thankfully all went well; although the surgery had its share of hiccups. Nevertheless, Dad should be arriving home shortly, well and anatomically whole. Yet his suffering paled in comparison with mine own. My adventures with the girls over the weekend nearly drove me crazy:

“Architecture: modern. Building: hospital,” Katie noted officially to me as I scribbled away in my notebook. “Population: sickly. Do you want me to do any more research for you, Murph?”

“Yeah, what do you think about that wall over there?” I pointed to a white space adjacent to the hospital entrance, totally devoid of all decoration but a wooden bench and the motionless form of an old nun dressed in faded civilian clothing.

“Hmmm . . . too plain. It needs some décor. A mural maybe, with bright colors, happy families, and smiling faces . . . and a moose.”

“Wait, a moose?”

“All murals need moose-i.” (moose-i: being the often unacknowledged plural form of meese, the rarely recalled collective noun form of moose; i.e. I saw a National Geographic special the other day featuring several thousand moose-i crossing the river from Canadia.)

“What’s he writing this time?” my mother asked, alternating her attention between Katie’s descriptions and the well-dressed gentleman sitting across from us, shouting meaningless words like “values oriented approach” and “the paradigms considering the structural integrity graphs would be nice” into his Bluetooth earpiece. “I think he was a metrosexual,” she would comment later, taking in the gentleman’s matching plaid socks, beige loafers, and finely pressed suit the color of martini-soaked olives.

“I don’t know, Mom. I can’t read his handwriting,” Katie giggled, her good-spirits immersing the hospital waiting room with mirth, the same way the odor of wildflowers drown out the ghosts of winter on a warm March morning. My sister possesses that rare laugh, a gentle honest humor devoid of deception or anxiety but strong and wonderful. The sound of pure joy. She also happens to be incredibly nosy and may haphazardly read aloud my unpolished notes concerning the aforementioned Mr. Bluetooth, unaware of my ready ear and eye. Thus, if my critique of my sister’s curiosity sounds a bit hypocritical, it probably is.

“Are you taking notes or signing off on a prescription?”

I smile at the semi-legible scrawl spiraling from my pen tip: long cursive l’s resembling undotted i’s or uncrossed t’s. Doctor’s scribble, quick and illegible. The sole blight on my elementary school record for poor penmanship made essay-writing drudgery and almost stymied my accession into third grade. Apparently my skills at math and reading could not convince Miss Drumm to ignore the similarity between my cursive lowercase y’s, p’s, q’s, g’s and j’s. Reading “Mary jumped her rope” or “Ben gimped his way home” from my copybook could become a lesson in absurdity or obscenity depending on the interpretation.

Nevertheless, my handwriting did prevent a great deal of in-class cheating as Katie discovered gazing at my notes. Almost anyone who tried failed from spelling errors alone (both real and misinterpreted). I breathed easier and continued to note the other patients and families sitting in the waiting room. To my left a family read from a large leather Bible – the father was a preacher I suspect – until a woman arrived from one of the many pasty-white corridors. The Good Book closed and they promptly left together. Katie, Mom, and I were left more or less alone in the waiting room except for an older woman and her husband, his face motionless and white like a plaster mask. A thin nun grumbled through the rows of chairs, occasionally calling out names and shaking her head with dismay when no response came.

“No one listens. No one hears,” she mumbled as she passed us, and the image of a small droopy cartoon dog flashed across my mind. Katie immediately took an interest in her, commenting that she liked the old girl very much.

“Awww, I like her. She reminds me of the nuns back in high school.”

Now the nuns I remember from grade school sent shivers of fear up my spine. Through my eyes, the nurse churned memories of multiplication tables, factors, and the awful Twack! of thick rulers against open palms. Corporal punishment of course did not survive through the late 20th century, yet the nuns still wielded wooden rulers at all times and exercised that strict icy stare, their eyes windows into damnation’s playground. The fact that the hospital nuns traded in their rulers for syringes did not ease my anxiety one bit.

Soon the time allotted for Dad’s surgery began to ebb, and so with notebook safely stowed in my pack Katie and I kept an eye on the flow of doctors draining from the operating room. Unlike Dad’s surgeon, most doctors (that is, those we recognized adorned in white lab coats) seemed young, early thirty-somethings fit and athletic, ready for the weekend and Saturday morning golf games. Mom and Katie used this time to consider dating ala carte.

“Ooo . . . did you see him, Kate? Oh, now he was quite cute. We should come to the hospital every Friday night.” Katie, of course, had seen him, her eyes shone with delight at each passing white coat. Nevertheless, she denied the shallowness of the exercise, citing that she would not choose her soul mate on the basis of occupation.

“Besides,” she said, “I’m going to be a doctor one day. Dr. Kathleen. Maybe, Dr. Katie to the lil’ kids, but I’m going to make you, Murph, and Pat call me doctor.”

Somehow this seemed just as shallow, but considering that many doctors seek out medicine for money and many scientists I had met seek out research for fame, I decided that her mindset actually improved her chances of amassing several degrees.

Academia . . .

All joking aside, I promised to call her doctor at our every meeting if she managed to gain her degree. Few people I know would have deserved that distinction as much as Katie, far fewer would I feel as honored to call doctor than my sister.

After three hours, the surgeon came out and informed us that the surgery had ended and that Dad was now resting in the recovery ward. We could see him in about two hours while they prepare his room. This prompted a collective sigh among the three of us, and I offered to visit the cafeteria for some much needed refreshments. I asked the girls what they wanted:

“I’ll have a hot green tea,” Mom begins. “No decaf or any of that fruity stuff; although if they don’t have Lipton, then I’ll have just plain tea. Unless of course they have white tea. That has the most anti-oxidants, right? Just get whatever’s the most healthy. With some cream. Or 2% milk if they have it. See if they have any honey, too. I think it was near the jellies. If they’re out, get me some plain sugar, no fake stuff. But they should have honey, I saw it there earlier.”

“Okay, and Kate . . .”

“Oh and be sure to get me a spoon too. For stirring.”

“Sorry, they probably will not have that. You’ll have to use your finger.” I receive the Look for that snide comment, and thus quickly hurry on to my sister’s order. “Katie?”

“Hmmm, just get me something delicious. But not unhealthy.”

Between this intense specificity and paradoxical ambiguity, I manage somehow to pick enough ingredients to satisfy Mom and gather enough general snacks to please Katie. I settle for a water and some salt packets. Then sitting back, I begin to dream as the old nun passes by again, mumbling like an old locomotive. Her mutterings mix with my dreams, dragging me back to the years of nap time, arithmetic, and brown and yellow uniforms.

“No one listens. No one cares. Yes, they’ll listen when I get my ruler again. Oh yes, then they’ll care. Then they’ll hear me . . .”

Twack twack twack