Talking to a Ghost

The rapid stop-and-go punching of keyboards and steady rhythm of heart monitors and idiosyncratic bleeps and bloops sang like pieces of a minimalist breakbeat song.  I sat in front of a computer screen next to my attending.  He muttered notes into the dictation microphone. My eyes stayed glued to an UpToDate page on hypophosphatemia.  Reading each sentence two and three times before moving on to the next.  Head clouded with physicians and nurses chatting around me.  Looked over at my attending’s computer screen to check his progress – still had eight notes left to complete.  I couldn’t possibly feel any more useless.  Nothing for me to do.  He discouraged me from writing notes because he’d just delete them anyways.  

So I tried to look busy.  Skimmed patient charts and lab values for so long I felt like I was reading code.  Forgot who was who.  

Waited for the perfect moment when he wasn’t stammering into the microphone.  He paused.  Words began to make their way from my throat.  I sputtered one syllable before he began dictating again.  It went unacknowledged.  Stared at my keyboard for two straight minutes, in hopes of subtly signaling that I had something to say.  He paused again and reached for his coffee.  

This was it.  Do or die time.  Summoned strength from my chest.  Doc, do you mind if I go check on some patients while you’re doing your notes? I asked.  Please god if not educational purposes let me entertain myself. 

Knock yourself out, he said, head facing forward at his computer screen without the slightest bit of rotation in my direction.

Okay, I’ll be back soon.  

Stood up from my chair and gently tucked it under the desk.  Made my way to escape from the computer pod area, both lanes blocked by nurses in conversation.  I walked over and stood before them, clearly en route to the floors.  They continued their conversation as if my stupid little short white coat were an invisibility cloak.  Pardon me, I said.  One nurse took a half-step forward, about a foot between her and the wall.  Option one; walk through the middle of the conversation.  Could appear rude, but there’d be no awkward bodily contact.  Option two; squeeze behind her.  Not rude.  But carried risk of physical touch.  Weighed the options carefully in my head.  

Sucked in my chest and made myself skinny like a mouse.  Slunked behind her into the free terrain of the hospital hallway.  I don’t think they even noticed.  Take that…. bitch. 

Reached into my white coat.  Fumbled around with my keys and pens and a granola bar until feeling the sensation of a crumbled piece of paper on my fingertips.  Retrieved it from my pocket.  Glanced at the patient census and thoughtfully ran my finger through the list.  

Ruth, 86, hardly alert, certainly not oriented.  Pass.  Miles, 62, recently diagnosed with multiple myeloma, too zonked off the pain meds to have a conversation.  Pass.  Richard, 54, an inmate shackled to his hospital bed with two guards in the room.  Pass.  Joseph, 73, very pleasant man with mild dementia.  Tapped my finger on Joseph’s name again.  

Mhm, I said in agreement with myself. 

Walked up to one of the hallway computers and typed my login information into Epic.  Pulled up Joseph’s chart.

Joseph Edward, 73 y.o. male.  

Patient presented with altered mental state with urinary tract infection.  Developed mild hospital-induced delirium.  Started on intravenous Bactrim and Vancomycin four days ago.  Checked the labs; vitals stable, mild hyponatremia, white count near approaching normal limits.  

I logged out of the electronic health records and walked to the end of the corridor.  Tapped on the door to signal my entry.  Hey Mr. Edward, how are you doing? I asked. 

Jamey, good to see you kid, said the elderly man sitting up in the hospital bed over his tray of supper. 

I hesitated. Smiled and glanced at the woman at his bedside.  She was fifty years old or so, wearing navy blue nursing scrubs.  They had the same blue eyes.  

His mind isn’t all there right now, she said as she smirked and shook her head at the old man.  

Ah, right, I said.  Returned my attention to him.   

Actually, my name is Jordan and I’m a third year medical student.  Just stopping in to check up on you, do you mind if I ask you some questions? 

How do you do son, he said. 

Great, I said before looking over at the woman.  And you are his…

She extended her right hand.  I’m his daughter, my name is Louise.  

We shook hands.  Jordan, nice to meet you, I said.  I’m a medical student.  Do you work here at the hospital?

I’m a home care nurse, she replied.  But feel free to ask away.  He’s doing better today, not quite as ornery as he was a few days ago but still not all there.  The man looked up at me and raised his eyebrows, eyes twinkling with a goofy smile.  Louise disapprovingly stared at her father.  What are we going to do with you, she said.  

So Mr. Edward, what brought you into the hospital?

Just call me Joe, he said.  Louise made me come here… Crazy, that one.  The hospital is no place for a young handsome man like me. 

Louise sat at his bedside and rolled her eyes.  

I need to call my son back, she said while standing up.  She looked at me: he’s all yours.  I’ll be back in a little bit dad, I need to give Tommy a call.  

Ask that damn kid why he hasn’t come in here to see me since Sunday, Joe replied. 

He has football practice after school, dad.  I’ll be right back; no acting up or scaring the med student.  

Louise walked toward the hallway.  Paused at the door and turned around – just so you know, you don’t need to laugh at his jokes.  

Alright ma’am, I replied.  I’ll do my best, but he is pretty funny.  She smiled and disappeared down the hall.  I returned my attention to Joe.  

Nice that you have your daughter nearby to take care of you, I said.

You’re damn right, kid.  After all I’ve done for her.  

Do you have other children?

Five of them.  Joey is over in Jersey close to New York.  Paul’s in Chicago.  Robert over in Philly.  Jeff over by Cleveland.  Louise is my only daughter.  Only one to stick around here.  That girl, tougher than the boys, too.  

And your wife? I asked before immediately regretting the question.

Joe closed his eyes and exhaled.  That’s her right there, he said, pointing to the framed sepia photograph resting on the tray stand.  A young man, vintage pompadour, small white swim trunks showing off his physique.  Broad-chested and svelte like Arnold.  Arm draped over the shoulder of a young lady in a one-piece bathing suit.  Faded sun reflecting in the waters of the community swimming pool behind them.  Summer of fifty-four, he continued.  We spent the summer days at the swimming pool before they filled it in and built shops.  He paused, eyes staring into the photograph.  It’s been three years now, he said.  It became three years last week actually.  November thirteenth.  Rosemarie.  I miss her every day.  It doesn’t get easier.  

I’m… I’m sorry, Joe. 

Yeah…  his voice trailed off.  Look at that picture kid, can you believe that?  Look at those muscles.  Now look at me here, all the damn machines.  Doing nothing but sitting in bed.  

Pretty impressive Joe.  You guys were a pretty good-looking couple, if I may say so myself.  How’d you meet her?

Yeah that Rosemarie was a looker.  Me and a few of my buddies, we were back from the navy.  Zippy Martino and Ray Laricci and Bobby Martin.  I forget the others.  So we were drinking scotch and soda highballs over at Larry’s.  That place has been gone since before you were born.  We were young men, enlisted.  Twenty-three years old.  We got all drunk and we were sitting there, no one else at the bar.  So Zippy says he knows of a wedding going on over at the Concourse a block down.  Old banquet hall.  We says, Zippy, do you know the families?  He says, no, but my little brother Danny works with the bride’s cousin and he said there’ll be ladies.  

So we finish our drinks and walk over.  We walk in and first thing we see is a table of girls.  So me and the fellas were going over to introduce ourselves.  Then I look up and see a bridesmaid sitting at the head table.  Gorgeous as can be.  Italian girl.  Legs for days.  Beautiful like you wouldn’t believe.  So I says, I’ll catch up with you guys later.  Then I go up to the beautiful bridesmaid, and, I ask her for a dance.  Seven months later we were married. 

You, I paused through a grin, you met your wife while you were crashing a wedding with your friends?  

That’s right kid.  I knew from our first dance I was going to marry that girl.  

Joe, that’s the greatest story I’ve ever heard.

Yeah, fifty years of beautiful marriage.  She gave me five beautiful, successful kids.  Then twelve gorgeous grandkids.

That’s great, I said.  Have you lived around here your whole life?

Yeah, long as I can remember.  Parents were poor immigrants.  We lived down the street in the hollow, tiny little house.  Seven kids in two bedrooms.  I brought my grandchildren over there couple years ago before they knocked it down to show them where we came from.  Gave them a tour of the old neighborhood.  They were bored but, kids, they need that perspective.  They need some grit.  Told the little ones if they keep acting up I was going to buy the house and make them stay in it for a week.  The youngest, Paul’s boy, he started crying.  

Joe and I shared a laugh.  

That’ll build character, I said.  I’m sure someday they’ll come to respect where you came from.   

Yeah someday, he replied.  Kids these days need some grit.  Told them they need to toughen up, go to the boxing gym on the southside.  Nothing will teach you humility like a hard right to chin.   Back in the day we all used to box.  

Like, professionally? I asked. 

Yeah, undefeated.  Held the heavyweight title until I retired.  Don’t you recognize me?  Used to be famous. 

No, I had no idea Joe, I said, eyes wide and perked up.  That’s awesome.  Can you tell me more about your career?

Kid you’re too gullible, he laughed. 

I shook my head.  At least you still have your sense of humor, I said.  Engulfed in the conversation, I sat down in the chair next to Joe’s hospital bed and made myself comfortable.  So what did you do?  For a living.  You said you served in the military?

Yeah, I was in the Navy. 

Did you serve in world war 2?

Kid, I don’t know how you got to medical school because you’re pretty lousy at math and history.  I was born in 33’ – the war ended when 45’, when I was twelve. 

Ah right, I nervously laughed.  My mistake. 

I went to college and played running back before I hurt my knee, he continued.  I was a police officer, then I was a detective for twenty years.

Ah, so that’s where your sharp intelligence comes from, huh?  I asked.  Solving crimes and such.

Damn right, kid.

Any crazy stories? I asked.  

Yeah, I’ve got a great one for you, he said.

I sat perked up at his bedside like a child waiting for a bedtime story.  

One time, he continued.  I got a call that there was a robbery at the art museum.  Man on the loose.  They said he was armed and dangerous.  Me and my partner, Mike Petro, we got to the art museum.  He says we should wait for backup.  I was young at the time, this was in my first few years on the force.  So I says, Mike you go around back, we don’t need any backup.  He goes ‘round back.  I go in the front entrance.  Place is dark.  Can’t see shit.  I’m shining my flashlight around, looking for this guy.  All kinds of art and statues and paintings all over.  Get up to the second floor and hear a noise coming from the corner of the room.  I can’t see shit and trip on a box of something.  Flashlight few feet away from me and I and I’ve got my gun in hand.  I hear the noise again and look into the corner of the room. 

Joe paused briefly, knowingly adding to the suspense of the story.  

I stared at him, tapping my foot, waiting on his every last word.  Well, I asked?  What happened? 

I’m sitting there on the floor, he said.  Got my gun and still can’t see shit.  I turn to the noise and I sees, ten fifteen feet away, a figure of a man holding a spear ready to throw it at me.  Big got-damn spear pointing it at me.  I pull my gun, he said as he made his right hand in the shape of gun.  Bang.  

Did he die? I asked.

It was a statue. 

Joe and I laughed together. Despite this label of dementia his story telling, as cheesy as it was, was so good. 

After our laughter faded he continued, my daughter though, Louise. Damn kid, she’s the best mom in the world. Those kids are so lucky, so fortunate. They have no idea. They never come to see me.  And I only live ten minutes away.  But you know, they’re teenagers, they play sports and have their friends.  I get it, he said. 

I looked out the window and the sky was ugly grey. Drops of rain rolling down the glass. 

They loved you and wish they could tell you how much you meant to them, I said. 

More than you ever knew.  You were their hero, their idol.  They’ll gather around when they grow older and tell stories about you, grandpa.  

They’ll never stop telling stories about you.

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