By Jess Charle
I’ve never liked hospitals. They feel dirty. All the supposedly white surfaces permanently stained a dull brownish-yellow from age, bodily fluids, illness, and death.
Yesterday, I decided to clean out my attic. I have the unfortunate destiny of being a pack-rat, like my dad, and a minimalist neat-freak like my mom. This dynamic of their vastly different lifestyles would converge like water and oil, never mixing but instead bumping up against each other. Frustrated with the inevitable resistance from the other side, they would fight while I turned up the small television in the living room in an attempt to drown them out.
However, when those opposing forces exist within the same person, there is no way to release that friction. After hours or days, my parents would come up with a compromise. My father would promise to get rid of some stuff and my mother would buy a new bookcase or other organization system to try and sort his mess and make the house more livable for everyone. I, however, have a mental breakdown that involves throwing everything I own onto the floor and then reshelving each item in what my delusional mind convinces me is a better organizational system. My love of stuff and my hate of clutter trying to live at peace with compromises for no one. Some days I’ll wake and feel as if I am going to suffocate under all my shit. Some days I wake up and relish the full and interesting life around me, how each item and book tells another story completely unique to myself.
Cleaning out the attic has always been my least favorite household chore. I take spring cleaning very seriously, and so it needed to be done, yet, the attic is my stuff’s safe space. A place where odds and ends that don’t fit neatly on my shelves can still have a home. Yet, walking up into that cluttered, dusty, filled-to-the-brim space always makes my heart feel heavy and claustrophobic.
I took a deep breath, and exhaled, reminding myself that once I started working, I’d get in the zone and feel better.
An hour later, I groaned against the strain of lifting a heavy box of books and moving it to my large tower of “must keep” boxes. You never throw out books.
The box dropped with a heavy plop, and I heard a smaller thud behind it, sounding muffled in comparison. Craning my neck, I looked behind my tower of boxes and saw a white worn book, face down on the dusty floor. I recognized the tear on the top right corner of the now more off-white than white cover, and the large crease at the bottom. It was my cherished copy of J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.
Using all of my upper arm strength, which isn’t much, I pushed the tower, allowing me access to the dropped artifact from my youth. My hand reached for the book, and I stopped, hovering just inches from its cover. At the side of the attic, where the roof meets the floor at a sharp angle, was a large black mass. I stayed there, hand extended towards one of my most prized possessions, mouth agape.
The black, whatever it was, was inherently disturbing. It didn’t look like mold, at least not any I knew of. Instead of spread out like most mold or fungi, this blackness was very much clumped together. It was as if it was simultaneously one organism and made up of hundreds of individual pieces. The closest thing I can compare it to is used coffee grounds. It looked dry, but also wet. And it looked like it was moving.
I shuddered, and grabbed the book, holding it to my chest protectively. The black looked almost like a swarm of ants. But, it also didn’t. It seemed to have the illusion of moving, without actually moving.
The black mass had a foul presence, like something I shouldn’t touch. I bent over to get a better look, letting my face hover above it as close as I felt comfortable. No matter how I looked at it, the black mass looked the same. Like wet, but also dry, moving, but not. I crinkled my nose, and began to back away, wondering how on earth I would clean it up, when I heard a sucking noise. Not quite like a vacuum. More like someone slurping the last remnants of liquid through a straw. I looked around trying to find the source before realizing that it was coming from the black mass. And it wasn’t just making a sound now, I could feel suction dragging me closer and closer to the blackness.
I tried to pull away, but the force was too strong. I cried out, attempting to throw myself backwards, but my face and body were drawn down. I screamed as it grew to encompass my entire vision. Soon everything was black and grainy and damp. My face was being drawn forward, until I was mere inches from the black. I tried to scream, but the sucking drowned out any other noise.
Then, total darkness. The blackness filled my mouth and my lungs, yet did not suffocate me. I tried to blink, but I could no longer tell when my eyes were closed and when they were opened. My existence felt heavy and thick, like I was wrapped in blankets that were being absorbed into my very being.
And then it stopped. Stunned, I blinked at the blinding lights above me. I was standing in the waiting room of a hospital. It looked vaguely familiar, which I brushed off, assuming it just looked like any other hospital, when my heart stopped.
“What room is Heather Mitchell in?” It was unmistakably the voice of my mother. I turned towards the nurses station, and saw, to my horror and amazement, that it was, in fact, my mom. The woman who birthed and raised me. The woman who died two years ago from cancer.
Yet, she didn’t look like the woman whose hand I held day and night in that hospital, her grey frizzy hair barely contained in the elastic at the back of her neck, her ice blue eyes faded with illness and exhaustion.
She looked upset, but a healthy upset. Not like that long year through chemotherapy. I stared at her, tears welling up in my eyes. I went to take a step towards her, when I saw the young girl standing at her side, the top of her head barely reaching my mother’s ribcage.
It was me. It was me when I was a pre-teen. My face stained white with tears, my cheeks still damp.
I realized why the hospital looked so familiar. It wasn’t because it looked like every other hospital. This was the hospital my grandmother died in when I was 12, 24 years ago.
I remembered this day. The day my grandmother finally passed away. I watch my mother and I walk into room 802, hearts heavy with the knowledge of the inevitable. I stared at the door, dumbstruck. How could this be? How could I be here?
Like a flash, the memories came back to me. I remembered walking into her room, the bodily smell of age mixed with lysol, shit, and bleach assaulting my nostrils. My grandmother laying on the bed, her eyes opened a sliver, her grey pupils staring up at the ceiling, unaware of the two people crying by her bedside.
I looked down at Franny and Zooey in my hands. The novella that was given to me on this day, by a stranger. The stories that had gotten me through the death of my grandmother, the struggles of being a teenager, the harsh truths and realizations of suddenly finding myself as an adult, and finally, the death of my own mother. The book I had received as a gift from an angel.
My gaze rose back to the door and I watch my mother leave the room, tears flowing freely from her eyes. I remembered this. Mom left the hospital room to call Uncle Ron. That was when the angel came in. An angel, I suddenly realized, that looked a lot like 36 year old me.
Filled with the knowledge of what I had to do, I walked towards the room. The nurses ignored me as I passed their large circular desk, busy with their own tasks. I held back tears as I passed my mom, now speaking in hushed tones to my uncle, her voice thick with sorrow.
Stepping into the room, I couldn’t help but stare at my grandmother. The woman who taught me how to bake, how to stand my ground, and how to write. I felt eyes staring at me, and turned to the younger version of myself. Her eyes were rimmed with the thin saturated red of pain and loss. I knelt down, so that we were eye to eye.
“Hi Mary.” I said softly.
Younger me wiped her cheeks with the sleeve of her shirt, and sniffled.
I smiled sympathetically at her, and held out the book. “Here, this helped me a lot through a situation like yours.”
She took it hesitantly, never taking her eyes from mine. I opened my arms wide, and, despite not knowing who I was, she leaned into my embrace and I squeezed her tight. I remembered this moment. I remembered feeling comfortable in this stranger’s presence. That’s why I thought she was an angel. Because she felt like an angel.
“I know this is really hard right now, but it will get better, I promise. Read the book.” I kissed her on the top of the head, and pulled away.
She looked down at the deeply loved cover in her hands, and I remembered how I took care of that book as if it were precious for 24 years. Starting today.
I walked out of the room, tears burning my eyes. I thanked whatever power got me there, that let me tangibly support myself. It made me feel better. It made me think about the day before. About going into another hospital, similar to this one, yellowing at the edges. My doctor’s sympathetic face as she told me I had breast cancer. That, without chemotherapy, I only had 6 months to live. But that it was my decision how to proceed.
I thought of my young self, of Franny and Zooey, and the prayer that Franny said meditatively to set her tremulous mind at ease: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.