Jakob visits Cody in the mental hospital.
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I reluctantly returned to the hospital. I was in no mood for any human contact so I decided to take the stairwell up to Cody's third floor room. The last thing I needed was to share an elevator with a bunch of grim-looking shrinks or prissy-assed nurses, or worse, some scary-looking whacked-out patient with tombstone eyes. I followed the young attendant who was wheeling a steel meal cart into Cody's room. He placed Cody's dinner on the tray adjacent to her bed, revealing a forced smile accompanied by a brief nod of his head. The food looked less than appetizing: a thin watery soup, the colour of rusted metal, a plastic container of what looked like applesauce but with an odd grey tinge, and a partly ruptured soft poached egg oozing out a dull yellow yolk.
Cody lay motionless, her listless eyes focused on the ceiling, as if she were watching with bland interest a movie or TV show. I encouraged her to eat something--she looked so brittle. After a while Cody slowly lifted her head in a weak attempt to view the contents of the tray. She responded with a slight sneer at the sad looking meal ( I certainly could understand her reaction!) and lay her head back on the pillow. An upbeat nurse appeared at the foot of the bed--the same one who had taken Cody out for some fresh air during my first visit.
"Well, young lady--still holding your nose at our lovely gourmet hospital cuisine?" Cody smiled. She told me on the phone that the nurse was by far her favourite because she had a slightly bent sense of humour and was never demanding. The nurse turned to me, offering a look of shared conspiracy. "I think your charming friend over here would be very pleased if you ate something. After all, it's been days since you had any solids." The nurse looked over to me again, but this time her expression revealed a slight air of frustration. I sensed that things might be getting serious--maybe they would have to force feed Cody. It was time for me to leave.
The nurse, sensing I needed a minute or so of privacy to say goodbye to Cody, excused herself. I stood beside her bed, trying to put on an encouraging face. Cody struggled up slowly on bent elbows and coughed. "Jake, could I ask a favour? You don't have to do it and I'll completely understand. I can't thank you enough for all you've done. You're special, not like the other boys at school--you know, all high-and-mighty and only interested in themselves and the popular kids! Would you... give me... a little hug before you go?" Her request in its honest simplicity was beyond sad--the poor girl was just asking to be held!
I bent over Cody. Her hair looked matted and damp. Did she have a fever? I turned towards the side of her face and gently kissed the slightly raised pink and purple coloured scar that Cody had spent most of her unhappy life attempting to hide. I gently lifted her shoulders and hugged her. Her body was emaciated--a mere pitiful bag of bones! She looked up at me dewy-eyed and thanked me. I promised to visit again but I felt like pure shit. My frayed soul offered me no morsels of leniency. I was a goddamn hypocrite--simple as that! Here I was, a typical teenage boy pompously pretending that physical looks took a back seat to the inner beauty of girls. But I was no different than the rest of them. I was not special and I was not different--just a phoney two-faced stiff.
I left the hospital in a deep funk. A fresh breeze off the frigid lake brought a chill to the early spring air, a perennial reminder that winter in this country does not always loosen its miserable grip in early April. The sun was fading behind the tallest of the west-facing buildings. Foot traffic on Queen Street had dwindled dramatically from the afternoon rush, although out on the road, vehicles and streetcars were stuck in a bumper-to-bumper snail-paced crawl. I slipped on my favourite jean jacket from my knapsack. It had aged into a faded pale blue, time and usage generating a fringe of white loose threads spilling out from the frayed sleeve ends. I bent my head against the swirling wind and headed east towards the subway station.
The following Monday, I decided to call Cody from the pool hall's pay phone. There was no response which was a bit strange, seeing how Cody rarely left her bed. I figured that maybe she was sleeping. A bit later I called again, but no answer. I started to get concerned so I called Cody's nana. There was no response so I decided to go down to the hospital and check out the situation.
I arrived there a few hours later. This time I took the elevator--my head was totally fixated on Cody's welfare. The ward's brightly lit sanitized hallway was mostly empty, a welcome respite from the busy hours when nurses and doctors scurried in and out of patients' rooms and scatterings of pharmaceutically stoned residents stumbled zombie-like, talking mumbo-jumbo to their invisible audience, in concert with their wildly gesticulating hands and arms. Near the nurses' station, a tall gangly man, holding a shopping bag, shoeless and dressed in bright orange pyjamas and shoeless black socks, stood kingly before me, one hand assertively placed on his hip, the other smoking a cigarette attached to a long mahogany coloured holder. He addressed me regally as "my dear subject" and then smugly walked away, taking out from his bag a bible, holding it up high and loudly pronouncing in a heavy Newfoundland accent: "My fellow brethren, believe in our laird Jaysus!" I heard a female voice several doors down the hall, muffled by a partially closed door, but still audible: "Shut your fucking bible-thumping hole Randy--you retarded Newfie!" The man pointed the bible menacingly in the direction of the voice: "If thee see the light, thou shall have prosperity!"
Outside Cody's room, a cleaner clad in dull coloured blue cotton scrubs, a large yellow pail beside him, was slowly mopping down the floor. I glanced inside the room. Cody's bed was empty and neatly made. The room gave off a smell of vinegar and pine cones. I asked the cleaner as to Cody's whereabouts but his English was limited, responding with a shrug of his shoulders and a nod of his head to convey his lack of understanding. I walked to the nurses' station where an elderly doctor sporting a neatly trimmed grey van dyke beard, was peeling an orange while glancing down at a patient's chart. I asked him if Cody had been discharged. He looked up and glared at me like I was asking him assassinate the Prime Minister! He then commenced to blare out a tedious response that went on and on, his spiel sounding like a door-to-salesman delivering an overly rehearsed sales pitch. I didn't understand much of the legal sounding words but the gist of his response was that, because I was not a close family member, he was not allowed to divulge any medical information, all according to some kind of "physician-patient privilege"...blah,blah, blah.
Luckily, I spotted Cody's nurse signalling to me to join her at the end of the hall near the elevator. She told me that Cody had been transferred to Sick Kids Hospital during the night. She was sorry for not being able to provide for me any additional information but I could sense from the poorly hidden look of concern on her matronly face that things were not looking particularly good.
I had a sawbuck left over from my part time job at Royal Downs, a private golf and country club. The club openly banned Jews, coloured people, Catholics, and others not in the WASP camp. I washed dishes for the rich and well-connected White Protestants of British stock who thumbed their goyesh noses at anyone who failed to meet the narrow standards of acceptable identity. I was part of the hidden "back-of-the-house" staff: the cooks, busboys, dishwashers, potato-peelers, and cleaners who sanitized the toilets for all the "my shit-don't-stink" membership. The term was designated to all of the hidden staff intentionally kept out of sight from the discerning diners: workers of colour, Jews, Italians, and all the rest who were not considered to be on an equal footing. Management had given us our own private entrance and exit: a discrete nondescript door located at the rear of the building, camouflaged by the similar coloured brick facade. You needn't be a nuclear physicist to figure out that our "invisibility" was just a ruse for reducing the possibility of, God forbid, a club member being placed in the compromising, if not traumatic situation of breathing the same air in the same room as us. Let me get something straight: we weren't good enough to breath the same air, yet up to snuff to clean their shitty washrooms, cook their meals, or wash their dirty dishes?
Now, that's fucked up!
It was a totally different scene for the waiters. Unlike us, they were part of what was called the "front-of-the-house" staff: the chosen few who were all discretely vetted for proper blood lines, yet treated with feigned dignity, (they lacked the monied status), but paid a descent wage, unlike us poor faceless fucks. Those phoney diners had the halfwitted self assurance that their roast beef and Yorkshire pudding was delicately crafted by "clean hands", conveniently forgetting that it was us invisible serfs back in a sweaty kitchen who put together their goddamn food. Depending on how bad we were treated and our particular mood, we could easily vent our venom by gobbing in their soup or worse!
Our boss, the head cook, was a stocky dark skinned middle aged Sri Lankan with a name twisted together by twenty letters. He had a gentle demeanour which made our shitty jobs bearable. Back home, he held the distinguished title of head surgeon in a large public hospital. In order to give his children a better opportunity, he exchanged his delicate hospital scalpel for the solid wooden handle of a kitchen meat cleaver--a sacrifice he recently told me, was getting to be more questionable with each passing day.
Needless to say, the country clubs, like most private of the clubs in the city, were proudly outspoken about their blatantly prejudiced rules to exclude non-WASP members. Uncle Mickey told me that there would soon come a day when more Jews would be allowed to enrol in the prestigious law schools. Then, he said, karma would do a full three-sixty, laughing, as the swarm of new law graduates began preparations for well researched cases to haul the clubs' racist asses into a court of law ( hopefully, before the rare presence of a sitting judge, who under the clubs' membership laws wouldn't have a hope in hell of playing golf on their sacred links!).
I arrived at Sick Kids two hours later in the early afternoon. The hospital was among several that stood guard along University Avenue, a grand boulevard that culminated northward at Queens park, a large public green space which accommodated the Provincial Legislature building. According to uncle Mickey--my trusted human encyclopedia--the impressive pink limestone structure was erected near the end of the last century in the architectural style of Richardsonian Romanesque, whatever the fuck that is. Any how, it was where all the dumb-ass laws were debated and passed, mostly by a bunch of aging members of the Grand Orange Lodge, a fraternal Protestant organization dedicated to their own politics and religion, originating hundreds of years ago in Britain, primarily to give the shaft to their Catholic enemies.
I entered the hospital through the crowded Emergency Room. Most of the chairs were occupied by whimpering infants and sad-eyed toddlers hidden in the arms of anxious parents, as well as older children, many of them gripping injured limbs, trying to put on a brave face. I asked the old kindly-looking woman who was volunteering at the information desk if she could tell me where Cody was. She asked if I was a relative. This time I lied, telling her I was Cody's brother. She escorted me to a close by room with a sign that read: QUIET ROOM~PATIENTS & MEDICAL STAFF ONLY. I could hear someone crying inside. The volunteer opened the door. Inside, Cody's neighbour was comforting a sobbing Mrs. Jelinek, her arms draped around the elderly woman's shoulders. Between shaking sobs, Mrs. Jelinek looked up at me and spoke haltingly. "She's gone Jakob...she's gone!" Against hopes of all hopes, I prayed to whatever god or spirit was on active duty this day, that "gone" meant that Cody had had enough of depressing hospitals and had secretly escaped the premises with aspirations of returning to a "normal" life. But I knew the score.
The neighbour asked me to sit while she pushed the grieving woman's wheelchair into the closest restroom. She came back alone several minutes later, explaining that Mrs. Jelinek was feeling faint and was resting on a bed in one of the examination rooms. I now recalled her name--it was Alice. She sat next to me, placed a hand on my shoulder and asked how long I had known Cody. I was afraid to ask if Cody was dead, knowing what the response would be. I sensed that she was reluctant to talk about Cody in the past tense. But a few minutes later, no longer able to hold back her tears, she began to recount the events of the past few hours.
Alice told me that during the night Cody had problems breathing. When things got worse later in the early morning hours, the nurse called for paramedics to transfer her to Sick Kids Hospital. On the way there she went into full cardiac arrest. The emergency room doctors worked on her for several hours but could not revive her. She was pronounced dead just before noon. Alice told me that Cody had a difficult time, not only dealing with a life altering disfigurement, but also at a very young age being abandoned by her mother, and the absence of a father she never met. She knew of Cody's eating disorder and emotional problems but was unaware of any other medical issues.
Minutes later, a priest entered the room accompanied by a frazzled looking nurse. She offered us coffee or soft drinks but we politely declined. The priest told us that Cody's nana had requested his presence to provide her with some spiritual support. He invited us to follow him into the prayer room across the hall but I passed on the offer. I figured that it was not my place to take part in such intimate circumstances, being only a casual friend of the family and having had only a brief relationship with Cody. But more so, I did not think I was prepared to witness the grief of a grandmother facing the unimaginable reality of outliving a beloved granddaughter. I asked the nurse to let the family know I was sorry to be leaving but I needed to clear my head.
I found myself on the street, not remembering when or how I got there. I was numb. I felt unsteady on my feet, slightly nauseated. It seemed like some powerful force had sucked out my insides, leaving me just a mere soulless crust of myself. I was shaking uncontrollably, floating above the street, less than mindful of the horde of harried pedestrians and hospital staff leaving from some place or trying to get to another. I thought how pointless all of this rushing and fussing was, seeing how Cody's fate was approaching us all, in reality, making each one of us, no matter how rich or successful, equal in the eyes of this inevitable fate.
Slowly, my listlessness began to subside. The voices inside of my head started to chatter violently, kickstarting a collage of emotions, challenging my normally composed self. My brain felt like a circus tent juggler, tossing about a buffet of fiery emotions: grief, rage, frustration, guilt, remorse, and vengeance, each one too hot to handle for very long. And then, minutes later, things got really weird. My bottled-up feelings began to ricochet wildly off each other, as if trapped inside an arcade pinball machine, leaving me mentally exhausted and strangely confused.
"How should I feel?", I wondered. "Was there some kind of protocol laid out there for those who grieve a death?--you know, an Emily Post like type who could guide me through this, step by step? Should I cry...pray...jot down my feelings...lash out...or simply shrug it off, be headstrong, and try to get on with life?" Uncle Mickey once told me that grief is like an abstract painting: everyone reacts to it differently depending on their unique life experiences and sentimental nature. If so, my grief would best be summed up by Munch's bizarre painting. Cody had a print of "The Scream" hanging on her bedroom wall. When we had a shitty time at school, we would laugh about our 'Munchbummer" of a day!
I recalled years ago when uncle Issie told me the story about a socialist friend of his who would laugh uncontrollably at graveside services, no doubt to the consternation of rabbis and mourners. It got so bad that he was banned by the East London Jewish community from attending funerals. Uncle Mickey, a rabid scholar of psychology ( very weird considering that he thought psychiatry to be just a bogus "snake oil" science not worthy of being considered as part of the medical profession), conceded that some shrinks were spot on when they analyzed that inappropriate laughter was a symptom of pent up anxiety and tension, but acted out in an extremely distasteful way.
On the exterior, I revealed little of my emotional state. I did not cry (or laugh), but instead, agonized over the meaning of "death." As a virgin mourner, I had many unanswered questions: "Is death final...the end...finitio...zayn ale Iber?" Is it like before birth: a time and space of nothingness or perhaps a passageway to another reality? Is there an afterlife like heaven or hell (a bit Hollywood for my taste!) or a transition towards another birth? (more likely in my view). And if so (rebirth that is), what kind of physical form would it take: a homo sapien again, a lower formed animal, a plant, an insect? And if there's a ticket to be punched for either heaven or hell, how is it decided who goes where? By God's verdict?, by some other all-powerful Devine Being?, by the luck of the draw?, or by the biblical crap we hear about as children?: "be a good little child and you'll go to heaven." If the latter, does the entrance of the Pearly Gates have a celestial booth occupied by some halo-headed magistrate, handing out questionnaires to prospective tenants? And then again, maybe we're all just a bunch of self absorbed naive morons, unaware that our so called "reality" is just a mere illusion, and that nothing really exists--all of this just a hilarious experiment performed for its entertainment value by a species of cone-headed aliens smirking from their spaceships' windows somewhere out there in the vast out reaches of the unknown universe?"