The nagging beep of a wire coming loose somewhere drones on as a new rescue skids through the side door. An unaffected, wrinkled old man in his pinstripe pajamas rolls in as the EMTs and nurses discuss this weekend’s best Groupon deal. Uninterested in liposuction or fusion cooking, my hand grows limp from the bed handle it was wiping, and I catch the old man’s eye. It is bleary and listless, and he watches distantly as the young EMT checks him in. I stand there, bleary-eyed too, passing the wash rag between my fingers. Why can’t I be in the trenches instead of fine-tuning my hospital corner fold? A small voice from a priority room startles me.
The sounds of shuffling feet and nervous chatter echo back and forth between the flying buttresses. My day-old friends lead, and I trail behind, my face glued upward. How the heck did they build this back then? President Brodhead shushes, and the innards of the Duke Chapel turn still. I lean back and look around. Everyone is wearing lanyards. Don’t we look enough like freshman? This is where summer camp and church collide. My elbows slink to my knees, and I stare down at my neighbor’s toenails. Where did I leave mine? A goofy voice from the front altar startles me.
“Nurse, nurse, I need a hand.”
Running to her bedside, “Ma’am, I’m not a nurse. Just a student volunteer. What’s the matter?”
She looks up at me and mumbles something. I could have sworn she says she’s “Legally Blonde.”
“You’re what now?” I mumble back.
“I’m legally blind.” A pause. “You brought me dinner about 30 minutes ago? But I can’t see a damn thing. I was hoping you might show me my dinner.”
I nod, mentally unpacking what she has told me as I peel the Saran wrap off of her bread.
“Here. This to the left of the tray is bread.”
“Is there any butter?” she asks me. “Bread can’t be without butter.”
“Yes, the butter is right here next to the bread,” I explain.
“Now what’s this?” she asks, pointing to a little square packet.
“This is a hand wipe for after the meal.”
She smiles. “Oh, that little thing? They must be joking. Be a dear and grab me a towel, would you?”
For the next 30 minutes, she and I parse through her hospital tray, identifying and re-identifying bread, butter and hand wipes.
“This here is sugar, that yucky artificial kind,” I mouth.
She laughs, and we agree that hospital management must be some bitter bunch to make the standard of care Splenda.
“Health care’s gone down the tubes, hasn’t it?” she chuckles.
I lay a towel across her lap, pointing out that her fork is now wedged between her legs.
“I really must be getting back to work,” I say.
No response, so I turn to go. Another bed is waiting to be made, and as much as I enjoy a little health care banter, I’m not about to upset an ER nurse 11 hours into her shift. I backpedal out the sliding glass door.
“It’s not so bad, you know.”
I turn. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
She nods. “There are worse things than being blind to be sure. It’s not so bad.”
I walk back into the hallway, swipe my card and stand outside the ER, my face in my hands.
Her words—“It’s not so bad,” echo and recoil, each wave a fresh pulse in my eardrums.
My lips curl up into a small smile as I enjoy Brodhead’s upbeat, almost (dare I say) Sesame Street-esque lilt. “Now you all are a pretty standout bunch. But here’s a list of your peers’ accomplishments that will make you feel inadequate.” Or something like that. My ears perk up.
“Among you is an author, a Vietnam war veteran, a founder of an NGO …”
Okay stop, Brodbutt. I’m sitting there feeling not so good as celebrity after philanthropist after 1600 SAT-er are named. Not so good as my peers’ tragedies and triumphs make me and mine feel so small. So small and so not so good.
Double-arrow fast forward. Okay stop!
These were moments of clarity for me, like when after ten years you realize the expression is “nip it in the bud” and not “nip it in the butt.” These were times when the truth was and had been so obvious I felt embarrassed to not have noticed it until then.
Each of us is an old, blind lady in a hospital bed trying to unwrap today’s bread. Each of us is a college freshman drowning in a sea of supposed grandeur.
Face in my hands, I felt frivolous for ever having wanted more from my health.
Elbows on my knees, I felt uninteresting for having suffered no real tragedy. I wasn’t a soldier. Or author. Or extraordinarily kind and giving person.
But I do have one packet. So what if it’s Splenda?
Gracie Willert is a Trinity senior. Her biweekly column will resume in the Fall.
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