The nocturnal daughter
They knew me as the night shift for my family; the nocturnal daughter who stayed up at night in order to force her mother to get a few hours of sleep.
This was the tenth floor, the top floor, the no-man's-land. The cancer ward. Oncology, for those who knew the term. Well-hidden above such popular destinations such as the maternity and intensive-care floors, it was not a floor one journeyed to randomly.Even during the daytime, it was quiet. On most of the floors of the hospital, rooms marked "Oxygen In Use" were the exception. Here, they were the rule.
Those people journeying up to the tenth floor were more likely to talk to each other, more likely to be carrying suitcases. One, a careworn blond woman toting an overnight bag, gave me a compassionate look and asked, "Who are you here for?"
"My father. You?"
"My mother. Will he go home?" she asked quietly.
"No. Will your mother?"
"I don't think so." She looked down.
With that, we nodded—the understanding and acknowledgment of the inevitability of death holding our emotions stalwart between us. She got off the elevator first, turning left to head down the other hallway, before turning back to me and whispering, "God give you the strength you need."
But at night, the stillness was almost absolute. Dad, after a restless night, had finally settled down after an injection of toridol (known for its ability to ease bone pain). Once he slept, my mother finally bunked down on the corner bench in Dad's room, buried under hospital blankets.
It was 3:40 a.m. I was still dressed in the opaque black tights and black dress I had put on the previous day. I knew that if I put my boots back on, my steps would echo down the hallway. So, in my stocking feet, I slipped out of room 22 and walked to the end of the hall.
Quiet. Rain, yet again; my father had just barely managed to miss personally witnessing one of the longest rainstorms in recent memory. I watched the faintly-lit sluice of a parking lot for nearly ten minutes before turning around and walking away.
I was neither the first nor the last nocturnal daughter to head toward the nurses' station for an early-morning chat. They, better than the rest of us, understood the slow slip of the early-morning hours in the silence of the tenth floor, and understood that we, as laymen, did not deal with it as well as they, the professionals, did.
But I was startled as I headed toward the nurses' station; startled by a figure that to my exhausted and worried mind appeared almost ghostlike. It took me a moment to realize that the ethereal, almost sexless being clad in white and walking toward me was no ghost. Instead, it was only a very slender cancer patient, completely gowned and masked, taking a slow, laborious bit of exercise.
She (I believe it was a she) shuffled slowly on slippered feet. The gown fell, chador-like, over her body. Her head—whose slender roundness indicated baldness—was covered in a paper cap. Likewise, her face was almost completely covered in a mask. I could see her eyes, and the fingers of her left hand, which held tightly onto her IV pole.
I recognized the bags. Chemo.
It was nearly four a.m., and we were the only people in the hall. I whispered a quiet hello from several feet away. Even in the dim light, I could see her eyes dilate, and it took me a moment to realize that it was fear.
Germs, I realized. She's afraid.
It slotted into my mind, quick and precise. Walking at four a.m. meant she would meet virtually no one. No people, no germs. Acknowledging this, I nodded, and quietly stepped away. The tenth floor is not a game. I walked back to room 22, verified that both of my parents were sleeping soundly, and reopened my book to while away another hour before morning, when I could sleep.