I HAVE JUST returned from visiting a friend in the hospital, something I don't do very well, although it's not from a lack of effort.
It's just that a man has to recognize his limitations. One of mine is an inability to gracefully comfort the sick, or to bring even a few moments of relief from the pain and boredom which engulf their dreary lives. In fact, it seems that very often my presence contributes to the significant decline of the patient, although I'm told that he or she will often rally noticeably the moment I leave the room.
Until then, however, our visits are marked by a few nervous remarks about the weather followed by long, awkward silences, until the patient finally pats my hand and says softly: "Why don't we see what's on TV?"
Some people know instinctively what to bring the hospitalized patient: a nice basket of fruit, perhaps, or a good book. Whereas my choice of gifts tends to run toward pruning shears or cans of Quaker State motor oil, particularly 10W40 grade, for some reason.
"You can't go wrong giving the Big Q," I used to tell my wife. "Remember, all these people drive cars when they're not stuck in a sick bed with IV lines snaking from their arms." But she convinced me that instead of bringing two or three cans to the patient's room in a large Tru-Value bag, the cans could be left discreetly in that person's garage along with a nice get-well note that says: "Works best if changed every 3,000 miles."
Another problem I have involves discussing the exact nature of the patient's illness. Some visitors do this well, adopting a breezy tone and talking about, say, a patient's prostate as if they were discussing nothing more annoying than an errant valve on the dishwasher.
Me, I tend to get a little bit more, um, involved. For instance, if the person has had his or her gall bladder removed, I'll often find myself choking back sobs and moaning: "WHAT KIND OF A LIFE IS THAT WITH NO GALL BLADDER? WHY GO ON WHEN YOU CAN'T EVEN PROCESS BILE ENTERING THE GASTROINTESTINAL TRACT?"
Of course, this type of behavior is completely out of line. Obviously it brings no comfort to the patient, nor does the subsequent commotion when security is summoned and the well-meaning visitor is dragged kicking and screaming into the hallway by two thugs in paramilitary garb and told, in explicit fashion, never to darken the patient's door again.
Not that this ever happened to me. But you hear things.
As trying as the role of the visitor is, though, it pales in comparison to the rigors of being a patient.
Instead of being allowed to rest or whimper softly in pain, he or she is expected to put on a brave face and -- this is the part that gets me -- actually entertain visitors.
This entertainment is expected to take the form of amusing anecdotes about "hospital life" (the awful food, the former Hitler Youth Corps member who's your nurse, etc.) and upbeat announcements on the patient's status. ("Oh, I'm doing fine, for a person with no pancreas.")
My God, what a terrible burden this is for a sick person! Each time you open your eyes, three or four moon-faced, damp-browed people are hovering over your bed, thrusting stale zucchini bread in your face and asking you to recite for the umpteenth time exactly what happened when your appendix burst and you passed out at the wheel of your car, which eventually plunged into that secluded ravine where you remained pinned under the rear bumper until discovered by a grizzled old miner riding a burro.
Hoo, boy. No wonder a coyote will bite off it's own injured leg rather than alert the rest of the pack to his plight.
Some tips for visiting a sick person:
* If you arrive when the patient is watching "Geraldo!" do not snort derisively and snatch the channel changer and say: "This is probably what made you sick in the first place."
* If the heavily bandaged patient in the next bed is moaning, do not inquire in a loud voice: "What's his problem?"
* Do not hog all the ice water, or make loud cracking sounds while chewing the ice. This will so annoy the patient that he will struggle out of bed and hurl himself through the nearest open window to the courtyard below.
* By keeping a watchful eye on the newspapers and supermarket circulars, one can often find good sales on motor oil.