Angela Townsend ~The Veteran

The first time you go to the hos­pi­tal, there is much to learn. I don’t mean how to knock the bub­bles out of your insulin syringe, although this is use­ful information.

I mean the def­i­n­i­tion of “grits,” a gig­gly noun that presents itself for your con­sid­er­a­tion every morn­ing. The cafe­te­ria will make it for you if you cir­cle it. Your father says it is Cream of Wheat with a Southern accent.

I mean the res­ur­rec­tion of your mother’s accent, which had long been com­post­ed under sub­ur­ban daf­fodils. When your moth­er announced that she would be stay­ing in your hos­pi­tal room overnight, every night, the head nurse hes­i­tat­ed. Now you know what hun­dred-proof Brooklyn sounds like. You like it very much.

I mean the sadism of your endocri­nol­o­gist, who has Paul Simon’s eyes and is small enough to kiss on the head. That might make him cross, since you are only nine. Also, his red toupee does not appear to be secure­ly attached. You like Dr. Pipo, but you do not like his decree that you inject water into your grandfather’s bicep. You insist you are ready to stab your­self. You have prac­ticed on clemen­tines and plush cats. You are forced to impale your grand­fa­ther, and he laughs and calls you “Princess.”

I mean the friend­ship of the med­ical stu­dents, leg­gy angels who clot around your bed. You insist they address your I.V. as “Irving Victor.” They sign your auto­graph dog, fall asleep behind your door, and smug­gle you sky­scrap­ers of sug­ar-free Jell‑O, which you have just learned is a “free food.” You toast each oth­er, your moth­er, and Dr. Pipo with the fun­ny half-cans of Shasta. One of the med­ical stu­dents calls Shasta “poor man’s cola,” and you and he agree that some­day you will start a band with this name.

I mean the hydraulics on the wheel­chair, and the fact that you will nev­er eat anoth­er gra­ham crack­er with­out smelling alco­hol wipes in the back of your throat.

This frees you up for high­er edu­ca­tion the sec­ond time you go to the hos­pi­tal. This is an elec­tive expe­di­tion. Last time you were in ketoaci­do­sis, but now you are pink, and eleven, and proud to be a pio­neer. Dr. Pipo sent you to a real psy­chi­a­trist to con­firm that you are ready for an insulin pump. You and Gretchen made each oth­er laugh. She said she wished you could hang out more often, but that you were going to be fine. She said to “take no flak.” Your father calls you the bion­ic woman. The Dutch Guild at church cro­chets you a pock­et cross.

You will learn how to fill your reser­voir, pro­gram your basal rates, and ride with a side­kick who looks like a pager. The pump has been sent to save your kidneys.

You will learn that St. Agnes is a Catholic hos­pi­tal, which means they will send you a nun. This is not as fright­en­ing as you expect. You talk about poet­ry and tea. When she leaves, your moth­er informs you that no one on earth is holi­er than you are.

You will learn that a nurse named Paula gives insulin too ear­ly, even though you insist you have been doing it your­self for two years. You don’t want to make Paula feel bad. Your blood glu­cose can­non­balls. You learn that your moth­er has brought loaves of bread and peanut but­ter. Your moth­er talks to Dr. Pipo. You don’t see Paula again.

You learn that a man named Keith Haring did the draw­ings on the walls in this pedi­atric ward, and you wish you could thank him. His round-head­ed peo­ple curl around each oth­er like elbow mac­a­roni. They are mov­ing togeth­er to music you can hear. They are yel­low and pur­ple and ful­ly alive. Someone says Keith Haring died of AIDS. You dream about him, and hope God will let you give him a hug as soon as you get to heaven.

You learn that Mary J. Blige is going to be a super­star, because a nurse named Kate would bet one bil­lion dol­lars on this. Remember that name: Mary J. Blige. She’s Kate’s friend. They go back to nurs­ery school. She just signed a record deal. Remember that name. Kate gives you a cas­sette and always gives insulin on time. You learn the song “Real Love” by heart and hope Mary J. Blige will be a superstar.

You learn that some­times you see things hap­pen­ing while they are still hap­pen­ing. After two days of study­ing basal rates and bolus cal­cu­la­tions, Dr. Pipo says you are ready to start pump­ing. You solem­ni­fy the wan­ing day. This is the last time you will put on paja­mas with­out a pump. This is the last time you will watch Family Ties with­out a pump. This is the last time you will talk to your grand­par­ents with­out a pump.

You learn that every hos­pi­tal serves “grits.”

You learn that oth­er par­ents cry more. The boy across the hall is ten, and he’s a pio­neer, too. His par­ents ask you to tell them what you know. They say you are so calm. You won­der if you should tell them that your moth­er is a psy­chol­o­gist. You won­der if they took the boy to a real psy­chi­a­trist. They ask you to pro­gram some­thing on the boy’s pump. Your moth­er calls Dr. Pipo in her Brooklyn voice.

You learn that all the cross­es on the walls have Jesus dead on them here. Your moth­er says the cru­ci­fix­ion and the res­ur­rec­tion are equal­ly impor­tant, but we have a choice as to whether we focus on life or death.

You learn that the nee­dle in your bel­ly some­times hurts so much it wakes you up. They call it a “bent nee­dle,” which is uncre­ative. If you bite your own teeth, you do not cry as you snake it under your skin. You enjoy that the giant, smooth band-aid is called a “Poly-Skin,” and you pre­tend you are half-girl, half-sea-lion.

You learn that your class has made you cards, and you string them on the wall like ivy. Nathan writes that he is pray­ing for you. Jen writes that “the school day has no col­ors” when you are gone. Pete writes that every­one will think you are a doc­tor since your pump looks like a pager. He went to the library to read about it. You real­ize your pump needs a name and set­tle on Marcia Bainbridge. Dr. Pipo says he nev­er met an aris­to­crat­ic med­ical device.

You learn that your moth­er will not let you watch Jerry Springer, no mat­ter how many hours a day he is avail­able on hos­pi­tal television.

You learn that every­one talks about “hos­pi­tal smell.” They are apolo­getic, but you think the lemon-cafe­te­ria-alco­hol-wipe bou­quet is friend­ly. You have not met a sin­gle mean per­son. Your moth­er is five feet away. Chefs are mak­ing grits for any­one who wants them. You toast your life.


Angela Townsend is the Development Director at Tabby’s Place: a Cat Sanctuary. She grad­u­at­ed from Princeton Seminary and Vassar College. Her work appears or is forth­com­ing in Arts & Letters, Chautauqua, CutBank, Lake Effect, Paris Lit Up, The Penn Review, Pleiades, The Razor, and, among oth­ers. Angie has lived with Type 1 dia­betes for 33 years, laughs with her poet moth­er every morn­ing, and loves life affectionately.