1. Sosman, Barbara Browning


A patient contemplates the strange and intimate flow of life and death in a hospital.


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The flow of life and death in a hospital is mysterious, like the sound of a foreign language, and the mysteries that bring us here are profound. Stretched out in an unfamiliar hospital bed, I suppress realities, aware that tomorrow a scalpel will remove an enlarged node for a biopsy. The biopsy will show what I sense, a cellular chaos that threatens my life. Soon my disease will be presented like an offering. What will I do with it?

Figure. Illustration... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Illustration by Barbara Hranilovich.

A room can become a universe and time there an infinity. This room is inhabited by women, of whom I am the youngest by decades. Across from me, an elderly Austrian pianist named Julia appears well and comes and goes freely, shedding her hospital gown for a blue smock. She sweeps her silvery hair into a twist and festoons it with a velvet rose. A nurse tells me that Julia claims past fame and sneaks downstairs to play the piano in the staff lounge. Whenever she returns, her cheeks are pink and her voice breathy with laughter. Every day this week, as I return from another round of tests (X-rays, bloodlettings, the endless route of boredom), Julia meets me with the latest news about her health. Yesterday it was a spasm in her back, but today she feels magnificent. Her fingers dance in the air, as if she is performing in Vienna, bubbles of champagne dancing around her.


Beside me, Lizzie lifts her delicate head and smiles at Julia with luminous purity. Her visiting daughter has revealed that Lizzie is receiving radiation therapy for inoperable cancer of the esophagus. It is palliative only, for she can hardly swallow her own saliva. "She doesn't know she's dying," whispers her daughter.


In the opposite corner lies Anna, 90, visited daily by her sister, Marta. Anna's skin is stretched taut across the bones of her face. She turns away from Marta, and in a voice that is deep and carries a Middle European accent, she says, "Go home. I don't need you."


I want to deny what is clear even to me-that Anna is halfway dead already. A history of displacement and war is written across the faces of these sisters. Marta, the younger, asks me, "Why does she send me away?"


In my youthful arrogance I say, "She is ready to go." Marta sits on the edge of my bed and cries softly: "Anna is all I have now."


At dinner, we are alone again. Attempting to eat, Lizzie chokes violently but stifles complaint, although I cross the room to calm her. Then, in the sudden quiet, Anna commands me to her bed in the corner, "Come here." Her eyes are pale and liquid.


I touch her hand-we are always touching here, as if we are of one blood-but she doesn't respond. The low summer sun extending its rays into the room cannot warm her chilled hand.


"What do you need?"


"Close the blinds."


After I close the blinds, I ask if she would like some water.


"Go away," she says. "Go away." Her eyes are suddenly opaque, as if she looks inward.


In the middle of the night, I am awakened by the curtain being closed around my bed. Through the fabric I see a light in the opposite corner of the room and hear muffled voices. Footsteps pass back and forth, in and out of the room; clanking noises tell me that objects are being carried. I hear a crackle as of heavy plastic and the sound of a zipper. Then I am left in a cocoon of silence.


I swing my legs over the side of my bed, pull the curtains aside, and step out into a swash of light cast from the hallway. The floor is chilly on my bare feet as I tiptoe across the room. The white curtains drawn around each of the beds transform the room into a temple, with four pale columns rising into the shadowy ceiling. When I reach Anna's bed I pause, aware of my breathing and my hammering heart. Is she still there? I have never seen a dead person. Cautiously, I pull the curtain aside.


On the bed is a clouded white plastic shroud in the shape of a body. I put a tentative hand on it. The shroud carries no warmth, only a smooth indifference. Then, afraid of being caught, I leave and crawl back into the warmth of my own bed. When I awaken, Anna's bed is empty.


What drew me to her bed in the dark of night? To look upon the face of death, to comprehend its finality? I remember that Thomas Mann wrote in The Magic Mountain that our interest in disease and death is another expression of our interest in life. Perhaps this is why I have come to this place, to strip the clouded cover from my flesh and confront the wounded form, the hollowed eye. To be renewed in a foreign place.