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“That does nothing for you,” I say to my mother every time I enter a new hospital room. She chuckles if she can. It’s one of our jokes, a reference to trying on clothes in dressing rooms, pulling no punches, helping each other decide on size, fabric, fit.
I’m kidding with her, but it’s true: hospital gowns are an affront, stripping patients of whatever dignity they have left. When she’s not in the hospital, my mother has panache. She knows how to put an outfit together with items from different stores, possibly different eras, and different price points. She manages to look stylish without being matchy-matchy. She wears an abstract ring from a museum shop and a statement necklace she’s had since the 70s with a crisp little jacket she picked up from TJMaxx. “Your mother’s so elegant,” people often tell me. She can pull off tweeds or all-black and make it anything work with the perfect silk scarf. She irons a crease into her one pair of jeans.
She hates those hospital gowns. They’re demoralizing. Maybe that’s the point. I’ve noticed that demoralization makes a person — makes her — more compliant. To take the drug, accept the procedure, and, oh, whatever, just sign on the line promising her family won’t sue if she dies.
If I were to draw a map of the routes I’ve traveled toward Delaware, from Philadelphia, Denver, then Boston, and New York where I’ve gone to school or worked over the course of two decades, it would look like spokes of a wheel, with her, always, at the center. I get one degree, then another. After each breakup, I drive in her direction for a dose of Mom, perhaps some antiquing or to hit the sales racks, trying on piles of clothes and taking turns hanging them back up for each other. She helps me figure out what to wear, followed by lots of “gabbing” (her word), and homemade guacamole in the red bowl, with either Bach or Bob Marley in the CD player. These visits are like medicine for me, a way to re-group.
In between, the wheel turns, I always rush to her hospital bedsides. She recovers from one illness, at least partially — she he returns to work, donning exactly the right accessories — then something new crops up.
I’m not saying that if a person could wear their own clothes, they’d heal faster, or specifically that she would. And I do understand it’s a matter of access, so that nurses, god love them, can hook all different parts of a person’s diminished body to all different bags and bottles, with some liquids traveling in, others flowing out, punctuated by the incessant bleeping of the machines, though none of the staff pays attention to that sound anyway.
These sad, fabric sacks (sad sacks) come with either ties or snaps. However they close, they always slip off one of my mother’s shoulders. I feel compelled to adjust them for her. Sometimes, she adjusts them herself, but they immediately slip off the other shoulder. There must be a better design.
I bring a novel so I have something to read while she dozes. Mostly, though, I fixate on the patterns. In all those years, I only see four patterns, mostly in pastels, occasionally in primary colors, and muted by hundreds (thousands?) of washings between patients:
Rows of Diminutive Diamonds, Usually in Blue.
And my personal favorite: Circles Comprised of Tiny Polka Dots.
No stripes, no checkers, no paisley, no plaid. Fortunately: no skulls, but no smiley faces or flowers, either. Maybe it’s different in the pediatric wing.
I wonder while I sit there: Has she ever been issued the same gown twice? Has anyone died in the one she’s wearing? Do they retire the gown in that instance or do they just toss it with the others into a gigantic hamper?
I learn a lot of things in my years of hospital visits. Like: hospitals are cold year-round so I often wear a scarf, mine or one of hers. Lipstick makes her feel better, especially if applied right before the doctors come in. Arteries can be unblocked with a tiny balloon. Blood contains thousands of tiny platelets that help with coagulation; without enough, a person could spontaneously bleed to death. I learn how the thyroid works and that people don’t necessarily need spleens. Metal rods can be inserted into arms, pins can be inserted into broken hips, and pneumonia sets in easily. A cocktail of medications, those “meds” she doesn’t want to take, addle the brain temporarily and permanently. Ribs can crack in the assisted journey from a stretcher to a bed, and the only creature anywhere near as fierce as a Mama Bear is a Daughter Bear. I learn that people can be unlucky (to get sick) and lucky (to improve) in equal measure. Likewise, doctors can know everything and nothing. I learn people who end up wearing a lot of hospital gowns gradually care less and less about them, even if they originally loathed them.
I don’t know which pattern she is sporting on the one night I can’t get to her in time. I can only assume the gown slips off her shoulder. Triangles, squares, diamonds, circles. There have been so many years of trying to get better, apologies and frustration, attempting to make the best of things with her lipstick right there in her purse, an arm’s length away. I think about all the mothers, fathers, grandmothers, aunts, and maybe even daughters wearing her gowns right at this moment. The fabric is even softer now, the shapes continually fading.