New Year’s Eve
I have always hated hospitals. They reek of bleach and pine-sol and whatever fucking chemicals they can get their hands on to erase the aroma of the dying and the deceased. It was a nauseating odor meant to reassure all patrons that the sturdy, straight-back chairs—the ones forcing our spines into an unnaturally upright position for the hours we’re confined to this dreaded place—are pristine. Another thing I loathe about hospitals: those god-awful smiles. Those smiles that act like steel shackles encircling and suffocating your ankles— binding every unsuspecting soul to their perceived responsibility to their fellow human if they slip up and lock eyes with some unfortunate soul in the waiting area. And when their flitting eyes inevitably fixate on the gaze of another, and they always do, it’s an unspoken, universal rule that you have to offer up the most pitiful, half-hearted smirk you can manage to dress up as reassurance. And if you’re like me, and you hate hospitals, that moment becomes the bane of your entire existence. Because now, instead of sitting, uncomfortably might I remind, lamenting and mulling over the pathetic selection of sodium and carbs stowed away in the vending machine next to the women’s restrooms, you are instead forced to acknowledge and receive a stranger’s dutiful attempts to comfort you, and you know you must return that dreadful smile as though it somehow impacted your situation in one way or another. Before I touch on my next grievance with hospitals, it is important to note that I do not enjoy physical touch, especially from people I do not know. With that in mind, you can imagine my discontent in discovering that hospitals act as the breeding ground for unwanted embraces and gentle squeezes of the arms and hands. And everyone is expected to put aside their own reservations and accept these shows of support so that other people can feel the satisfaction of offering “help” to another grieving human being. Rejecting these physical advances is willfully committing to disrupting the implied order of operations that must occur for a hospital to function as a hospital, and that simply would not do.
Something I don’t hate: New Year’s Eve, the worldwide celebration of the end of a year. For many, New Year's Eve is symbolic of chances. Of Possibilities. Of new opportunities to shed the 365 days’ worth of poor judgment, misguided actions, and regrets that have encompassed most to the brink of suffocation by December 31st. Thanks to the Roman God, Janus, January 1st had been separated from the other days of the year and allotted to us as a gift— an opportunity to begin again. However, as a college student in her twenties, for me, this was an opportunity to be seen. My typical New Year’s Eve tended to be spent frequenting the mall in pursuit of which retail store was most successfully enveloped by a cloud of glitter and skin-tight sequined dresses. By the evening of New Year’s Eve, I was granted an opportunity to flaunt my youthful femininity amongst my peers. Shoulder to shoulder we wildly gyrated our sweaty forms to obscure, rap songs in a dimly lit building that scarcely met the minimum health and safety regulations of the city. I’d seek out a companion through my drunken haze and throwback cheap two-finger-pours of Jose Cuervo to ensure I never questioned the awful prodding of my chosen suitor’s tongue into my cheek or the pooling of spilled beer inside of my shoe. The foul odor of the grungy bar bathroom would waft into the crowd as four or more women at a time would throw open the door and stumble inside in a stupor. As is tradition, one occupies the mirror to fill in the gaps of her vixen-red lipstick left smudged by God only knows how many beer bottles. Another sets up camp on a floor left syrupy from spilled drinks—dry heaving in front of the toilet as her body attempts to retch up the greasy bar food of the night. The remaining stragglers shift impatiently from foot to foot—their last shreds of sobriety keeping them from voicing their need to urinate as to not upset their vomiting companion. By the end of the night, a crowd of boisterous, intoxicated young adults would gather and incoherently belt out the countdown to midnight. Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. The ritual persisted without fail as we all eagerly counted down to an imaginary moment.
Unfortunately, that moment became entirely too real for me on New Year’s Eve of 2020. That New Years' Eve I sat upright in a sturdy, straight-back chair inhaling the nauseating fucking smell of bleach and pine sol and avoiding the eyes of strangers in the waiting room because I did not want to exchange that loathsome hospital smile with anyone. The previous day, my mother had gone in for cardiac ablation, an operation that by her doctor’s words was incredibly common and simple, so she would be able to return home the same day of her procedure. But she did not return home that day, and all the reasons I hated hospitals became minute when faced with the new disdain I felt for New Year’s Eve. The weight of the skimpy, jeweled fabric hanging up in my bedroom closet could be felt from miles away as I pondered changing my superficial, New Year’s resolution to distract myself from the pathetic reality that I could not for the life of me remember the last thing I’d said to my mother. I wondered if she saw the face of God in the moments that her heart stopped, or if some part of her consciousness could see my father neglecting his own anxieties so that I could wallow in self-pity and regret. After sitting in the waiting room for so long that the cool metal of my chair began to leave an indention in my neck, the nurse in charge of monitoring her vitals informed us we could enter my mother’s room for a moment.
A cool gust of air permeated by the scent of sterile surgical instruments brushed my face as I hesitantly entered the room, and I was greeted by the sight of my mother hooked to various machines with a wide tube lodged down her throat and bandages adorning her chest. As I analyzed the frame of the figure confined to the hospital bed before me, the thought that kept invading my mind without relenting was that I did not want to be around her, and I was suddenly overcome with guilt and shame. But this was not my mother. My mother had waist-length coils that cascaded down her back so gracefully that I was always left envious of their beauty. My mother had a smile so warm and inviting that she often found herself tangled in a web of casual conversations with passersby in grocery aisles and at work functions. My mother had beautiful, brown skin embellished by dark speckles littered across the surface, mirroring my own. The person before me, buried in blankets and cords and surgical tape with her eyes squeezed shut could never be my mother because she would never let anyone see her with her hair uncombed and clothing disheveled. Unable to bear another moment taking in the scene before me, I fled the hospital and did not return for several days. Possibly even weeks. Ironically enough, out of all the instances in which I’d found myself in the walls of a hospital building or in the venerable pews of a church during a funeral service, that moment was the closest to death I’d ever felt.
The following days for me were spent contemplating. Contemplating death. Contemplating life. But most often contemplating morality. Did the true immorality lie in the unchecked hostility—no— rage that consumed me when my thoughts strayed to the surgeon who’d single-handedly acted as the catalyst to my family’s budding misfortunes? Did it lie in the bitter taste that lingered on my tongue as I pondered his right to retire to the comfort of his bed while my father folded his limbs uncomfortably night after night to fit into the stiff, meager sofa directly adjacent to his unconscious spouse? Was my resentment for a stranger immoral? Or did, perhaps, the true immorality lie in a hospital’s ability to safeguard its staff members from accountability in the face of a potentially fatal blunder? I did not have the answers, but that did not stop me from pondering a situation I knew I was powerless to change. New Year's for most was the opportunity for a fresh start, but ours had been tainted. Our start was stale. Polluted. Spoiled by the hand of another. I wondered how Janus would react to know that I no longer honored his gift of January first, and of the two faces he possessed—one looking into the past reflecting on the year we were to leave behind, and another peering into the future looking forward to what lied ahead—it was only the former that made sense to me. So, I remained fixated on my reflections. The past was fathomable. It was safe. And it was already gone, so it could not leave me anxiety-ridden and blind-side me the way the future could.
A month following my mother’s encounter with Death, I was finally met with the flash of her name on my phone screen and a face that I knew I would no longer recognize. The sound of her voice on the other line confirmed everything that I’d already determined: a new year for our family would never mean the same thing again.