Last week I had an epiphany. I am not used to epiphanies and at first I thought it was a headache. The television set was on and the Republican National Convention was headed for its grand finale. Maybe it’s just me, but a week in Cleveland in July seems like more than what’s necessary to make the point that you have lost your mind, when you could just as easily let the act of nominating Donald Trump for the office of president of the United States speak for itself.
In any case, while I was having this headache/epiphany, my mind wandered back four years to Phoenix, and a medical facility called Select Specialty Hospital. It may be a stretch but I see The Donald and Hillary everywhere I look. The specialty at Select Specialty, as far as I could figure out, was waiting for guests to expire, and this was where I spent the meat of my 10-week visit into the strange, remote world between this one and the next, waiting to die of an infection. If you are interested, the infection was probably from a puppy bite, but nobody ever could say for sure.
What everybody did know was that my goose was cooked.
As for me, everything in the world I knew about dying of infection came out of a single short story by Ernest Hemingway called The Snows of Kilimanjaro. It is a great, clear story, among his very best—although I would add here that advising good writers on which of their stories/novels/poems are better than the others is never a good idea. You might as well rank your friends’ children.
Anyway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro is a beautiful work and, without trying to tell you what it’s about—which will miss the point every time if the story’s any good—I would only say that apparently dying of an infection in sight of Mount Kilimanjaro is more thought-provoking than dying of the same thing in Phoenix.
The boss of the hospital floor was a thick, stubby-looking registered nurse—two-fifty if she weighed an ounce. Middle-age, loud, one of those obese folks you run into now and then with more energy than you had when you were 16. I have worked for bosses myself who scared their staffs, and she was one of those.
From the start, I was hanging in the balance; you do not come to this particular facility if you are not. A few days into my visit, my wife, Mrs. Dexter, stuck her head in the open door of the resident doctor’s office to ask about the next surgery, and without even looking up he told her that I wasn’t leaving the place anyway. I would point out that this was a resident and not one of the bunch who eventually led me out the other end, alive.
It was also early on—when exactly I don’t know. The days ran into each other, indistinct, even day and night, and there was nothing orderly or anchored left in my sense of what was going on—so early on, the floor boss stepped into my room just as Mrs. Dexter was coming in to visit. The nurse complained to Mrs. Dexter that I’d been a holy terror all night—hallucinations, pressing the call button to find out where I was and if somebody was taking care of my dogs. There was also a bear in the bathroom, eating the koi fish out of the toilet—this, by the way, was not a new hallucination. The first thing that always happens when I end up in the hospital is a bear goes after my koi in the toilet.
All to say, the boss had had it up to here, and as I lay conscious, four feet away, exhausted—you spend a night fighting a bear, you’ll be tired too—she shrugged in my direction and said that even if I made it out of there I’d never be the same person anyway.
Mrs. Dexter did not think this was good for my morale. She walked from my room to the hospital administrator, told the man what happened, and said she didn’t want the boss in my room anymore.
I am not sure what happened next, except I never saw the boss nurse again. This did not mean she was out of my life. Suddenly nobody would answer the call button. One afternoon, still too weak to sit up more than a few minutes, I was left alone for four hours on a metal toilet seat in the middle of the room. Another morning I blacked out while an aide was washing me off, and when I came back I’d gone to the bathroom and the aide was screaming the absolute filthiest string of words I have to this moment ever heard put together. “You stupid, f———, c—— faced, m——————.“ A good two minutes at the top of her lungs, and while some of the words were repeated, the phrasing was fresh all the way through.
Later that day, the aide came back—there was another aide too, they were bringing the lunch trays—and she picked up the water glass off the tray and threw it—the water, not the glass—in my face. The following morning, the second-in-command boss of the floor came in and said she’d heard that the woman had “spilled a few drops” of juice on my sheets, and she didn’t want to hear me saying anything about it.
The same woman was polite to my guests, politely suggesting I was not myself.
This went on, one way and another, until the day I left. For those weeks, the boss—and her nurses—could do and not do whatever they wanted, and there was nothing to stop them. You could see that the quality of care dropped off when nobody expects you to live, and if the infection had progressed from my spine and kidneys, etc. into my heart or lungs, nobody would have answered the call button while it killed me. And nobody except my doctors and a single nurse’s aide who seemed ashamed of what was going on, none of them would have minded at all.
And so, all this week I went back and forth from Cleveland to Phoenix, and kept coming back to Trump and Clinton and the mobs that don’t care that what got them here, in addition to the treachery and lying, was all personal greed.
Donald Trump, at the center of this half of things, takes the stage saying he will never, ever forget being nominated for president. Traditional values, making America great. And suddenly, you suspect air is being pumped into that old, flat tire. Suddenly you realize that now that he is so close, he’s beginning to forget who he is.
Last week Donald, this week Hillary. No amount of talking about each other will erase who each of them is.
So I go back to an even better short story than The Snows of Kilimanjaro, by an even better writer. A Good Man Is Hard to Find by a woman named Flannery O’Connor. The story ends along a quiet road with the murder of an old woman and her family. The old woman has been begging for her life when The Misfit shoots her—last, after all the others.
“She was a good talker, wasn’t she?” Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.
The Misfit tells Bobby Lee to shut up.
“She would have been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”