It was right after school let out and I left to pick up my brother. I drove. I was sixteen and he was twenty and had a car of his own but I always drove. In the dented wannabe minivan with my nickname I’ve had since seventh grade on the license plate.
It was almost the third consecutive week we’d been visiting our mother in the same hospital room on the same floor at the same time a few times a week. Her appendix burst too soon and she got an infection, which is why it took so long for her to be released. I tried not to think about the imminent hospital bills that would inevitably consume our kitchen counter, reminding me that we were far from a rich family.
Before driving home, I stopped by the Dunkin Donuts about thirty seconds away from the high school parking lot, about one verse of the song that was currently playing on my mixed CD. It was January so I justified buying coffee with my need to keep my body at a certain temperature.
The roads I took were familiar and I didn’t even have to consciously think about how to get to the hospital anymore. Starting with the drive up the hill thirty-five seconds away from my house that I have to drive halfway on the grass because the street is so narrow and the hill is so steep that I can’t even see any oncoming cars. It’s an accident already happened.
Once I picked up my brother, the thirty-minute drive to the hospital was filled only with my mumbled complaints of midterms and the EDM Kevin played through my stereo. It’s my car and I hate other people playing with my music, but at the time I didn’t feel like arguing with him over something so petty. When we arrived and I pulled into a hospital parking spot a little too fast, the feeling of helplessness suddenly appeared.
Hospitals make me anxious and nauseous and terrified all at the same time. The sterile stench of them is so potent that I am constantly convinced it has attached itself to my back…that it had followed me around the high school hallways and mocked me. I’m sure that when passersby looked at me for more than the one second I’m comfortable with, it was because they smelled the hospital on me. The smell that reminded me, like it did the day before when I was laughing at a joke that Chris told during algebra, that there was something I was forgetting.
My hands shook as I manually locked my car doors—Kevin already twenty paces ahead of me, texting.
He momentarily lowered his phone, turned around and stared at me. “Aaaaany day now.”
I smirked and walked slower.
But we walked in together because he understood that hospitals freak me out. And as soon as I walked through the glass doors of the first floor entrance, the electronic GPS voice in my brain took over.
1. Head northeast on Floor 1 towards the crying child with an ear infection
2. Follow signs for avoiding standing near doctors. Turn left after 20 carefully maneuvered steps into the elevator. Stay in the back because you know doctors stand towards the front
3. Take the Floor 5 exit, take the first right by the middle-aged woman in a wheelchair and the small child holding her hand
4. In eleven steps, veer right
5. Continue down this miserable hallway, after three rooms your destination will be on the left
But it didn’t shut up because I didn’t let it. I didn’t want to be there. I let the voice continue.
6. Take a closed hand to push open the familiar splintered brown door
7. Greet your parents, take off the bookbag that’s digging into your bra strap, drop it on the bottom of your mother’s bed
8. Your dad asks you how school was and tells you to sit down, take four strides towards the windowsill
9. Take the second cue to sit next to your brother on the window’s ledge, take seven breaths to stay alert enough for your parents not to question you
10. In five minutes, a lawyer walks in and takes two steps and one long breath and you hear—
Other words I managed to hear were unnecessary because I was entirely unsurprised…but I still cried.
And weeks later, when I thought about that day, it wasn’t to cringe about my parents’ divorce, it was to remember that it was the same day my cousin was admitted into a different hospital forty miles away.
I remember sitting down on the windowsill next to my brother and thinking how perspective is a funny thing.