Eventually They All Get Sick
His mother was sick. That is the problem with mothers, eventually they all get sick.
It was expected that Drew would continue with school while his mother was sick. Drew, after all, was quite healthy. Drew liked to play pickup basketball after school. Strawberry Pop-Tarts were his favorite food, though, when his mother was well, she encouraged him to eat more vegetables.
His mother’s illness was both the slow-festering kind and the quick-killing kind. It was slow and festering in that she had been sick for several months and had become entirely bedridden and dependent on 24-hour care. It was quick killing in that in the days and weeks before her illness, she was perfectly healthy aside from a small cold and a couple bouts of mild diarrhea. The day she found out she was ill, the doctors told her with no uncertainty that she was going to die and she was going to die soon.
Drew wasn’t at the appointment. He was sitting in math class where he was drawing a series of cartoon figures in his notebook. When his mother found out she was going to die, she was alone aside from the doctors, and the doctors in this circumstance could not be regarded as people.
Drew’s mother didn’t tell him she was going to die. Drew’s mother also didn’t tell him when his father left. Drew’s mother said things like, “Eat more broccoli, it’s healthy for you” and “Go do your homework.” She never said things like, “I am rapidly dying.”
It took Drew awhile to notice that the spots inside the toilet were dried vomit and that his mother’s thick, black hair was slowly receding and then, all at once, entirely gone. When he noticed he said, “I will eat one more bite of broccoli” and “I am doing my homework,” even though he didn’t actually eat more broccoli and had forgotten to write down his homework assignments.
Finally, his mother said, “I’m going to the hospital,” the same way that she said, “I’m going to the grocery store,” and Drew said, “Okay” and she had a taxicab come and pick her up because she didn’t want to pay for parking and Drew didn’t have his driver’s license yet.
He took the bus to the hospital after school and sat by his mother’s hospital bed, which at first seemed like an immensely noble act—an act so sincere that he couldn’t even tell his friends about it—but quickly became boring. Drew and his mother had little to talk about and spent most of their time watching daytime television. Drew’s mother looked riveted, but only because she was too sick to move her eyes.
While his mother watched television, Drew wandered the hospital trying to find a vending machine so that he could buy strawberry Pop-Tarts. The thing about the hospital is that no one ever feels like they belong there, even when they do, even when they are sick and dying. Drew was not sick and dying. Drew was a healthy teenage boy who was made uncomfortable by the stares of people walking by and thus when he found a white lab coat hanging on a hook in the hallway, he slipped it on. Because Drew was such a healthy boy, because Drew was tall and broad shouldered, the white lab coat fit him perfectly.
In the white lab coat, he was nearly invisible as he wandered the halls. Hospitals are haunted by all sorts of things, doctors being the most prominent of all. It was the first time that Drew didn’t feel scrutinized for the placement of his body. No one asked if he was supposed to be there or suggested that he “would be better off going somewhere else.”
He walked downstairs to the Pediatric unit and stared at the room of babies through the glass. Drew didn’t think babies were cute. Drew had been taught in school that babies were something to be afraid of. “Babies ruin your life,” his health teacher had said. He peered into the room of little life-ruiners, their wrinkled little faces and pastel colored hats. Drew and the life-ruiners had something in common in that all of them had mothers in the hospital. The difference was that the life-ruiners were responsible for their mothers’ hospitalization, while Drew was a mere bystander in his mother’s ravaging illness.
He walked down another flight of stairs and through a series of doors until he found the x-ray room. No one was being x-rayed, but he knew what it was from the time that he broke his arm on the playground when he was eight years old. He had been climbing on things that he wasn’t supposed to be climbing on. He was up too high. His mother told him to come down and he didn’t listen. He never listened. Part of being a child was not listening to parents when they gave warnings about things. When he fell his mother said, “I told you that would happen,” and then she sighed and found someone with a cell phone, because they were still too expensive for her to buy one, and sat and held the hand attached to his healthy arm all the way to the E.R. and then sat with him three hours more while they waited for a doctor to see him.
“This will teach you not to climb on things,” she said, and then purchased him a soda out of the vending machine to make him feel better.
Drew climbed on top of the x-ray table. He wanted to see the insides of his body. The problem with pretending to be a doctor was that he had no one to examine him because he was supposed to be doing the examination. There were some x-rays hanging from the examination lights and he turned them on and told the empty room his analysis.
“Everything is broken,” he said. “You need new arms, new legs, and a new brain.”
He then did an imitation of the patient crying out, “No, doctor, tell me something good.”
When the sun went down, he returned and sat with his mother. He ate most of the food from her dinner tray because she said she wasn’t hungry. Drew couldn’t remember a time that his mother hadn’t been hungry before, but he was so grateful to be eating a bread roll that he didn’t say anything, worried that she would change her mind and take the roll away.
He took the last bus home in the evening. His mother had washed all of the dishes and stocked the kitchen with food before she left, but she had forgotten to teach Drew how to cook and thus everything in the kitchen had begun to rot. Drew didn’t know that everything was rotting. Drew did not know what rot looked like. His mother had always used everything in their kitchen before it went bad, eventually mixing everything together and calling it “stir-fry.”
“Why can’t we just go out?” Drew said nightly.
“Because I made this meal for you,” his mother replied.
Drew did not know what it meant to make a meal because he had never made one before. He got a strange urge for stir-fry and was disappointed when he walked into the kitchen and found all of the groceries neatly put away in their place and not stir-fried at all.
The first few mornings when his mother was in the hospital, Drew dutifully walked down the street and waited for the yellow school bus to come and bring him to school. Finally, it occurred to him that without his mother there was no one to tell him to go to school. Drew understood that in the greater scheme of things there were many reasons to go to school, but on a day-to-day basis, his main motivation for attending his classes was his deep fear of his mother’s wrath . His mother had become too ill to harbor any wrath, and thus Drew stopped attending school. Instead of attending school, Drew put on his white lab coat and a pair of blue scrubs he had stolen out of a supply closet. Instead of attending school, Drew became a doctor.
At first Drew commuted from his house to the hospital, gathering quarters in his pocket for the ride. That was before he was given a swipe card with his picture on it that gave him access to the doctor’s lounge, which had several cots for resting, a locker where he could store his extra clothes, and a vending machine that contained strawberry Pop-Tarts. The nurses chided him for losing his original swipe card and told him not to do it again.
“Doctors,” they said and chuckled. Drew didn’t tell them that he never had an original swipe card or that he was actually supposed to be in high school and not the hospital. He liked his doctor I.D. card much better than his high school I.D. card. His high school I.D. card didn’t get him in anywhere.
It took Drew awhile to settle on a specialization. He wandered from the sleep lab to the cardiac unit and finally settled on the Emergency Room. There was something comforting about being around people in a panicked state. Their panic made Drew’s own emotional state feel very calm in comparison. While these people bled and cried, Drew had a doctor’s I.D. card and a white lab coat. He wasn’t crying or bleeding at all. He was fine.
According to the other doctors on the E.R. floor, Drew was a resident and not a real doctor. This was fine with Drew because it meant that he didn’t have to know everything the way that real doctors did and they still let him do stuff like stitch up wounds and set broken bones. He liked working with children the best. The children in the E.R. were acquiescent to his instruction and never questioned his capability as a doctor. Whereas adults, the whiners, never stopped asking questions.
“How many times a day do I take this pill?”
“Where did you go to medical school?”
“Are you sure it isn’t broken?”
“You look too young to be a doctor.”
After work, Drew and some of the other residents went out for drinks. He wasn’t carded at the bar because he was with a whole group of doctors-in-training and surely a doctor must be over the age of 21. Drew got drunk for the first time. He spent a long time discussing with the other residents their favorite video games. They told him he was a cool dude and then he excused himself to go throw up. It was the best night he ever had. The residents made his high school friends seem so lame.
The next day, there was a bus accident and the Emergency Room was swamped with patients with ruptured organs and broken bones. Some people wheeled in from ambulances were dead upon arrival. Drew had never seen a dead person before. The dead people looked almost like living people, except there was something eerie about the stillness of their chests. The area surrounding the dead was calm. No one panicked over a person no longer breathing.
Drew assisted a doctor in organ removal. He wasn’t sure which organ it was. It turns out that almost all the organs look the same. The doctor complimented Drew on his ability to maintain a cool composure in a crisis.
“We need more people like you,” the doctor said. Drew had never felt so proud.
When the emergency was under control, Drew went to the doctor’s lounge to take a breather and eat some strawberry Pop-Tarts. The filling in the Pop-Tarts looked nothing like actual blood, something Drew had seen a lot of that day, but looked enough like fake blood that he felt mildly sick while he was eating and threw the second Pop-Tart in the trashcan, something that he had never done before. Drew had lost weight since becoming a doctor without school lunch and his mother’s dinners to sustain him.
It had been a while since he had seen his mother. The last time he was in her room, she was struggling to breathe and they put her on oxygen. The oxygen mask covered her face enough that she no longer looked like his mother.
“I don’t want to remember her that way,” he had overheard one of the Emergency Room patients say about their elderly mother who had fallen and broken a hip, and Drew borrowed the rhetoric for his own mother. He didn’t want to remember her that way.
He treated an old man with pneumonia.
He treated a child with a broken leg. He was getting good at masking casts.
He sent a girl who had swallowed too many pills to the psychiatric ward. She screamed at him that he was doing the wrong thing and he said to her, “Have you been to medical school?”
He watched a woman push a baby out of her womb.
He went to the Emergency Room holiday party and drank too much and sang karaoke.
He stitched a cut from cooking.
He helped a woman file claims with the police after her boyfriend beat her.
In the doctor’s lounge, Drew found a red onion. He used a scalpel to cut it open. It made his eyes run. He tried one of the pieces. It burned his tongue. In the Emergency Room a drug addict handed him a tomato and asked for a prescription in return. One of the residents gave him a leftover container of rice.
“You look hungry, man,” the resident said.
In the lost-and-found Drew found a hot plate. He stole a bottle of soy sauce from the cafeteria, some broccoli from the salad bar. He kneeled down over the hot plate, careful not to spill on his white doctor’s coat. He mixed together the chopped onion, tomato, broccoli, and rice. He poured soy sauce over the mixture.
He sat in one of the waiting room chairs and ate his meal. It was too salty, the vegetables undercooked. Drew ate it anyway. He needed the sustenance. As he ate, he watched an old man wheeled in, clutching his heart. A gigantically pregnant woman clutching her crotch. A boy with seemingly nothing wrong at all except for the tears streaming down his face. The broccoli slid down Drew’s throat, rooting itself inside of him. His stomach started to rumble. It could mean anything.
Tasha Coryell is an MFA Candidate at the University of Alabama where she is working on a novel about murderous sorority girls. Her work has been featured in [PANK], The Collagist, Word Riot and other journals. You can find Tasha tweeting under @tashaaaaaaa and more work from her at tashacoryell.com