I make a point of avoiding familiarity with hospitals.
I get the distinct impression that everything within a hospital has been laminated. I don’t think it’s just the antiseptic smells that bother me, but for some reason, as soon as I set foot inside a hospital and begin to follow that painted line I feel nauseous and shaky. I suppose I’m not really a very good advert for a hospital; I feel more ill when I leave that I did when I arrived. And I really don’t like those patented pale greens and pale blues that are forever known to me as ‘hospital green’ and ‘hospital blue’.
Perhaps the real problem is that I am afraid of the unknown. I’m scared that I might witness some ‘illness’ and I don’t know what to do with that or how to handle it. I fear unpredictability and in hospitals I feel like I can’t predict what I might see or what might happen.
Another thing that frightens me in hospitals is frailty. People with tubes sticking out of them frighten me. Again, perhaps this is part of a fear of the unknown. I don’t know what the beeps and machines mean. I don’t know what the tubes are for and so I cannot know the actual well being of the person because I don’t understand what’s happening. By their very nature people in hospitals are usually frail. That’s why they are in hospital. I am aware that these are all selfish reasons for being afraid, but there you have it. My hospital confessions.
All the above being true, however, I recently found myself voluntarily entering a hospital twice within the space of a few days and the impact of those two short visits has weighed on my mind ever since. The thing that struck me so strongly on on these visits was the special kind of frailty that comes at the beginning and towards the end of life.
I first visited a 90 year old lady whom I love very much. Her body has recently begun to fail her and as I walked into the ward she was resting with her eyes closed. She was too small for her skin and her eyes were sunken, though when she did open them I saw that they sparkled just as much as they always have done. Talking made her breathless and tired and she had only just that day been able to eat food and enjoy it. It’s difficult to describe the sadness I felt to see her there. Her amazing mind working at 100mph as it always had, but her body just not up to scratch.
Just a few days later I was back in another hospital to visit a baby born 3 weeks premature. He too was lying with his eyes closed as we walked in and was reluctant to open them at all during our stay. In many ways I couldn’t help but see the similarities between these two visits. Both were being fed carefully and in measured amounts. Both were having checks for organ function. Both were lying in a bed that was too big for them and both were looked in on every few minutes by nurses.
And yet at the same time I wondered how much more different these two individuals could be. I don’t need to spell it all out, but as a result I exited that week feeling as though I’d glimpsed something meaningful and important. Many, many philosophers have contemplated and pondered this very subject much more eloquently and deeply than I can and will. But I was so struck that week by the fragility of life. We enter as we leave. Fragile and dependent. The beginning and the end of life seem to me to be not that different at all. They are polar similars.