And so I trust her and take a step forward. My hands grip the walker, my heel touches the floor and she’s right, I don’t feel much pain at all. I know the pain medications help but there’s something else; the old knee with its old pain is gone. With Susan by my side, I head out into the hospital corridor.
It feels like I’ve been trapped in my room for much longer than two days and it’s good to be moving, my hands grasping the walker, Susan by my side. I see my name on the entrance to my room and next to its a little yellow star and the words “Fall Risk.” I know that a yellow star means something else as well, but I’m too medicated to remember what.
The hospital ward is busy. A man passes me, pushing his walker in front of him, but he doesn’t have someone alongside him. He mustn’t be a fall risk. I’d like to stop and talk to him, compare notes, but he doesn’t look at me, and keeps on going. I see my nurse come out of one patient’s room and head into another. I watch a man in a green smock coming towards me, wheeling a gurney in front of him and suddenly I’m dizzy and stumble. Susan holds me steady and calls out for a chair. When it comes, I sit down in the middle of the hallway.
I tell Susan I’m fine, that I only need a moment to catch my breath, but I keep my eye on the gurney as it rolls by. It reminds me of how we used to transport the bodies of AIDS patients to the morgue on gurneys just like the one passing by. When someone died on the AIDS unit, we needed the room right away as there were always other patients waiting to be admitted. We would clean the body as best we could, tie up the chin and then attach a toe tag. Then a special gurney would be brought into the room and we’d lift or roll the body onto it. There was a handle on the side of the gurney which, when turned, slowly lowered the body into a hidden compartment underneath. The gurney would then be covered with a sheet and the corpse could be rolled down a busy hospital corridor without any knowing it was there.
Several minutes pass as I sit and watch the busyness on the unit, groggy patients like me walking slowly down the hall, nurses moving from room to room. I see a big window at the far end of the corridor and I ask Susan to help me get there. I get up, lean on the walker, and move forward, keeping my eyes focused on the window ahead, not looking into any patient rooms as I shuffle along. The memories from the AIDS unit are strong and vivid today. I don’t want to think about it anymore.
There’s a chair in front of the window and Susan helps me down into it. I tell her I feel nauseous. She says it’s probably the pain meds, that I should take some deep breaths. I do, but the nausea remains. As I look out the window, I remember the young men whose bodies I helped clean and who were then lowered into the hidden compartments of the gurneys.
I can see a small office building across the street, most of which is engulfed in a large black shadow cast by the hospital. From where I sit, the building looks like it has a gigantic hole in its side. The image is familiar and it takes me a moment to remember; I’d once visited the National Memorial in Oklahoma. It marks the spot where, in 1995, terrorist Timothy McVey blew up the Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. Rather than rebuild on the bombsite, a memorial was created, using the blown out shell of the building as a monument to those who had died. I remember walking through a hole in the side of the building and then seeing a large shallow pool of water. It was very quiet and still. There were 168 empty metal chairs sitting on the lawn beside the pool, each one placed on the spot where a body had been found. I remember especially the smaller chairs for children who had died there.
I walked through that memorial and read about the victims, saw teddy bears, letters and photos that were left on the fences that surround the site. It was a living testimony to all of those who died that day. As I gazed at the shadow outside the hospital window, I thought how powerful it would be to have such a place to go to acknowledge the 700,000 Americans who have died of AIDS, 20,000 of them San Franciscans. All of those people who were lowered into gurneys. Where is there a memorial to them?
Susan asks me if I can walk back to my room and I nod my head. On the way she leads me to a set of wooden stairs; two steps going up, two back down on the other side. She rolls the walker away and has me stand before the first step as I hold the handrail. “When you climb stairs,” she says, “it’s important to always go up with the good, then down with the bad.” It’s confusing at first, but then I understand. I step up on my right leg with my old knee and bring my left leg up behind. Up with the good, I say to myself, climbing the two steps. When I reach the top of the stairs, I step down with my left leg, “Down with the bad,” I whisper. I practice this, slowly going up and down the stairs, repeating to myself, over and over, “Up with the good, down with the bad, up with the good, down with the bad” . . .
To be continued