When the Hospital Calls – Revisited

Going through Joe’s stuff, my daughter found a copy of Inscape, a literary magazine published at Pasadena City College to showcase creative writing pieces by students. I worked on the editorial staff in 2012-2013 and had a piece published in it myself.

Until today I forgot it was a piece I wrote about Joe. Sort of: it’s about what I went through, and what I wish I had known, when he developed a brain aneurism back in early 2001. We’d been dating a little over 2 years at that point, and only saw each other about once a week, when he’d come over on Sundays and hang out with my family.

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Oh, the good ol’ days.

It’s a strange thing to read today, having known him for 22 years and lived with him 18.

And when the hospital called this last time things went very differently.

But in the aftermath of his aneurism, we found lots to laugh about. Because that was Joe: find the humor in everything, especially the bad times.

So I thought this deserved a repost. Edited a little because I simply must.

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..the wording. First I must change the wording.

When the Hospital Calls

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1.) Wake up. Try to take in what the doctor is saying. Don’t ask questions yet: you might not need to. When the doctor is done, ask questions. Make him repeat the story a couple times in the process. Ask things he cannot answer.

2.) Start to call your boyfriend, Joe, but don’t complete the dial. Remember, the doctor just said they’re prepping him for emergency brain surgery. Hang up and call your mother instead. Sob directly into the phone and talk much louder than you intend.

3.) Go about your day, because there’s nothing else you can do. Your everyday routine will bring you a sense of normalcy, and you desperately need that right now.

4.) When his 80-year-old mother calls to tell you what happened, try to act surprised. She needs to feel in control. She will not be happy if she knows Joe had the hospital call you.

a.) When you do tell her that the hospital called, take the focus off of yourself by asking her how she is doing, and if there’s anything you can do for her. Treat her like a grieving widow.

b.) When you fail to do this, prepare for her wrath. Starting today, throughout Joe’s fragile recovery, and until her last days on earth, you are enemy #1.

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5.) When the hospital calls again, go visit Joe. It might be 3am, after your shift at work, but that’s okay: neurological ICU is open for visitors 24/7. The scent of rubbing alcohol and floor cleaner will curl its way into your nostrils as you exit the elevator. Despite the scurry of nurses and the soft beeping of invisible machines, the entire floor will be eerily quiet. Joe will still be under heavy sedation. He will look very, very bad. Half of his head will be shaved, and a huge incision from the top of his head to the top of his ear will be stapled shut. His eyes will be swollen. His skin will be sallow. There will be monitors the size of pencil erasers screwed into his neck on either side, like Frankenstein’s monster. Tubes and cords will form a spider web over him. It’s okay to be afraid, and cry. The nurse knows how to comfort traumatized visitors.

6.) Call the hospital yourself on the days you can’t visit. When Joe’s mother calls to update you, do not…I repeat DO NOT…tell her you already know. I know you want her to know that you’re doing your best, but trust me on this one. Don’t tell her you visit. Don’t tell her you call. Just like before, let her tell you. Ask her again if she needs anything.

a.) When you do tell her that you visit and call, she will cut you off. She will tell the hospital that no one is allowed access to Joe without her. No visitors. No phone calls. You will call for your regular update and be denied. You will be devastated.

b.) Call Joe’s best friend, Erick, and tell him what that mean old woman did. Erick will go to the hospital himself. When the hospital won’t let him see Joe either, he’ll stand in front of the elevator for an hour. When Joe’s mother emerges with her church friends, Erick will cuss her out in front of them. You’ll have access to Joe immediately. Call the hospital: the staff will be happy to hear from you again.

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7.) Joe’s mind will not be right. The surgery affected his memory. It will be disturbing, but stay strong. Bring him balloons and cards and pictures. Point them out when he wakes up. Tell him about Erick’s first visit, because you know he doesn’t remember: tell him about how he took two shaky breaths and then tried to hand the oxygen mask to Erick  as if it were a joint. Puff-puff-give! Tell him how Erick was too traumatized to get the joke.

a.) Joe will fall asleep. Wait for him to wake up. When he does, he will have forgotten your whole conversation. He will have forgotten you were even there. It’s okay to repeat the conversation you just had: it was perfectly good, why waste it? For the rest of his life, his favorite story will be about how you two had the same conversation six times that day.

8.) From now on, when he introduces you to old friends, he will say, “Tell them about the time my head exploded!” He will laugh harder and harder with every retelling.

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Jojo, 12-03-12

Lost

Two days ago my ride-or-die died on me.

I met Joe online, of all places, in early 1998. Back in the days of AOL, streaming chat rooms, and dial-up servers. Before social media, dating websites, and Amazon. We met in a chat room that I used to frequent. I talked to people from all over the U.S. and Canada, even a smattering of other countries. But Joe lived 20 minutes away from me in Los Angeles.

We graduated away from the chat room and onto an instant messaging program called ICQ. (Do you remember ICQ?! Dinosaur days!) I had no intention of dating – good grief I was pregnant! – but I was also isolated and alone, and chatting on ICQ became a nightly ritual. Usually, it wasn’t more than a check-in: “Hey, how are you?” “Good, you?” “Good.” Sometimes he’d tell me about a softball game he attended when his job had a league, or about a car show he went to, or about a beach-side bike ride he took after work. Bike ride stories usually involved seeing someone wearing spandex who had no business wearing spandex.

Toward the end of my pregnancy, my nesting phase manifested as a need to go out and have fun: dinner with a friend, a movie, something! But I only had one face-to-face friend and her husband wasn’t letting her out. My next option was this guy online. So I invited him to take me to the movies. Here I was huge with pregnancy, cankles galore, and at least an inch taller than this guy with a distinctly south L.A. dialect and a love of cars. He was very gentlemanly, sweet, easy to laugh. It was a fun, safe night. (Except we saw There’s Something About Mary. Kind of an awkward movie to see with a virtual stranger.)

Two days later I was in the hospital in labor. And I thought Oh no, Joe’s going to think I didn’t like him! But of course, I explained things when I was home again, and we resumed out nightly check-ins.

Fast forward three months. He mentioned that he, a girl from work, his brother, and his brother’s wife were planning a trip to Knott’s Scary Farm (a Southern California theme park, Knott’s Berry Farm, dressed up for Halloween). He was looking for discount tickets, and I had a hook-up for them.

Seeing an opportunity for another fun night, I said, “Since you’ll be out here anyway, how about we go to dinner? And since we’re already going to dinner, how about we shoot some pool afterward?” So we did! (And you know, I had forgotten all about that until just now.)

At dinner, I gave him the tickets and he gave me the money. The tickets ended up costing me more than I’d quoted him, but I didn’t have the nerve to tell him. As soon as the exchange was made he asked, “Soooo, would you like to come?” The girl he was going to take suddenly stopped talking to him. So sure! Another free night of fun!

After that night I decided I didn’t really want to be without him, so we started dating.

We were an official couple for 9 years. I called it quits in the middle of the recession, so neither one of us could afford to live on our own. We got comfortable with it and continued to live together another 13 years. Until 2 days ago. We met face-to-face for the first time 3 days before my son was born, and he passed away on my son’s 22nd birthday.

Joe had an infectiously warm spirit. He was chronically good-natured and likable, generous, caring, always laughing. Except for that one woman from work, I don’t think anyone ever fell out with him or stopped being his friend. He helped me raise my kids, taking on the role of father, and eventually grandfather. He was our confidant, our sounding board, and our safety net. He was there when I got my first grown-up job and helped me get my first apartment. And he was a survivor. He had health problems as long as I’d known him, but the older he got the more momentum they gained. On Tuesday his heart just gave out. The doctor told me it was too weak to even beat anymore: it was just quivering.

I had to make some hard decisions on his behalf. I knew what he’d want, but did he truly understand? Was he really ready to go? Did it matter, if his body wasn’t going to cooperate? Despite Covid, they let the kids and I go to him to say good-bye, and let me stay with him as he passed.

Joe taught me to find the humor in difficult situations, however morbid, to make it through. So I apologized for letting him die with a bad haircut. I told him I had to stand on his right side because his head was turned to the left and his face looked crazy, like it belonged on the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland. And that was all the morbid humor I could muster. I kept a hand on his head, on his shoulder, skin-to-skin. I told him I’d be there with him until he was gone. I promised we would do something beautiful for him.

I’m still waiting for all the happy memories to come flooding back, and for that peaceful knowledge that he’s in a better place. All the comforting things that came when I lost friends and loved ones in the past. And I’m trying to be patient, knowing that he’s new to his afterlife and that I’m blind and deaf in my fresh grief. But boy, does losing your person suck. It, like, really really sucks.

Rest in peace, Jojo. ❤