“Miss Gulch, do you hear me?” Dorothy spoke quietly, as if afraid of being overheard, despite the fact that she stood at the foot of the hospital bed, in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, at least an hour before the beginning of Hospital Visiting Hours. The risk of interruption was not particularly great, as the Charity Ward at Saint Mary’s Hospital was housed in a wing, at the back of the huge brick hospital, and overlooked the service entrance. Other than staff nurses and the occasional relative making a last visit, the Charity Ward (Ward C) was never a busy part of the hospital, at least in terms of the comings and goings of the fully-living.
“I must know! You will tell! I shall not leave until you explain why you did it!” Dorothy Gale’s voice honed a cutting edge to her simple words. Clearly meant to not permit indifference, like spiny brambles that attach themselves to pant cuffs, un-noticed in the act of walking through a field, the quietly spoken questions were deceptively forceful. There was a deliberate and determined quality to her actions that was at odds with her appearance. Dorothy looked, for all the world, to be a well-dressed, pleasantly attractive 18 year old girl. Her thick brunette hair was cut in a style clearly new to the girl, perhaps as part of her effort to fit in at Sarah Lawrence, where she had just completed her freshman year. The bangs she wore echoed the look of several movie actresses. That she had gone to the effort to tie her hair back, betrayed a childhood growing up on a working farm. That she was the only person standing, in a room of quiet, nearly unrumpled beds, made this contrast all the greater. The quality of stillness that permeated Ward C, imbuing it’s beds and chairs and medical equipment with a deceptive peacefulness, always impressed the first time visitor with the need for silence. Ordinarily, early afternoon was the most active time of day. Lunches were brought to each bedside and left for a very exact length of time, and then cleared away, un-eaten or not and the slow journey towards evening would begin in earnest. At this time of year, Ward C would remain a comfortable place for lunch, the afternoon not yet overtaken by the accumulated heat of the day. In the morning light, the heat was comforting and encouraging, suggestive of cool lakes and shade trees. By mid-afternoon, the mood would change and the atmosphere became ponderous, and the heat, unable to move in the lack of breeze or wind, pressed downwards on all and waited for the night, to escape into the cool dark to await the appearance of the morning sun.
“Why?” There was an overtone to her question that was rooted in fear, and, as a result, made the girl’s question, perhaps the most fundamental question in human language, ‘Why?”, all the more forceful. Dorothy would be surprised, and very cross, if anyone were to ask her what she feared. The whisper that sent her first question to the world, had long since been banished to the corner, marked as useless, un-effective and a waste of time.
The object of Dorothy Gale’s interrogation, the woman in the hospital bed, remained as still as a field of wheat in December. A life-sized paper doll, crafted by once-skilled hands using crudely pressed paper, a casual passerby, (not that there was ever a casual passerby in Ward C), would’ve guessed that it was a woman they were seeing in the narrow bed, provided they spotted the solitary red ribbon fastened to the edge of the worn-blue hospital gown. Dorothy leaned forward, and stared intently, vainly searching for any acknowledgement of her questions, or even her presence. Her frustration, nurtured in her natural impatience, festered and grew, threatening to become anger. Turning her head, Dorothy looked around the large, open room, clearly hopeful of finding someone to share the frustration she felt, believing that, one more person would be enough to make the still form in the bed more cooperative.
The ward was a single large room with 10 beds, 5 along opposite walls. Each single bed, their white-painted metal railings giving them a near-coffin like appearance, had a grey (metal) nightstand and a single chair. The night stand was to the right side of the pillow, providing the only scenery that the often motionless patient might look to, and the chair, located at the foot of the bed, (facing away from the bed, it stood as a barrier, to preserve the illusion of not being in a large room with 10 hospital beds in it). This solitary chair, facing the empty world around the bed, was, for the powerless occupant of the single bed, their strongest plea for the company of another human. As a symbol of the bleakness of certain lives, the chair was of quite simple a design, un-padded, sculpted seat and half-curved back, it’s designer clearly meant to create an alternative to standing and nothing more. The chair was moveable and it was stable. When you thought about it, those are the only really essential qualities a chair required.
“You must tell me what happened after I went away to school! Everyone acts like they don’t know me. Like they don’t like me anymore!” Dorothy had planned this conversation through the last half of her first year at college and had been practicing it for the last 2 weeks, since she arrived home at her Aunt and Uncle’s farm. Despite the lack of cooperation from the woman in the bed, she was determined to have her say.
“Miss? Is everything alright… oh, it’s you, Miss Gale.” Startled by the sound of another person speaking, here in the place where no one spoke…or moved or, apparently, listened, Dorothy looked about the room, face reddening, her eyes, so recently glaring at the paper mache woman, now looked towards the floor, as if planning a quick escape. She felt unattractively self-conscious, overcome by the preemptive embarrassment that seems to arise on it’s own, whenever a person discovers that they are not alone, despite being certain to the contrary. From among the white-on-off-white, touched by grey shapes that made up the landscape of the room, a figure separated itself from the still backdrop and become a person. It was a nurse, of course, who rose from the bedside chair that was next to the bed of a very, very old woman. She had been so focused on her patient and her uniform blended in with the near-antiseptic nondescriptness of the room that she was nearly invisible, up until the moment she spoke.
“Miss Gale, I asked you if everything was alright,” Nurse Claire Griswold was a tall and mild woman. She had blonde hair, that, captured by the white, rounded-square cap of her profession, somehow implied a natural energy. Slender, approaching willowy, she moved in a most peculiar manner. When she spoke, her words were cast into the air, in the direction of the person she was addressing, words and person becoming two. Dorothy heard the words and by the time she comprehended them, Nurse Griswold had somehow moved to quite near where Dorothy stood. There was no sense of an approaching person, there was no opportunity to assess the person as she physically approached. Standing now close, yet not close enough to touch, Dorothy could see blue eyes, eyes that seemed to not quite focus, at least, not on anything that was nearby. Dorothy was not certain that she should trust this woman, she did, however, resign herself to having to include her in her mission to talk to the woman in the bed.
Nurse Griswold was an asset to the hospital in virtually all aspects of the care and treatment of patients who came to Saint Mary’s from the surrounding Counties. She had a nature that allowed her to be calm, when people were distraught, serene when others were anxious and peaceful when patients fought to resist the dark embrace of depression. The Care and Well-being of the patients was all that mattered to Nurse Griswold. Everyone liked her and she returned this respect in kind, except, and quite uncharacteristically, this mid afternoon in August, the air heavy with heat, time passing achingly slow. This afternoon, Nurse Griswold found herself not liking this willful young girl. Of course, Nurse Griswold recognized Dorothy Gale, the once celebrated, recently returned from college, as the girl standing at the foot of Almira Gulch’s bed.
“Perhaps if you told me what you need from Mrs. Gulch, I might save you the frustration and definitely spare her the aggravation of your hectoring.” Nurse Griswold stared quietly at the young woman.
Dorothy spun on her heels to face the source of what, to her genuine surprise, felt like a challenge. Claire Griswold marveled at how different a person can be from their physical appearance. Putting aside the interesting idea of inner and outer personality, Nurse Griswold faced the young girl, her expression one of ‘disinterested concentration’. It was a look that the seemingly passive people of the world exhibit when motivated to become direct and aggressive.
Dorothy was about to say something sharp to this Nurse, but when it became very clear that somehow she, a mere nurse, was not going to defer to her dominant status, (in Dorothy’s measure, it was a status by social standing and, more recently, by virtue of her being a student at a very exclusive college). She looked about the room, the only audience were the mute occupants in the 9 other beds, a coliseum of the dying.
“What’s this?” Dorothy reached towards the bedside table and picked up a well-worn book, reading the title aloud,’ The Jungle’ by Upton Sinclair’, she raised an eyebrow, opened the cover and saw there, on the flyleaf, written in red ink
To my dear friend Almira,
I wanted to give you something that had meaning for both of us and, yet at the same time be special to us individually. The world is a better place for having you in it and I am a happier woman for having known you
“Put that back,” the quiet tone somehow brought out the force of Claire Griswold’s command. Before she could think, ‘what right does this nurse have to tell me what to do’, Dorothy placed the book back on the nightstand. Nurse Griswold was now, somehow, standing next to Dorothy, and looking at the woman beneath the neatly tucked in sheets, with an unmistakable expression of kindness and affection.
“I wasn’t going to steal it, if that’s what you’re thinking!” Dorothy Gale felt trapped, despite there being more than enough room between the beds of Ward C. Instead, she decided that her best approach with this nurse was to be humble and apologetic.
“I’m really sorry that I’ve upset you. I should be on my way. I only wanted to ask Miss Gulch…”
“Mrs Gulch,” the nurse turned her full attention back to the young girl, now just inches way, the three women forming a small group, remarkable only in the nature of where they found themselves, a place of resignation, “It’s Mrs. Gulch”
“I didn’t know, really I didn’t. We all just called her old… we called her Miss Gulch, when I was growing up.” Dorothy, now finding the object of her visit assuming stage center, felt her confidence return.
“Are you sure? Auntie Em never said old… Mrs. Gulch was married, ever! And my Aunt Em knows everyone in McPherson County! I rather doubt that she would not know a thing like that!”
“Your aunt is sadly uninformed.” Watching the girl’s brow begin to gather into a frown, Claire Griswold smiled and, touching Dorothy’s shoulder gently, said,
“You might be surprised at how little people know about others, even in a community like ours. They live their lives believing that they know all they need to know and never realize how much more there is to the world. Surely, of all people, you can appreciate that.”
Dorothy felt her anger begin to rise, ‘lecture me on knowing things, will she!’ and was preparing to put this woman in her proper place, until, that is, she heard herself being directly addressed. Something stopped and she looked at this woman, so tall and yet without taking up a lot of space, blue eyes framed in white and blonde, she seemed to barely be there and, at the same, time un-ignorable. Dorothy began to speak,
“All I want to know…”
Nurse Griswold was now, somehow, at the foot of the bed, standing in the space that, were there more than 5 narrow hospital beds in a row, might be called a corridor, her hand outstretched.
“I believe that you mean well, Miss Gale, and I also believe that you are quite a determined young woman,” the Nurse’s eyes were now focused on her, and Dorothy found that she could not look away,
“Visiting Hours are 1:00 to 2:30 every afternoon. Come back tomorrow and I will help you find the answers to the questions that you are seeking.”
Walking down the steps of the entrance to the Hospital, Dorothy Gale felt that she had accomplished much more than she had hoped for when this day started. She knew that Miss… Mrs Gulch was here and, since she certainly wasn’t going to go anywhere, she would get her answers, helpful nurse or not.
Nurse Griswold watched as the young woman walked out through the double swinging doors that separated Ward C from the fully-living part of the hospital. As she watched, she noticed that, at the intersection of the corridors, (Ward C was in the oldest wing of the hospital, the newer additions branching to the right and the left), the girl stopped and looked in all directions. Not simply glancing, but turning to face her body down each corridor, (one to either side and one straight ahead), and seemed to take a moment to think, finally she came around to the main corridor that lead to the lobby of the hospital, and still with a brief pause, walked down it and out of the building.
Claire Griswold carried the single chair from the end of the single bed and placed it facing the head of the bed, and beyond that, the window that looked out over the paved parking lot that serviced the less public functions of the hospital. Through the course of the day, if one were inclined, could watch as, garbage trucks backed up to the back of the building to remove the rubbish from the previous day, the arrival of food supply trucks, ambulances, like hornets disturbed by a hiker, would appear and disappear on a schedule only they were able to justify and finally the hearse, taking former patients to their future homes.
Sitting in the chair, Nurse Claire Griswold picked up the book and prepared to read, finding the bookmark, a ribbon with ‘Key to the City’ in faded gold letters, where she had last left off. Before opening the book, she reached into the single drawer in the nightstand and took out a small photograph of a child, in a tarnished brass frame, and pulling out the black felt upright, (it’s softness long since worn down to a glossy, almost glass-like texture), set the photo on the top of the nightstand, facing the bed.
Nurse Griswold began to read in a voice that, though softly quiet, would be mistaken for one half of a conversation.