Depressed patients, overworked nurses and isolation rooms fill the corridors of this immensely dreary, sterile building. There is commotion and movement in every corner with deceiving optimism, but the uneasy spirit of lifelessness and apprehension screams even louder. All that was once healthy and vibrant seem sunk in a deep degeneracy and degradation of mind and body.
Taking all precautions, I place a clean mask over my face and quickly walk past the isolation rooms to make my way over to my friend’s room. He greets me with a plastered smile, and it doesn’t take me long to figure out he is in critical condition. His room appears clean, but is cluttered with medical equipment and other miscellaneous items that do nothing to create a much needed ambiance of healing and relaxation. Despite the mix of medicine and body odor lingering in the thick, stuffy air, the windows remain tightly shut under a dark green curtain that looks more like a carpet. An atmosphere of anxiety and gloom is dense in here.
Sharing this tiny space with us is an old, Nicaraguan man named Daniel. He appears way too jolly for a sick patient and I wonder if he’s senile. We exchange simple words of courtesy between his long, painful coughs and I begin to sense his loneliness and longing for companionship. Even so, I stay as far removed from him as possible to avoid contracting the virus responsible for his dwindling health. Each time he coughs, I not only hear, but am jarred by the idea of being infected by the phlegm and/or other unknown fluids spewing out from his wet, uncovered mouth.
Hours pass before I realize he has, without my permission, worked his way into my heart. He calls me by my Spanish name every 30 minutes or so and refers to me as his daughter. He uses what little energy he has with his feeble arms to bring me his chair so I can prop my feet up during the night. He encourages me to learn Spanish and asks me to practice speaking with him. Every now and then, he looks completely distracted and resumes talking again by telling me how “bonita” I am. His compliments don’t flatter me, but they mean more to me than the various contrived generalities with which some men try to win my affection. Amidst this gloomy, depressing environment, a 90-year old man fading away with pneumonia is somehow putting a smile on my face and placing courage back into my heart. In return, I give him my affection, the only thing I have to offer to this strangely familiar old man.
I wish for his health to return so he can tell me more stories of his youth, his family and his struggles. Alas, this sweet, gentle old man, who is also incredibly sharp, is a diabetic with pneumonia, withering away by the hour and drowning internally in his own bodily fluids. Before long, he will leave this place along with other patients on this floor, and it makes me consider how my last moments will be perceived and the ways in which I will impact the people in my life. What colors will I show when my body is deteriorating and death becomes the most tangible, inescapable reality?
I have long ways to go before I can match Daniel’s strength and grace.