At long last, I am back from the hospital. I was away for twenty-three days, eighteen of them as an inpatient. People who entered the Head Pain Unit the same time as me left before I did, making me feel like the train was leaving the station without me. A doozy of an HA, the unit’s code for headaches, kept me in my bed just past Easter.
They measure headaches on a scale of zero to five. Zero = no pain, a state no one there could recall. One is low-level pain which only enters your awareness when you think about it. Should you ask a person with a level one headache, “How’s the head?” you have thus made them aware of it, not a nice thing to do. The levels go from two, moderate pain that can be ignored at times, to three, severe pain all the time “but you could do your job” (been there, done that), all the way to five – “intense, incapacitating, totally controlling.”
My number-five HA threw me into a whole new tribe. My young roommate was blessedly relieved of most of her pain and sent happily home, while another woman moved into her bed. She was closer to my age, and it was a treat for me to show her the ropes, from the location of the linen closet to the fact that the window actually opened. We had a blast that final weekend, even though she was coming off some wicked narcotics and I was trying to decide if I was as ready to go home as the doctors seemed to think I was.
There is something special about these ad hoc friendships. When I arrived, I knew no one, and first had to deal with a certifiably crazy roommate who stayed up all night talking to her father in Texas (“He always forgets the time difference! Ha ha!”), handing out chocolates (a migraine trigger for many), and claiming to have a level twelve headache while harassing everyone she could scare up. The nurses moved me out of that room so I could maybe recover from my headaches rather than watch them get worse. So I got to know Martha, the college freshman from a farm family in Wisconsin.
I hardly knew her, but we bonded. What did it matter that I was old enough to be her mother, when both of us answered the nurse’s question about our pain level with “Three and a half”? One morning, I came into the small room where we waited for our turn to face the healthcare crew on rounds. There sat four young women in various states of pain. Sarah slouched in one chair with her feet on another. Instead of taking the empty chair across the room, Martha walked over, gently picking up Sarah’s feet to place them into her lap as she sat by her side. These two young women, one in college, one with three kids of her own, hardly knew each other, and would most likely not keep in touch after they went their separate ways. But that was genuine friendship.
The day I left, I walked into the cafeteria looking for my husband and saw two older women having lunch together. They’d only been there a few days, and I’d talked with them maybe twice. But when I went over to say goodbye, I found myself bursting into tears, which they took gracefully in stride as they hugged me goodbye. I was going home, but I was also leaving a home where I felt safe, understood, and immensely cared for.
They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and I would add, there are no strangers, either. I’ll never know if Rebecca finds relief from the dull pain behind her eyes, or if Brenda manages to break her addiction to Oxycontin, that bitter pill.
We form these impromptu allegiances easily, if we have any heart at all. I remember how bittersweet the last day of Girl Scout camp always was. After two weeks of sleeping in tents and scratching mosquito bites, I couldn’t wait to see my family. And yet how hard it was to say goodbye to those new friends, just before running to the family station wagon shouting, “Mommy! Daddy! Bonnie!” It was hard to know which group made me cry more.
These same short-lived connections form in school, when your second period French class begins to gel somehow and, though you’d never admit it, you can’t wait to sit down behind the funniest guy in the school – the smart, goofy one you wouldn’t dream of dating, yet whose company you find irresistible.
Opportunities for brief encounters abound, whether it’s the Lamaze class where you divulge your deepest secrets to six other couples you’ll never see again, or the busload of people savoring the sights of Italy with you, all of them seeming to appreciate exactly the same things as you.
All it takes is a few weeks, or a memorable moment. These sudden friendships grow in the lines that form to buy the new iPad or tickets to see some rock star perform. They can flourish in groups thrown together inside broken elevators, or movie theaters when the picture goes from 3-D to no-D, and the lights come up to reveal the folks around you. It can be a happy moment, like when I first spotted the Hale-Bopp comet high above the mall parking lot and called out to the people around me, “There it is!” and they looked up, too, and smiled.
We don’t plan these alliances; they just happen. I sure hope they happen to you. They allow you to become a member, if only for a moment, of a rare kind of club. You could just call it humanity.