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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Wherever We Go

So yesterday I spent the day at the UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center in the pediatric ward. The Mini-W has a dear friend who has been gravely ill. I don't say gravely lightly, either. I'll be there again today and again later this week. Hospitals are weird places and with another full hospital day ahead of me, I can't help but slide into my observational writer self. Hospitals are veritable hotbeds of character and place observations, aren't they?

The way the doctors seem to stride rather than walk, with their white coats billowing just slightly. The way some visitors are upset and crying, and others seem relieved. The way the nurses become slightly goddess-like because they bring comfort, information and relief. I saw two helper dogs yesterday. One was a huge white Newfoundland-looking dog, the other a playful Jack Terrier. People gathered around both with delight. I saw a woman outside on her cell phone, sobbing. I saw a woman pull her IV tree outside to have a smoke.

Hospitals have a visceral impact; they make one instantly feel a bit wound up and emotional. The atmosphere reminds one how very delicate life and health really is. This particular facility is rather new and looks like it cost about a billion dollars. Until you go upstairs to visit and then it looks like any other hospital. The pediatric ward is particularly difficult. Our friend is a teenager but the other rooms had toddlers and infants in them. And bewildered six-year olds. Some rooms are highly decorated and personalized because that kid has been there for a long time.

My daughter's friend came out of her heavily sedated state to observe, sleepily - "It smells like...Canada in here." We can only ascribe this comment to the effects of some serious medication but it brought a much needed moment of levity. Another moment of levity came when I asked a striding, billowing doctor where to find a particular part of the hospital and he kept right on striding, saying he really didn't know. That's okay, I said. Have a great day and save some lives! He turned and smiled wryly. Is that what I do? He was probably a podiatrist. I was instructed by my daughter to not talk to doctors anymore.

I don't do very well in hospital settings. It upsets me. It brings every anxiety right to the surface. I don't like the smell, the beeping machines, the seriousness of it all. The feeling of being on the razor's edge of life itself. It reminds me that the sunny world outside of the hospital is in some ways ignorant of that razor's edge reality that life can be precarious. It brings up fears - will I be in the hospital someday? Will I live through it? What if this were MY daughter? Would I be able to keep it together?

Actually last year it was my daughter and I held it together with an iron will. When it's YOU or YOUR family you really have no choice. You can fall apart later but not at the hospital. You must listen to the doctors, you must pay attention to what's going on. You must conquer your fear of the blinking lights, beeping machines and abject seriousness of it all.

If you were to write a scene set in a hospital, could you capture the complexity of the sights, sounds and emotions of that place? We drive past hospitals every day in our day-to-day lives. But inside those walls a whole different world is going on. One with its own culture, social constructs and mores. It's not something we often think about - until it's us or someone we love.

As writers, we are blessed with the ability and desire to write about the details of life. We are also cursed because even when we don't want to be observing - we are. We can't help it. I wondered about the doctors with their confident strides - do they feel like rock stars? Do they feel like imposters? They are just people, after all. But in that setting, in that white coat, they are elevated to something almost god-like by those who observe them. Every hospital room has a story. What got that patient there? Who is this patient? What is the prognosis? How is the family coping?

Writers carry around an invisible tool box. Every experience we have, we take notes silently and throw the experience into the hopper. Hospitals, football games, office parties - our own relationships. Have you ever had a fight - or even a joyful moment - with your significant other and thought - ooohhhhh this would be a great scene? I recently had a moment that would make a great comedy scene - a moment of great emotional intimacy that I ruined by making a joke. Well, I mean, ruined it for the man involved but I thought it was very funny. Casualty: one male ego was slightly bruised. Upside: That went right straight into the hopper. A version of that moment will appear in something I write, mark my words.

Writers are liars and thieves. We observe what goes on around us and we drink it all in for future writing purposes. Even when it's happening to us. We embellish to make the story more entertaining. Is the life-saving podiatrist a comedy down the line? Or one small piece of a character? How does Canada smell?

Have a lovely Sunday, Wavers, and here's a fist-bump from one writer to all of you writers out there. Observe, embellish, see and feel what's going on all around you, whether it's at the hospital, the video store or the line at the bank. Life is a moveable feast and it's our job to record it so that later, an audience member somewhere can have a much-needed belly laugh or maybe a really good cry. Our job is important.

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1 comment:

Cathy Krasnianski said...

I know first-hand the complex emotions you feel when someone you love is in the hospital. Four years ago, my husband nearly died because of a ruptured colon. Four operations and four years later, it's almost as if the incident never happened.

Could I do justice to a holpital scene? You betcha.