During the late 1930s and '40s, when all the world was engaged in a life-and-death war, my family seemed to be principally preoccupied with severe illness at home.
My sister was battling a life-threatening series of mastoid infections, and recovered largely because her doctor threw up his hands and decided it was time to pray. My father was being destroyed by the ravages of alcoholism, and my mother's sister, Mitz, was dying of cancer.
Many of my boyhood memories involve coming home from school to a houseful of keening neighborhood women as they rubbed Mitz's mutilated body (treatment for breast cancer was as barbaric then as it often seems now) with cocoa butter and tears.
All of this (and there was much more, involving other relatives, other illnesses, other events) meant frequent trips to hospitals and long stays there as a cranky little kid, bored and frightened and somehow feeling guilty and wondering if this is how life has to end, surrounded by decaying flowers, sobbing women and gloom, the only sunlight being in an atrium at the end of the hall available only to those well enough to get there.
Well, I decided never to go back to a hospital when I got old enough to make that choice. I made reluctant visits when my children were born and when my wife had an operation; and I went out for coffee when informed at my office that my father was dying in a hospital. I arrived there in time to identify the body. Total elapsed time in the hospital: two minutes.
That was until the last few years, when I began to find out, in what passes for maturity, that red lights eventually turn green, that even revival preachers stop sometime, and that my old fear of flying hadn't been that at all, just fear of crashing. Flying was fun.
And so was making a hospital visit, once I got the hang of it. I practiced on a friend named Tom, who spent a few weeks in the hospital after an auto accident, another named Helen, who underwent brain surgery more than once, a third named Marlene, who sort of collapsed and spent some time at Montgomery General Hospital, which seems to be very near the Pennsylvania border, and, especially, a friend named Marjorie Henderson, of Garrett Park, who went parachuting on May 5, 1985, and was discharged from Suburban Hospital in Bethesda 12 weeks later.
Marjorie, who turned 18 on July 11 and enjoyed a birthday party in the hospital (Rosie, a favorite nurse, gave her a special rub) on that day, sustained what is called shattered compression of lumbar 1, which means she broke her back. None of this ever broke her spirit. I saw Marjorie several times a week, sometimes daily, during her stay there. Part of the time Tom, the auto accident victim, was in the same hospital, on another floor, so I was able (if you'll pardon the expression) to kill two birds with one stone. It was three when Helen showed up to have her skull drilled and tapped.
I asked Marjorie, the veteran patient, her views on this business of visiting. A summary:
1. She liked visitors best just after breakfast, and then after 6 p.m. She needed some time to herself, and with a steady stream of visitors she got too tired.
2. She looked forward to seeing people with a positive attitude, who could come in and talk about how much fun it would be when (not if -- and there had been some question about the "if" early on) she was up and around again, which she is today.
3. Shorter visits were best, with 20 minutes quite long enough. Anything over half an hour was too long.
4. Gifts were nice, but not necessary. Heavy books she found inappropriate because they were hard to hold. Her favorite item was a stuffed parrot. She always wanted a real parrot, but they are not allowed in hospitals because they carry more germs than doctors who refuse to wash their hands. "It's best when people just bring themselves," she said. "I remember getting a big smile when I'd see you come in wearing a bright necktie. I like them."
This person, you see, wasn't hard to please.
There are some simple rules I've learned during all this, ones that if I'd been taught half a century ago maybe I'd have been more considerate over the years.
1. Wash your hands before you go there and after you leave. As they say in the plumbing trade (and some others), "First, do no harm."
2. If the hospital has visiting hours, observe them. You are not the center of the universe. If there are no visiting hours, make sure you are visiting when you patient most likes to see you.
3. You don't have to move in just because you go there. Many mornings I would just walk through Marjorie's room and say hello and let her see my necktie and utter a few words and then go. A two-minute visit means I love you. Two hours is a burden.
4. You didn't cause this person's illness, so you can't cure it or control it, either, and you don't have to feel or act guilty about it. Drop by.
5. Bring something to leave behind: a quote of the day in your own handwriting, a clipping from the morning newspaper, a photo of a panda.
6. Go easy on the food. Many patients are on special diets; very few need the kind of calories that come in heart-shaped boxes.
7. Cut flowers usually are a chore for somebody else. If you bring them, be prepared to set them up in the vase you also brought.
8. Everybody has problems. Don't add to this person's troubles by harping on your own.
9. No matter what the patient says to the contrary, if you arrive at mealtime, make a quick and loving exit.
10. When you say goodbye, don't act like it's terminal. And if the visit was short and bright enough, surely you'll return -- and want to.