This mortal coil

In the hospital, many devices make noise. They are, presumably, speaking a language that is meaningful to doctors and nurses, although not so much to patients. I lie in bed wondering how many of them refer to me, the patient in room 1008.

It’s a great room, by the way. It’s a single, so there are no other sick people in the room. That’s good, because I hate being around sick people, even when I am one. Especially when I am one. I also dislike tourists and old people.

Every so often, I hear “crash cart to room 705 immediately” or “Code Blue in room 917.” Every time I hear that it’s not my room number, I relax. Because, you know, I think I’m rational, but I’m also in the hospital. I could be crashing without knowing it. I could also be hallucinating. I’ve been given drugs, but are they the good drugs? I wonder.

Also, the room has a big window with a great view of the Bay Bridge. Unfortunately, I can’t see the view from my bed. I am wired tightly to faintly throbbing machines by my bed. I have a large plastic container for urine, but I’ve been denied water since 4:30 this afternoon, so my need for the container has been overstated.

It is 1:45 in the morning. No one is awake except Rose, the brisk but kindly night nurse who has apparently seen everything, and I’m in there right around nothing.  I am sentient, can form complete sentences, and seem unlikely to die. For Rose, that’s a win-win. For me too. I am happy to be a patient of only marginal concern.

The beeps continue. Wires lead from my body back behind the bed. Every so often, the blood pressure cuff squeezes my arm, like a more knowledgeable friend guiding me through a crowd.

I long for sleep.

Yeah, well, not so fast

Tracy and I arrived at the emergency room in late afternoon. We were there because I was feeling like crap. I did not have a theory about what was wrong with me.

Because I was nauseated and in pain, the nurses on duty decided it would be useful to weigh me. Also, they needed answers to many questions read off a list of many questions. One of them wanted to know whether I’d experienced heartburn during my pregnancy.

Then they found me a bed, asked me take of my clothes, and cuffed me. It was only a blood pressure cuff, but still.

Time passed. That’s what mostly happens in an emergency room. “It’s a quiet night,” I said to a nurse. “That’s cursing,” he said. “We don’t allow cursing in the emergency room.” Not that these handmaidens of science are superstitious. It’s just that one careless word about how peaceful it is can cause 14 infarcations, seven gunshot wounds and horrendous accident on 880 to happen simultaneously.

Then the lady from the office came in. She wanted to explain certain things, like how much the hospital would cost each day. (This is Kaiser, so the amount was ridiculously small). Of course, everything else is pricey. The backless gown I’m wearing: $1081. The chips of ice they will finally give me: $878. The Kleenex I will need before the night is out: $403. I made those numbers up, but I think they are indicative of a larger problem. If Trump gets his way, that backless gown will cost $5603 — and there will be no guarantee that it’s backless.

Then there came a confusing conversation about my end-of-life preferences. I have an end-of-life directive, although not with me. I asked if there was any particular reason why I should have it with me. “Oh my no,” she laughed. “Ha ha well, just routine.” I was bored, so I thought I’d be provocative. “I’m not sure,” I said. “I think keeping me alive no matter what would be the best idea. Call me crazy, but I like living.”

“Oh, you don’t want that. They have to crack your ribs and massage your heart, and if your blood flow stops, well, vegetable.”

Her suggestion, as I understand it: Just hang out and wait until death comes along. The old “because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me” theory. Why do emergency rooms make me think of Emily Dickinson? She heard a fly buzz when she died; I imagine I’ll hear many beeps, in many different modes and tones. Sigh.

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Thanks, but I’m washing my hair that night

My nurse in the emergency room was Francis. He was cheerful and amusing. “You’re a really good nurse,” I said. “You’re a really good patient,” he said.  See: validation.

In the beginning, my tiny emergency roomlet was busier than anything. Then it was just boring. I sent Tracy home at 11; I was in good hands. She was glad to go. Every 20 minutes or so, someone would pop in and say my room was getting cleaned. But then…how long does it take to clean a room? But I’m not seeing the big  picture. The big picture:  Many people sicker than me. Plus, people are coding. That’s hospital-speak for “dying.”

So I should count my blessings. Plenty of time: 1,2,3,12, 18, 36, 104…or less. I may have repeated “bacon” and “sexual relations.”

This is the part of the column where I should tell you what’s wrong with me. I would go into clinical detail, describing the spleen or the pancreas or the thymus. I would come up with two fun facts about the gastro-intestinal tract. I might even dwell on the fragility of life, and the comfort I take from my family.

But no. It’s my privacy screen, and I can choose what things I put behind it. Let’s say, because I know you worry, that my condition was neither infectious or chronic, which, in the muted language of the cagey journalist, means not a heart attack, not a stroke and not cancer. (Nor am I embarrassed. Penile yeast infections are a hidden killer, or at least wounder. Everyone should be aware of the 3 warning signs.)

I’m not going to die, although of course I am old, so I may die of something entirely unrelated. We all have a fatal disease. Or, we all have an unimaginably wonderful gift with one large string attached.

Life: Whaddya gonna do?

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Too many wires and noise-making machines

It’s dark in my room, the only sound the beeping and the occasional murmuring of crepe soles in the hallway. I am thinking about death. This is not unusual; I’ve been thinking about death since I turned 60. I hate the thought that I will miss things in my children’s lives. I had my kids real young, so my oldest is almost 51. I have seen the movies of their lives play out, and I am endlessly fascinated, and I don’t want life to end.

Then there’s Tracy. I mean, well, you know. Forty-one years of working on our marriage; I hate to lose that after I’ve invested all the energy. And money. If I die, I’m out a whole bunch of moolah.

Finally, there’s the absence of me. That’s a bummer. No longer will I get to see the sunrise, any sunrise. I can see where promises of an afterlife would be comforting, but I don’t believe them.  So this is my one life. Better get out of the hospital quickly.

I will die. But not today.



Photography by Tracy Johnston

Help on other confusing stuff: Michelle Mizera

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Just to be clear what the stakes are

51 thoughts on “This mortal coil

  1. 🙏🏼be well. It’s not time. And, Thank you for restarting the conversations we all don’t like to have. Claudette

    Sent from my iPad



    1. Sorry you’re in there–hope you’re better soon! I have to add, having been there too much, that you must be patient, and let the doctor practice.


    2. Rage against the dying of the light (or daylight saving or whatever.). But do rage against infections. So glad you are feeling better. Your writings are a gift to so many of us.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You cannot go before me! I will miss your wit far too much. Just want you to know that I look forward to every piece you write. Get well very soon!

    Nancy Like fine wine, improving with age Sent from my iPad



  3. I’m old, too–your age, in fact, I think. (1943?) Hope for a few more good years and wish the same for you.


  4. dear Jon…your writing as always is stellar…keep on keeping on and thanks for writing.
    Be well, quickly.


  5. Hmmm…your first time? You might ask your wife…or any mother…think huge cohort who have been there, done that…(i realized this pov my second stay in hospital) …live and learn. But LIVE!


  6. I’m with Nancy’s comment – I am way older than you and you don’t get to go and leave me without your writing to look forward to. Get well and out of there soon.


    1. Me, too (1933). Actually Kaiser has saved my life a number of times, as well as that of my husband and daughter. So chins up, Jon!!!


  7. I’m glad you’re not dying. I’m 79 and being old is weird and strange. Inside I feel 40 or 50 or 60. BUT when I bend over it takes a while to straighten up. Last night leaving a friend’s house I wished she had rails on her steps. I do 15 minutes of exercise in my bed most mornings then additional ones at various times on various days. But it still keeps coming. My aging body overrides the exercise but I’m too chicken to give in.
    Thanks for your column

    Liked by 1 person

  8. don’t die yet! You mustn’t shuffle off this mortal coil until I get to see you again and reminisce about those reckless monopoly games way back in our Berkeley days – endless cheating – pretty good booze – on-the-fly rewriting of rules. Cheers, Jon!


  9. Here’s hoping it isn’t open heart surgery, Jon:

    Bed Doddy

    Sleep, bed doddy, sleep, and dream
    of disposable razors, soap, lying naked
    for Nurse Tronco with her magnifier,
    her powerful lights, her twitchfingers

    Climb on here, enjoy needle moments
    sleep, while electric scalpels part skin,
    fat, and muscle, hissing steam rises
    jigsaw teeth bite into pale white bone

    Sleep, don’t dream about jigsaw teeth,
    blades, the split sternum drawn back
    by an octopus, blood dripping from
    hung plastic bags on metal stands

    Wake, but don’t try to speak,
    luminous green cathode ray tubes
    display tracks from your heart,
    urine trickles silently into bottles

    Listen as beeping seconds tick off
    time, using you as their clock.
    Drain yourself slowly into plastic
    tubes emerging horribly from skin

    When the Foley catheter comes out
    you will shout, but not as loudly
    as you shouted when they dragged
    the drain tubes from your thorax

    You never read warnings on packets,
    because if you had, it would be
    someone else lying here naked
    under sterile drapes, bed doddy.


  10. Glad you’re okay, Jon. In terms of shuffling off this mortal coil, I’ve always found it helpful to assume that this life repeats forever so it’s wise to live your life as pleasantly and usefully as possible. This assumption may very well be wrong, but right or wrong, you probably will have lived a more satisfying and meaningful life by assuming it was true. Hey: if you can’t fool yourself, then who can you fool? And like you, Jon, I also had my kids very young…all three of them were considerably less than a year old when born. and, like Gracy Allen, they were all so surprised at being born they couldn’t speak for over a year!


  11. Jon, for you I suggest two choices, but first, the premise. You have many more ‘screeds’ in you before the ‘shuffling’ can begin. So, either pace yourself, or start poppin’ ’em out like they were Pez.

    Take care, and best to you and Tracy. Will always enjoy your e-mmisions, the Chron lost a great one.


  12. I notice a fair amount of beeping in my house. The microwave has something for me, the phone wants charging, the washing machine sings its little song when the clothes are clean, the dread smoke alarm responds to burnt toast. All preparation for the sounds of recovering from whatever in the hospital, I suppose. May your recovery be speedy and thorough.


  13. I can’t think of a worse place to be when your ill than a hospital. One of the few advantage I can see to being a billionaire is that you could just check into a good hotel and pay for doctors and nurses to come to you. Or stay home, the way they did until fairly recently.


  14. So glad you’re well. I can’t imagine never reading more from you. I don’t want to imagine it.


  15. It’s still not clear what your medical issue is, Jon, but whatever it is please beat it quickly, return home soon, and hit the keypad. We all need you.
    Love, Alan Myerson


  16. Hope you are home by now and that your penile yeast infection or whatever is all better. Thanks for sharing your thoughts – I lvoe reading them. Susan



  17. Altho’ I absolutely hope and expect that you will recover licketty split soon, Jon, I did enjoy your prose and the portrait of the skull. Jeez. I hope that you’re feeling well enough for your night at the Girls of the Golden West!!!!

    Happy Pacific Standard Time, Mary

    On Sat, Nov 4, 2017 at 9:31 AM Jon Carroll Prose wrote:

    > joncarrollprose posted: “In the hospital, many devices make noise. They > are, presumably, speaking a language that is meaningful to doctors and > nurses, although not so much to patients. I lie in bed wondering how many > of them refer to me, the patient in room 1008. It’s a great roo” >


  18. So good, Jon! I mean as in writing. Recently visited a sick sister in hospital — that scene, me second-guessing most of what went on medically; retarded woman endlessly cleaning the room inefficiently; doctors with few words, none of them comforting as in “We want to get you better, but if you don’t get better, we’ll have to take you off the trial.” The iVs, the noises, the personalities coming and going. How well you captured it. You’re a continuing treasure.

    Get well soon!
    p.s. If you haven’t already, you might want to read The Violet Hours — Great Writers at the End by I can’t remember right now.


  19. You just can’t help writing beautiful things, can you. Hope you’re feeling better.



    1. You can’t die! Who will take care of your cats? I miss you with the Chronicle, but looking forward to your e-mails!


  20. If/when I spend some serious time in the beeping hospital, I hope to have the presence to take in my surroundings and my situation as you have. You write good. Continue to inspire us.


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