Now that Alex was no longer on the stroke unit, I couldn’t use Chloe as a buffer when I went to see him. I put it off until the end of the morning, getting through a stack of dictations before I ventured down to the rehab unit.
The rehabilitation unit of our hospital is a small one, which reserves a large number of spots for patients from my very own stroke unit. I always feel victorious when I send a patient to the rehab unit, because I know the alternative for many of the older patients is a nursing home. If I can keep a patient out of a nursing home, I consider it a win.
Of course, Alex was far too young to end up in a nursing home, even short term, but inpatient rehabilitation was the best way to get him walking as soon as possible if that was his goal. But as I tried to emphasize to all my patients, nothing done in rehab would make him get better any sooner. That was up to his nerves and his body, and, if you believed in that kind of stuff, God.
I always like going down to rehab, mostly because the atmosphere was a lot more upbeat than where I usually worked. On the stroke unit, there was a lot of depression and denial. Around here, everyone seemed to know their deficits and was just focused on getting better. The first thing I saw when I walked through the doors was a guy walking with the help of two smiling therapists.
I located Alex out on the balcony, which was an outside area behind the rehab unit with a number of tables for patients and their families to get some fresh air and an illicit smoke. Alex was sitting in a clunky black hospital wheelchair in front of one of the tables, staring at the screen of a laptop computer through his wire-rimmed glasses. Instead of the hospital gown I’d seen him in all of last week, he was dressed in sweatpants and a T-shirt with the blue Columbia insignia over the breast pocket. I guessed it had been a long time since Alex went to college, and sure enough, I could see a worn hole in one of the short sleeves of the shirt.
“Hi, Mr. Connors,” I said, ignoring his earlier instructions to call him by his first name. I glanced down at my watch, already determined that I wasn’t going to give him any more than five minutes.
Alex looked up from the computer screen and grinned at me. His cheeks were slightly flushed from the cool air and his short brown hair was tousled. “Hi, Dr. Miller.”
I glanced at the screen and saw he was playing some kind of game, and he’d put it on Pause when I approached him. “What are you playing?”
“Just a game I downloaded,” he said. I raised my eyebrows and he explained, “You’re a master wizard and you have to rescue this princess from the…” He stopped mid-sentence when he saw the look on my face and his cheeks turned red. “Okay, let’s just say it’s an incredibly nerdy game and I’m really embarrassed you caught me playing it.”
I stifled a laugh. “No judgment. You can play whatever you want.”
He shook his head and smiled. “Seriously, why don’t we just pretend you caught me looking at porn? I think I’d prefer that.”
This time I really did laugh and he seemed very pleased with himself. I quickly composed myself. “Just don’t spend too much time on the computer,” I admonished him. “You need to focus on therapy.”
“Too much time on the computer?” Alex repeated. “Believe me, you have no concept of what it means to spend too much time on the computer. You have no idea how much I’ve cut back from a week ago. I think I might be in withdrawal. Look, my hands are shaking.” He held up his right hand and pretended to have a tremor, which sort of made me think of Charlie.
“I’m not much of a computer person,” I admitted.
“Yeah, I can tell,” he said. What did that mean? “I’m jealous, believe me. Really, it’s lucky I have Eva, because before she came along, I think I spent about 90% of my waking hours in front of a monitor. Usually while eating pizza. But seriously, what else are you supposed to do when you don’t have a girlfriend?”
Work obsessively, perhaps? “What do you do on it all day?”
He shrugged. “Games, surfing the web, the usual crap.” He raised his eyebrows. “I hope you haven’t lost all respect for me, Dr. Miller. Really, I’m not that bad. I’m not one of those uber computer nerds who lives his mother’s basement, spending hours online debating who’s better, Captain Kirk or Captain Picard.”
I smiled. “So who’s better?”
“Picard, obviously. What a stupid question.”
I couldn’t help but be impressed with Alex’s lighthearted demeanor. They say when faced with a life-changing situation, most patients go through five stages of coping. The first stage, denial, is where patients usually are when I meet them. They deny they have any deficits or believe they’ll get better in a day or two. Then comes anger: why the hell did this have to happen to them? Next was bargaining, a common one for those who felt they had a relationship with God. Then came the depression, which was when I got called for medications. And finally: acceptance.
Usually, patients were long gone from my service before they got to the acceptance stage. I rarely get to see it. But it seemed like Alex had skipped ahead. He was the sort of happy-go-lucky person who seemed to just roll with the punches. I envied him.
“It’s good to see you out of bed,” I commented. “Nerdy computer games or not.”
He nodded vigorously, not at all bothered by the fact that the only way he could be out of bed was to be in a wheelchair. “Yeah, they brought me this chair to use while I’m here.”
I stepped back to observe the wheelchair Alex had been given. It was a bulky, hospital grade chair with handles in the back. Later on, they’d probably order him a more compact version with a lower backrest and no armrests or handles. It was very unlikely he’d be able to leave this hospital without a wheelchair.
“I see Eva brought you some clothes,” I said. I didn’t mention the fact that she wasn’t here now. I guessed she hadn’t dumped him yet, but I wondered if he knew what she was thinking. He seemed like a fairly perceptive guy, so I suspected he had some inkling.
“Yeah,” he said. He added, “She’s at work. She couldn’t get out of it.”
“Uh huh,” I said. I didn’t mean to sound quite so skeptical. Or maybe I did.
“You know, she has a pretty busy job,” he said, with some mix of defensiveness and anger. “She’s a physicist and she has her own lab. She’s working on putting together a big grant application.”
“Eva’s a physicist?” I was shocked. I always pictured physicists as being old men with thick glasses and puffy white area, possibly with a German accent.
Alex grinned. “What? Are you impressed?”
“A little,” I admitted.
“Eva’s the smartest woman I’ve ever met,” he said. “That’s why I fell in love with her.”
“That’s a refreshing attitude. Most men are intimidated by smart women.”
“Are you kidding?” He shook his head. “There is absolutely nothing sexier than a smart woman. I can’t stand ditzy girls. Anyway, I’m comfortable with my own intelligence. I know I’m a smart guy, but Eva’s smarter than me. Anyway, we’re going to have brilliant kids.” He hesitated. “That is, if we…”
I raised my eyebrows. He knew. He had figured out what Eva was thinking. Of course he did. As he said, he was a smart guy. “If you what?”
“Nothing,” he said quickly. He flashed me a very forced-looking smile. “You’re not our relationship counselor. I’m sure you’ve got tons of work to do.”
He was right, but this was something I wanted to hear about. My other consults could wait. “It’s okay. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he repeated. “It’s just that… I don’t know, in every relationship, there’s always an imbalance. There has to be. One person always loves the other more, right?”
“Sure,” I said authoritatively. I hid my left hand behind my back so as not to call attention to my lack of a ring. Alex didn’t seem like the kind of guy who looked at girls’ fourth fingers anyway, so there was a good chance he didn’t even realize I wasn’t engaged or married. Or maybe he thought I was one of those married women who didn’t believe in rings. I noticed that men were much more oblivious about those kinds of things.
“I think with me and Eva, I always loved her more,” he said thoughtfully. “I mean, it was close, but I’m pretty sure I was always the one who loved her the most.”
“And now,” he went on, “now that this happened to me, I feel like the imbalance has gotten worse. You know what I mean?”
Our eyes met. I knew exactly what he meant. I knew what it was like to be the weaker person in a relationship and it sucked. For the first time since Alex had come back into my life, I felt a twinge of sympathy for him. Prior to this, he’d done so well adjusting. “I’m sure she’ll come around,” I said. I felt my cheeks turning red as I thought how furious Alex would be if he knew what I said to Eva in the cafeteria.
“You’re right, I’m just being paranoid.” His voice cracked slightly though and I wasn’t sure if he really believed that.
To be continued....