For about three months I had been coming to Charity Hospital in New Orleans on a regular basis, about two to three times a week. Usually I stayed for a couple of hours. It was the third time this week that I was here. It was another muggy and hot day in the city by the mighty Mississippi. The air, filled with tiny, for the human eye, invisible drops of dew, hung thickly over New Orleans. It was humid and the exhaust of heavy traffic could not escape into the sky. It seemed the summer of 2005 was especially humid and hot.
I made my way into downtown, focusing on traffic, pedestrians and the famous streetcars. I was thankful for the parking garage at the hospital, because parking in New Orleans was a nightmare. I had been towed from the side of the street more than once and it was something I did not want to experience too often. With the frustration of finding my car in one of the many impound lots usually also came a heavy fine to bail out my little Ford Escort.
I pulled down into the steep entrance way of the parking garage underneath Charity hospital. I pulled up to the gate and punched in the code. The gate opened and I drove on through, quickly finding a spot close to the elevators. I knew all the areas of the hospital by heart now.
I knew some of the nurses and doctors and when I walked in I was greeted by Miranda sitting behind the reception desk in the lobby, “Hey sugar, back again?”
I smiled at her and waved in passing, “Of course.”
It was cool in the hospital, the air conditioner almost too cold when coming in from the hot humidity outside. Inside the hallways the air smelled sterile. My destination was the seventh floor, the Intensive Care Unit of Charity hospital, probably one of the less popular floors for anyone coming here. It was a floor of sadness and despair, of letting go and of Good Bye’s. But for some it was also a floor of hope and new beginnings. Even the friendly painted walls of the hallway in the unit could not fully disguise some of the suffering behind its doors.
This is where I had been spending lots of time in room 716 at the bedside of my brother. At the young age of 35 he was dying of a dreaded cancer called Central Nervous System Lymphoma. But before the cancer was discovered he had been diagnosed with the ever so famous Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, AIDS.
I had always known that Jay was different. Even as a teenager he didn’t have much to do with girls or showing a sincere interest in getting with one to aim for the one important mission in almost every teenage boys’ dream. He was always quiet and more of a loner. He disclosed to me that he was gay when he was 20, I was 16 at that time. It did not come as too much of a surprise to me because I had suspected it for a while. I was perfectly okay with it, almost somewhat excited that I had a gay brother. I finally knew why he was always more into shopping for clothes with me than going to play ball with the other boys in town.
Back then we lived in a small town on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain, about one a half hours from New Orleans. We both had different fathers who had not been in our lives and a mother who had not been capable of taking care of us properly. We eventually were placed in foster care with a loving couple who didn’t have kids of their own.
Jay had been coming to New Orleans since he was about 18. He hung out in the city a lot and soon after he had told me he was gay he moved all the way to New Orleans as soon as he had turned 21. He had rented a small apartment, started tending bars in various establishments and soon thereafter my always quiet brother knew half of the city’s night creatures, especially in the gay community. With that of course he tumbled into various relationships and it turned out that the third guy he was with had infected him with the virus. He didn’t realize until three years later at a doctor’s visit for a really bad cold which had already turned into a flu then. So over a time period of about 10 years his health had had ups and downs, medications had been a must on a daily basis but at the age of 32 serious complications arose from a flu. My brother had always dealt with Asthma and another flu took a severe toll on his body, he couldn’t breathe for days, he then suffered from a full blown Pneumonia and he didn’t eat anymore. With this situation they also found cancer in his body. With a weakened immune system for such a long time the Lymphoma had developed to a point where treatment was too late. For over two years he had been in and out of the hospital and now his one lung had collapsed with fluid built up in it. He couldn’t breathe on his own anymore and was intubated, getting weaker by the hour. It was just a matter of time.
I slowly opened the door to his room. Jay was unchanged in his bed, connected to the ventilator, the tubing down in his throat, strapped to his face. Aside from the intubation they tried to keep him comfortable and pain free and he was always slightly sedated. There were days when Jay was alert and in decent spirits and then there were days when he didn’t open his eyes for me at all. It seemed to be one of the days when my brother wouldn’t really connect with me. His eyes were closed, and even when I kissed his forehead and said, “Hey sweetie”, he didn’t even twitch. I leaned over him and stroked his dark bangs out of his forehead, stroked my hand over his sunken in cheeks and then pulled the chair up to his bed and sat down.
I always talked to Jay, even if he didn’t do anything. I would tell him about my days, the news from around the city and the world and I tried my best to not let him see how I always wanted to cry. This visit went on for about 45 minutes without Jay giving me any sign of life and I felt the energy drain from myself of trying to keep it together and act normal. Really I wanted to cry like I did almost every time when I saw my brother.
I moved up to his face and next to his ear and said lowly, “I’m going to leave for today. I wish you would’ve been alert but I’ll come back on Sunday.”I softly kissed Jay on his forehead again and left his room.
Out in the hallway one of the nurses in the ICU, Gloria, walked up to me, greeting me with her sweet voice, “Hey sugar, how are ya?”
“I’m doing okay I guess.”
Gloria nodded towards Jay’s door, “He hasn’t been such a good boy lately. Barely opens his eyes. I don’t know sugar…I don’t know. Doc is suggesting moving him to Hospice care status. He’ll probably call you about it.”
She sighed and her eyes turned sad and she held her arms out for me and I walked over to her and let her wrap me in her arms mumbling, “I know he’s not doing well. I’m so scared.”
She held me and we stood for a moment until she let go and I stepped back.
“We’ll call you if anything changes with the boy.”
She touched my arm, “You hang in there okay. I will see you…”
She stopped and I finished the sentence, “I’ll come in again on Sunday.”
“Okay, I’ll be here. Take care baby girl.”
As Gloria walked off her nurse shoes were squeaking on the waxed ICU hallway floor.
Since I had not been in Jay’s room very long I still had some time until I had to be at work. The hospital was built around a nice, shady courtyard and it could be seen from many of the patient rooms. It was a quiet place with trees, flowers and a pond with some Koi fish in it. The noises of the city were not able to reach into it. It was a beautiful sanctuary to retreat to.
I bought a drink and a magazine at the hospital’s gift shop and made my way out to the garden. As soon as I stepped out the humidity hit me once again but the cypress trees cast enough shade making it bearable to be outside. Here and there were benches for people to sit in the shade. A few people were strolling along the paths, obviously some were patients and some were visitors. Birds and crickets were chirping in the trees and I heard the rustling of leaves. The water fountain in the middle of the pond let out a continuous flow of water and it was a refreshing sound as it hit the water. I found a spot under a tree and sat down on the grass, crisscrossed my legs, set my drink and purse on the ground next to me and got comfortable with the magazine in my hands.
My thoughts were still with Jay in his room and I glanced up at the seventh floor windows. I knew it did not look good for him. I contemplated about maybe coming every day from now on but then I also knew the staff would call me as soon as anything would change with him. The thoughts of maybe there not being any obvious changes and Jay just closing his eyes forever crossed my mind. He did have friends come by quite often as well, he was known to so many people and there was someone visiting almost every day. A couple of weeks earlier I had told him everything I needed to say and he had done the same to me. We had been open and honest with each other and we had cried in each other’s arms, but now he was at peace with dying, he wasn’t angry or sad, he had fully accepted his fate. The most difficult thing for him was to leave me behind and I had to tell him over and over that I was going to be okay, he didn’t need to worry about me. I had friends, I had a job, and I was financially independent.
I leaned my head back on the tree trunk and closed my eyes, tears forming and about to escape when I was startled by some voices close by. A group of people chatting loudly and somewhat disturbing the serenity of the garden made their way past. My eyes travelled to the path closest to me and that was when I saw him for the first time.
He came walking down the path by himself. There was a bench close to the tree I was sitting under and I wondered if he would maybe sit on it or keep walking. For a moment I wished I would have sat on the bench instead of under the tree away from the path. That way I could have seen him pass right there. He didn’t see me because he was too focused on walking than looking around himself.
His hands were holding on to the handles of some black forearm crutches. He was concentrating on steadying his body as his feet dragged over the gravel path. I couldn’t see his face because he wore a baseball cap and he kept his eyes down. A plain dark T-Shirt hung loosely over his waist. What really caught my eyes though were the exceptional braces he wore over his jeans on both of his legs. I had seen braces on people’s legs before, possibly after knee surgeries or muscle injuries, usually soft neoprene braces used for keeping the injured leg in place, maybe reinforced on the sides and held on to the legs with Velcro straps. The braces he wore were different, more obvious and more bulky than what I had ever seen. I couldn’t make out too much except for leather straps and buckles all around his legs, attached to steel bars on the inside and outside of each leg.
It was like he could sense my staring at him as suddenly he looked up toward the bench close to me. He spotted me and for a split second our eyes met. Quickly I turned my eyes to my magazine in my lap. I was hoping he would sit down but he kept making his way past the bench and the tree and the slow drag of his feet on the gravel faded as he moved further away from where I was sitting. I looked around the tree and I watched him walk away. His body seemed unstable, his hands were gripping the crutches tightly as he slowly made his way.
He sat down on the next bench further down and I pondered if my gaping had kept him from sitting down on the bench closer to me. I felt bad for my obvious stares and was sure he was offended by it. Even though I knew it wasn’t right to stare at people, I couldn’t help it with him. My eyes were fixed on the leg braces and I felt my heart beat fast in my chest. Considering he wore regular street clothes, he most likely was not a patient. I felt very drawn to him and even though I tried to focus on my magazine I couldn’t. I wanted to look around the tree again but I was worried he would see me. The urge to get a glimpse of him again won over the fear of getting caught staring though. When I looked again, I saw he had been joined by an elderly man on the bench and they were talking. I couldn’t hear any of the conversation but I saw him gesture to his legs, one of them stretched out in front of him, the other angled at the knee. I felt safe just keeping my gaze on him until it was confirmed that people can indeed sense another person staring at them, because now he turned his head again and he looked right at me. I froze but I recognized a shy smile on his face. Then he looked away again and I relaxed in my position and sat back again, staring down at the magazine but not really seeing the pictures.
At that point I knew I had made a complete fool of myself and I shook my head at myself, almost like I wanted to loosen my brain cells that were seemingly in a chaos right now. I couldn’t focus though. I wanted to look at him again. For a few moments I just sat there, thinking and trying to focus on the magazine but I couldn’t. I toyed with the idea of gathering my things, getting up, and strolling leisurely by where he was sitting just to get another look at him. I pushed the idea aside, not wanting to be too obvious. Then again though, everyone had the right to walk around in the garden as they pleased and if I wanted to walk around I could. Why would I be more obvious than another person? I couldn’t do it though. Instead I sat motionless under the tree trying to find a reason to look at him again. I had waited too long because when I finally pulled myself together, picked up my things, and got up to head to the path, I saw he was gone. Only the older man had remained with another older man now joining him. I searched for him with my eyes but he was gone. He couldn’t have been that fast with the crutches and the braces on his legs, but he had disappeared.
My mind was racing but I decided to head back to my car. I had about an hour to be at work and I wanted to eat something before. Inside the cool lobby of the hospital I felt I needed to see my brother again. I headed for the elevator, stepped in, and pressed the button for the seventh floor once again. On the second floor it stopped and when the doors opened to let other people in I almost went into shock when the guy from the park was one of those people to get on the elevator. I stood in the back corner of the elevator and I did not know which direction to look. I tried to act natural and figured it would be perfectly all right to glance at him like I would glance at anyone else in the elevator with me. He made his way into the elevator, holding on to his crutches and his feet dragging a little still. He kept his eyes down in front of him to see where he was going, finding a spot in the middle of the elevator but trying not to take up too much room with his crutches on his sides. He spotted me in the corner and for a moment our eyes met again until a lady in front asked, “Which floor young man?”
He answered, “Four please.”
She pushed the buttons and I pondered for a moment on how long I would be in his presence now, really just two lousy floors. I kept my eyes down but was able to see his braced legs right in front of me. I didn’t know what kind of braces these were and I wondered what was wrong with his legs that he was in these braces. He held his crutches somewhat in front of him, obviously balancing his slightly unstable body. He wore the braces over his blue jeans. I saw the steel reinforcement bars go all the way up his legs from his feet to his thighs. On his lower leg around the shin and calf, and around his thighs, black leather cuffs with metal bands were buckled firmly to hold the braces in place. Both knees had a type of leather knee cover over them.
The steel bars on the sides of his legs were attached to the black sturdy looking boots, seemingly attached into the heel of the shoe. I felt my heart beat in my neck, my hands were sweaty from looking at these things on his legs. He used forearm crutches to hold himself up and balance his body, which obviously was not all the way easy. I wondered what was wrong with him and why he had to wear these braces when all the sudden the elevator came to a stop and the doors opened and he started moving toward the exit with some other people. I now looked after him shamelessly and my groins were aching for very strange reasons. I had not been able to get a good look of his face under his baseball cap but he had dark hair, sticking out in the back, ending in soft waves on his neck.
Floor number four, I had no idea what was there and I decided to check it out later.
As I arrived up on Jay’s floor, Gloria intercepted me, “What are you doing here again sug’? I thought you were gone.”
“I wanted to see him again before I actually leave.”
“He’s still out of it, baby.”
“I’ll just go in one more time real quick.”
Jay still had his eyes closed, the machine breathing for him and after talking to him for a few moments, I kissed him again and I left.
I took the elevator to the fourth floor now, I wanted to see what was there. I didn’t care if I maybe would cross paths with the guy again. When I stepped out I saw various signs pointing in different directions, arrows pointing toward “Neurology” and “Rehabilitation”. I had no idea where he could have gone to. Following my instincts I turned to the right, heading to “Rehabilitation”.
At the same time I was thinking about what I was doing, basically stalking a total stranger and I felt dumb. I still kept on walking and I entered the Rehabilitation wing on the floor. There was a reception to the left and some ladies were sitting behind the counter chatting lowly. On the right was a waiting area with comfortable looking chairs, a TV running, magazines strewn on small tables and large plants in corners. A few people were waiting, I saw some crutches and other orthopedic devices but then I saw him lounging on one of the chairs, close to the TV, and he had his baseball cap off. I wanted to disappear but before I had a chance to turn around and make my getaway he had spotted me. He had one braced leg stretched out in front of him again, the other in an angle and when he saw me he put his hands on the arm rests of the chair, and sat up some, shifting and curiously looking at me, almost like he was saying “You again?”.
I didn’t know what to do and pretended like I had actual business on this floor and like I had somewhere to be. Our eyes met again and he actually threw a shy smile at me again, then lowering his eyes. I moved my gaze away and just kept walking down the hallway to an area I had never been to. I didn’t want to walk back so I kept walking until I ended up at some elevators and I pressed the button to go down. These elevators were on the other side of the hospital and when I stepped out in the garage I was in a total different area than where I had parked my car. I rushed through the garage and got to my car eventually. I felt like a fool still, having stalked the guy just to get glimpse of him again. He was definitely in my head now and I knew I wanted to see him again. Where or when that would be was a total mystery to me.
On my way to work I thought about my brother and I also thought about the guy I had seen at the hospital. I was excited that he had actually smiled at me twice, once in the courtyard and then when I passed him in the waiting room. It had been a curious smile but definitely sexy and in the waiting area I had been able to see his face better and he did not look bad at all. He probably had a girlfriend or maybe even a wife.
Charity Hospital was huge and tended to patients with low income, no health insurance, people living in or below the state poverty level, or even homeless persons. My brother was one of the people with no health insurance. He had been tending bars for the longest time, making enough money to live on and many times in the past he had boyfriends who supported him. Somehow he always made it okay but once he was diagnosed with AIDS no health insurance would accept him anymore. He had been a regular patient at Charity for many months before he finally didn’t leave anymore. I wondered which category the guy in the braces belonged to. I had insurance through my employer and it was a decent plan with small co pays. I had a regular clinic in town and had medical care available to me. Fortunately I was healthy and didn’t have major issues.