I spent most of this weekend in a hospital, which only served to confirm that while hospitals are obviously essential, they are remarkably depressing places.
My stepfather had a stroke last Friday. Or at least, he had a 'suspected' stroke - since the UK medical profession is increasingly fearful of litigation they seem disinclined to fix a firm diagnosis on to anything except death (which in most cases one would assume to be fairly conclusive). Stepdad came pretty close such a conclusion on Sunday morning when he had a huge fit and stopped breathing, necessitating an induced coma and much lighting of candles at Mass that day (Firstborn: "Dear Lord, Grandad M will be a good boy and eat his peas and carrots all up so please make his head not hurty any more. Amen").
Stepdad was in a hospital in Cornwall, so I left the kids with Alpha Male and took the train down. By this point Stepdad had been in the hospital for over a week and while his condition was improving, he was going slowly insane with being cooped up in a ward clad in nothing more than a nightie (and not a very flattering one at that) and only a broken TV set for entertainment. His first words to me were a heartfelt, "Get me out of here."
Stepdad has now been discharged and is on the road to recovery. It is likely he won't be able to drive again due to his vision being seriously impaired, and he has also developed severe diabetes which will have a big impact on his dietary habits (we won't be able to tease him with "M, would you like a bit of bread on your butter?" anymore). But he is, or will be once he has fully recovered, mobile, and his cognitive abilities are relatively unscathed. Lucky.
I have nothing but praise for the hospital staff who were all reassuringly brusque and frighteningly efficient, but the hospital itself made me feel an uncomfortable shade of navy blue. I can't quite pinpoint the exact cause of my temporary depression but I think it's a combination of that odd hospital smell, a lingering and pervasive stench located somewhere between disinfectant and death; the sense that everyone and everything is in transition; the barely restrained tears of the couple in the lift and the dark, tired eyes of the little girl in the wheelchair; the in-your-face garish pastel palette of the cheap teddy bears arranged in the window of the gift shop; the airport-style rows of chairs, as inviting as a hair shirt; the immobile bare feet of the woman in the next cubicle, hours of stillness, not even an involuntary toe-twitch; the endless grey linoleum, acres and acres of it, everywhere, no escaping it.
And I missed my girls. I missed Alpha Male. I missed the warm atmosphere of our home, the chaos, the jumble of piled high things, the shock of a sharp toy unexpectedly underfoot, the sudden shrieks of joy or rage, high piping voices breaking into song, little hands creeping into mine, small bodies leaping on me from the top of the sofa with careless disregard for gravity or sharp elbows, Alpha Male's eyes meeting mine.
But one day, the tired and worried woman who has spent almost every waking hour at the side of her husband's hospital bed and the hours when she should be sleeping wrestling with tears and dark fears, might be me. And when that day comes, my hope is that my daughters will leave their homes to be by my side, to do nothing more than add their strength to mine, to drape their arms around my shoulders and make me feel less alone. Like I did for my mother this weekend.
It is, after all, these simple things that are the true expressions of love. Arriving when you are needed and without fanfare, providing a steadying hand, a smile, a timely tissue, and a warm heart.