Portrait of a Broken Bone

(Creative Commons)

At age 50, the ability for bones to heal begins to rapidly die. By 70, the hope for any reconciliation between fragment and whole has left without ceremony. Margaret Cohen has broken her hip in five different, splintered places, each with a distinct archipelago of white bone. Her veins run as blue threaded rivers in-between, drawing an intricate cartography of the world inside Margaret’s body. At 68, her body may try to form the Pangea of hip it once was. But now, distanced as they were, no recovery was imminent.

The family this time was caring. Huddled in their Chicagoan-winter layers, brushing the white snow off as they entered, introductions were made. Family members met each other for the first time, their own distances reconciled in this cramped space, some wounds reopened where once thought sutured, the bones meeting for a brief splint named Margaret — or as they call her, Peggy — Cohen. Younger members reveled at family that only existed in lore, whose concepts were materialized in chubby, estranged faces, in accents from the East coast and Mid-West and were no more familial than the other armchair patrons. Hospitals are the traditional intersection for such excuses of reconnection.

Nicknames like hers were always so strange. It’s the same confusion accompanying the jump from Richard to Dick, Robert to Bob. An era of dual personalities. Margaret to Peggy was one she hadn’t heard before, and when she’d asked the family about Margaret most thought the nurse had been confused with a different patient. The nurse, of course, would be the one to make such an insensitive error (they thought). A nurse is just a proxy to the true professionals — the men with trimmed faces and starched lab coats.

Margaret had thin, loose, curly hair beginning its turn to winter coat. Left like scraps of sheep’s wool, it softened her whitening head against the white hospital pillows in an exposition of the color. She was small — registered at 5’3” — and would stand belly-level with her husband. Her arms were both bony, the skin seeming to shrink as if left in the sun, which made it difficult for the IV to find a vein — even with the bold blue pumping beneath her leafy skin. They didn’t move much and when they did it was a rambling finger pointing out the object of her groans and mumbles, usually a TV or water cup — which she couldn’t put in her raisined hands anyway — or, most often, a mirage. Even with the chairs loaded to capacity, it was never family she pointed to.

An oxygen supply rested beneath her petite nose, as is standard for someone with decades of bourgeois smoking habits. The nurse could imagine the photos sitting in basement albums: black and white, the window to Margaret’s right, just after noon, casting shadows on an armoire with a flower-accented jewelry box, a bottle of perfume with a spritzer trailing its base, the ash tray resting as though still a staple of home decor. Margaret is in the chair — hand-crocheted with a similar efflorescence as the box — her legs crossed in feminine standard, leaning back, cigarette locked into an arm craning backward. To the nurse, every woman of Margaret’s caliber was an Audrey or Marilyn who graduated from bobby socks to the elegance of pearls and legitimate-gold jewelry. In this photo the nurse saw her in black and white, and though the room Margaret rested in now was of a similar palette, Peggy still colored in white, the romance of the era quickly left her.

The nurse put down the clipboard, her duties finished for now. Margaret was in a lot of pain and they needed to be conservative on the morphine. Not that she could become an addict, but because others — younger patients — would need it. She grimaced and groaned. ‘More.’ The nurse put her hand down on Margaret’s shoulder, almost recoiling at the fear of breaking that too. She didn’t seem to notice. The nurse stroked her hair and turned to leave.

The men continued gallivanting, their Gregorian discussions on the state of the Chicago Bears filling the room. They were carbon copy, roughly the same girth with various displays of facial hair. One had a great beard, one a moustache, one a more pubescent-looking arrangement. The nurse had heard Margaret’s daughter and grandson talking outside earlier. She said Peggy hated beards and would never let her dad grow one out. He sounds like he took her seriously. She pushed through their shoulders, allowing her uniform to dictate her urgency and tell the room that she required no courtesy or acknowledgment.

Later the family left for lunch. In total, there were 10: two daughters — one of whom brought their son to wheel around Maraget’s husband — two brothers (the burly men), their wives and one son (the pubescent one), and one sister. From what she could ascertain, most of the family lived in Chicago and Milwaukee, with the sister flying in from Maryland. The daughter and grandson — Patricia and Luke, she gathered — were from Colorado. Luke was close to 14, based on his height and budding facial hair. He kept his hair in a drooping mop, his clothes an obvious choice of his mother’s. They seemed to take the initiative of caring for Ken, Margaret’s husband, who required a wheel-chair and waved his arms in convulsion — Parkinson’s. They didn’t go with the rest of the family, now bantering between Packers and Bears allegiances, and sat in two chairs outside of Margaret’s room. Patricia touched Luke on the shoulder.

I’m going to be in there for a bit, she said, take care of Grandpa.

She stood up, her half-cut of sandwich still resting in the cafeteria bag, creased her skirt, and went in. Luke left his food in the bag, instead unwrapping a BLT and instructing his grandfather to eat it. He grabbed it in a swinging arm and bit, mustard or mayonnaise dripping onto his Walmart brand t-shirt. It read ‘Don’t talk to me before I’ve had my coffee’ and the mustard was creeping down the length of the clip-art coffee cup. Luke pointed it out, using a voice reserved for parents talking to their children, but Ken continued snacking. Luke reiterated, and Ken grew angry.

Mind your own damn business, he coughed.

Ken grew confused. He glared at Luke with his glasses skirted down to the tip of his hawkish nose. Bifocals. He told Luke to move and find another spot, his head careening around but his eyes fixed forward. Now Luke was angry, 14 and in charge of feeding his grandpa, his grandma asking for ‘more’ in the room beside him. He skirted to the chair next to him. Grandpa resumed eating, ignoring the discomfort on his grandson’s blank face. Must be Alzheimer’s as well. The nurse looked down at her own lunch, hunched behind the reception desk to avoid anyone asking her for help — not that they noticed her anyway. That was one of the symptoms of being a woman in a job designed specifically for women: you were treated like a woman.

The nurse got up and walked to the doorway. Luke flicked his eyes for a moment, and the nurse thought they looked deep. They were green, shining bright in comparison to the long, almost-black hair. The only word she could think to describe them was deep.

Patricia was sitting in the armchair next to the bed. Margaret lay down, sleeping or comatose, with Patricia’s long boney fingers running through her paper hand. Nobody said anything. Patricia didn’t notice her at the door. She had her head bent down, eyes closed. Her hand would squeeze Margaret’s, unafraid. They’re praying, the nurse thought. Patricia was mouthing words, one of which, ‘Mom’, was most audible in the room. That’s a name that the nurse could sympathize with. Something better than Margaret or Peggy. Mom. How comforting and alien. What is she praying for, the nurse thought. For healing? For the striations of bone to come together and allow Margaret to sit more comfortably in her home; for the nurses reigning over the television remote and pill schedules to be able to move her more easily? Those nurses didn’t have names in her imagination, just a call sign. ‘Nurse, here please.’ Margaret didn’t treat her any better. She, who cradled her life in 200 thread-count stock linens. Margaret only spoke ‘more,’ a command without direction.

The bones in Margaret’s hip wouldn’t realign. They would remain in a broken constellation and she wouldn’t be able to walk out of this hospital. The family would grieve, host a funeral, and then return to their Bermuda triangle of Colorado, Chicago, and Milwaukee, a no man’s land of interaction. Margaret was a reluctant excuse to come together — a commiseration.

The sheen of Margaret and her sheets sucked the color from the room. The nurse walked back out and sat next to Luke. She pulled one leg up over the other, as if wearing something more fashionable than her blue cotton smock, and laced her fingers together over her propped knee. She turned to Luke, once again considering his deep eyes. Grandpa was fixated on something in another room.

How does she look, he said. I haven’t seen her yet.

You haven’t? She asked

No, my mom won’t let me, he said.

She turned her head forward. She’d seen this before, when parents protect their children by keeping them from seeing such tragic things as Margaret’s conditional whiteness.

How close are you? She asked.

Not very, he said. It’s been a couple years since I’ve seen everyone. We haven’t really spoken except on birthdays. I don’t really know her anyway, so I guess it isn’t a big deal.

She looked at his eyes, which never seemed to contact anything but the floor under his side-swept hair. She looked out onto the hospital floor, the hallways filled with ‘authentic’ photos you could find at places like Hobby Lobby. She’d neglected her other patients today.

I’m sorry, she said. She stood and brushed her uniform. While leaving, she grabbed a book from behind the desk, off the community shelf, and brought it back to him. He looked at it with his deep eyes and didn’t say anything.

She walked into the next room and picked up the clipboard. Allen Schneider, 24, severe burns on his left side. She checked his medication levels, minding his sleeping, and fluffed a fresh white pillow to put under his head. You could see the deep purple of his skin from beneath the spindled gauze.

She moved to the next room. Beth Huntington, 43, severe chest pain. She was watching the TV, on which was playing the Steve Harvey edition of “Family Feud.” Because of the chest pains Beth couldn’t laugh, though it was hard to tell if she found it funny to begin with. But the show worked because it was there; it was enough to be better than nothing. She didn’t acknowledge the nurse, who threw an unnoticed smile toward her before leaving again. Her husband was in the corner, reading.

Patricia, Luke, and Grandpa were now leaving. Patricia closed the door and Luke was looking briefly through the thin glass window. He didn’t make any expression, but his finger was holding his place in the book she gave him. The binding was cracking from the pressure. Patricia then came up.

Thank you so much, Maggie, for all your work, she said. They began leaving.

Maggie walked into the room and found a small pamphlet left on the side table. Margaret was asleep. No ‘more.’ Maggie could only think of what Margaret’s stories must have been. If she was the always-appropriate woman that the fat brothers remembered. If she was one of the women in the old photographs, like Maggie had been thinking. Or, maybe, if she was a terrible truth that required sheltering from for her grandkids — a family history now written as ghost story. Maggie sat in Patricia’s chair and grabbed Margaret’s bony fingers, massaging the top of her hand with her thumb. On the table was a Christ-promoting message, “Do you know where you’re going?” in tacky font on top. Maggie put it in her pocket before leaving to check on Allen, Beth, and the others.

The next week Margaret was gone. She’d died at 8:43pm over the weekend, during the back half of the Bears-Packers game. Patricia and Luke were the only ones who came — the rest of the family never answered the phone, and Grandpa didn’t know who they were wanting to see at the hospital. Luke sat outside again, waiting for Patricia, who was saying goodbye to Margaret. He sat reading the book Maggie had given him, leafing through the last couple pages before closing the book, sighing, and running his finger down the toothy spine. He had gotten a haircut and his deep eyes shone brighter now in the hospital light. He stood up and walked over to the counter, setting the book on top.

It was very good, he said. The ending was hard, though.

They always are, Maggie said.

It was the book she always gave to the families that came through — not because she knew what it was about, but because they all seemed to come out of it with closure in one way or another. She couldn’t remember the patient that had given it to her.

Thank you, he said.

Of course, she said. She realized it was more professional to say ‘my pleasure,’ like the employees at Chick-Fil-A do, turning through customers like pages in a spineless book. But it still felt fresh to hear such a thing. Luke walked back to the chair and sat down, still never seeing his grandmother after Patricia left the room, eyes puffy and makeup running. She took ahold of Luke’s hand and looked around, her eyes drifting off each name on each door. She seemed lost, looking for a map to give her direction, destination.

Do you know where you’re going? Maggie asked.

She squeezed Luke’s hand and nodded, dabbing her face with her thick Chicagoan-winter jacket. She and Luke left. Maggie went into Margaret’s room, turned the lights off and sat in the chair, taking in the stillness of the scene. Like a photograph, she thought. Simple as black and white. After several minutes someone was calling her name — probably Allen, who would be there for several more weeks. Beth was discharged on Tuesday; it was just a reaction from the air filters in her new workplace. But Maggie couldn’t leave Margaret for now. She knew the bones wouldn’t reform from the charts — it was too serious. Too much distance.

Another nurse peaked in and flipped the lights.

Mr. Schneider needs you, she said.

I know.

It gets easier you know, the other nurse said. But the first ones are always the hardest.

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