My family dropped me at work that morning on their way to the airport, where my sister and father would board an airplane for their flight home. I hugged them goodbye and waved as the car drove away.
On my lunch hour, I mailed our IRS return and deposited my first paycheck of $123.19—half a month's salary minus the days I'd missed. After work, I joined my mother and brother at the hospital.
Mike roared loud and clear in my direction when I entered his room. "This damn armor is killing me. And it's too hot in here. Open the window, will you?"
"Sure." Nice to see you, too, I thought, and agreed that the room was overly warm. I walked beyond the divider curtain to the windows, and noticed an elderly Asian man asleep in the other bed. His head was caved in near the temple area on one side, as if the skull beneath was made of soft clay that someone had pressed a grapefruit into—smooth and clean, no signs of recent trauma. I wondered what would cause such a deformity, but knew it was his business, not mine.
I tiptoed past his bed and opened a window, as quietly and slowly as I could. A slight breeze brushed my arm. It didn't feel any cooler than the air inside the room, but I hoped it would refresh Mike—psychologically if not physically.
"There," I said in a hushed voice when I returned to Mike's bedside. "It's open. I see you got a new roommate today."
"Yeah. What a pain. He's been crying off and on all day."
"What's he in here for?"
"Stroke. The nurse said people can act that way afterwards—some cry all the time, some laugh all the time."
"Maybe you can cheer him up later."
"I doubt it. He's been buzzing the nurses every thirty minutes to complain about something. I can't understand a word he says."
As if on cue, a nurse entered the room and went straight to bed number two. "Mr. Wu," she said, loudly. "What can I get for you?"
Mike and I eyed each other in silence as Mr. Wu mumbled something neither of us could understand. The nurse kept the chatter going with him until she understood what his problem was—he wanted the window closed. The nurse pushed it shut, and winked at Mike as she left the room.
"Hey," he hollered after her. "Wait a minute. It's too damn hot in here."
She turned and walked back to Mike's bedside. "Bear with it just a little while," she whispered, then turned to me and added, "go ahead and open it after he falls asleep again."
My mother and brother watched and grinned.
We visited with Mike for another hour, then left him to adjust to the new roommate that would frustrate him for several more days. Room hot. Window opens. Wu cries. Window closes. It would be a test of patience, for sure.
The next morning, Saturday, I drove Mom and Norm to the Greyhound station where he got onto a south-bound bus to return to Camp Pendleton and the Marine Corps. I watched the sleek silver people-carrier depart with a heavy heart, knowing my baby brother would be on his way to the war in Viet Nam before this year was over. May God go with him. When the bus rounded a corner and disappeared from sight, Mom and I headed for the hospital.
In Room 309, still confined to bed, Mike was at last free from the body cast and back into a hospital gown, his left arm now in traction. Two narrow straps, attached to a metal pin sticking out from both sides of his elbow, fed through a pulley hung over the foot end of his bed. A sand bag, hooked to the ends of the straps, created constant tension on his elbow and upper arm.
"What's this?" I greeted him with curiosity about this new contraption. "Looks like it hurts."
"It does." He leaned forward and pulled back on the straps with his other hand, trying to relieve the pressure. "It's suppose to help form the ball in my shoulder. Where's your Mom?"
"She wanted to look around the gift shop downstairs." I handed him a newspaper I'd picked from the dispenser in the lobby after dropping the requested dime into its coin slot.
"I hope this tension-thing works," I said, then noticed the gauze bandaging around his other elbow. "What's going on there?" I gestured toward it. "Did they draw blood today?" I walked around the bed for a closer look, expecting to see a cotton ball pressed under the wrapping. Instead, I saw a spot of blood-soaked gauze on either side of his elbow.
My brain quickly connected the dots. "Oh, my God. They drilled through the wrong elbow, didn't they?" My voice grew loud. My anger rose. One of few body parts that hadn't been damaged in the accident and they bored through it? I wanted to cry. "How could they do that?"
"Calm down, honey."
"Calm down? This is terrible! I can't believe they could make a mistake like this." My cheeks started to burn. "And you're right, this room is way too hot!" I wiped the sweat from my forehead, strutted over to the windows and pulled one open wide.
Mr. Wu glared at me.
"Sorry, Mr. Wu." I refrained from cursing him. "But if you're too cold in this ninety-five-degree room, then ask for another blanket!" Go ahead, ring for the nurse, I don't care. I returned to Mike's bedside.
Within minutes, a nurse arrived to see what Mr. Wu wanted. As usual, he wanted the window closed. The nurse obliged. The room grew warm. I opened the window again. Mr. Wu rang for the nurse. I stopped her before she got to him. "This room is just too hot. Can't you do something about it? Can't we leave the window open?"
"It's not that Mr. Wu is too cold," the nurse advised. "He can't have the outside air mix with the inside. It's a religious belief of some sort."
"Even if a heat stroke kills him?"
"I guess." She sighed, sneaked over to the window, pushed it within an inch of closing, and returned. "That's the trouble with these rooms on the west side of the building. They get warm."
"Well, can't something be done?" Mike butted in. "Can you at least get a fan in here for me?"
"I'll see what I can do," the nurse said, and left the room.
"I'll see what I can do …" Mike mimicked her. "Well, I'm not taking any more of this." He grabbed the top sheet to whisk it off of his lap, but with only one arm at his command, it didn't go far. "These damn sheets won't quit sticking to me. My back prickles. My ass hurts. I'm getting out of here! Bring me my clothes."
"You don't have any clothes. They had to cut them off of you." What was he thinking? The man still had drain tubes exiting his chest. Give me a break! "You're not leaving until you're healed—inside and out." I began to fan him with the newspaper.
He calmed down and we talked. Mom came into the room and joined our conversation. We stayed until Mike had eaten his lunch, then left to seek relief from the balmy California weather, and to give me time to catch up on chores at home, like laundry, cleaning, and paying what bills my meager paycheck would allow.