RATING: PG for some mild language
SERIES/SEQUEL: The sixth of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Redhead, following Shower Me With Roses.
SPOILERS/CONTINUITY: Becomes an AU after "Chaos Theory." This is the Christmas episode.
SUMMARY: And in some respects, the patient must minister to the physician.
DISCLAIMERS: ER is the intellectual property of Constant C Productions, Amblin Entertainment, and Warner Brothers Television. This original work of fan fiction is copyright 2002 Mosca. I make no profit, so it's protected in the USA by the fair use provisions of the Copyright Act of 1976. All rights reserved. All wrongs reversed. And when it's dry and ready, oh, dreidel I shall play.
NOTES: Thanks to k and Katisha for being awesome beta women, and to The Distraction. This is for Papa and Lotte.
It's kind of annoying to have to say this explicitly, but I feel I should. The narrator of this story uses some language that could be perceived as racist, or at the very least politically incorrect. Such language does not reflect the attitudes of the author.
The poem excerpt at the beginning is from "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" by Wallace Stevens, and the whole series is a homage to that poem.
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
I don't think I'm headed for the hospital when I wake up the day after Christmas with a crampy stomach. I take a little cupful of Pepto Bismol and have hot tea instead of coffee with breakfast. If my Roddy were here, he'd scold me to take better care of myself. He was always too much of a mother hen. I used to tell him, "Don't fuss so much. I'm a grown man." Now, it's the fussing I miss.
I always do the crossword puzzle first, before I read any news. The puzzles warm up my brain, and when you get to be my age, the brain needs a little kick-start before it gets going on its own. My stomach is still hurting. All that Chinese food last night must have done a number on me. Still, it's not so bad. Just aches and pains, the creaky old body doing its job. I finish my puzzle and get up to take a shower. The pain in my stomach makes my eyes water. I take another dose of Pepto Bismol. I don't know if it's a good idea to take two doses in a row like that, but I doubt it'll kill me. It doesn't turn out to help, though, either. I start to get a little worried. They say that when you get older, this kind of pain can mean it's something serious. I shave, brush my teeth, and get dressed, and then I call my niece.
"How long has it been hurting?" she says. I think Margie gets overly concerned about me, but I figure, better to have someone overly concerned than to have nobody who cares. Margie cares enough that when my Roddy passed on, she convinced me to come back to Chicago and be near my family. I've seen plenty of old gays abandoned by their relatives, left to rot away in a nursing home or die alone when there was no one left to care. Better to come back here, where at least there's someone to keep an eye on me.
"Oh, only since I woke up," I tell her. "It's really not so bad. I shouldn't have bothered you."
"What did I tell you, Uncle Georgie? You're never bothering me."
"If you say so," I say.
"I think it could be serious," she says. "Why don't I come pick you up, and we'll go to the doctor. Just to make sure everything's okay."
"I can drive myself," I say.
"Let me," she says. "Please? Just in case something is the matter."
"All right," I say. "I'll call my doctor and let him know I'm on my way in."
"Sit tight. I'll be there in ten minutes."
I call the doctor's office, but all I get is his voice mail. He probably went somewhere sunny for the holidays. I don't really want to bother them in the emergency room. But there are times when it seems like I can hear Roddy's voice in my head. Right now, he's telling me, "That's what they're there for. It's better than suffering." Roddy knows from suffering. When Margie gets to my apartment, I put on my coat and hat and fix my wool scarf around my neck. I take my newspaper along in case there's a wait.
When we get to the ER, they have me and Margie sit in their uncomfortable plastic chairs. I planned on reading my paper, but there's so much going on, it's hard to concentrate. The waiting room is full. There's a crying baby and lots of squirming children, a young black fellow yelling into his cellphone, two old ladies gossiping loudly enough for everyone to hear. It's funny that everyone here is sick, or hurt, or else worrying about someone who's sick or hurt. This place seems so full of life.
"Mr. Zugerman?" a male nurse shouts over the din. That's my name. I stand up.
"Hey!" a woman shouts. She's got two little kids, and she looks like a mess. "We've been waiting longer than that guy has."
"We've got to take the patients at highest risk first, ma'am," the nurse says calmly. He's an Oriental, with black-rimmed glasses and spiky hair. He reminds me of a young man who lived in my old neighborhood in San Francisco. "I'm Yosh," he tells me while we walk to one of the examination areas. "I'll just take a quick look at you, and then a doctor will be in to see you."
"Do you Dr. Weaver-- and asks me a bunch of the same questions that the nurse asked. She presses my belly in a bunch of places and asks me if it hurts. She seems kind of relieved when she sees where the pain is. At my age, that's what you want your doctor to be: relieved.
The doctor tells Nurse Yosh some medical gobbeldygook, then turns to me. "Mr. Zugerman," she says, "we're going to run a few tests, and then another doctor's going to come and look you over."
"Do you know what's wrong with me?"
"We really won't know until we get those test results back," she says.
I break out my best grandmotherly smile. "What's your best guess?"
"I really need to have the other doctor see you," she says, "but it looks to me like you've got a case of appendicitis."
"Is that all it is?"
"I can't say for sure."
"But that's what you think?"
"That's what I think," she says. She tells me that Nurse Yosh is going to draw some of my blood, which he does. And they leave me alone in the exam room with my newspaper again.
Dr. Weaver comes back in a few minutes later, this time quicker than the last and with what looks to be another doctor. They stand in the doorway of the examination room for a minute. The other doctor is a woman too, pretty in the curvaceous way that in a better world would still be fashionable. The way they're smiling at each other, there's obviously nothing they'd rather be doing than looking in each other's eyes. My Roddy would laugh and say that I see romance everywhere, especially where it isn't. But I think what I've always had is a knack for seeing what other people overlook. I'd see two men talking in a Castro Street bar, and when I said that they were hot and bothered for each other, my friends would laugh like I was reporting from the moon. But sure enough, a few weeks later someone would hear that those two fellows were messing around. If I still have that knack, then I'm sure of it: either those doctors are having a little office romance, or they wish they were.
The new doctor tosses her long, curly hair, and the other one leaves. This new doctor tells me with a sharp English accent that she's Dr. Corday, and that she's going to check my belly one more time. My stomach hurts in exactly the same place that it's hurt all day, but I guess it's good that they're being thorough.
When she's through with my examination, she looks a little grim. "Well, Mr. Zugerman," she says, "it appears you've got an inflamed appendix. We were going to run some other tests, but I'm concerned that if we wait any longer, your appendix might burst. Now, your age is a risk factor, but it looks like you're in excellent health otherwise, so I've little worry that the surgery will be anything but straightforward. I've got some consent forms for you to sign if you understand what I've just said, so we can go ahead and get that appendix out."
"Sounds good to me," I say, taking the clipboard from her and signing my name on the forms. "Seems like a pretty good deal," I say. "I was thinking it was any number of things, and it turns out I've just come down with a little case of appendicitis."
She laughs and takes the form away. A minute or so later, some men come in, transfer me to a bed on wheels, and take me on the elevator to a different floor of the hospital. When I get there, some young kid who'll be a doctor when he grows up asks me a bunch of the same questions I've already been asked and tells me a bunch of things about the surgery. Another doctor tells me to count backwards from ten, and the next thing I know, I'm groggy in a hospital bed.
A nurse comes in and tells me that Margie will be back at the hospital in about an hour. She had to drop off one of the boys at a Christmas party. The nurse gives me my newspaper and tells me to press a button on the bedside table if I need anything. When she leaves, I try to read the paper, but my mind is still blurry from the anesthesia. I decide to take a nap instead. Roddy's holding my hand as I doze off. I can see his kind smile out of the corner of my eye. He's wearing one of his awful loud ties, and for once, I don't feel like begging him to put on something less garish.
I must be pretty darned out of it, because when the doctor comes in, I think I'm dreaming her. It's the curly-haired English girl from before. "I'm sorry, Mr. Zugerman," she says. "Kit told me you were awake."
"I was. I must have dozed off, there."
"I'm pleased to say that your surgery was a very straightforward one, with no complications," she says. "We'll want to keep you here at the hospital overnight, though, just to make sure nothing goes wrong. Do you have someone to help you out after you're discharged? It'll take some time for you to recover."
"I'm sure Margie won't mind having me around for a few days," I say. "She's my niece."
"That's good to hear," the doctor says. "Not everyone's family is willing to take such good care of them."
"She's been wonderful to me since my Roddy passed on." I'm offering her the bait, and she can take it or not.
"My husband," I say. "If only in God's eyes."
She smiles softly, the way people do when they know firsthand what you're talking about. The young men in San Francisco would say other gays were "family." That bit of slang always seemed like it was trying too hard to make up for a community that had long since stopped being close-knit. But now, in this city where I hardly know anyone, I can see where it might make sense.
"You-- you miss him a lot?" she says.
"Every day," I say. "But you know what? Every day, it gets a little easier."
"I suppose it does," she says.
"But it'll be a long time before you have to think about things like that, dear."
"I wish it were," she says. She shakes her head. "My-- I lost my husband to cancer this past summer."
"Oh, my," I say. I wonder how many other things about her I've misread.
"It's all right," she says. "It's not something people would expect."
"Not in this day and age, anyway," I say.
"Well," she says, putting some pamphlets on the table by my bed, "this is some extra information about your recovery. You'll have to come back in next week for a follow-up, and you'll probably have your stitches removed then. You can make that appointment at the desk when you check out. Have you got any questions you'd like to ask me?"
"No, thank you," I say.
"Feel free to buzz the nurse if you need anything," the doctor says, turning to leave.
The truth is, I do have a question for her; it's just too nosy to ask. When I was younger, I had no shame about butting into other people's affairs. I did it not because I liked to gossip, but because I didn't like to: what I liked to know was the truth. From the horse's mouth, as they say. "Go on and ask her," I can hear Roddy saying. "Otherwise, you'll keep me up all night thinking about it."
We're supposed to become bolder in our old age, not more timid. Besides, it's amazing what a head of white hair and a few wrinkles will allow you to get away with. "Excuse me," I say. "Just one question."
"Of course," the doctor says.
"To tell the truth, I was surprised to hear you were married. I thought for sure... you and that doctor in the emergency room. The one with the cane?"
"Oh!" she laughs and looks away shyly. Then, her mouth becomes a stern line. "I'm sorry, I'm... not allowed to discuss that. It's hospital policy, I'm afraid."
It doesn't matter; I've got my answer. It's too bad, though. I used to think that by the end of the twentieth century, people wouldn't have to hide like this. And here we are, with six days left until 2003, and my doctor can mention her former husband but not her current girlfriend. Still, things must be easier for her than they were for Roddy and me. A little easier for each generation: maybe that's all we ought to ask.
"How did you know?" the doctor asks. "Were we that transparent?" She's got an edge to her voice, like she's worried that she's going to be caught. It should have occurred to me that I might make her fearful for her job. I'm too much of an optimist these days. But before she had a chance to think about it, I'm pretty sure she was thrilled that someone noticed. She had that smile that people get when they have an excuse to think about the person they've just fallen in love with.
"Not really. It's the kind of thing I notice."
"Good," she says sharply. "No, that's not what I mean; it's that-- we're not really ready to-- it all just seems to be such bad timing."
"Dear, if we all waited for the right time to fall in love, none of us ever would."
She smiles. "I suppose you're right."
"You're young yet," I say. "You could spend the rest of your life mourning what you've lost, but that's an awful lot of Saturday nights to spend alone."
"She... makes me forget about him. About my husband."
"If you like her," I say, "don't make it about him."
"And what about you?" she asks. "Are you seeing anyone?" It's not the most graceful change of subject, but it's well-meant. Better than a doctor who stitches you up and moves on to the next victim.
"No, I'm afraid those days are over for me," I say.
"Why should they be? You're in excellent health, Mr. Zugerman. You could have ten or twenty years left. That's.... a good thousand Saturdays."
"That's quite a few, isn't it?" I say with a grin.
"I think Kerry-- er, Dr. Weaver, the one you saw down in the ER-- once said something to me about social services for gay and lesbian seniors," the doctor says. "I could get you some information, if you like."
"Oh, there's no need."
"It's no trouble," she says. "In fact, it's a bit of an excuse to sneak down there and see her."
"Then, by all means," I say.
"I'd be happy to look into it for you." She is heading for the door again. "It's been lovely talking to you, Mr. Zugerman," she says as she leaves the room.
I wonder what social services for gay and lesbian seniors would be like. Probably just bingo nights with old queens and retired schoolteachers instead of the usual widowed housewives. It might be nice, though, finding a community again, making a few friends to pass the time. Family is one thing, but a man can only spend so many nights teaching chess to his great-nephew and telling his niece that her bland cooking is delicious. And there are so many nights when I'm alone with Roddy's ghost. His voice in my head used to comfort me, but lately he's become an unwelcome spirit. I was a whole person before I met him. They said I was a catch, back then: what I lacked in looks I made up for with wit and style. In those days, we all wanted to be devastating, like Cary Grant. We didn't dream of domestic bliss.
I hope my English doctor was right, and I'll have a decade or two left to find that whole person again. There's no law that a man my age can't be devastating. I'll buy a new suit and knock their socks off at bingo night. That sounds awfully silly, but you never know. I've got a lot of Saturday nights left to dust off my old moves.