Essay #6: The Music of the Hospital


When the moon shone, we did not see the candle.


So doth the greater glory dim the less:
A substitute shines brightly as a king
Unto the king be by, and then his state
Empties itself, as doth an inland brook
Into the main of waters. Music! hark!


It is your music, madam, of the house.

William Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice”, Act 5, Scene 1


My brother in law hates the sound of beeping machines in hospitals.

He and my sister were visiting my mom after her knee surgery last week and he kept on going on and on about the repetitive beeping sounds. Incessant, endless beeping.

In my mind, those beeps are the heartbeat of the building.

Hospitals have so much music in them. The clattering sound of the dinner tray cart rolling by. The rhythmic honk of a telemetry monitor. The shuffle of a nurse walking by in floral Dansko clogs. The laughter of the PCAs as they make their way to and from patients’ rooms. The cry of that guy Frank down the hall. The guy who couldn’t stop shouting. The guy who made one of my mom’s nurses sigh, “Do you have what you need for now?” Rolling her eyes toward Frank’s room: “…because it’s going to be a while before I can get back to you.”

My mother was a nursing instructor for more than 30 years at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Brighton, a college town on the edge of Boston. Her nursing program trained nurses through a combination of classroom and clinical work. She spent three days a week teaching her students on the floor, so that her students had practical experience to back up the theoretical concepts they explored in class. She guided her students through the ICU, the ER, obstetrics, cardiac wards…

My mother loves hospitals. She loves being a patient.

After years of taking care of our family of seven and thousands of patients at St. E’s, I don’t blame her one bit for wanting to lie back and let someone else drive. She adores the rolling tables with their tidy instruments and shiny tools lined up just so. She likes neatly made beds. She cherishes the nurses who follow best practices, making great decisions while being clever conversationalists and thoughtful caretakers. She revels in being able to order food from a menu, from the butter with her toast, to a turkey sandwich with cranberry relish, to lemon cake, to the coffee with 1% milk. She loves being cared for by nurses from her generation, because they know how to do things the proper way. Hospital corners. Foot boards for the bed. Never letting a call signal go for more than a few minutes.

Heaven help the nurses who don’t do things just right in my mother’s presence!

My mother usually begins her hospital stays saying to us, “I’m not going to tell them that I’m a nurse. I don’t want the young nurses to get nervous around me.” Then, almost within the same breath, my mother proceeds to ask the staff to find any of her students who work on the floor so that she can say hi. She drops medical terminology left and right so that the nurses ask, “Are you a nurse…?” My mother chirps, “I was a nursing instructor at St. Elizabeth’s in Brighton. But now I’m retired, thank you very much.” She takes great pride, both in her profession and in her ability to drop it nonchalantly like a handkerchief in her decadent retirement. My mother likes to throw out her own thoughts on her symptoms, to second guess the doctors and nurses who don’t meet her standards, and to question the way things are written on the intake forms. My mother knows. This is not her first rodeo.

The toughest thing for my mother is losing control. She’s used to being the authority. She’s used to being in charge. It’s frustrating for her to have to rely on others to get simple things done, like moving toward the bathroom, taking a bath, finding the call switch, and getting scooched up to the right spot in the adjustable bed. I think that’s why she nitpicks us while we’re there. “I put my pants on hangers in the closet. Don’t put them in the drawers!” “You can’t roll the blanket that way! The seam will hit my feet!” “Push the handle down on the bag before you move it!” “Cut the flowers before you put them in the water!” I’m 41 years old. I’m a very competent 41-year-old woman. My mother will never see me as older than a teenager in the script that plays out in her head.

My mother laments, “But how can I be stuck in this hospital bed when I’m only 42 in my mind?”

I hate to break it to you, Mom, but I’m going to be 42 this year, and I’m your fourth kid. Welcome to 77. You wear it well, even though your body is trying to tell you otherwise.

I’m hoping that my mother will be able to let go of some her frustration so that she can fall into the rhythm of the hospital, a place that is the heart of her profession and the root of her career. It is a secular church filled with healers and problem solvers. I hope that the beeps and the rumble of gurney wheels can transport her to a place of peace and trust. As with the clicking of a metronome at the piano or the sureness of a cello bass line in my world, the chirps, whirs and clicks we hear in the background are the music of her world. Hours can melt like wax candles in the hospital, but in that music, she knows she is home.




2 thoughts on “Essay #6: The Music of the Hospital

  1. Ah, such beautiful writing! I love the way you use familiar words in a familiar setting that usually uses other words. It creates a very artistic feel to what would otherwise just be a description of an older woman in a hospital. Very nice.


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