New Year's Eve 1997. It's three o'clock in the afternoon and nearly everyone is preparing for the night's celebrations. I picture people buying champagne, applying red nail polish, fussing with "Happy New Year" signs, making hors d'oeuvres while I sit in the waiting room of the neurology clinic at a university medical center in Boston. Only for a moment. The distractions around me don't let my musings venture too far from where I sit. Phones ring, patients check in, names are called, and white coats blur by. Disease knows no holiday. The last hours of the year and this hospital world hasn't closed early to go home and say good-bye to the old one. Gary occupies the chair next to me, our backs facing the floor-to-ceiling windows. I do not turn around to check out the view from this eighth floor perch. It is cold out there, in the low thirties, with the city dressed in its winter gray, bare and stark. I watch Gary instead. I listen to him. He is making up words. He can't remember parts of yesterday—his doctor's name, his appointment for an MRI. I start a sentence and, by the time I finish it, he forgets the subject. Plus, he meets the criteria for depression listed in a psychiatry manual.
Guilt: I was a bad person when I was younger.
Difficulty concentrating: I can't read anymore. I can't finish the sentences. I don't remember what I've just read.
Fatigue: I don't want to get out of bed in the morning. I'm tired.
Some translator in my head decodes his stream of babble for me and even takes the liberty of filling in the blanks. The changes in his behavior, mental abilities and personality puzzle me, scare me. What the hell is wrong with him? As I had done the night before, I mull over several possible diagnoses—mini-stroke, dementia, brain tumor, infection—on our drive into Boston. I had ruled out stroke. Again, I decide that brain tumor should go way down to the bottom of that list. Rare, according to a medical reference book I had checked last week. This afternoon, the doctors will say, "Aha!" and give us a simple neurological explanation. And then we will know what to do.
A few minutes later, a young doctor walks over to where we are sitting. He smiles and leans toward us. I smile back. I feel a sense of relief. "I'm glad you made it here, Mr. Stoecker." His voice is friendly, calm.
Then, another doctor comes up to us. "Good to see you. I'm glad you got our messages to make sure that you came in. We'll be with you in a minute. Right away."
"What messages?" I say.
"We've been calling the number he left yesterday when he had his MRI. We wanted to be sure he didn't miss this appointment."
"Oh." I had not checked my voicemail since we left my apartment late this morning.
My heart beats faster. I can feel, almost hear, the thumpthumpthumpthump through the layers of my winter clothing. Gary misses the nuance of that conversation. I don't. They found something wrong on that MRI. Thumpthumpthumpthump. I force myself to smile.
"I told you this was a friendly hospital. The receptionists, the nurses, the technicians and the doctors--all nice. See. The doctors came out to greet us, even before they call you in." I try to sound cheery. Gary hates doctors.