Gary checks into the hospital that night. His room is on the neurology floor, a dimly lit hall with patient rooms on either side
It is odd to spend New Year's Eve in a hospital. People are out there getting drunk, making passes, dancing to loud music till blisters form on their feet, eating too much and blowing plastic horns. All merry and noisy. Here, the only sounds coming from the rooms are the beeps of monitors. Such stillness from within rooms of patients with no voices, no thoughts, little or no movement. Paralysis. Stasis.
A nurse comes in to hook Gary up to an IV and starts him on dexamethasone—Decadron—the corticosteroid that would reduce the swelling of his brain.
"Nurse, how are the passengers on this flight doing?"
He's an airline pilot, I whisper to her. He asks not from the cocoon of his cockpit but a sterile room while sitting on a plastic, crinkling hospital bed. He seems so vulnerable, so very exposed. Gary has gone from man to man-child wearing a one-size-fits-all blue hospital gown that's too short and doesn't fit around his torso. He looks like a man in drag in a dress that is not supposed to be above the knee, much less a hairy one, but the gown is not meant for a tall woman. And, Gary, whose wardrobe consists of blue and white uniforms with gold-striped epaulets for work and putty-colored Dockers and navy blue or white Lauren Polo golf shirts for every day, seems unaware that his back and bottom are showing when he walks around the room and up and down the hall checking that all's right in the plane's passenger cabin. I try not to notice his sudden loss of modesty, dignity—and self. He is spiraling down, losing altitude. I wait to hear the crash.
The neurologist who stood up throughout the earlier exam treads in and reintroduces himself. He is Dr. Schneider, who speaks with a slight lisp and dresses in an understated GQ style. He begins a neurological exam, he explains, to determine which areas of Gary's brain are affected. He checks Gary's reflexes and pupil dilation. He tells him to count backwards from 100 but to subtract seven each time. He does it without a hitch. I can't. He asks Gary to hold his arms straight out, shoulder height and width, palms up, and eyes closed. Some doctor told me later that for some people with brain damage—and a brain tumor damages—their arms drift apart.
"I'm going to tell you three words, Mr. Stoecker—" The doctor says "Stoker."
"It's pronounced 'Stecker.'"
"My apologies. OK, Mr Stoecker, I'm going to give you three phrases. See if you can remember them for me. Here they are: red rose, Fenway Park, wagon."
"Red rose. Fenway Park. Wagon. Red rose. Fenway Park. Wagon."
"Hold on. I'll ask you to repeat them to me in five minutes."
Dr. Schneider brushes his thumb along the tips of his fingers next to Gary's right and left ears. Gary hears the swish on both sides. A good sign. OK, so it doesn't mean much. I remind myself that hearing loss is hardly the problem at this point. We're talking brain tumor and a loss of short-term memory and words. Cripe. I repeat to myself the three words the doctor has told Gary memorize. Dr. Shneider drags a tongue depressor along the bottoms of Gary's feet. He laughs. That has to be a good sign, this ticklishness. I grasp at anything that would give me hope. I say the three words over to myself.
"OK, remember those three words I told you five minutes ago? What were they?"
Red rose. Fenway Park. Wa—
"Red rose." Pause. "I don't know." He shrugs.
I tell Gary that I need to get some food. I catch up with the doctor in the hall. He says that some of the cognitive deficits—neurology jargon for screwed up thought processes—may be due to brain swelling and not the tumor. We'll know more tomorrow, once the corticosteroid starts to reduce the swelling. But he can't reassure me that Gary will be himself again. Ever. The neurosurgeon has been called, and we'll probably meet him tomorrow, New Year's Day.
I return to Gary's room. He is watching television. Gary doesn't own a television on principle. Rubbish, all rubbish, he had told me several times. But I am relieved that he has found an interest in it for now. He is a content man-child staring up at the electronic babysitter. Great, the Marx Brothers. I laugh at all the right moments. Hollow laughter, but laughter nonetheless. I lean on this moment of levity to relieve my nervousness, if only a little. And, Gary is garrulous and silly. I mean, giddy silly. Drunk silly.
He does remember that it's New Year's Eve. I wonder why his short-term memory managed to keep that fact intact. He wants me to join with him in the festivities. I go along for the ride. Dick Clark is in Times Square, as usual. The show switches to some party in Los Angeles. Gary claps to some hip-hop music and sings at the top of his voice.
"C'mon. Clap with me. Why aren't you singing?"
I recognize these lyrics. My grandfather and uncle were alcoholics. My mother's husband would call, his speech all slurred, after going for drinks with his coworkers on New Year's Eve. When I was a kid, I watched the rum transform all of them into loud, argumentative, silly, crying men. Their loose, uncontrolled, liquored up personas scared me. I would withdraw into the room where they weren't. I hid inside myself. But Gary is not drunk. I wonder which is scarier and decide this experience wins. In 48 hours, he has gone from depressed to the life of his own party, his short-term memory diminishing along the way.
"10, 9, 8, 7, 6 …"
"Stand up." He pulls me from the chair. At midnight, he kisses my forehead—"Happy Noooooo Yearrrrrr!"—and waltzes to Auld Lang Syne, singing some of the words, filling in the blanks with "la-la-la." There are a lot of blanks. He leads me through his dance. Fast, slow, circling clockwise and counterclockwise. Around he goes, his IV tube getting tangled. His gown flaps in back with each twirl. He changes steps and rhythms, mindless of the music. His dance is frenetic. Out of control. He is oblivious to my stumbles. I cannot keep up with his feet, which occasionally land on mine.
"Let's go wish all the nurses and doctors and patients—EVERYBODY!—a happy new year." He hugs them all at the nurses' station. They laugh. He laughs. I can't. The Marx Brothers movie is over.
Next: A Sleepless Night