Friday, March 25, 2005

3:59 AM

PG-13 for language

Stacey fingered my lapel again and looked me straight in the eye. I bent down to kiss her. As I straightened up, she gave me that look, lightly brushed my cheek with her fingertips, and gently placed her palms against my chest. I could feel the warmth of her hands through my shirt. My heart pounded.

She smiled again. And then she shoved me backwards over the edge of the roof.

My God. I'm lying in bed and my stomach is churning. I had that nightmare years ago, and it still bothers me. I don't understand why I remember it so vividly, when I've forgotten so much else about those dreary stuporous days.

Maybe it's because I couldn't wake up. I remember my terror as I felt myself teeter and fall over the edge of the roof; the dream stopped but I couldn't wake up all the way, couldn't wake up enough to tell myself it's all right, it was just a nightmare. I could only lie there, caught between dreaming and wakefulness, wracked with panic.

I don't know how long I lay there, how long it took me before I was aware of anything besides fear. I was breathing hard and my throat felt scratchy and raw, as if I had been screaming.

Pain turned out to be my friend -- the fear faded as first my leg came back online, then the dull headache and soreness, and then the horrible sensation of someone's knuckles grinding into my sternum. Stop it, I tried to say. It came out something like "Uhhhhhhh." I tried to swat the knuckles away but I could only lift my hand a couple of inches off the bed and drop it again.

"House!" someone was shouting. "House!"

I peeled my eyelids open. Some really angry woman in a white coat was standing over me. I thought I might be supposed to know her name.

She started talking. Blah blah, blah blah blah encephalopathy. Blah blah, blah blah improving. Blah blah blah blah dialysis.

Dialysis? That didn't sound good.

I slowly looked around. Some familiar-looking guy -- Wilson -- was standing at the foot of the bed with his arms crossed, staring down at the blankets. Someone -- Mom -- was sitting next to me. She smiled as I made eye contact, and reached under the bed rail to put her hand on my shoulder. What was wrong? She was sitting straight up in her chair, and her eyes were rimmed with red.

Wilson and the angry woman talked for a few more minutes before she left. My mother gently touched a damp washcloth to my face, and I shuddered with relief -- my face was so hot, and the cool cloth felt so good. Wilson said something about dinner; my mother said something that sounded like a long variation on the theme of no. A couple of nurses came in and rearranged me in the bed, as quick and efficient as a pit crew. As I dozed off, one of the nurses left and the other started tending the array of pumps and monitors....

I woke up and saw my mother setting up a dinner tray. She offered me juice and applesauce; I was able to take a couple of bites before I got too tired to eat.

She talked at me for a while; I just watched her face. Wilson came back with... who was that with him?... Debbie. She smiled and waved timidly. I raised my head and tried to say hello.

Debbie was carrying a brown paper bag. She set it down, passed out some plastic plates, and started pulling out and opening little plastic containers. The scent of beef stew filled the room. My mother and Wilson started making eager thank-you noises.

"Nothing special, but I figured you'd had enough cafeteria food for a while," Debbie said.

Wilson looked at me. "House, you want some of this?"

I managed to sort of shake my head "no" -- it smelled so good, but eating was so much work. It was enough to drowsily watch them. Debbie and my mother were murmuring something about Crock-Pots; Wilson was pretending to listen while he leaned against the wall, wolfing down stew and watching the news with one eye.

The news ended, and I heard the ethereal strains of the opening bars of the theme to "The Simpsons." My mother hates that show. I saw the telltale, subtle curl of her lip -- uh-oh -- but I also knew she'd never say anything.

I struggled to collect my brain long enough to get something out. "Wilson," I managed to say.

He looked up and set his plate aside. "Yeah?" Debbie looked up too, politely curious, and my mother stared, leaning slightly forward.

Oh, why were they acting like I was getting ready to call a press conference or something? I grimaced with irritation and glanced at the TV. "Off," I explained.

He came over, a smart-ass grin on his face, and clicked off the TV. I realized the remote was tied to the bed rail and lay about three inches from my left hand. I gave him an annoyed grunt -- he didn't have to be so damned smug about it. His smile grew. Jerk.

They finished their dinner and cleared the plates and plastic bowls. I was too tired to follow the conversation, much less to join in, but it felt good -- cozy, somehow -- to listen to them talking. Wilson and Debbie looked relaxed and happy together -- Debbie was perched on the arm of his chair and was gently, casually, rubbing his back. My mother was looking a little less tense.

Wilson slid Debbie off and got up and stretched. "How about some coffee and dessert?"

Debbie went with him. I kept looking at my mom -- as they left, she followed them out the door with her eyes. She sighed as her shoulders sank.

She shouldn't have come, I thought. She shouldn't have come. She should go home. I'm okay.

"Mom," I said, and promptly forgot what I had intended to say.

She started at the sound of my voice and turned to face me. "Gregory." She looked uncertain as she gently, carefully touched my forehead, my cheek, with the back of her fingers. But then she started to smile. "You look much better. Are you feeling more awake?"

That question was a little too abstract for me, and I could only stare back at her. She still seemed a little happier, and was giving me another long, searching look when Wilson and Debbie returned.

"He talked a little again while you were out."

"Good," said Wilson. "Did he go back to sleep?"

"No. He's been awake for a while now." I saw how pleased she looked, and I wanted to cringe. She shouldn't have come.

Debbie passed around cups of coffee, and Wilson was unpacking handfuls of creamers and sugars from a white carryout bag. "I paged Dr Gelb -- the kidney doctor -- while we were out. She's going to have one of her residents check the evening's bloodwork and get back to us."

My mother nodded. Wilson produced some plastic spoons, and then started setting out little white cups with tabbed lids. What did he have there? Ice cream, sherbet, Italian ice? Didn't matter -- whatever it was, it was cold and sweet, and I wanted some. And there were only three cups on the table!

I couldn't put a sentence together quickly enough, but with a lot of effort I managed to find the bedrail, shake it, and make some kind of petulant whining noise. Everyone looked up. I raised my head and stared at the little cold treats, and then gave Wilson an accusing look. I tried to say something along the lines of what kind of cruelty is this, you hypocritical sadist; it came out something like "uhhh."

Wilson feigned surprise. "You want some of this?" He smirked at the helpless fury on my face and pulled a fourth cup out of the bag.

I still couldn't hold the cup or manage the spoon, so my mother fed me again. This time, I didn't care who saw me -- that orange sherbet was one of the most delicious meals of my life. I ate mine and half of somebody else's (I never figured out whose.)

They lingered over their coffee until Debbie said something about getting back. It turned into a haggling session: Debbie was ready to leave, Wilson wanted to stay a while longer, and my mother wanted to stay too. Wilson pointed out that he wasn't planning on staying much longer himself -- he was just waiting for lab results.

He looked over at me. "House, tell your mother to go home with Debbie and get some rest."

That I could handle. "Mom. Go home."

"Oh, all right," my mother said. "But on one condition. I've put the Wilsons to enough trouble. Gregory, do you mind if I stay at your apartment tomorrow night, and borrow your car to get back and forth?"

Wilson looked astonished. "Mrs House, it's no trouble at all." He ignored her as she started to protest, and turned to me. "This is irrational. House, tell her to stay with us."

I gave him a do you think I'm stupid? look and then looked to my mother. "Mom. Okay." Before I knew what I was doing, I was slowly, clumsily lifting my heavy hand from the bed to get my keys for her out of my pocket. I caught myself when I saw Wilson pinching his lips together to keep from laughing. I looked down at myself. Oh yeah, I was wearing a hospital gown. I grunted with chagrin.

"Thanks, Gregory," my mother said. "Sleep well. I'll see you in the morning."

Debbie said goodbye and they left. Wilson went with them to walk them to the car.

When he came back, he had a newspaper tucked under his arm. He took the chair by the head of the bed, slid into a slouch, and unfolded the paper. He looked up. "You want some of this?"

I shook my head drowsily. As he disappeared behind the newsprint, it occurred to me that I didn't know what day it was. I tried to read the date off the newspaper but I couldn't do it.


Wilson reappeared. "Yeah?"


He looked at me blankly, and followed my gaze as I nodded towards the back of the paper. "Yeah, it's today's." My face fell, and then he got it. "Oh. It's Wednesday." He told me the date. I thought for a minute. I'd last been at work on... what day was that?... Monday.

Too much to think about. I let my head fall back on the bed. He gave me a long look.

"You up for the sports section?" he asked. I nodded, and he started to read aloud from the paper, filling me in on the baseball scores and the football preseason news. I could feel the words going in one ear and out the other, but it didn't bother me too much.

He put down the paper when a resident and a med student came in. The resident did the introductions first and then said something about a quick neuro exam. The med student nervously approached.

Wilson lifted his eyebrows. "House? Behave."

I did. Penlight, follow the pen, squeeze my hands -- this time I could actually lift my hands just enough to grab the student's fingers -- do you know where you are, blah blah blah. Wilson watched the whole thing with doctors' eyes. The exam wore me out -- I had to close my eyes and rest while the med student started talking about labs. Either she didn't mention the numbers or I missed them. Wilson didn't sound concerned, though. The resident said something about the morning and about Dr Gelb, and then left.

Wilson didn't open the paper again. "Did you get any of that?"

"No," I mumbled.

"You're getting better."


He opened his mouth to say something sarcastic, I could tell, but he stopped himself. "Getting tired?" he asked instead.

Was it that obvious? I didn't care. "Yeah," I replied.

"Well, I'd better head back, then, and let you get some rest," he said. "I'll try to stop by in the morning before rounds start. Take care. Call me if you need anything." He held my gaze until I nodded, and then turned and headed out the door.

I fell asleep shortly afterwards and slept almost straight through the night, only waking up when the nurses were doing their checks. I woke up and saw a nurse checking and emptying and writing, doing her hourly totals on my flowchart. The unit was waking up: the rattle of carts, the smell of coffee. A white coat appeared in the doorway: Wilson.

"Hey," I said.

He came in. "How are you?"

I thought it over. "Tired and stupid."

"Beats stuporous. But you're doing okay?"

Was I? "Think so."

"Okay. I need to get to rounds, I just wanted to check in before Taylor's team came by. Your mom's going to be in later."

"Sleeping late?"

"Hope so. Debbie's bringing her in."

After he left, I dropped off again just in time to be woken by the vascular service. A neuro exam, a look at the surgical incision, a request to lift and bend my leg (couldn't do it -- hurt too much), a reminder that it was Thursday, a request for a pain rating (seven) and a promise that pending nephro's approval, I would probably return to the regular floor that day. "I'm just concerned about your fever," Taylor added. "I'll be talking about that with you later today."

A breakfast tray appeared. I was still too drowsy and clumsy to manage the wrappers, but a nurse set the tray up for me and put butter and jelly on the toast. As I greedily slurped down the half-frozen apple juice, she also opened the milk carton for me and doused the Frosted Flakes to soggy perfection. None of those smelly powdered eggs, either. The morning was off to a good start.

As I went for the spoon, I saw the menu slip. Of course. My mother had filled out the menu slip the day before, making sure I'd get something appealing.

Donna Gelb showed up halfway through breakfast, accompanied by her own entourage. "Well, Dr House! You're looking much better than when I saw you last night."

I put my juice down as she introduced her residents. They talked briefly about the improvement in my morning labs and in my mental status and pronounced me ready for the floor. She sent them out and closed the door behind them.

"Dammit, House! Way to give us a scare! Jeez, if you want to come hang out with your old department, why don't you just come over and visit us instead of pulling crap like this? It's good to see you. You really are looking a lot better this morning. So's your pee," she laughed.

"Hey," I said slowly. "Um..." I groped for my thought; it wiggled out of my grasp. "Oh, forget it, I don't know." I started to remember -- someone yelling -- knuckles, sternum -- "Were you here last night?"

"I sure was." She paused. "How much do you remember?"

"A little. I'm so tired." I looked at her reproachfully. "You were yelling at me."

She chuckled. "Well, you were playing... possum."

I shook my head. "Why am I so out of it?!"

Gelb looked serious. "Do you remember?"

I thought as hard as I could and then looked up. "I remember being drowsy and stupid."

"Do you remember the surgery on Tuesday? They called me in after your operation."

"You specifically?"

"No, they just called our new department head. We volunteered me so that he wouldn't try to send Pruitt," she laughed.

I thought for a minute. They'd called a nephro consult. "Were you talking about dialysis last night?"

"I was. Just talking about it, but you were doing some serious brinksmanship there before you turned the corner."

"What day is it today?"

"It's Thursday morning."

I thought about it. Surgery on Tuesday; I'd needed a nephro consult; I'd lost two days in the fog. I sighed in frustration. "Was it really that bad?"

Gelb looked pained. "The quad's a big muscle. I talked to Taylor this morning... you're doing a lot better, but you're not out of the woods yet. He -- "

A knock at the door. It was my mother. "Gregory?"

"Hi, Mom, come on in."

She did. Debbie was with her. "Hi, Greg," she said, waving.

Seeing the surprise, the delight, the overwhelming relief on my mother's face -- it was like taking a blow to my stomach. I tried to cut her off before she started to gush. "Mom, this is -- "

"Dr Gelb," Mom smiled. "We've met."

"-- and this is Debbie Wilson."

Handshakes and smiles. "Much happier circumstances this morning, Mrs House." Gelb flashed me a do-you-mind? look; I nodded. "Labs are much improved this morning -- "

"Are you going to give me some numbers?" I interrupted.

"Nope," she said. Before my mother could ask, she added, "And the really important thing is that he's much more alert -- he's improving by the minute. Dr Taylor plans to move him back to the regular floor this afternoon."

"Oh, good." My mother put down the big paper bag she was carrying and started to take off her sweater. "Any idea on when he'll be well enough to go home, or is Dr Taylor the one...?"

Gelb looked at me. Do you want me to tell her? her eyes asked.

I shot her a look back: No.

"Dr Taylor will be the best person to talk to about that," Gelb said smoothly.

"Mom... how did you get here?" I asked. "Didn't you come in with Wilson?"

"No, Debbie gave me a ride in this morning." She and Debbie started describing an insanely complex plan involving Debbie bringing her by my apartment this morning, dropping off stuff, picking stuff up, stopping by the store, a list of everything they'd dropped off, picked up, purchased, and another list of everything they wanted to "get ready".... They'd just started in on choreographing who was driving whose car where that evening when I cut them off.

"This... this is just way too complicated."

Debbie giggled. "Jimmy said you would say that. And he said you'd be right."

I looked at Gelb. "Isn't this too..." I waved my hand.

She shrugged. "Dropping off your mom's stuff at your place? Picking up some pajamas and a razor? Makes perfect sense to me." She turned to my mom. "I'd just hold off on stocking the fridge till we hear from Dr Taylor." My mom smiled and nodded.

I glared at Gelb. "Are you just siding with her because she's my mom?"

"Of course. But I'd side with her even if she weren't your mother. It sounds like a perfectly logical plan to me. Must be a Venus thing. You Martians wouldn't understand, what with your cooties and all." She glanced at the clock and jumped. "I'd better get going, they're waiting for me. House? Be good, listen to your mother, and I'll see you and the Little Nephrons That Could this afternoon over on the floor."

Debbie said good-bye and promised to be by after work that evening. My mother saw her to the door, closed it, and turned to face me. She looked like she was about to speak, but stopped herself. She closed her eyes and pressed her hands to her mouth.

When she'd collected herself, she looked me straight in the eye. "Oh, Gregory," she said. She stepped quickly across the room and, somehow dodging the bedside tray and the IV tubing, gave me a swift and intense hug. "Oh, Gregory. I'm so glad you're all right." She held the embrace for one more moment, and started to sit down. "It.. it scared me so much to see you so confused."

Abashed, I looked down at the bedcovers. It was painful to see her so distressed. She shouldn't have come. And it was embarrassing to be so relieved that she had.

"How was breakfast?" she asked.

"Delicious." The cereal itself had almost completely dissolved in the bowl while Gelb had been there, but that didn't bother me. I slowly, carefully lifted the bowl and managed to drink the sugary slurry down. My mother shook her head in mock despair: What am I going to do with you?

"Mars and Venus!" she mused. "I thought I'd gotten away from them. A couple of the teachers have gotten into it and now it's just waves and caves, all the time. I'd heard that the book tended to take... a simplified approach to things, but I didn't know that cooties were involved."

I started working on the last of the toast. "Oh, that's just Gelb. Nephrologists are like that. They live for kidneys, they think the entire body exists to serve the kidneys. Everything else is just cooties. Of course -- " I tilted my head and thought about it -- "since I switched to infectious diseases, I am kind of a cootie specialist now."

"Just think, making millions of dollars by writing a book about cooties. People paid money for a book that told them men and women are different? Maybe I should write a book about how the sun comes up in the east every morning. What would I do with all that money?"

"Pay to put your sons through cootie rehab."

"My sons don't have cooties."

"Are you saying we're not from Mars?"

"No, I'm saying you don't have cooties. But come to think of it, maybe you aren't from Mars. I'm obviously from Venus, and I could see your dad being from Mars, but...."

I laughed. "He always was asking us what planet we were on."

"That was just a rhetorical question, dear, he knew you were on Earth. The question is, what planet are you from. And I'm going to guess that you're from... Mercury."

Mercury. I could live with that. "So where's Mark from?"

She thought about it. "Saturn, perhaps."

"A giant ball of gas! That explains a lot." I chuckled, saw the expression on my mother's face and started to laugh, and couldn't stop laughing until I started coughing, hard. My mother looked alarmed, but she just handed me a box of tissues. As I leaned forward, the effort set off a sharp wave of pain in my leg. I grabbed a bed rail, clenched my teeth, and fought to control my breathing.

When the stars cleared up and I'd caught my breath, I looked up and saw my mother looking at me. I could only meet her eyes for a second. I looked down, gathered my brain, and tried again. "It's normal to cough after surgery. Clears the lungs. A good laugh, a good cough...."

She didn't look convinced. I tried again. "I bet Mark could run rings around me right now." Roll your eyes, Mom, roll your eyes and groan; laugh, do something, just forget about what you just saw.No luck -- her BS detector was too sensitive. I tried changing the subject. "Here -- could you help me with this?" I pushed on the tray table a little.

That worked. She started moving the table aside; I asked her what she'd brought with her and that further distracted her; a nurse came in, and that finished the job. I asked the nurse about the transfer to the floor -- I wouldn't go until after lunch.

She started tending the pumps, wrote her numbers down, and asked me for a pain rating. I glanced over at my mother. Her back wasn't turned.

"I'm fine," I said. I flicked my eyes over towards my mother.

Ah, the nurse's eyes said.

She put her clipboard down. "What do you want to do about washing up?"

I looked over towards my mom. "I want to do it while I prevail upon my mother to bring me a cup of coffee. Some of the fancy stuff from the new stand."

My mom graciously took the hint and picked up her purse. "Anything special?"

"Better make it decaf."

"Decaf it is, then. I'll be back in a bit."

As soon as she left, I turned to the nurse. "Seven going on eight."

She nodded and pressed a couple of buttons on the pump. I heard the little whirring that meant I was getting an extra dose of morphine. She wrote down what she'd given and ducked out for bath supplies.

I was still feverish and sore, so it was slow going, but I was much more use this time around. It was pathetic how good it felt to be able to give my own teeth a good scrubbing. I tried not to think about how my right leg was so painful that I had to get the nurse to move it for me. I couldn't even bend the leg when it came time to change the linens and pull me up in bed.

But between my own clumsy efforts, the Team Nightingale pit crew, and the morphine drip, I was looking clean and presentable when my mother returned with coffee and a newspaper. Mom had her own agenda for the coffee, though, and made me shave before she turned it over, refusing to accept my pleas that I was growing a beard. She'd picked up a cheap electric razor on the way in, so I was able to do it myself without any carnage. I had to admit I felt a lot better -- almost human.

The morning slipped by as we drank coffee and read the paper. My mom was able to recycle every word she'd spoken over the last two days, as I didn't remember any of it. She passed on Mark's good wishes and offers to come (no way, I told her, I'm fine.)

I got a short nap in. Wilson stopped by; he didn't have much to say but he looked pleased. Dr Nussbaum came to visit and humored me by allowing me to introduce him to my mother. Before I could say anything, he reassured me that Wilson had gotten my papers to him and spoke well of the work I'd done on the funding proposals. A few more pleasantries, a promise that he'd call again after I was transferred, much commentary on how much better I was looking this morning, and a handshake that lasted a couple of nanoseconds longer than I would have expected. I felt like I was being handed another in a series of clues, and was finally clearing up enough to start recognizing them for what they were.

I needed to think.

The rest of the morning drifted by and suddenly I heard the clatter of the tray cart. Wilson appeared, carrying his lunch in a foam box; we were able to convince my mother that it was time for her to stretch her legs and go get her own lunch.

She paused before she left. "Do you need anything?"

"Thanks, I'm okay."

She smiled and left. Wilson raised his eyebrows. "What, you're not going to try to mooch any extra sherbets?"

"I've already got the hookup for those."

Wilson looked at my hands. I realized I was fidgeting with a plastic wrapper and slammed it down. He raised his eyebrows.

"How's that going?"

"Smoke-free for almost 72 hours now," I said lightly. "A morphine drip and two days of stupor in the ICU... who needs a patch?"

We ate in silence for a while. I noticed that the default menu had spaghetti, but that my mom had crossed it out and ordered alternates -- a roast beef sandwich, french fries, grapes, cookies. Easy to eat. She'd thought of everything. I sighed and leaned back into the pillow.

Wilson looked up. "You okay?"

"Yeah." I'd almost said six but had caught myself.

I stared at the ceiling for a while, twiddling with the remote.

"Hey," I said.

Wilson lifted his eyebrows.

"How bad was it?"

He sighed a little before he replied. "It was... pretty bad."

"Labs? Gelb wouldn't tell me."

"Before they picked up last night? ...In the tank."

I looked down at my twitching fingers for a long minute.

Wilson glanced over. "You sure you're okay?"

"Yeah. I'm fine."

My time to think came after lunch, after they rolled me back over to the floor. They'd given me one of the better rooms, a private at the end of the hall, and there was a big basket of flowers and two fruit baskets waiting, courtesy of the administration, of the Department of Infectious Diseases, and of Dr Nussbaum himself. My mom fluttered around admiring the flowers and putting away the things she'd brought from my apartment. Meanwhile the floor nurse was doing her thing: checking her pumps, checking my vitals, checking the pulses in my feet, telling me her name was Judy....

"Anything else I can get you?"

"A couple of extra pillows; I really need to get off my back. And show my mom where the ice machine is."

"Of course. Mrs House?"

When they'd left, I turned myself to the problem of getting myself onto my side. My back really did hurt, I wanted some rest, I needed to think, I'd gotten another bump of morphine before we'd left, I was alone, so I decided to go for it.

The problem, I quickly discovered, was that even ignoring the pain I couldn't move my leg very well at all. I could rotate it from side to side, tracing an arc with my toes (though it hurt.) But when I tried to turn on my side, I couldn't do it -- I couldn't bring my right leg over.

I thought back to the way the nurses had been doing it. I tried to bend my right knee and found myself blinded with pain. I had to stop and concentrate on controlling my breathing. When my heart had finally calmed down, I took a deep breath and finally did it by using my hands to help lift my right thigh. It hurt -- oh, how it hurt, but I'd done it. I'd flexed my knee. Yay. This was just awful.

And as the pain drained out of my head, I sensed that I wasn't alone.

I looked to the door. My mother was there, standing frozen in the doorway.

Uh-oh. How much of that had she just seen? I'd have to deal with it later. I was realizing too late that it wasn't enough to have my knee bent, I'd need to actually lift my leg off the bed. Great.

Judy appeared behind her, shaking the last of three pillows into its case. "Sorry about that -- I had to take a phone call." She crossed the room to my left side. "Okay, Dr House, let's finish getting you situated here."

"Mom, would you -- " I waved. She nodded and closed the door. The nurse came around to my left side and, as I pulled myself over using the bedrail, carefully lifted my right leg for me and arranged it on a couple of pillows. She came back around and stuck another pillow under my lower back. As I leaned back, I tried not to think too much about how much of a relief that was, and how humiliating it was to so relieved, to be so helpless still...

Judy drew up the blankets. "Better?" I nodded.

"That phone call was from Dr Taylor. He asked me to let you know he'd be by in about an hour, hour and a half. Anything else I can do for you right now?"

"No, thanks."

She clipped the call light to the bedrail and left.

My mother didn't say a word, but just set up the ice chips and a cup on the bedside table, as carefully as if she'd been catering a state dinner.

Finally she looked up. "Would you like something to drink?"

"Yes. Beer."

"Beer does not count as a clear liquid," she said lightly. "And you seem awfully warm. Still." She poured two ginger ales, handed me one, and sat down.

"Mind if I put the TV on?"

"Of course not."

I clicked around and found "Passions." Perfect.

I wasn't sure what was more entertaining -- watching the show or watching my mother's jaw drop. Once she was good and distracted and starting to snicker, I drew in my brain. Finally, a chance to think. What was happening?

These doctors had certainly been stingy with the data. What had Taylor said? They'd busted one clot but there had been another, and I'd started spilling protein even before I went to surgery. So even then the muscle was dying. In the recovery room he'd said he was optimistic, but that didn't mean anything.

My memories were elusive. I remembered going back to the ICU -- I must have spiked a serious temp. Gelb said they'd called her after surgery, so I must have been dumping the proteins even then, enough to sludge up my brain for days, enough to bring me to the brink of needing dialysis. I suddenly remembered Wilson laying it out for my mother: It looks like part of Greg's thigh muscle has died... kidney failure... Gelb, this morning: The quad's a big muscle... you're not out of the woods yet.... Dr Nussbaum... Taylor, saying something about a fever and hinting that he'd be in to see me this afternoon. He would come -- not his resident, not his team. And he'd set a time, which meant he'd made an appointment with someone. I wasn't going anywhere, so that meant he'd made an appointment with someone else. Probably a consult. And he was concerned about my fever.

Meanwhile, two days post-op I was still hitting seven on the pain scale -- on a fucking morphine drip, no less -- and couldn't move my leg.

Dead muscle, even before the surgery. And after the surgery, lots and lots of dead muscle, enough to throw me into acute renal failure. Lots of pain, loss of function. Dead muscle.... and a fever. Necrosis. I had lots of dead muscle and it was rotting.

Taylor was coming to talk to me about debridement -- about surgically removing the dead muscle before I got gangrene. Which meant a big part of my thigh muscle was apparently going to be dead and gone. They'd saved my leg, but I'd never have full function again.

That was about all the thinking I could take. I turned my brain back to the world outside my skull and realized my mom wasn't laughing at the TV any more. I looked up. She was watching me, and she looked exhausted.

Her face started to wake up when she realized I'd caught her. She smiled and looked down at my hands. "What were you playing?"

I realized I'd been drumming my fingers, playing piano on the sheets. I shook my head. "I don't even remember. Sorry, Mom, I'm really tired -- I've got to catch a little nap before Dr Taylor gets here."

"Of course," she said. As I settled back in to doze, she pulled a book out of her bag. But I didn't hear the pages turning for long. I opened one heavy, sleepy eye to see her dropping off as well.


I woke up with a start. My mom was standing at the sink, hanging a damp washcloth over the towel bar.

"Gregory. I think Dr Taylor is here."

She turned to the door as Taylor came in. Dr Nussbaum was with him, and a third doctor I didn't recognize.

Taylor spoke first. "Hi. This is Dr Adams, one of my colleagues from General Surgery."

My mother shook hands and turned to look at me. Her eyes were filled with dread. What have you been keeping from me? they asked.

I had to look away before I could face her again. "Mom, I think you should hear this." She nodded and sat forward, twisting her hands together in her lap.

Taylor started talking and it was exactly what I had expected. Embolectomy was successful in that they'd saved the leg... clot had broken off... too late to save the muscle.... muscle death, probably extensive... asked Dr Adams to do the debridement.

Once I'd gotten the gist, I tuned him out and kept an eye on my mother. Her face was perfectly, frighteningly composed. Adams started his speech: two-step process, surgery tomorrow, open and explore the leg muscle, take out the dead tissue, observation over the weekend, check again on Monday to make sure they'd gotten everything.

He was good at explaining, I had to give him that. I could tell that my mother was understanding every damn word.

"Do you know exactly how much muscle is going to have to come out?" she asked.

"No, we don't," Adams said. "But based on the post-op symptoms... I'm guessing it's going to be a significant amount."

She thought for a moment. "Discharge?"

"It's going to depend...." He opened his hands. "Whether or not we're able to get everything in one pass, how well the wound heals... And then there's the question of how much muscle has been lost." He turned to me. "But I would estimate at least three weeks of inpatient rehabilitation before you're ready to go home."

I hadn't thought about that part, but it made sense. I remembered how I'd pulled my door shut when I'd left for work on Monday morning. Sure, I'd been limping as I left, and chewing on an ibuprofen, but I'd never dreamed how long it would be -- how different things were going to be -- on the day I finally opened it again.

They talked some more, but I didn't hear any of it -- I'd heard what I needed to hear, and from the look on my mother's face it looked like she'd had enough too. A round of handshakes and they were gone.

I looked at my mother. She stared at her knees and then got up and walked slowly to the window. She stood perfectly straight as she watched the grey clouds crawl across the sky. I couldn't think of anything to say, so I just kept quiet and watched her back.

Finally she turned. Her voice was low.

"Gregory, is there a place around here where I could send a fax? Like... a copy shop or someplace like that?"

I stared at her. "A fax. Would my office do?"

She gave a wry little laugh. "Yes, I suppose it would. That was a silly question, wasn't it."

"Could I be nosy and ask... what you're faxing?"

She looked up. "My notification for a leave of absence for the semester."

"Your what?"

"My notification. I'm taking the semester off."

"What for? It's getting kind of late in the year to go follow Phish, don't you think?"

"No, but it's early enough in the school year to be able to take a semester off with a minimum of disruption."

"I hope it's not because you're planning to spend that semester down here."

"That is exactly what I am planning to do."

"No you are not! Mom, no. This is -- this is stupid, it's completely unnecessary. You are not taking the semester off."

"I can't believe I'm hearing this! Did I not hear those doctors tell you that you've had a massive, um..."

"Infarction." I supplied the word sourly.

"Infarction. In your leg. And they don't know how long it's going to take them to fix it --"

"They can't fix it," I snapped. "This is just... clean-up."

She ignored me. "Who knows how long you're going to be here? How much clean-up are they going to have to do? They don't even know. And then all that rehab, and then you'll be home alone...."

"Mom, the point of rehab is... rehab! I won't go home until I'm pronounced beyond ready to go. They'll probably make me put up new drywall or something just to prove I can heat up my own soup in the microwave. I'm going to be fine. You're overreacting."

"You are underreacting. Sure, you're going to be fine, but you're not fine now." She hugged herself a little, as if she were cold. "I saw how sick you were, and I see how... how hard things still are for you today. That's not going to get all better overnight. Sure, you've got doctors and nurses and social workers and what-not here, but it's not the same." She glanced towards the open door, walked over, and closed it. She turned around.

"I know James is a good friend," she continued, "a true friend, but he can't do everything -- "

"I'm not asking him to do everything -- "

"But who else are you going to ask?" she said sharply. "Is Stacey going to bring you shaving cream and a change of clothes? Where are your visitors? Who's calling to check on you, even just to ask how you're doing? The only people I'm seeing besides James are doctors, but they're not there for social calls --" She put her hand over her mouth as she collected herself. "I'm sorry."

"I know how self-sufficient you are, but...sometimes you need help, you need to ask. And even if you don't, it's good to know there's someone you could ask. And I'm in a good position to be able to do this. I don't have anyone depending on me at home, and I'm in a good place at work. It's not like I've just started a new fellowship in a new city or anything like that."

I ignored that last part. "You're awfully confident they're even going to give you the semester off."

"What are they going to do, fire me? I've only got a couple of years left before I retire anyway."

"So you're going to spend five weeks here in Princeton running up and down to the caf for ginger ale. Meanwhile I'll be thinking the whole time about how bored you are, do you have what you need, are you missing your work, are you missing your students, are you missing your friends, are you getting enough to eat, are you getting enough sleep, are you getting back and forth to the hospital okay, are you getting lost when you go home at night.... It would help me a lot more if I knew you were safe and sound at home."

"Safe and sound at home worrying about you, and if you're bored, and getting enough to eat, and getting enough to sleep...."

"So why don't we just make a don't worry pact? Besides, I seem to remember having this conversation before."

She looked down. "Yes, we have. I told you not to take that month off, and you not only yelled at me, you called Mark and got him to put the pressure on as well."

"And yet here you are doing it to me!" I looked up to the clock. "Mark should be ringing me up any minute."

"Because you were right! You were right to make me accept your help. Between you and Mark, those last months.... And I've told you how grateful I was for your coming and for your not waiting for me to see reason when you came. And how comforting it was to have you there."

I rubbed my forehead before I could stop myself -- the argument was giving me a headache. My mother's shoulders sagged as she noticed.

"I'm sorry, Gregory. I didn't mean for this to turn into such a dispute. We can work this out later."

* * * * * * * * * *

I didn't tell Eileen about the look on Wilson's face when he came to call that evening and saw the cheerful expressions on our faces.

I didn't tell Eileen about trying to keep an eye on my mother while I told Wilson about the debridement, about the sick pain in my stomach as I saw her turning her stoic face to the window.

I didn't tell Eileen about how I worried about my mother that evening. She looked like she was about ready to drop. I didn't tell her about quietly begging Wilson to take her over to my place that night.

I didn't tell Eileen about my relief when I'd finally gotten rid of all of them and could contemplate my fate by myself. I didn't tell her about the strange, bleak flatness I felt signing the surgical consent, about the twinge of embarrassment I felt when my night shift nurse turned out to be Denise.

I didn't tell Eileen about staring at the ceiling all night long, mentally reviewing the origins and insertions, the innervation and vasculature, of the quadriceps muscle. I didn't tell her about thinking about rehab, about my stomach turning at the thought of three weeks of scratchy sheets and sweet-scented disinfectant and crummy food and no privacy. Three weeks where I wouldn't be able to just go to my bookshelf and pick out six books to read at one time. No Scotch, no cigars. No music.

I didn't tell her about how I couldn't get my mother's words -- but who else are you going to ask -- out of my head.

I didn't tell her about the cold nausea I felt when I realized I might never walk to my bookshelf again.

I didn't tell her about seeing the gray dawn through my window, about seeing my mother coming in with puffy eyes and a brave smile. About saying goodbye again as she and Wilson disappeared behind the double doors of the OR. About waking up with a PCA button in my hand and still being in pain. About Adams coming after I'd gone back to the floor and drawing a little sketch of all the muscle they'd had to debride; about feeling my brain attach itself like a lamprey to the puzzle of what would this mean for me clinically, and finally resorting to the morphine to get my brain to leave it alone so I wouldn't have to think about it just yet.

I didn't tell her about the hurt and anger on my mother's face when I told her that I thought she'd better return home on Sunday, as she'd originally planned.

I didn't tell her how the rest of Friday slipped away, about staring at the ceiling all night long, gasping as the pain in my leg kept me awake, about waking up Saturday knowing that for all of it -- the fight with my mother, the fight with Stacey, probably even the infarct -- I had only myself to blame.

I'm lying in bed and my stomach is still upset. I reach over to the nightstand and fish a couple of Tums (mixed berry) out of the jar.

What if I had told Eileen any of this?

Could I have told her?

Should I?

Would it have made any difference?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the best fan fic I've ever read--elegant and understated, beautifully researched. REally moving. You're a great writer--keep it coming!

March 27, 2005 4:23 PM  
Anonymous Auditrix said...

Thanks, Anon!

March 28, 2005 8:09 PM  
Blogger Sanlin said...

Okay, Doc. I've finally caught up with 'the big push,' here. All of this brings back a lot of memories about the time various members of my clan have spent in hospitals and doing physio, etc.

It's never fun being on any side of the 'Humpty Dumpty' equation. No matter how good the docs and physio are, truly, nothing can ever really 'be put back together again,' the way it was. Not minds, or bodies, or lives. What we're left with is what remains after 'all the kings’ horses and all the kings’ men' have packed up and trundled off home, again. The story ends, the fairytale is done, but lives carry on.

It was sweet of you to try and spare your Mom. But, in the end, we can never really spare or save anyone, when it comes to the truth. Not ourselves or those closest to us.

Aren't so many things in our lives self-inflicted? I think the worst nightmares we ever have are the ones where our eyes are open wide and there's no chance of waking before we hit the ground... We can see the earth coming up, fast, and know how much it's going to hurt, but there's no stopping the occasional truly precipitous plunge, eyes open, off a wall, with nothing but anticipation and knowledge between us and when we strike bottom. But, the worst falls are the ones that happen so fast, without warning, that we can't catch ourselves. Those are the ones that do the most damage.

But, don't listen to me. I'm maudlin from too much rain and grey, overcast skies on this Isle of mine. It's been a late, cold Spring... and 'cabin fever' starts to set in. Much as happens during extended physiotherapy or hospital stays. There is a point at which a soul becomes tired of being tired, and sick of being sick. I'm just coming out the other side of a month and a half long 'bug' that's left me with the strength of a kitten and still prone to sleeping for hours on end—a rare condition, indeed, for a Night Owl like myself.

A few days of Spring Cleaning in anticipation of an apartment inspection, due to take place over the next day or two, have left me feeling a bit drained, as well. It’s probably best if I trundle off to my roost, here, and settle my dragging tail feathers in for the night. A few hours of shut eye and some morning light often bring a better perspective, hey? G’night, Doc. I’m signing off from this far-flung corner of the world.


April 11, 2005 4:13 AM  
Anonymous Benj said...

First time I read this I didn't know how to leave a comment but this is such an incredible read and fifth time around thinking it I thought I'd post it.

Never tire of reading this because there is so much detail and perscpective there is always something I miss.

Cheers, again!


November 11, 2005 8:24 PM  
Anonymous Dearwig said...

I know I'm not the first person to say this, but this really is the very best House fic I've ever read! It was completely captivating: my heart was actually pounding as I read it. Thank you very much indeed for posting it!

March 28, 2006 4:37 PM  
Anonymous Auditrix said...

Thanks, Dearwig :)

March 28, 2006 8:39 PM  

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