I’m trying to write a love letter to hospital workers this week. But I don’t want him to read like one of those thanking you for your hero worship service. I don’t put medicine on a pedestal; I know what you did. It’s just that you’re really on my mind, and I’m full of this futile urge to tell you something serious, from my couch, with my cocoa. No listen, listen to me.
It’s my first Christmas not to work in medicine for 20 years. I started an internship as a medical social worker in the emergency room at the San Francisco General right after 9/11 and still know more about anthrax powder than anyone else should. In the weeks leading up to the Second Iraq War, I would do the morning welcome at the mental hospital and spend the evenings getting arrested on the corner of Bush and Powell. For a decade, I was an oncology social worker and showed a thousand families in Oakland how to say their latest I’m sorry, thank you, I love you. I still have a handwritten list of a few hundred of my favorite deaths. I worked in rehabilitative medicine where one of our patients’ wives made us an exquisite quilt that took months of each day her husband spent relearning to walk. I worked in a community clinic and spoke throughout the year with my brilliant homeless and hilarious dry-minded patient. All these places, so dear to me, still full of people I love and admire, never closed. I worked every vacation period. But not this year.
What I liked most about my winter job was how dark it was outside. Up on Kaiser’s sixth floor, watching all the lighthouses in the rain, feeling lucky to be inside, in a brightly lit hive of industries, a golden tower of interdependence. I loved the sound of the spongy boots on the tiles, the wadded bed sheet on the floor absorbing the stack of umbrellas. I loved See’s abundance of candy in the break room; those ubiquitous yet mysterious unlabeled pieces. I loved the faces of families who never thought they would need to be in a hospital to Christmas amazed to see us all there. I remember shining so proudly: here we are. We are not closing. I know, wild, right? I know! We’ve been here all this time! I know!
One winter, this thick-eyed man came up north alone with empty hands, dizzy, and said, my father died here 10 years ago and told us his name. And Anna looked up from the map smiling and said I remember your dad, and Lisa nodded and Jan nodded and he cried.
Once, one of our ER regulars fell asleep in the winter rain and entered on a stretcher with an axillary temperature of 55 degrees. We couldn’t tell his wife he was dead until her body was 90 degrees, so she watched us do chest compressions on him, for the three hours it took for him. warms up enough to declare. Did a few, housekeeping did, dietetics did, a few paramedics in ambulance bay waiting to report made it, chaplain teen volunteer.
I’m trying to tell you, to prove to you, that I know something about what it’s like to be inside this bustling beehive, this family memory, this joint effort. I don’t know how it is this year, I only did it in January of this year. I’m not saying I’m coming, I’m not coming. I’m not saying I’m with you, I’m not. I’m just saying, I remember what it’s like to be in the mix and I think about you.
What’s so funny is that I know you don’t care about my thoughts. I used to look out the window at all the people there, and thought they had no idea. Nothing. They make great plans, or make vacation memories, but they have no idea. How sad, small and silly to be cooking, going to the Grammas, when you could be here, in the heart of this city, beating together. We are in this moment. We are all in.
This year I’m cooking and writing greeting cards and this one is for you. I’m trying to tell you that I know I don’t know how it is right now. I know! I am sorry. Thank you. I love you.