RICHARD ROMANUS

It was the middle of the night when two old women and I were roused from our sleep by the squeaking wheel of a gurney being wheeled into the room. The women didn’t have to turn to witness the scene; they were already on their backs attached to a plastic bottle containing a saline solution hanging on a nearby stand. From what we could see it was a dark haired woman probably in her early thirties being swallowed in shadows as the two nurses deftly lifted her onto one of the two empty beds, covered her with a sheet, then wheeled the gurney out of room 453, opposite the Nurses Station on the Biological Floor in the General Hospital of Volos.

The world was overwhelmed by Covid 19 and, although the unconscious young woman must have been tested negative to be admitted to this section, the one thing everyone knew for certain was that no one knew much about this disease and everyone was suspect, and we were afraid. One of the old women was my wife who was being treated for double pneumonia.

The reason I was there in the middle of the night was because only one hotel was allowed to remain open in the city as a result of the virus and it was filled, and so the public hospital staff offered me the bed next to my wife. There were few familiarities between patients in this room, so no one knew the other’s name or particular biological ailment. This was a temporary berth, leaving any day now, hopefully.

For several minutes we remained focused on the new arrival. She seemed to be resting comfortably although intermittently her right hand would shake violently for a few seconds, but it didn’t seem to affect her. After a few more long moments we each surrendered to the world we were living in when interrupted and slipped into a deep sleep.

I was awake at first light when a man with a large head and a body in the shape of a dollar sign appeared in the doorway, dressed head to toe in black with wildly curly black hair and a scruffy beard. After a moment he stepped quietly into the room and stood beside the young woman and stared fixedly at her for the longest time.

Then he slowly walked around the bed to the other side and again stared unmoved even after her hand shook furiously for a few seconds. The poor man seemed exhausted but determined as he returned to his original position and sat in an armless orange plastic chair and continued his vigil.

The two old women woke a moment apart before breakfast and, before they noticed the man in the room, the man rose and went to the toilet, emerging a moment later delicately folding a paper towel. Back in his chair he laid the towel across the young woman’s forehead then pulled a bottle of water from his pocket and began gingerly dripping drops onto the towel as if watering a flower. For the next twenty hours, while nurses came and went and a visitor came for the other old woman, the man in black sat leaning forward in that armless plastic chair repeating the procedure, occasionally speaking softly into her ear and holding her lifeless hand to utterly no response. Every half hour or so he would stand and walk to the window with a view overlooking Volos Bay and stare transfixed then return to his chair and sprinkle water onto the towel. Having nothing to eat or drink all day, around midnight the man stood, exhausted, retrieved the towel and stepped wearily out of the room.

The next morning when the sun rose I was awake before the old women who, each in their turn, became vaguely aware of the man in black, now with a black back pack, as he entered the room and once again stood staring at the young woman from both sides of the bed. But for her hand shaking, she hadn’t moved or uttered a sound since her arrival. The man set his back pack on the floor and pulled out a small white pillow which he put under her arm, then a small red pillow which he placed under her hand. He then pulled out a clean white washcloth, which he then placed on her forehead, a large bottle of water, and a teaspoon, which he now used to sprinkle drops onto the washcloth. Intermittently he would lean in to her ear and speak softly. In mid afternoon her eyes finally fluttered open a moment and I could hear a murmur. Suddenly there was a renewed sense of hope in the room and the man seemed to redouble his efforts, changing wash cloths, sprinkling water, whispering in her ear and stroking her hand. In the early afternoon he produced a large sandwich from his backpack and devoured it. Only when nurses came to exchange her saline bottle and change her diaper would the man leave the room. In the early evening the young woman uttered a few more sounds in response to the man’s voice. By 11:00, almost too exhausted to leave, the man stood, gently picked up the washcloth and walked out of the room for the first time without his large head looking down.

Early the next morning the three of us were awakened in turn by the sound of a woman’s voice, weak, but clear, and only a few words, but you could see the man silently rejoice. He ate half his sandwich at lunch and the rest at dinner. He was now feeling optimistic as he continued sprinkling water and speaking softly in her ear. In the early evening she seemed to have a burst of life, even to speaking in sentences. The man was obviously excited. He took his cell phone from his back pack and video phoned another woman who was rather chatty. During this conversation I could see the man rocking back and forth wringing his hands, lost in thought, speaking in a low voice. “Maybe tomorrow she’ll sit up and eat something. Maybe leave here in a week or two.” Completely exhausted, he stood and left the room early this night. It was only 10:00 PM.

An hour or two later we were once again awakened by the squeal of a gurney entering the room. The gurney stopped in the shadows astride the young woman’s bed. Two nurses covered the young woman head to toe in her bed sheet and unceremoniously but carefully laid her on the gurney and wheeled her out of the room.“Kalo taxidi” my wife whispered aloud. Good voyage. Another nurse gathered the bed clothes and the saline bottle, and left the room to still another nurse who gathered the little red pillow and little white pillow and threw them into a garbage bag and left.