Letter to a Daughter
Thank you for your latest. Do you remember about ten years ago when I was in the hospital with a kidney stone? I think I have them again. As I write. I’m in severe pain. I requested to go to the hospital today. Two nights ago I went up there on emergency sick call and a nurse diagnosed my problem as constipation. She did this without ever touching me, taking my temperature or blood pressure, or pulse. She did not touch my stomach or anything else. She gave me a bottle of clear liquid and two small red pills to take in front of her, and said quite authoritatively that “by 11 p.m. big things were going to happen.” Nothing happened by 11 or 12 or any other hour of the entire night except that the pain got worse. In the morning it was back to the hospital.
I liked the house plans you sent. Please note the changes I indicated and try to include them in your final plans. When you decide on final plans be sure to send me a copy of the first and second floor for further review.
They gave me a shot of Demerol and in about ten minutes the pain subsided. I got lucky to get the last remaining private room. The nurse who gave me the shot is the same one who had yelled at me for not sitting in the waiting area. “Too painful to sit,” I told her. When she comes into the exam/treatment room I tell her they say that kidney stones are as painful as childbirth. “Oh no!” she says. “You men are always trying to compare. Childbirth is more painful.” I am desperate for a shot so I agree with her.
I think this shot will last three or four hours. The room is filthy, the toilet leaks, there are bloodstains on the mattress, but it has its own window, a radiator, sink, and desk, you know, the kind they use in classrooms. This one was made to fit a fifth grader, but I’m glad to have it. The physician’s assistant who first saw me when I got to the prison hospital is one I had met before. He had mishandled treatment of my high blood pressure. I sent a couple of letters out and the problem was corrected. I think he remembered me. He personally escorted me to the second floor to give me my shot of Demerol, and seemed quite sincere in the process.
I’ll sure miss the yard and my pinochle game, and a few friends. There is also rec. here, apparently. I might find someone to play chess with I don’t think there are any pinochle players. I have a good view of the hospital yard, where every year we set up our sukkah for Succoth. A melancholy time when the leaves blow, the last hollyhocks are dying in the garden, and the wind is cold.
Honey, make sure any bedroom far from the furnace has at least two heat runs. We made that mistake when you were a baby, in our new house, and had to run an extra duct to your sister’s room after the house was completed–no fun!
On a shelf in the common area is their library, mostly crap, but one or two gems. I select a book about the life and work of Robert Penn Warren. The pain comes back about 6:00 p.m. They should be making rounds at nine, someone tells me, at which time I hope to get another shot. By the time you get this I should be back to normal.
There are about eight to ten guys up here in F ward. I thought it would be quiet, especially with a private room and a real door that closes, but the guard blasts his TV so loud in the common area, and it echoes and ricochets off the marble floor and stone walls. Stupidly, he has it nice and low when we are out for rec. I made ear plugs out of toilet paper. It helps a little. The bed sheets keep pulling out because they aren’t big enough to tuck in. There is a single, bare light bulb in the ceiling. The room is warm. I hope it stays that way.
Use a mininimum of R19 insulation in your sidewalls, and a minimum of R36 in the roof. It will pay for itself in a few years.
The sign they have on a cabinet in the exam room has the following; neatly hand painted in block letters FRACTURES, SPRAINS, DISLOCATIONS. This, of course, does not inspire confidence, unless you really have a fracture. Well, my daughter, it’s now 6:30 Sat. afternoon. It’s quite a story, these past few days. The main thing to say is that I am better. I passed the stone last night about 7:00 p.m. What a relief! A nasty little bugger with a rat’s tail, no bigger than the tip of a pencil, and black as the ace of spades. The pain was terrific when they brought me up here Tuesday. The prison hospital was right to send me to CVPH since they couldn’t decide what was wrong with me. Half the staff agreeing with me on the kidney stone and the other going with the diagnosis of the nurse who doesn’t touch people. Champlain Valley Physician’s Hospital is a beautiful, modern hospital in Plattsburgh, N.Y. They have gorgeous nurses–wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. I was not in too much pain during the fifteen-minute ride there because the prison hospital had just given me the Demerol noted earlier. So I get to hobble into the special entrance for inmates, hoping not to see too many people, the cuffs being so humiliating. There they took them off and put me on a bed in the emergency room. A very pretty young lady doctor comes in to examine me. She looks at the X-rays I had brought with me and pronounces me suffering from an intestinal blockage. She says this with so much conviction that no one dare doubt her.
I think, well, what do I know, it feels like a kidney stone, but I’m not a doctor. Next she explains the procedure for pumping my stomach. I’m in no mood to argue, the pain is starting to come back. She sprays the back of my throat with a banan-aflavored anesthetic to prepare for the tube’s passage there. It has to make an almost 180-degree bend to go from up into the nose, to down the throat. The edge of the tube isn’t beveled, nor is it particularly supple. She leaves. A P.A. comes in; a young man named Frank. He’s taking my blood pressure on the left arm, inserting an IV on the right one, and about to insert a tube down my throat. I say, “Frank, I think if I had another arm or head you’d find something to do with it.”
“You bet,” he replies.
Be sure to get seamless aluminum gutters. The others leak over time, lose their flow angle, and become very unsightly.
By now I’m not sure if the banana-yuck stuff that the pretty doctor had gagged me with is still working. Frank opens a package of tubing and gel, wets one end with the gel, and says, “Take a deep breath.” I hear and feel the tube crashing and crunching through tissue, bone, and cartilage on its tortured way to its destination of half-digested beets, coffee, pasta, and a bagel, which was all I had to eat in two days. Finally it reaches the stomach, after what seems like enough shoving to reach my toes. A reddish, disgusting mix begins to flow down the tube, and if I will just hold this little bleeder vent tube just the right way, it will continue to work. Naturally I keep dropping it, falling asleep, sliding into the oblivion of pain. Every time I swallow its like a knife stabbing me in the throat where the tube must have gouged a deep groove. I wait there three hours before being moved to a gorgeous room sixth floor, overlooking manicured lawns, fir trees towering into a wispy clouded sky, and beyond these, Lake Champlain and the mountains.
Consider putting sod in the front yard and a portion in the back where you might want to work or play. It is instant, needs little care, and avoids mud in the house. (Must keep watered well initially.)
Who can complain? Certainly not I. At least not until I find out, several hours later, that all the agony was totally unnecessary! Why? Because Dr. Paley, who reminds me a lot of your cousin Warren, decides I should have a CAT scan. I ask three of the people who work down there before I find one who knows CAT stands for Computer Assisted Tomography. Dr. Paley comes out a few minutes later and says, “Well, Mr. Berk, it should make you happy to learn you were right!” I didn’t know what he was talking about because I had never spoken with him before. Someone must have told him I thought I had a kidney stone, and the CAT scan agreed with me. I dont think he was too happy with the earlier diagnosis by Dr. Beautiful.
About ten seconds after he leaves I’m kicking myself for not asking him what the hell this infernal tubing is doing sticking out of my nose, and drawing red refuse into a bottle hung from a five castered stand, being dragged along behind me. In the hospital you always think of brilliant stuff to ask one minute too late.
I begin asking every nurse, doctor, PA, I see for a couple of throat lozenges. I get all kinds of assurances but never, in my entire stay, a single throat lozenge. The only exception is Shirley who, in cruel honesty, says, “No!” right away, but that’s Shirley–not so much a case of honesty, but more her state of mind toward inmates (or maybe everyone), which is made clear in her every word, move, and touch. In general, though, I must say, most of the nurses were good, competent people. Some were downright friendly–Cami, Amy, Tara, and a couple more beauties–terrific nurses–very good people. One, right after giving me a suppository said, “You’ll be all right, Sweetie,” God bless her, and patted me on the back. Now this is damn good bedside manner, and almost brought tears to my eyes. The morphine just took all this as one more wonderful high in the transcendental state.
All this time two officers are with me 24/7, day and night, to protect me from the nefarious plots and leering glances of the nurses. I see we are going to get into a major power play, pronto, over the TV. There is a control near them and one built into my state-of-the-art bed. I hope they won’t discover theirs, but one does, and turns it on. Thank God we only get one or two stations, fuzzy, with little volume. On one channel an ex-White House aide is talking about Nixon wanting to get to Clinton’s ear about the corn tax repeal in the 1800s and its implications for NAFTA. I was beginning to actually find that interesting when I hear, “What the fuck is this?” It gets changed. They switch to the other channel that is advertising costume jewelry and some dolls that look like a soap opera star. I was safe that night. It didn’t stop them from talking all night anyway. Their inane banter woke me often. Some cared if I slept, others didn’t.
Be sure to run telephone and television lines to all bedrooms, kitchen, family room, living roorn basement and garage. Keep the garage a minimum of 22′ x 22′, and the hasement wall at least 7′ 9″ high.
The next morning I awoke with the same abysmal pain, but now with a catheter in my arm instead of a tube in my nose. The night before, a football lineman sized PA took the tube out just hours after Dr. Paley diagnosed the correct condition. I doze off and on, get more morphine. More COs come and go in eight-hour shifts. Cami comes into focus a combination of Meg Ryan and Gwyneth Paltrow in looks, and Mother Theresa in heart. Naturally I am in love, but only as a man may be toward an angel. She senses this and smiles. True love is always felt (and felt truly).
I start asking everyone I meet for slippers. Two days later I get them. They say adult size. I don’t have big feet but these must be a special category called “adult-midget.” They are more like ankle socks than slippers and have some gritty pattern imbedded for safer footing into a fairly sturdy fabric ofsome kind. They should be called non-slippers.
They stick a glue gun in my ear to take my temperature (about three seconds), and stick my finger in a little clothespin look-a-like to get my pulse. Every few hours I get a shot to kill the pain, unless Shirley is on. She requires a specific amount of time to have elapsed between shots. One night she comes in and gives me 8 mg of morphine, saying it is a very high dose. I’m thrilled, thinking I’m hallucinating. A couple hours later, I awake gasping for breath in panic. The CO runs to the nurses’ station to report I am dying, which brings her pretty quick. It’s Cami, sweet angel of God, my breath comes back. She gives me a cold towel for my head. I think Shirley caught hell. I hope so.
Father Berg comes in. Father and I go back to the days I was the Rabbi’s clerk. He always gave me two butterscotch candies. We speak briefly. “Ah, yes!” he says, “that’s as painful as childbirth.” He says he will pray for me, and leaves. I kick myself one second after he leaves for not asking him for a butterscotch. It would have made the perfect throat lozenge.
I look out the window. Beautiful clouds are painted in a blue sky. A blue jay flits energetically among tall pines. On the manicured lawn below Kim Basinger is walking two dogs: one snow white, the other jet black. They are very obedient. Her shapely legs flash in the sun below blue shorts. She is wearing a glossy red rain hat and light blue jacket. Across the pond and road is an ivy-covered house. Just a few more square feet of the peak over the garage need to fill in to make the whole house appear as if it is a living thing. Lake Champlain shimmers beyond, reflecting the low mountains of Vermont. Canadian geese patrol the lawn and swim in the large pond, which fronts the hospital. This has a fountain running twenty-four hours a day.
Consider putting two showerheads in the master bath shower, as well as a heat lamp. Skylights and slant ceiling are also very nice here.
Dr. Banko, the urologist, enters to speak with me about my problem. “Shit!” a C.O. screams in his ear, as the American, coxless, women’s pair Olympic scullers are defeated by the Rumanians. Dr. Banko turns slowly and says, “Can we have that off, please?” It is turned off. Dr. Banko and I are friends. We speak briefly, both being satisfied we are on the right track. He leaves.
I return to bed. Dinner comes–chicken, broccoli, jello, blueberries, coffee, milk, rice. Does it get any better than this? I devour everything except the milk. I give it to a CO. When Amy comes in to count the liquids (I forgot they are keeping track) I say, “Don’t count the milk.” Her eyebrows shoot up. “Why not?” she asks. “I spilled it,” I answer. She gives a dirty look to the guards who just shrug their shoulders. I figure I owe them one. They had really seemed impressed with Amy. I say, “Watch this.” I put the call button under my pillow, and just moments after Amy has left, I lean on it. She comes running.
“What’s wrong?” she exclaims.
“What, oh look at that. I must be leaning on the button, sorry.”
Amy leaves thinking it was a useless call. The COs are in stiches pumping their fists in the air and howling. I think it was the best service she could have done for me. The rest of their shift we were buddies.
Two attendants roll in a scale. I weigh 174 lbs. “That’s interesting,” I say, “because the scale at Clinton hospital said I weighed 154 lbs. two days ago.” I decide to take the average.
“Oh,” one attendant says, “You have kidney stones? I hear they are as painful as childbirth.”
That night I pass the stone. The next day they release me about 3:00 p.m. That goes smoothly except for the poor guards who just came on duty at two, looking for a full overtime shift. They feel cheated and are pissed. They quiz me about when the doctor said I’d be discharged. I am no help. They catch a little paranoia about the whole matter. It seems unreasonable to me. The hospital might have other things on its mind. They are really pissed but don’t take it out on me.
We are on the road. I see neat little houses with tidy lawns, the forest, ribbons of road. Blessedly, I find I don’t miss much of it. I sure did when I first came here. Every house, every car, every scene, evoked some memory, some sense of loss and anguish. Now I can’t wait to get back to my cell, to order, and routine, and friends.
We arrive at the front gate. “New York State’s third oldest prison,” the sign says, “1845–Clinton.” A drugstore, restaurant, and bar dot the narrow street bounded closely by the towering wall. The gate opens. I am free in my own world. They tell the guard how angry they are, which seems to calm them down. I arrive inside. They take off all the cuffs. My old A-block night officer now works up front. He greets me. “Enjoy your vacation, Berk?” I say, “Dorothy had it right when she said, ‘There’s no place like home.’ ” Alas, they don’t take me to A-block but to the prison hospital instead.
“We just need to check you for a day or two, Mr. Berk.”
They take all the paperwork CVPH gave me–test results, medical findings, etc.
“I’d like to read that,” I say.
“It’s OK, we’ll make it part ofyour file.”
Honey, be sure to read all fine print in your contract, especially the mortgage. Did you know the lender can have a clause in there which says he can sell your loan to someone else?
I’m too tired to argue. I go to the ward where Harold G. greets me. I’m sure there is a novel in Harold’s life. He’s an older black man who befriended me the one day I was here earlier. We talk. He asks how I’m doing. He volunteers to tell me about his case–very sensational trial in New York City. He is supposed to hate all Jews. I tell him I’m Jewish. He knows, he says, it was all trumped up. He doesn’t hate Jews, and is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. I believe him. When he finds out I missed supper he offers me an apple, an orange, and a cheese sandwich. He shows me a story he wrote. It’s interesting; kind of a cross between the apocalypse, Revelations, and his own personal history. He, the papling, seeks salvation, and is still waiting. It’s filled with many typos, misspellings, and other errors I offer to help him correct. He tells me about a Jew across the way in Room 3 who won’t eat. I look at the name taped to the door. It’s Harry S. When I was the Rabbi’s clerk I saw Harry often. Same old story–he won’t eat. He won’t allow a TB test to be given. He’s an ultra-orthodox Jew of the old school. Nothing here is kosher enough for him; not the bed, the water, or the food, so he avoids them all. He has been keep-locked as long as I have known him. As I look in, he is a pile of bones on the floor wrapped in a blanket. The faucet is running. I tap on the glass. He doesn’t recognize me right away because I grew a beard. He rises slowly. Some color creeps to his cheeks. I slide an Aleph calendar under his door. He shoves it back, thanking me, saying he has one. I tell him I’m across the way in Room 5.
“What’s wrong with the bed?” I ask.
“What bed?” he says. “That pile of shit? You call that a bed? Rome didn’t conquer the entire world. There are still places where strong, devout, men and women sleep on the ground with pride.” Tough to argue with that.
“OK, why’s your water running?” I inquire.
“I’m convinced they’re putting something in it. I can smell it, so I let it run that they might see how wasteful their efforts are.”
It’s a good idea to wrap some of your plumbing for insulation and soundproofing.
I don’t know how he stays alive! There is nothing in his cell. He refuses all meals they deliver…all!
“God is my protector,” he says. “For centuries our people have been fasting and suffering, for what we believe.”
For such a man there is only death or the insane asylum. I am awed by his strength of conviction and feel small in my own. I ask him about family, friends. He tells me there are thousands like him in Israel, but no one here. I tell him I’ll see him tomorrow, because greatness, like pettiness, is hard to digest in large doses. Rec. is over. We lock in. At 11:00 p.m. the CO finally turns off the crashingly loud TV. I sit down to write you, my daughter. Does anyone have a throat lozenge?