Saint Teresa Visits Beth Israel
My husband has kidney stones. He is quite stubborn and persistent in all he undertakes, and, of course, this is no exception. They have been forming with a slow deliberateness ever since he was twenty; they trigger unbearable pain every three or four years, and in this way, the cycle ends, as the next round of crystallization begins. A few days ago, they removed a stone which had reached exorbitant dimensions, if one can call a centimeter and a half exorbitant; it had been impossible to get rid of by natural means. It was not the first time that he had undergone the procedure, which crumbles calcium formations with sound waves; it was something almost routine. But in less than twelve hours, we were in trouble. The stone had been reduced to sand, flooding his passageways. The poor man was in continuous pain, with one renal colic after another. What was supposed to have been the cure had become a punishment. For my part, it is impossible now to drift off; my sleep is light and uneasy, and the situation is more than enough of a pretext for an insomniac. I took my copy of Saint Teresa, which I don’t know why I’d taken from the bookshelf a few days before, with the intention of reading it from start to finish, without skipping around, and lit my nightlight and began marking the descriptions of her illnesses, and those of others, in the margins with a pencil, falling back into the habit of skipping, precisely what I’d supposedly been avoiding: “I developed a heart condition so terrible that it horrified those who saw it, along with many other illnesses too … tired, bad health … As the condition was so serious, it nearly deprived me of my senses forever.”
Instead of reading more and looking for passages that allude to diseases, I must invoke her protection, begging that she shelter us, for she is a saint—is she not?—because at half past three in the morning we ran to the Beth Israel Hospital emergency room, where my husband’s nephrologist works, because the pain was unbearable and we suspected there might be complications. It was not a bad move; there we found out about the sand and that the canals were blocked. A little while longer, and who knows what would have happened with the kidney and the man who carries it within him. We were lucky: he was immediately admitted as a patient. I sat in the waiting room, continuing to read from Saint Teresa’s autobiography, Libro de la vida: “I was a nun ill with the gravest and most painful disease because there was a pit in my belly… obstructions… I spat up what I ate… all at once, I was dying.” It seemed to have taken hours to be called forward, and when they finally let me come in and gave me information, I was so far gone into another world, between sleep and concentrating on my reading—in a state of semi-consciousness or numbness—that it did not help me in the least to deal with the real world. I left the book open on the seat beside me, took my coat, scarf, hat, gloves; I dropped the scarf; who knows how I found my husband’s winter jacket, his blue backpack and scarf; I gathered mine; the gloves and scarf fell out of my hands, my coat became entangled with Mike’s, I tried to separate them, they fell again; I picked up what was on the floor one by one; with an almost divine inspiration, I gathered the messy balled up group of things, squeezing it tight against my left side and grabbed my purse and slung it over my shoulder. I lifted the book from the seat where I’d left it facedown, and began to walk holding it open in my right hand to the page I’d been reading. That was how Teresa of Ávila came to join me in the emergency room at Beth Israel. As soon as I saw her at my side, I never doubted her presence; what was I to do if I could barely handle my own load of trinkets? I was not about to fight with apparitions, much less holy ones.
The first thing the saint and I encountered were signs written in various languages and alphabets in which the hospital pledged to provide patient care, with or without health insurance, with or without sufficient means for payment. Teresa was less drawn to the Cyrillic than to the English, the design used for stamping the English more ornate. Arriving at a second door, we encountered the first of many beds lined up along both sides of the room, and a few of the sparse number of occupants (it was the 24th of December, I didn’t want to mention that earlier so as not to invoke unnecessary sentimentality) had drawn their curtains around them. Teresa noted a bed, which seemed very narrow, and pointed to two pipe railings and to the myriad of wires and tubes that connected the sick to a complicated machine that was on a portable table attached to sensors monitoring brain activity and cardiograms. She glanced at the digital thermometer, the screen full of different colored lines moving around, and the large tripod where bags of fluid hung with serum, antibiotics. Teresa did not manage to ask what this was because she could not find the words to express it, so she just began phrases that she left incomplete, and in the obfuscation she lost what we’d been trying to say. She spoke, we might say, without eloquence.
My attention was drawn to the very slight man in the first bed that we could see. Wrinkled and wide-eyed, it seemed that they had hooked him up to extract a lump, to drain it, to make him smaller. He was wearing a light blue nightgown like the other patients, printed with small yellow flowers and poorly tied in the back. If anyone began to walk, their ass would be revealed, but lucky for Teresa (and me), no one gave us a show.
Teresa did not want to move; she’d put her hands on her hips and was rooted to the floor. And though I was under a mountain of coats and bags, I still carried the book in my right hand, and I’d put it between all the clothing and my chest for a moment, when I slipped my arm between Teresa’s torso and left side; grasping, I took the book in my hand and more pushing than guiding her, I continued to move her forward, literally dragging her past several of the empty beds before coming to my husband, also dressed in the same gown.
He was connected to a clear bag hanging from a tall tripod where morphine dripped. Next to him, with no dividing curtain, a large black man, seeming to spill across the two separate sides of the bed, lingering on one side and then the other, cursing and blessing, alternatively using English (for cursing) and Spanish (for blessing). Upon seeing the black man, Teresa cried:
“Good heavens! Bring me holy water!”
I tried to calm her.
“It’s the devil who is black! Holy water! Holy water!”
She screamed excessively, and I, with my mountain of coats and my husband only a step away, didn’t know what to do. She made such a fuss that two nurses ran toward us.
The nurses in the emergency room at Beth Israel are Filipinos, they talk among themselves in Tagalog and in English with the rest of the world. This was not the first time I’d heard this kind of linguistic gymnastics. I think the first time was as a child, when my family lived in Huejutla, in Hidalgo, in México, and on market days the Marías came down from the mountains to sell things. They spread their products on the ground, and as my sister, Lolis, and I (the little blond ones) approached to buy something, we were the cause of derisive comments exchanged between them in their language. That happened four decades ago; I can’t remember the details, only the sly grin of a woman who wore her shawl wrapped around her head with a string in a compact turban-bun. I also remember that she had brown and rotting teeth—she must have been sick; her voice was lively and festive, and it is imprinted in my mind in great detail.
I have observed with great care the post office dispatchers from my neighborhood here in Brooklyn, the memory of whom is quite clear in my mind, as the office is always crowded and always irritatingly slow. There are two Chinese women—cashiers—who talk to each other in their native language while they struggle in their accent-filled English with the speakers of a cache of languages, mostly Arab, French or Spanish, though this neighborhood has it all. Take this scene, for example: an older Caribbean man insisting that he be given “guan-crismás.” The first syllable, the “guan,” I think, is his attempt at saying “uno,” or “one,” which is easy enough to understand, especially as the man beckons with his right hand or with his left, waving one finger or another, but only one at a time. Yes, then, one, but one of which, if it is one he asks for? The Chinese women bicker in their native tongue between his comments, while the one who is relaying everything to Mr. ‘Guan’ says in her heavy English: “I down’t ondersntand iueu,” as they continue arguing among themselves. Imagine them reciting a series of phrases like “what the hell does this guy want?”, which is the same thing we are all thinking in the slow line, becoming more and more confused by the linguistic misunderstanding. An Arab in front of me with a rather thick curly beard, black sandals, head covered with the sort of woven, felt hat that I usually pull out in the fall because they protect hair so well, and dressed in a large, grey camisole protruding out from his jeans down to a pair of splendid Nikes, says loudly and very clearly with an accent like an Oxford alumnus: “This honorable man wants to buy from you a Christmas stamp; please be kind enough to provide it to him.” Ah! He wants a stamp with an image of Christmas, trees and all that, the Arabic polyglot understands it before me, in my Mexican ignorance. I am ashamed of my clumsiness. The Chinese women return to their private conversation, and according to the translator they say: “Another Puerto Rican who asks for snow!” “Give him lemons!” and they laugh, the first—and only—time that I’ve seen them laugh so bitterly. They have been getting chubbier, and living tiredly they are grumpy; they glare angrily out at life. But it’s not all negative; each day they are getting closer to one another. The administration has been separating them, though, placing them in windows increasingly further apart (starting with 1 and 2, and now 1 and 5), yet they still speak loudly from one side of the building to the other in their Eastern languages. It is not possible to separate them further, but even if they tried, the distance wouldn’t do a thing; their bond is indestructible.
At Beth Israel, the Filipina nurses had not a shred of bitterness. Teresa of Ávila continued to call to me: “Holy water!” in frank, open rapture. More of the nurses—all Filipinas—gathered around us, alarmed by the cries of the saint.
The bed-ridden black man translated Teresa’s petitions, by this time expressed in loud screams. The nurses argued amongst themselves, and according to the translator said:
“Here’s another one who comes for a free dose of morphine.”
“This is a new one: she’s not even faking any pain, just directly asking for it.”
The black man caught the word “morphine” from their conversation, and said very sweetly:
“No, girls,”—the two plump women seemed flattered by his calling them ‘girls’—“what she is asking for is baptismal water, water from the church. Don’t you see that she is afraid? She’s afraid, that’s all. Look, it’s her first visit to the hospital, it happens to everyone…”
He changed the language, to Spanish, accent-less no less, and said to Teresa: “They are bringing you your holy water in just a moment, mamita.”
He called over to one of the nurses and with a gesture he said very softly in her ear, in impeccable English: “Bring a little bit of water, and I’ll tell her it’s from a church, go on, don’t be like that, have compassion for the nun.”
They should have brought it. Everything is strange for Teresa, not just the multitude of languages like at Babel, but also the floor and the walls, and everything all around her: the telephones the screens, the alarm bells sounding continuously, the metallic needles piercing through skin and entering veins, tripods loaded with bags of blood, serum, and medicine, clothes that looked like they were from Tyrians and Trojans, the nurses’ shoes (the shortest one’s shoes had red lights on the heels), the watches, a ringing cell phone that some relative had brought to the restricted area, not to mention the poor guy who’d fractured his head after falling from the sixth floor, confusing an empty space with a terrace. When I saw him slide into the X-ray machine, I thought he was a bit old, but when they brought him back, calm under the influences of painkillers, I suspected that the absent-minded man—or a drunken fool, depending on why he’d lost his balance at such a dangerous height—would have been at most my age.
I thought for a moment that our situation was not nearly as bad or at least much better than Teresa confronting the streets of the twenty-first century—what if she’d appeared at Bryant Park, just steps away from Times Square, surrounded by skyscrapers, cars, crowds, and people spilling out like smoke from the mouth of the subway? In comparison, Beth Israel seems like a convent. Calm down, I thought, calm down, Teresiña, you don’t know what awaits you, pull yourself together and get used to it because this is going to be unbelievable. And I was squeezing her arm against mine to try to give her some comfort.
The nurses began speaking in Tagalog:
“An anxiety attack?”
“What? Look at her eyes.”
“She’s calmed down, no? She has the eyes of a cow.”
“Very peaceful. I see fish eyes.”
“Morphine is what she wants, I have no doubt.”
“The crazy guy already said no. What are you saying?”
“I think we should do what the black man said. We’ll give her some kind of water.”
“No way,” said the boss, “we do not deceive our patients here.”
“She’s not a patient, she’s a visitor.”
“She’s a patient.”
“She’s a visitor.”
“She’s a patient.”
“She’s not a patient, who received her? Where is her folder with her records?”
“The black man is crazy, he has kidney stones.”
“No, the Jew next to him has the kidney stones.”
“Kidney stones do not take the craziness out of a crazy person.”
“No, the Jew has the stones.”
“The one from television, who else?”
This answer identifies my husband because in this town, the nurses have all seen the Burns documentary about the history of the city where he appears, in a much better state than he is in right now, although he’s still wearing a blue shirt of sorts, though not of the same shade—the one he’s wearing right now is sky blue, and besides, the one he wore on television didn’t tie in the back, but had buttons down the front, like God intended.
“Is the Jew the bearded one? With this last name?”
“I think not.”
“Are you blind?”
That said, my husband, his mind very far under the effects of the morphine, did not pay any attention to the fuss; everything seemed fine to him, the pain was evaporating, his eyelids heavy with what seemed like the weight of a countless number of kilos. Teresa of Ávila? Tagalog? For him, it was like the scene wasn’t even happening.
Teresa began to scream at the top of her lungs.
The Filipinas took her by the hands, probably with the intention of reassuring her, I grabbed her arm with the expertise of a surgeon, everything unraveling without giving me time to react. They separated her a few inches from me, enough so that I could see the look of terror on her face. She stopped screaming. It was at this point that I fell out of my stupor, I knew I had to hold her arm again. I took two steps forward in order to leave my pile of things at the foot of my husband’s bed, and I began to set aside my bundle of things. I think it took too long for me to get rid of everything. I only needed to drop the book I’d been carrying, still wide-open, to have my hands completely free, when Teresa turned pale, whispering:
“This will be worse than my stay with the healer in Beceda… Ay! The torture in the cures that have made me so strong…”
I understood her horror at the imminent repetition of the treatment of a horse healer. I closed the book. Teresa vanished. Literally, as it was falling shut, she was also disintegrating before our eyes, blurring away, not in a brutal or abrupt manner, but in a delicacy worthy of her person. Just as she had come to be with us in the flesh, she was gone. She disappeared in front of our faces. It happened in an instant.
The nurses hurried back to attend to their other patients, the large black man turning to curse and give blessings in his two languages, and as for me, I leaned against the pile of coats, bags, and scarves, crushing the feet of my husband—without mal intent—waiting for the doctor to appear. I took good care not to return to the volume of Teresa of Ávila, while he, his eyes glazed over with the effects of the morphine, looked out at who knows what kind of strange visions.