The urgent phone call comes when you least expect it, and suddenly you are running out of your house—dishes in the sink, mail half-opened, shoes untied—to drive as fast as you can to the hospital, to sit with a family member while she heals or dies or wavers in between. Here’s what to bring with you.
- Clothing. If it’s summer, sweatpants and a sweatshirt, and if it’s winter, a t-shirt and shorts, because hospitals can be stiflingly warm in the winter and shockingly cold in the summer, their climates never match the outdoors because when you walk into a hospital, you enter a wormhole, stepping into a dimension in which time is warped and reality so twisted that you will soon forget what season it is. When my elderly father had a mini-stroke, I slept next to him in a chair, and every hour all night long, a nurse came in and asked him questions that included “What day is it?” and I marveled that he kept getting it right because I’d lost track of time altogether.
When I got the call that my mother-in-law was dying, I was on a train, traveling home from a summer visit to a friend’s beach house. My husband picked me up at the train station, and we went right to the hospital, where the air conditioning was on full blast. My daughter brought us supper and asked what else we needed.
“Nothing,” I said automatically.
She watched me shivering in my thin shirt and shorts and said, “How about pants?”
“Yeah,” I said, “Pants would be good.”
- Quarters. You will need these for parking meters, which you will dash out and refill every four hours until finally you give in and put your car in the overpriced parking garage. Be sure to take a photo of your car’s location because a few days later, when you emerge from the hospital like Rip Van Winkle, you will have no idea where it is.
Save those leftover coins for the middle of the night, when you decide you have to walk somewhere, anywhere, even if it’s just down the hall to a vending machine to buy a bottle of juice, which you won’t drink.
- Toothbrush and comb. A rushed trip to the emergency room can lead to sleeping in the hospital for four or five nights because dying takes time, and you’ll be surprised at how much the simple task of brushing your teeth and combing your hair can make you feel human again.
The first time I sat for days with someone who was dying—a beloved aunt—I didn’t know enough to take care of myself because I was young and healthy, and I didn’t understand what the lack of sleep and the gradual entrance of death would do to me. After about 48 hours, a nurse brought me a warm washcloth and a comb and gently suggested I might feel better if I at least washed my face.
- A self-inflating camping mattress. Long before dark, you will want to begin scouting out a recliner or a cot so that you can get a few minutes of sleep during the night. Here’s where being nice to nurses pays off. A helpful nurse rescued me once by stealing a fold-down chair from another floor of the hospital.
If you are stuck with a stiff chair, you can make do with a pillow. Put the pillow on the edge of the bed, avoiding the little cord that goes to the person’s finger to measure their oxygen, pull the chair up to the bed, then fold your arms on the bed, and put your head down on the pillow.
The last time my husband spent a night in the hospital, I was so exhausted that I got into the narrow hospital bed with him and begged the nurses not to tell anyone. (They didn’t.) One time, when the hospital was crowded and there were simply no chairs or cots to be had, and the person in the bed was my mother-in-law and not my husband, I spent five nights sleeping on a camping mattress on the floor, and my joints were thankful for that mattress.
- A smartphone, of course. And a charger. Some hospitals won’t let you use a cell phone in the main building, but when you finally take a break, go down the elevator, find your way through the maze of hallways that all look exactly alike, and finally out onto the sidewalk, just for a breath of air that doesn’t smell like plastic tubing or ointment or urine, then you will want to carry the voices of your friends in your palm. Their texts will be your link to a reality you will badly need.
- Something to read. It doesn’t need to be a great work of literature. When I was growing up, my mother never let us bring library books when we went camping, so my sisters and I indulged in trashy magazines because no one cared when they got left in a lawn chair in the rain. When my oldest sister Carroll was in the hospital with stage 4 breast cancer, my next-oldest sister, who lived out of town, said, “Bring her some trashy magazines from me. She won’t admit it, but she LOVES them.” So I stopped at the grocery store on my way to the hospital and grabbed a handful of tabloids with ridiculous headlines. Carroll and I spent an afternoon flipping through the pages, mocking the dramatic stories, reading bits aloud, gossiping about family members while we read gossip about celebrities, just as we used to when we were teenagers, the magazines transporting us back to those lazy days of camping when we sat in lawn chairs to get warm after a day of cold rain. Carroll started chemo the next day, which left her weak and vomiting and didn’t seem to do much for the pain, and she died two months later. For a while glimpsing a rack of tabloids filled me with sadness, a reminder of the loss of a sister who had lived within fifteen miles of me my whole life, but eventually, I came to see that last nice afternoon as the gift that it was.
Bring with you a book that you’ve already read many times, because your reading will be interrupted constantly by nurses coming in or machines making that beeping noise again. I was on page 27 of the book Dwellings by Linda Hogan, a chapter about bats of all things, although she does talk about bats as intermediaries between this world and the next, so maybe not as crazy as you might think, when my mother-in-law died. I’d been listening, even as I read, to her slow labored breathing, and then it stopped, the breathing, and I looked up from the book just as my husband, who had been trying to sleep on the floor, rose up over the bed, his eyes dark and startled and looking at me to confirm what we both knew was true.
Even when I’m standing and talking to a doctor, I am comforted by the feel of a book in my hand. I like to grasp the solid edge, run my fingers along the spine, and know that I’ve got a secret hatch door into another world.
- Your glasses. Even if your eyesight is pretty good, you will want to see everything. You will want to read doctors’ name tags from 20 feet away, so you can flag down the attending physician before they can zoom right past the room. When my brother-in-law Jimmy was dying of cancer, his three daughters called doctors unicorns. “Sometimes we wait hours just for a glimpse,” my oldest niece said. “An actual sighting is rare and magical.”
Jimmy had been dying for two years at that point, trying his hardest to stay alive because his daughters had already lost their mother, and I felt bad for the young doctors every time they approached the crowd of family members keeping vigil because there was nothing left to try, no answers left to give.
So, yes. Wear those glasses. You’ll want to double-check the fine print on the vials of morphine, make sure that your brother-in-law gets enough because he’s dying, nothing will help him at this point, and you know that he doesn’t want his daughters to see him screaming in pain.
In the end, you will want to carefully observe the nurse, the one who has been standing quietly by the bed, because she is the one who will know when the exact moment happens. When you see her look at her watch, that’s the moment. She is recording the time of death.
Janine DeBaise is the author of two collections of poetry, Body Language and Of a Feather, published by independent presses. Her essays have appeared in Orion Magazine, the Southwest Review, the Hopper, and numerous other journals. She teaches writing and literature at SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York.