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The Second Kingdom
Time in a hospital is contained in an event horizon of its own dimension. It warps in strange ways that can’t be explained by gravity.
“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship in the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
This Susan Sontag quote has been making the rounds during this time of Covid, though it’s never resonated with me as much as it does now, as I stare out onto the most beautiful sunset I’ve seen in Munich yet, saturated colours dyeing the sky behind the wire mesh of a caged balcony in the east wing of Bogenhausen Hospital.
This climate produces a palette I’ve not quite seen before: familiar yellow and orange hues give way to cool, powdery purples. Low, horizontal wisps of cloud obscure the sun just enough so you can gaze directly into its splendor without fearing eye damage. Like black paint against a flat backdrop is the Munich skyline — the tower, a ferris wheel, and two buildings tall enough to peek over the trees. There’s not much of a skyline here, and I kinda love that.
The crickets are chirping and full volume (it’s summer here), and the air is comfortably cool right now compared to the scorcher we’ve had today. My IV line keeps poking into me (I guess that’s what it’s supposed to be doing), and I try to focus on the breeze passing through the trees as I try to reconfigure my arm into a more comfortable position. It doesn’t work.
My room is situated over the (north? south? I bow my head to recall the ancient wisdom, solemnly recanting to myself: “Never Eat Soggy Weetbix”) north side of the east wing. Most of my view is a sea of green. It’s doing a really good job of obscuring the manmade concrete monstrosities that signal modern civilisation. If I wasn’t already here during winter, I’d think this city had no buildings at all. Munich really is beautiful during the summer.
It’s summer now, I have to keep reminding myself. In pandemic times, time warps in strange ways that can’t be explained by gravity, and it’s tugging at the gaps around my physics-trained intuition, taunting me with my lack of ability to handle this. If you think time feels weird in a pandemic, time in a hospital during a pandemic is contained in an event horizon of its own dimension. Events happen at you, and you just do your best to take whatever comes your way. Almost every choice is made for you: where you go (where they take you), what you do (what is done to you), what you eat (what you are given to eat). Preparation feels pointless. Even the nurses and doctors seem run off their feet, rushed, since all of this is happening at them, too. It’s as if the hospital itself was a wide river current, each hour of the clock just straws along the way, and we’re all grasping, trying to stay afloat.
They still don’t know what’s wrong with me, but at least I’m feeling much more alive than when I arrived here. They suspect it’s a blood sugar thing. I’ve lost count of the number of needles pressed into my skin, the number of different-sized tubes and strips filling with blood (“DRAIN ME!!!,” Rosa Diaz’s voice yells in my head). During one round of tests, the doctor mistimes a tube-switch and bright red liquid spills out my IV and saturates the fabric wrapped around my forearm, drips down the chair and makes a small puddle on the floor. It’s warm. I think that’s the worst part, the blood is warm. Was I expecting for it to be cold? It’s like, ahh, that’s a part of me!! I made that! I put a lot of effort into that! Please don’t waste it! We had a good laugh about it.
My roommate is an elderly woman with dementia who yells at me in German. She keeps buzzing the nurses, then refuses their help when they come in, which is understandably why the hospital staff treat her pretty curtly. When they seem to have had enough they give her a pill, which she theatrically pretends to swallow, spitting it out in a bit of tissue as soon as the nurse leaves the room. I don’t tell anyone. That tiny bit of rebellion is probably the only bit of freedom she’s got here, I’m not going to take that away. I ain’t no snitch.
On day two her son visits. He asks me (in English) whether we’ve made acquaintance, and I sheepishly explain how I can’t speak German. He doesn’t seem fazed as he continues to converse with my roommate, when all of the sudden she remarks, in perfect English, “yes, I can speak English, I can speak it whenever I want.” I’m floored. And here I’ve been trying to awkwardly communicate with her in my toddler German, defaulting to es tut mir leid, ich weiß nicht, ich verstehe kein Deutsch every other sentence.
It’s incredible how this place can strip one so easily of their personhood. I know that my roommate is a bit cheeky, but it was not until her son arrived that I considered the full richness of her life. I wonder how much of myself I am losing here.
Visitors are limited, due to the pandemic. As an inpatient, you’re allowed one visitor a day between the hours of 2-5pm, for up to 1 hour. They must wear a mask, and must not come within 1.5 metres of any patient (including yourself). The half an hour of the day before 5pm when Greg visits is my favourite time of the day. It’s the only time I feel like myself again. I’m reminded of how much life is defined, enriched, made worthy of by other people. How personhood is chipped away not by sickness, but by the isolation that comes with it. How cruel it is, then, that isolation is exactly the best weapon we have against this pandemic.
It’s been a while since I last wrote, no? Needless to say, a pandemic was not included in my 2020 “year of travel” plans. I can’t say I’ve made the best of it either — I have acquired no new skills, books read, “side hustles”, home-baked bread, or deep appreciation for nature or quiet or whatever. If anything, I’ve seen my worst habits resurface: my attention span is shot, my motivation kaput, my exercise non-existent, and a bitter, toxic warm blanket of self-loathing engulfs me. And, much like how healthy climbs get easier and easier the longer you try, poison-filled spirals become harder and harder to escape the longer you remain in free fall. I guess that’s just 2020 for you.
I’ve always thought it was silly that people blamed bad happenstances on the year they happened in, as if there’s some kind of magical barrier between December 31st and January 1st where like, the ether changes or something. But I think I can understand the sentiment now. By associating the badness with the calendar year it’s in, implies that maybe, just maybe, come 2021, things will magically be better. They won’t of course, but damn, when things are bad enough, it is a small comfort to believe that they will. Breaks in time to remind us to breathe, to reset, are important, even if they are artificial.
It’s the next day now, and I’m back out on the balcony at sunset. This time, I’m trying my luck to see if I can still spot the fading comet Neowise. I wait impatiently for the sky to dim and the heavens to reveal themselves, staring intently into the darkening blue, forcing my retinas to adjust to the light levels, as if that was a thing I could control.
I can’t spot the comet anywhere. Light from the street lamps below catch on the wrinkly metal wire cage around the balcony and distract my eyes with my every movement. The cage sparkles against the night as if, actually, they were the true stars. At this point they might as well be. There’s a metaphor in here somewhere, but I’m too tired to think of one.
It’s the next day now, and I am finally home. I get something akin to cultural shock when I step through the doors: my apartment looks familiar but feels foreign, like revisiting a town you once lived in years ago. We sit down to watch some TV, but I can’t process the images fast enough, and I feel dizzy, confused. I go to bed but I’m scared to fall asleep. Did I leave myself behind in the kingdom of the sick?
It’s the next day, and the next day, and the next day. Slowly, surely, I arrive. I make my tea. I water my plants. I vacuum. It’s nice.
Sorry, is this TMI? I realise I’m basically just sending out pages of my personal journal out, but heck, I’ve been socially isolated for months and I don’t know what social boundaries are any more. Extra love to you, my friends, whose presence (even digital) I lean on. You mean more to me than you know. And don’t worry, I’m feeling better now :)
Some exciting news: I wrote the last two chapters for Andrew Chen’s (no relation) upcoming BWB Book: Shouting Zeros and Ones. It’s a real, printed book, in real bookstores! I can’t believe it. You can order it online here, or grab it from your local bookstore from August 10th. The book features some of my favourite people who all have very insightful opinions and you should definitely pick up a copy ;) Feel free to roast me thoroughly afterwards, I feel quite a bit out of my depth here, haha.
Okay, time for me to take a nap. I can highly recommend!