The old man lie down sprawled in a contorted mechanical hospital bed, configured like a caterpillar scrunching its way across a sidewalk. I had operated on him a few weeks ago; subtotal colectomy for patchy diffuse ischemia. After an initial rocky course he stabilized, was extubated, and we were able to get him out of the ICU. It was mid-morning on a weekend. His head was kinked sideways into his shoulder as he dozed. Spittle dried in the corners of his mouth.
-Good morning Mr L, I said. He stirred and opened his eyes.
-Morning, he murmured. His eyes fluttered and then fell closed.
-You've come a long way, I said, listening to his heart and lungs.
He opened his eyes again. He looked at me like looking at someone standing too close to you on a bus or a subway.
The TV blared from a wall mount. There are few more depressing sounds in life than the dulled, hollowed-out sound of a telelvision playing too loud in a patient room. It's hard to explain. The only form of entertainment. The recipient not even really watching it. The way it echoes out into the main hallway.
-What did you used to do in your younger days, sir?
-Drywall and.... He shifted to the side, stiffening in an attempt to lean forward. His face showed gaunt and grayed under the halogen lights. He hadn't been shaved in at least a week, sparse coarse thickets of gray splotched across face and neck.
-Labor? Owned a business?
-It's ok, I said. It's Ok.
-I can't talk anymore....
He relented to fatigue, let his body fall back stricken into bed. He dozed again. His stoma made a noise under the covers.
I stood there for a while, perhaps 3-4 minutes, not quite ready to just leave. He was about set for transfer to a rehab facility. I probably wouldn't see him again for weeks. The TV was showing some old collge football game from years ago. I turned to leave.
-Can you cover my feet? he said, suddenly reanimated.
He had pulled the sheets and blankets up tight around his chest, leaving his long pale, skeletal feet bare. The thickened toenails were yellowed and hooked around the confines of the nail beds. I pulled one of the blankets over them, tucked it under his heels.
-You said your name was?
-Parks. Dr. Parks. I did your surgery a a couple weeks ago.
-Parks. Parks, you say. Ok......
And he drifted off again. His chest rose and fell slowly, emphatically.