The Fifth Floor

When Josiah was first diagnosed with brain cancer, we spent almost a month on the south wing of the fifth floor at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital here in Memphis. While there, our six month old had massive brain surgery, followed by a smaller operation weeks later. We spent two days in the ICU, praying the pain killer would kill him asleep. We spent countless nights, staring out the window across Memphis’ medical district, listening to ambulances and watching helicopters land at various hospitals. We got to know every nurse on the floor by name. We ate more hamburgers in the cafeteria than any one person ever should.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about some of this. It was the single hardest thing I’ve ever published on the Internet. It took me weeks to finish it. Then days to finally get the nerve up to post it.

One thing that I did not include in that essay was telling our families the news the doctors gave us on that couch. A few minutes after they left, I kissed Merri and Josiah, and walked out of Josiah’s hospital room, turned right, walked past three room and the nurses’ station, made a right then a left, and came to the elevators.

“5 South” really doesn’t have a waiting area. Someone stuffed some chairs in the hall just past the elevators at some point, and it just stuck. All of our parents were out there, talking quietly, which was a hell of a thing, as everyone is divorced. I got to the elevators and started to say that Josiah had a tumor, probably cancerous.

I couldn’t get the second word out. I lost it.

I’m normally very composed. I’m not the emotional type. I never have been, but there, in that hallway with the ridiculous tile work on the walls and the dirty windows overlooking some of Le Bonheur’s AC units, I fell apart.

While I’m just now realizing it, that was one of the very few times I’ve been emotionally upset about Josiah’s cancer. I’ve been angry, but never that broken over it. Life moved so quickly after that weekend, I simply didn’t have the time or energy to deal with me. To some degree, I think it was a necessary response to it all just so I could function. Part of it was selfish. Part of it was self-destructive.

Since starting to deal with my depression, this has been at the forefront of my mind.

And it is scary as hell.

Part of me is afraid of what will happen if I let myself start to feel again. Part of me likes being emotionless. It’s just so much easier.

But it’s killing me.

Then, on Sunday, I revisited 5 South.

Our daughter had an allergic reaction to some medication, and the pediatrician wanted us to take her to Le Bonheur’s ER. While we were there in 2009, the hospital was building a new building. It’s now open, and parts of the old building are due to be torn down — including 5 South.

I parked in the old parking garage, and walked through the old building on my way to meet my wife in the new ER. The old building has been stripped of its artwork, and has clearly been out of use for some time. It was heartbreaking to see it. After the doctors saw little Allison — who is fine now, thankfully — I walked back to my truck, retracing my steps in the dusty hallways.

When I got to the elevators to go to the tunnel leading to the parking garage, I had what I can only call a panic attack. I had to visit our old floor. I had to see the floor. I needed to open the door to the room we spent so many days and nights in. I needed to sit in the lobby, looking out the window. I needed photos.

So I ignored the “Do not Enter” signs, and walked to the old tower. Random equipment was stacked in hallways. The playground I used to pass several times a day was gone, it’s blue padding looking out of place without swings above it. The little windowed office with the accounting people was locked shut.

I made it to the elevators without seeing another human being. I hit the button, the door to the right opened immediately, with the same squeak that was burned in my brain for so long. I climbed in and pressed the button I’d pressed so many times before. There was still no option to get off on the third floor. The button to the second floor was still shattered, just as it was two years ago. I imagine it’s been that way for years.

The elevator creaked as it climbed to the fifth floor, as if it had forgotten the path it traveled for years. The trip up took longer than I thought it did. An eternity.

When I stepped off the elevator on the fifth floor, it was totally different — but just the same — as it was. The panel between the elevator doors with the call buttons still had its terrible pattern of mauve, green and white tiles. The painting of the school bus full of smiling kids hadn’t faded a bit. The clock ticked away, hoping for someone to come by and be thankful for its prompt time-keeping.

The chairs were gone. In its place, a large piece of equipment labeled “Trash.” Trash bags were stacked where the vending machines used to hum, ready to take my money one dollar at a time.

The doors to the floor itself were locked, but the sign said the space was being used for training temporarily. No more neuro patients will sleep there. No more nursers, no more parents. Just … nothing.

I only spent about 30 seconds up there. As I looked around, I felt it all coming down. I leaned over into a trash can and threw up. I then got back on the elevator and got away from 5 South as quickly as possible.

When I got home, my wife asked me what had happened. I told her I had made a mistake. It took a day or so before I could tell anyone — including Merri — where I had gone. Trespassing aside, something had happened that I wasn’t expecting. I was ashamed of what I viewed as an insane act.

I thought visiting 5 South would be like visiting my old elementary school — relaxing, and a nice place to shoot some photos capturing part of my past. It wasn’t.

I’ve heard it said that some Holocaust survivors were up in arms when Nazi-built concentration camps were to be demolished, but I never really understood it. Now I do, to a degree. Part of my identity is tied to that building. I can’t imagine the Memphis skyline without it. I imagine it is is the same for those who survived the horrors of imprisonment by the Nazis.

I’m not sure what any of this means in my recovery. I do know that that hallway, that floor, those elevators are ground zero for me and my family. Psychologically speaking, there’s not much of anything more crazy that I can do. At least that’s what my doctor said. I hope he’s right, but part of me hopes he’s wrong, too. I pushed the envelope, probably past what I was ready for, honestly. It may have been reckless this early in the process. The part of me that liked being locked away and self-destructive was thrilled at the pain that came back. At least I felt something, which is better than being numb. (Right?)

I’m still processing what I felt, and how I reacted in such a violent, physical manner. I’ve never thrown up as a reaction to any type of news. Even at the hospital that first weekend. It’s all very confusing, very frustrating, and yet, at the same time, freeing.

Whatever that means.