The attendant rolled my mom's stretcher to a stop and went to find the nurse. After hours in the ER, we were both glad she could get off the 4-inch mattress and into a real bed in a real room.
My mom looked at me. "What?"
Someone had posted a handwritten sign outside the room: "Do not wake up." In case that wasn't clear, the words were underlined.
It was 11 p.m.
"I'll be right back," I told my mom.
I walked to the nurses' station. No, they could not give my mom another room. They were sorry, but this was the only bed available.
I broke the news to my mom. Okay. We would deal with it.
I thought we would go in with as little fuss as possible, but when the nurse opened the door and flipped on the overhead light her voice seemed loud for such a warning on the door.
Two beds were positioned foot to foot with about 5 feet between them. There was one patient in the room, hidden behind a closed curtain that blocked neither smell nor sound but offered the illusion of privacy that most folks worked hard to maintain. The patient behind the curtain wasn't one of them.
She complained in a loud voice accented by Italian, I thought. Neither my mother nor I blamed her, but much of this was beyond our control.
As I left my mom for the night, her roommate seemed quiet. A good sign, I thought.
The next morning, my mom looked tired. She had been up most of the night, suffering through her roommate's troubles. We laughed at the irony: Do not wake up. I looked in the direction of her roommate. The curtain remained closed.
My dad arrived. We talked in subdued voices behind our partially drawn curtain, trying to create our own private world. Sometimes we pantomimed to keep her roommate from hearing.
As the medical staff came and went, we heard all about the roommate's problems. And for a bit we were glad to be distracted by someone else's drama and gave up any pretense that we weren't listening.
We knew she heard the nurses talking to us because she threw plenty of shushes through the curtain. They ignored her. I grew annoyed with this unseen person.
My mom had her tests, including a scan to check on her cancer, and in between them we monitored her roommate's continuing saga. And so the pattern continued.
My dad walked in and pointed to the other curtain. Still closed. No sighting yet. It became a game. Would we ever see her?
The next day we found out my mom was going home, but we needed to wait for the oncologist before she could be released. She had not seen him since the appointment where she explained she needed a break from her chemo. He didn't seem to fully understand her overwhelming need to be free of the side effects.
All day the comings and goings to the other bed ended with the sound of metal hooks skidding along the track in the ceiling as the curtain was closed.
Suddenly her roommate yelled at the nurse. We heard a slap and the nurse's angry response. My mom and I looked at each other. "Do you believe that?" I mouthed.
It added an edge to an already tense time of waiting. Finally the oncologist arrived. He began cordially. My muscles relaxed. It looked like he wouldn't make this uncomfortable.
While he was talking, the door opened and I watched the nurse bring in the woman's dinner tray. No, she didn't want to eat right then.
As the oncologist continued, he spelled out my mom's treatment options.
For once, there was silence behind the curtain.
I asked if he would still treat my mom. Although he agreed, his voice grew louder, and he said my mom's name far more than was usual, using it at least once in each sentence.
After he left, the unspoken prognosis hovered in the room. We were quiet for a moment. Nothing to wait for now. I closed my mom's curtain.
From the other side of the room I heard, "Excuse me." I looked at my mom. She couldn't be talking to us.
"Excuse me." Louder this time.
The nurse had left the curtain open about 3 feet. As I peered in, I could see the woman was old and smaller than her attitude. She told me to help her with her dinner tray. I positioned the bedside stand and turned away.
"Tell your mother good luck."
I turned around to look at this woman who didn't belong in this moment of our family's life, but who now would be part of it forever.
"Tell your mother good luck." This time she said it louder, enunciating each word, drawing out the "good" and "luck," as if I didn't understand her.
I forced out a thank you.
We finished getting ready. We got in the car, just the two of us, with no one to listen to our conversation, but we didn't have much to say on the way home.
Karen Davison is a nurse and writer who lives in Tampa.