A night in the infirmary
Essay by Brian Doyle
Which I bet nearly every student at every university in America spent, at some shaky point of their years undergraduating, and every boy or girl who did so probably shivered with the same fear and fascination and amazement that I did, partly because you were actually in the belly of the building we all passed a thousand times but never actually thought about, like you never actually thought about the football stadium or the physical plant building unless you were assigned there somehow, or found yourself embroiled in the social ramble, or had to spend a night under observation because the nurse thought probably you had a concussion, although it was hard, she said, to find a concussion under all that hair, which made me laugh, a little, but that hurt, so she fell silent and took my temperature again.
Where are you from, son?
New York City.
So you have had plenty of concussions, eh?
I remember long narrow hallways with mullioned windows, and polite professional people who murmured gently, and I remember that it was cold, and that the sheets in the bed were beautifully starched, as if an army of grandmothers laboring in the basement were producing crackling redolent bedclothes so wonderfully clean and pressed that it seemed a shame to fold back the covers and infest them with my adolescent self, but I did so, because the nurse told me to, and she was terse and sturdy, and I was in her spotless bailiwick, not the shaggy chaos of my usual life in the residence halls. This was no dorm, despite the familiar turtle-green paint and the ancient iron beds; this was the island of the ill, where voices were soft and machinery hummed, where the few other students I saw were curled and pale in their beds, under the old hairy blankets the university must have bought by the thousands from the government, perhaps just after the Peloponnesian War.
Can you hear me, son?
We've decided not to replace your brain with an apple, all right?
My concussion, under all that hair, had been incurred when I landed head-first on the basketball floor of the vast student rec center, after soaring in admirable fashion to try to block a shot above the rim but tripping on a guy and somersaulting and ending up imprinting my face in the rubber, a weird image that may still be there like the haunted visage on the Shroud of Turin, although that gaunt Jewish guy looked cooler than me, I looked like a dissolute John Lennon then.
You're a sophomore, son?
So you have roommates.
But they are sophomores also.
So none of you can be trusted with hourly overnight observation.
So I spent the night in the infirmary. I seemed to be partly blind, and had a roaring headache, and was Officially Damaged, there was a Chart, there was a Consulting Physician, there would be sheaves of reports, my parents would be notified, and already they had received pink slips indicating Academic Difficulty, which caused my father's face to tighten, and my mother's smile to fade, and I had finally arrived at an age when I first noticed threads of sadness in their faces, and began to have a dim appreciation of how hard they had worked for their rude and selfish children, how much they had sacrificed, how much I had hurt them with sneer and snide, how much they loved me and could not say, for all their articulate wit and professional eloquence as journalist and teacher; and here I was, yet again, a cause of pain for them.
I'll wake you every hour to check your eyes.
Are you scared? Yes, ma'am.
I'll send someone.
She sent another nurse. I don't remember her name. I don't remember the color of her uniform, her eyes or her stature or her age or anything else except her voice and her hands, which were cool and warm at the same time. I remember that she spoke quietly, and that whatever it was that she said calmed me, and helped me sleep, and I remember that she was there again and again that night, perhaps all night long.
In the morning I was released from the infirmary with instructions to lay low and have a roommate wake me every hour the next night, which my roommate did with his usual high glee, he was the most cheerful boy in the history of the galaxy and had been a wrestling champion famous for laughing during matches, which infuriated his opponents, which may have led to their defeat, which would not be the first time joy outwitted rage.
I called my parents that day and admitted I loved them and apologized for having been such a selfish ass. My mother was delighted. My father, a wise man, wondered why I was really calling. I did not see those nurses again, but I didn't forget them, and something about their quiet humor and intent grace was a seed in me as far as savoring the grace of people who serve other people, especially lanky children secretly desperate to find out who they are and what they will do with their wild and lovely lives, which is the definition of Undergraduate. My mother, now 88 years old, dearly loves to tell people how her middle son, at the ripe old age of nineteen, awoke from many years of pure and unadulterated selfishness and telephoned to say he was sorry. I remember it was October, says my mom, with dark pleasure. I believe it was October nineteenth, in fact. Let me check with your father. I would sigh at the high glee with which my mom likes to tell this story, but I know very well that may be the moment I stopped thinking only of myself and was the moment college mattered the most to me. I've been going to college ever since.