What if Stories Were the Real Medicine?

If any hospital is like a damp green canvas supply tent perched on the edge of the universal war zone where we all do battle against the fading light of one last breath; then the Evanston North Shore Medical Complex would be akin to the General’s Headquarters. Saddam’s Golden Palace where American troops now walk the halls. The stately French villa bathed in a Monet sunrise where Patton or Eisenhower planned the war.

Under the towering ceilings and golden teak wood and marble splendor of the lobby reverberating with the unseen messages sent by money; the 3 of us walk out past a gleaming black grand piano that plays a homogenized Gershwin tune all by itself. Ghost fingers striking keys in technically correct soulless precision.

A fireplace circled by comfortable chairs and a high ticket carpet. No one sits to warm themselves by the electronically dancing orange flame. A uniformed doorman, as if this was the Ritz, professionally courteous greeting guests.

But buried not so deep beneath the sprawling mushroom bastion of red brick wealth adjoining this eternal war against the roar of illness and death; at the level where the boundaries of time disappear, comes forth the silver swinging doors and sickly sweet antiseptic smell of pain and the green painted halls that slither into a circular desk that says CENTRAL REGISTRATION.

I am 4 or 6 or 12 and in the weaving past the gurneys with IV tubes and old men with parched yellow skin and empty eyes; green smocked workers, nurses in white and holy men doctors in the gray coats; there is only the subdued hospital hum of my terror numbed by the fact that I’ve been here before.

And my Mom is with me.

Here on the edge of that battle against the dying of the light, my Mom is here. So I survive.

Poked and prodded and ripped and torn bleeding because no one knew what was wrong.

But my Mom is here with me. So I survive.

Then one day they injected a dye into my neck. The early days of X-Rays.

And then all these years later in this bleakest of midwinter days, I can still feel the searing freight train burning pain in every last capillary, every cell blazing in a screaming numb horror of hurt as the dye coursed deep into the wretched bottom of my little boy soul and burst out the top of my head splaying pain like bullets of molten hot rain.

I do not know how, but if you feel that kind of pain and then it stops; believing in things you can’t see becomes easy. Faith is a breeze. Not a stretch at all.

And my Mom was with me, so I survive.

The dye of all encompassing pain lights up the tumor inside me like a blazing firework next to that neighboring battlefield of death. Then the surgeons go to work.

My Mom and Dad walk the hospital halls, linoleum then, and hours and hours later, they walk in slow motion into intensive care, where a beeping sound tells me I have a heart. Its three days later and I survive.

I’m still here.

Now I sit in that same waiting room. The layers of money not fooling me at all. It’s still the same outpost on the edges of the death war against the dying of the light.

My wife is inside. Arthography and an MRI. Because a year of silent chronic, not one complaint,  pain is enough. A lifetime of dancing and then you have to stop. You still teach. But the hip stops you from dancing. For a year. And this time you can’t even blame the victim, because it wasn’t even the dancing that did it. It’s just the way she was made. No complaints, not a word. Just a shadow in her eyes and a bravery that runs beyond what I can fathom. Not one word, as money started draining like pus from a wound. And she bit her lip, then smiled. Till it was enough. And we’d just do it. So we found out that there would not need to be a new hip. But there would be arthroscopic surgery. So we came to that same room where I had felt the injection of the dye they didn’t use anymore.

Back behind walls I couldn’t see through; that same strain of medical arrogance as the chest puffed out doctor fumbled to hit the vein and was quiet and what was supposed to take 15 minutes took an hour. And the same cold blind institutional ignorance that said it was OK to dress her up in a hospital gown, complete ½ the procedure, and then walk her too fast across the public lobby so everyone who looked could say to themselves, “Look, there goes a patient.” She tells the technician to slow down, he does for three steps and then looses her request in the war haze of his indifferent mind and speeds up again.

But somehow. Here on the edge of this battle. She draws Nancy. And Nancy, the nurse, says to her, “You just squeeze my hand as hard as you can.” Somehow, someway a human connection, like a story, cuts through the pain and gets her thru it. God gives you what you need.

While out in the waiting room, swirling in a haze of long ago  pain mixed with a pain that cuts even deeper because the very breath of your life, your life’s love, is behind a wall in a hospital. And hospitals, sitting on the edge of that terrifying battle hurt people just as much as they help them. Hospitals can kill and maim. Never, ever, ever, trust a hospital. Especially this one.

Because in war, anything can happen.

And then, just as no book could ever be distracting enough, my eyes go wide as in through the door strolls my sister in law, laughing and saying, “Looks like the whole family’s falling apart huh?” A complete and total surprise.

Better than any birthday present I’ve ever had.

Her, with her own medical trials, gets herself a quick x-ray and then comes to sit with me and wait for her sister, my wife. Talking and sharing stories and making hours seem like seconds.

Talking and sharing stories. That’s all we did.

What if the stories were the real medicine? Here in the United States in 2010 as the eternal battle against that last breath mutates and multiplies with apocalyptic momentum into an all consuming fire to suck the very life from the will to just be healthy, or to get healthy if you’re not, what if that human connection of the story, remember that time when my Mom spent her days taking me to this hospital? When Nancy the nurse said to my wife, ‘just squeeze my hand’, when a sister in law became a friend because she stayed to wait; what if the stories were the music at the edges of the war?

Stories that could be heard like songs. Like when the poet Holly Near sang:

“The junta took the fingers

From Victor Hara’s hands.

They said to the gentle poet

Play your guitar now if you can

Well, Victor started singing

Until the shot his body down

You can kill a man

But not a song

When it’s sung the whole world round.”

What if the stories were the real medicine?

17 Responses to “What if Stories Were the Real Medicine?”

  1. Hattie Wilcox Says:

    Chicago Guy

    I know this hospital thing and you describe it well. Is anyone really fooled by the four-star look of these modern war zones? Perhaps the busy are, because they are largely unconscious.

    I am so sorry for you and your loved one who must enter the mine field of pain and its management.

    You seamlessly circle around, in and out, to the healing power of stories. Holding up to the light the fact that you cannot kill a song or a story, well, this ending is about how we prevail. Your ending is a victory.

  2. Hattie Wilcox Says:

    Absolutely terrific title, too.

  3. Mike Says:

    Thanks for the heads up. I’ve missed these stories, the real stories. I’ll stay in touch.
    This was just so penetrating.
    cool beans man

  4. Melissa Houle Says:

    AHA!!! It’s ROGER! Thanks for the email heads-up. It’s always a day brightener to see when you’ve got something new.

    When you’re waiting for something like this, company really, really helps. When my mother was having cancer surgery eighteen years ago, my brother and sister and I kept one another sane while sitting there, waiting all day for news. I hope Maria will be on the mend, soon, give her my best. But there are so many places I’d personally rather be than a hospital.

  5. sheila smigel Says:

    Oh, I felt each paragraph, each sentence. It is sung the whole world round…for what it is worth.

    It’s worth a great deal.

  6. Anne Says:

    Stories and survival are magic in the scary, toxic hell of hospitals.

  7. Bill S. Says:

    Well, I think it’s the SHARING of the stories that is the real medicine. They are like pills – their efficacy is in their giving and taking.

    Which makes you, I think, a doctor. A doctor of narration.

    Your writing, my friend, is like a meal made of my most favorite dishes. 😀

  8. Sarah Says:

    This is what I love about thinking like a storyteller — making the unholy memories of a sick kid correlate to a grown woman’s treatment so many years later. And finding a new friend through the calming effects of stories.

    I don’t think there’s any “what if” about stories as medicine. They just are. And it’s wonderful to read one of yours again.

  9. Tom Wozniak Says:


    Something about hospitals that brings out the strangest deformations of the soul and spirit. The heights of elation at the birth of a child or a successful surgery…to the depths of the pain, suffering, humiliation, and incipient death that is always, always around. You captured all that, the swings from low to high to low to high… almost too powerful to endure in reading.

    Suffice to say, hospitals are just very strange places that generally you want to avoid, unless you really need to be there, and then you have no choice but to squeeze that hand….

    Like your new masthead with the Union Pacific Engine and blinking red lights!


  10. Gwen Says:

    As you well know, my friend, stories and laughter are the only real medicine. The rest is just delaying the inevitable. I’m so glad you sent me to this blog. I was going through withdrawal. I needed to read some of your chocolate chip writing.

    I am sorry for your wife. There’s nothing worse than watching your partner in pain. My heart goes out to both of you.

    Much love!!!

  11. Carol S. Says:

    All is again wRight with the world!! I will be holding you and Maria in prayer. I share your belief in the power of stories to heal and hold us together…thanks for sharing! (no need to respond…I’ll be back!!)

  12. Cathy G Feroe Says:

    Beautiful, powerful, heartfelt and so you. Happy to see you and look forward to more.


  13. Dale Says:

    Your stories are medicine, Roger. They heal. Becasue they’re magic.

    You collapse past and present here, and we feel your anxiety, and your wife’s more acutely as a result of the remembered horror. Glad she found Nancy; glad you had your sister in law. Glad we have you.

  14. Annie Says:

    Yhea – I’m a party crasher. (Thanks to Julie for giving me directions)

    What a love. What a love.

  15. Lorraine Berry Says:

    Stories. They get us through. They saved a young woman’s life for 1001 nights. They are our connections to one another, the thread that bastes us together. We need them. We need this. Keep writing, Roger. Please. Don’t stop. I need your stories.

  16. 2010 in review « Says:

    […] The busiest day of the year was February 5th with 62 views. The most popular post that day was What if Stories Were the Real Medicine?. […]

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