NO ONE likes hospitals. Of course, when we need them, we thank God they're there, and we hope we, or our loved ones, are in a good one. My mother-in-law, God bless her, is in a hospital now down in Orange County, and it's as beautiful a facility as you're ever going to run into, I guess. But I noticed several things there, and I think these are universal. First, as you walk from the parking lot into the hospital you see people who've just checked out, heading home with their families. Obviously, they are very happy. But look closer, next time. The happiness they have, especially the ex-patients, is deep, glowing, radiating. As we all know, when it comes to the hospital, many check in, but not so many check out, and the ones that do are left, even temporarily, with a reflective mien. Grateful. Thoughtful. "Didn't get me this time. Let's get out of here. Quickly. Guy in the next room won't make it. I did. Why? I don't know. Come on. Faster. I need to start forgetting."
Lucky people. Another observation is how quickly we learn our way around the hospital. Going out for coffee, or to make a call, we all know, very soon, where we're going, don't we? Down here, turn left, past the oncology lab, not those elevators, they're too slow, the back ones, around the corner, are faster. We learn the paths easily, and the place begins to feel familiar. We can even spot newcomers, and we smirk a little, inwardly, as they pass us, tentatively looking around. Go on, we silently urge, a little further, check at the nurses' station. They'll tell you where Uncle Pete is. I'm going to the commissary. Easy to find. You'll know soon.
After even only a couple of hours, I find myself, weirdly, so familiar with the surroundings I almost feel like strolling into one of the other rooms on "my" floor and checking the clipboard at the end of the bed. I don't know why, I couldn't possibly help anyone, and unless that clipboard has a crossword puzzle on it, I wouldn't even know what the hell I was looking at anyway.
The third thought I had was how, for all of us, it is not possible to empathize, really, with the person in the bed if that person isn't you. I think we all have a natural defense mechanism. And even if the patient is someone we care about, at the moment of standing somberly around the room, whether the loved one is out cold, or tremendously uncomfortable, or even close to passing on, it's hard not to think, "Soon I'll be back in the hotel room. I wonder if they serve late? Something other than trail mix would be nice. Hit that mini-bar, too." No, the only time we, each of us, will understand is when we're the ones in the bed. Soon enough, God knows. Soon enough. Then we'll get it. As we labor with each breath through the plastic nosepiece, we'll look around, focus with effort, and see, through their concern, everyone thinking, "Soon I'll be back in the hotel room." My mother had a long illness. My father went in a flash, and was sitting next to God before he even hit the floor. God willing, we'll all have the grace to take whatever we're supposed to take.
I was in two other hospitals recently, just a week ago, in Israel. It was part of my trip, to meet some victims of the terror bombings and their families. As an aside to this, you might like to hear something good and something not so good.
First, something good. Since I knew I was going to be seeing a lot of kids, I thought maybe they would like some videos. A couple of the recent Disney movies I've been in struck me as possible, "The Princess Diaries," and "Max Keeble's Big Move." I called my publicist, Michael Hansen, and he called Adam Jordon, Director of National Publicity, Buena Vista Pictures Marketing. (That's a heckuva title, isn't it? One more promotion, and he's going to need double-doors on his office to hold all the words.) Anyway, Adam stepped right up and said, essentially, "Whatever you want." They're sending so much stuff, we decided to ship it after I got back: Shirts, hats, posters, movies, photos. Good for you, Disney.
Second, something not so good. Before leaving, I asked one of the doctors over there if there was anything he thought the kids seemed to want more than anything else. He instantly answered, "Lakers. Anything from the Los Angeles Lakers." Well, okay, great, let's get them some Lakers stuff. So Michael Hansen called the Head of Consumer Relations and Merchandizing for the Lakers (I'm not even going to say her name) and he told her what I was doing and where I was going, and she said, "We're out." I beg your pardon? Did you say out? What does that mean? "Well, there was a big rush after the season, and we're out." Out of everything? No shirts, no hats, no banners, no stickers, no, I don't know, bunny ears in gold and purple? "Nothing. We have nothing."
Well, that's quite a run you had. You're just . . . out. No big deal, why, it could happen to anyone. So my wife and I took the kids the day before I left and went to a store and bought as much as they had. And we filled a pretty big duffle bag. And when I got to Israel, and the guy at the hospital saw the stuff, he thanked me, and said what a nice team the Lakers were for sending it all. And with the best acting I could muster, I smiled and said, "They sure are. Couldn't do enough for the kids. Anytime, they said." Yay, Disney, boo, Lakers.
All right, back to the story. As I said, I went to two places to meet the terror victims. One was in Tel Aviv. I met an emergency room doctor, a woman, whose husband was killed a year ago in a bombing. She has two children. Had. Now she has one. She was on duty, weeks ago, in the middle of the night (Don't they call that the graveyard shift?), the night a disco was bombed. Maybe you heard about it. The victims were brought to her hospital. To her. Her daughter was one of them. Now the mother is a patient. "It was good of you to let her tell you her story," the head of the place told me. "It's therapeutic." Good of me? What do you say to that? "I'm glad I could help so much. Gotta go now. Soon I'll be back in the hotel room."
Then we went to Hadassah Hospital, in Jerusalem. This is the hospital where they brought the victims of the bombing at Hebrew University. I met a woman who had been having lunch that day, in the Frank Sinatra Commissary (really) with her daughter, a student. An "A" student, the mother told me. It wasn't possible for the daughter to tell me, since they were still trying to put her back together. At this writing she's still alive, thank God. Just. An "A" student, the mother kept saying. She was the lucky one, whatever that means. Hey, what's that on the table? Oh, it's a cup with the nails they took out of me. Some are still inside. They can't take them out yet. Oh. Okay. Gotta go. Wait, go in there, here's someone else, the brother of someone else, the fiancee of someone else, the father of someone else. Thank you for letting them tell their stories. Yes, I know, it's therapeutic.
Downstairs, before we left, the head of the hospital, an Israeli named Audrey, was showing me the children's waiting room. I couldn't help but notice, all around, an Arab woman with her son, an Arab family over there checking in, Arab children playing with the toys while waiting. The doctor saw the look on my face and laughed. "Oh, yes, we treat everyone." I guess I was astonished. She just shrugged. "We're Jews. This is how we live. It's also for the future. They're not going anywhere, and we're not going anywhere. There will eventually be peace. There has to be." When? A month? A year? A hundred years? More? She didn't know. I had to say it. You're incredible. You take everyone, you treat everyone, no one goes first, no one goes last, you just go in order of who needs help. That's, like, Mother Teresa stuff. "We're not saints, we're just doing our jobs. It's not easy, I admit. And it gets hard when they cheer when the bodies are brought in." I looked at her. What did you say? She sighed. "Yes, it gets hard when they cheer." This was one of the times during my trip when I held up my hands and said, "Stop. Wait." I turned and walked away to breathe deeply for a minute. I wonder if they've restocked that mini-bar. Yeah, probably. It's a good hotel.
I didn't meet one Jew the whole trip who didn't think there would be peace, not one. "We can work it out. We have to. They're not going anywhere. Neither are we."
Of course, it gets hard when they cheer.
I guess it does.
Larry Miller is a contributing humorist to The Daily Standard and a writer, actor, and comedian living in Los Angeles.