The hallway is dim to keep the waiting area’s Christmas Eve ambiance for patients’ family members who have gathered there. It’s silly. Unnecessary. Lord knows no special permissions are extended to staff. The nurse glances through the plexiglass that separates the visitors’ space from the ICU. Their room is like a cave, figures hunched two metres apart in a wide circle, a single candle at their centre. Masked, they are only shadows but for where the flame reflects off foreheads. The nurse wonders what she and her coworkers must look like to them. If these vigil keepers are shadows, perhaps those working in the background are only spectres. Ghosts. Phantoms fleeting on the periphery of stillness.
It’s time for the nurse’s break.
In the staff room, fluorescent light glares. The nurse leans against a countertop and crosses her arms. Without gown, shield and gloves, she feels almost naked. Over-exposed, like the cookies she smuggled in that sit untouched beside her. A stupid idea. No Outside Food. No Sharing. She knows the rules, understands their importance. What she was thinking? That maybe — just for tonight — things could feel human? She thinks of her daughters’ tiny fingers, sticky with red and green frosting. Wasn’t that the spirit of the season: a beautiful mess? Twinkling lights, music, laughter and affection: Wild and unchecked?
This season is immaculate; cold and stark and sterile. Lights blink only on machines, the world soundless but for the slow rush of air pumped through plastic tubes. Laughter? Not even a smile. Only blank eyes above shielded mouths and a hospital sanitized of joy. The nurse thinks of her girls and her husband, they too alone in their own way; extended family unwilling to risk holiday visits.
She shivers, near desperation in the loneliness of the too-bright room. Outside, the night’s frenzy is caught in cones of yellow cast by streetlights. She checks her watch: 40 minutes left. She could stand in that storm, she thinks. Anywhere would be better.
The nurse washes her hands, changes her mask, washes again. She retraces her steps into the shadowy hallway and to a side door, opens it, and stands in its entrance.
Inside, the flame burns brighter. For a moment, in that dark, there is nothing but the warm air that wraps her chilled frame. The visitors think she has news, she realizes. Her throat tightens, and then a man stands, moves his chair, and brings another from the corner of the room.
The nurse sits. In the background, helpers hum. She looks over the candle into the glistening eyes of the person on the other side. Not blank, she realizes. Stoic. Strong. The space is silent but those in it are sacred.
There should be singing, she thinks. It would be good and right to sound something soft and hopeful and holy. For hands to clasp, or tears to fall.
But that is not this year’s spirit.
Katie Bickell is author of Always Brave, Sometimes Kind. A novel told in interconnecting short stories, earlier versions of the book’s chapters won the 2014 Alberta Views Fiction Contest, the 2015 Alberta Literary Awards’ Howard O’Hagan Award for Short Story, and the 2017 Writers Guild of Alberta’s Emerging Writer Award.