I’m trying to write a love letter to the workers in the hospitals this week. But I don’t want it to read like one of those thank you for your service hero worship suck ups. I’m not putting medicine on a pedestal; I know what you did. It’s just you’re really on my mind, and I’m full of this futile urge to say something earnest to you, from my couch, with my cocoa. No listen, hear me out.
This is my first Christmas not working in medicine in 20 years. I started interning as a medical social worker in the ER at San Francisco General right after 9/11 and still know more about anthrax powder than anyone should. In the weeks leading up to the second Iraq war I was running morning intake at the psych hospital and spending the evenings getting arrested at the corner of Bush and Powell. For a decade I was an oncology social worker and showed a thousand Oakland families how to say their last I’m sorrys, thank yous, I love yous. I still have the handwritten list of a couple hundred of my favorite dead. I worked in rehabilitation medicine where one of our patients’ wives made us an exquisite quilt that took every day of the months her husband spent learning to walk again. I worked in a community clinic and talked in year-long circles with my brilliant, homeless, hilarious dry wit patient and snuck him shampoo samples to give to his girlfriends and brought him plates from all the potlucks. All of these places, so dear to me, still full of people I love and admire, never closed. I worked every holiday season. But not this year.
The thing I loved most about working in the winter was how dark it got outside. Up high on the sixth floor at Kaiser, looking down at all the headlights in the rain, feeling lucky to be on the inside, in a brightly lit hive of industry, a golden tower of interdependence. I loved the sound of squishy boots on the tile, the wadded up bedsheet on the floor soaking up the umbrella pile. I loved the abundance of See’s candy in the break room; those ubiquitous and yet mysterious unlabeled lumps. I loved the faces of the families who never ever thought they’d need to be in a hospital on Christmas amazed to see us all there. I remember beaming so proudly: Here we are. We don’t close. I know, wild, right? I know! We’ve been here this whole time! I know!
One winter this heavy-eyebrows man came up to 2 North just by himself, empty handed, dazed, and said, my father died here 10 years ago and told us his name. And Anna looked up from charting smiling and said I remember your dad, and Lisa nodded and Jan nodded and he cried.
One time one of our ER regulars fell asleep in the winter rain and came in on a gurney with an axillary temp of 55 degrees. We couldn’t tell his wife he was dead until his body was 90 degrees, so she watched us do chest compressions on him, for the three hours it took to get him warm enough to declare. I did some, housekeeping did some, dietary did some, a couple paramedics in the ambulance bay waiting to give report did some, the chaplain, a teenaged volunteer.
I’m trying to say, to prove to you, that I know something about what it’s like to be inside that bustling hive, that family memory, that joint effort. I don’t know what it’s like this year, I only made it to January this year. I’m not saying I’m coming, I’m not. I’m not saying I’m with you, I’m not. I’m just saying, I remember what it’s like to be in the mix and I’m thinking about you.
The thing that’s so funny is I know you don’t give a fuck about my thoughts. I used to look out the window at all the people down there, and think, they have no idea. None. They are making some beautiful plans, or making some holiday memories but they have no idea. How sad and small and silly to be baking, going to Grammas, when you could be here, in the heart of this town, beating together. We are in this moment. We are all in.
This year I’m baking and I’m writing holiday cards and this one is for you. I’m trying to tell you that I know I don’t know how it is right now. I know! I’m sorry. Thank you. I love you.