Sheed and Ward, 1939
To my associate on the America staff,
Father Albert I. Whelan, S. J.
Upon whose unfailing and versatile encouragement
the finishing of this book has depended.
If you wish to meet Mrs. Nolan, you must go to the Babson Memorial Hospital between the hours either of ten and eleven in the morning, or of three and five in the afternoon. I suggest that you go in the afternoon: first, because the visiting period is longer, and, second, because Mrs. Nolan’s windows have a westward exposure, and — supposing it to be a pleasant day — her room will be filled with sunlight when you enter. For although it is a delightful experience to meet Mrs. Nolan at any time of day, I am in favor of your seeing her for the first time when she is at her best, which is between the hours of three and five, when her bedroom is brightest, when there are flowers on her medicine table, and when the nurse has just finished grooming her for afternoon callers.
Mrs. Nolan is a young woman, only twenty-eight years of age, but is afflicted with spinal trouble. A dozen doctors have examined her but none has been able to declare just what sort of spinal trouble it is; not even two medical specialists who were imported from a great distance and remunerated with extravagant fees for not being sure that Mrs. Nolan is not suffering from Paraplegic Syringomyelia. Following this examination, which was long and painful, Mrs. Nolan collapsed, and it was feared for a few hours that she would die; whereupon her confessor was summoned, and he successfully absolved in Latin her who had failed to be successfully diagnosed in Greek.
But I am presenting Mrs. Nolan to you altogether too abruptly. Although you are meeting her now only in your imagination, I insist that you suppose yourself going through the preliminary annoyance of trying to get to Babson Memorial Hospital by trolley-car, on a hot summer’s day.
First, I should like to have you stand in Central Subway Station for twenty-five minutes, waiting for a car marked Upsala Street. Central Subway Station in mid-July is a perfect oven; and while you are walking up and down the platform, mopping the sweat-band of your hat, and having plush collisions with fat persons (who seem always attracted to the most congested areas during a heat wave), you may amuse yourself by speculating on the correct pronunciation of Upsala Street. Has it second-syllable emphasis like La Scala, umbrella, vanilla? One would think so. But no. The trolley starter who calls out the names of the cars as they swing around the loop into Central Subway Station, is indignantly in favor of giving “Upsala” a violent stress on the antepenult. “Upsala!” he shouts, as though he were urging a Japanese balancing artist to take a jump, or saluting with a hiccup the sacred prophet of the Mohammedans.
When you board the Upsala Street car, you will be sure not to find a seat. A crowd of expert rushers, shovers and elbowers will have managed to get all the vacant places ahead of you. Avail yourself immediately of the leather straps which are supplied for the support of the standing passengers. I advise you to get hold of two of these straps, one for each hand, because the journey is long (three-quarters of an hour), and the day (remember) is hot. You can make the trip seem less tiresome by looking down with pity on the seated passengers, rigid, tight, uncomfortable, who may not sway to and fro as you do on your leather trapeze. Or, if you prefer diversions which are on a level with your eyes, the Upsala Street car contains some tenderly solicitous advertisements concerning throat ailments, a splendid lithograph of a tomato, and an incontrovertible argument in behalf of floating soap.
You get off the Upsala Street car at Harrison Square; and if you cross directly in front of the car before it starts again, you will be standing beside the open-air pulpit of a traffic policeman. “Where is Babson Memorial Hospital?” you will say to him, or words to that effect. He will not answer you. He is a pointing policeman. He will point up the hill at your right. “Thank you” you say; and as you proceed to follow the conjectured direction of his index finger, a motor truck will almost knock you down in mid-street, because you will have made the mistake of thinking that, having just spoken to a policeman, you were entitled to cross to the sidewalk before the traffic lights changed color.
The sullen policeman will quickly become articulate upon his whistle; but there will be no sense in trying to go back to him again. Instead, some magnificent profanity on the part of the truck-driver will speed you to the curbstone, and several of the bystanders will giggle. One of them will kindly retrieve your straw hat, which has fallen in the gutter; and while you are attempting to thank him, it will be well to ask again:
“Where is Babson Memorial Hospital?” “Right at the top of the hill” he will answer; “This is Highland Street — the hospital is right at the top of the hill.” (It is so nice to have directions repeated twice; and it is so vulgar to point.)
You are now on Highland Street, climbing the hill, very tired and very nervous, for you have not as yet met Mrs. Nolan, and you have no idea how much she is going to refresh you after all this weariness. On your way up the hill a small dog will run up and sniff you and bark gently. Your humiliations thus far have made your brain so bewildered that you will be tempted to stoop and pat the dog and ask: “Am I right? Is this really the way to the hospital?” He is a friendly little animal, and will know how you are suffering, and will seem to tell you with his tail that you are on the right road at last.
Babson Memorial Hospital is a non-sectarian institution, excellently constructed, clean, airy, efficient — defective only in the quality of its architecture. Mr. Babson, when he lived, was one of those vague, though not unlovable, Christians called philanthropists, who believe that suffering is very bad for people and leave money in their wills in order to have it exterminated. All diseases, Mr. Babson maintained, could be done away with if folks would only take themselves in hand, cooperate with the hygienists, get enough fresh air. The idea of some form of sickness being inevitable to human nature he scouted most vigorously. He himself had lived to the ripe age of seventy-nine without an ill or an ache. Why couldn’t everyone? And as for appendicitis, that mainstay of hospitals, and in its heyday when Mr. Babson died, he had dreams of a time when science might grow babies who had no appendices, just as Burbank had grown oranges which had no seeds. It might even have been a fond hope of his that one of the first sans-appendix infants might see the light of day in one of the B.M.H. delivery rooms, and be promptly opened, inspected, affidavited, and reported by telegraph to the American Medical Association.
Mr. Babson was a kindly man, but there was no nonsense about him. He had a horror of incurables. He wanted people who insisted on getting sick to get well, and get well quickly. If this purpose could be achieved, he was willing to treat them generously, solicitously, antiseptically, within the walls of an institution which he had erected as a perpetual monument to his own good health. With such a motive behind it, it is not strange that Babson Memorial Hospital failed to achieve a notable architecture. It always felt too sorry for itself for having had to be a hospital at all.
Upon entering the main corridor of the building, you will go immediately to the information desk, behind which are: a) two bookkeepers drowsing over their charts; b) a telephone operator, with assiduous elbows, pulling electrical snakes out of a rack and pushing them head first into small electrical tunnels; and c) the hospital superintendent. Let us not neglect the hospital superintendent.
She is a woman of about forty, distinguished in bearing, but without a touch of warmth in her manner. She is dressed, half as nurse, half as laywoman, her main professional emphasis being a puckered white cap, shaped like an inverted teacup and circumferenced at the bottom with a strip of black velvet. She has squirrel-gray eyes, and a sharply pointed nose that looks as though it felt very cold; and she continually purses her lips so as to seem always on the verge of expectorating a fruit pit.
When you first see the hospital superintendent she will be patrolling up and down behind the counter, obviously waiting for some problem to arise over which she may exercise her authority. Her air of proprietorship in the place makes one believe that she is more than an official: possibly a grandniece of Mr. Babson’s, for the philanthropist died in 1919, and it would not be wrong to accuse him of having left his affairs in charge of his descendants. Furthermore, one feels it would be very much to his taste to know that the institution is now in charge of this ominous, germ-proof lady who might be counted on to perpetuate the Babson theory of illness: “an unnecessary, economic nuisance” (I quote from the old gentleman’s address to the Kiwanis Club) “afflicting the thoughtless members of our community, and which ought to be got rid of as thoroughly and expeditiously as possible.” (Loud applause, cheers, etc.)
If you happen to be a Catholic priest (and I hope for the moment you are not), your first encounter with Miss (?) Babson (?) will not be pleasant. She does not like Catholic priests. Doesn’t she? Or am I too sensitive on this point? Why do I seem to be able to tell whenever anyone looks at me whether or not they have aversions for my religion and profession? I am not good at suffering for the Faith. I thrive on affection, and can never cope with a smoldering enemy. When I am disliked I lose all powers of social intercourse. Interruptions occur in my digestion. I become rigid, cautious, frightened, ungrammatical.
If you happen not only to be a Catholic priest, but are, in addition to that, a coward, you will resort to a subterfuge when the hospital superintendent approaches you with that machine-gun look in her eye. In order not to be shot down in cold blood, you will try to pretend by your manner that you are some sort of Evangelical minister. And how is this done? The method is twofold: feign deafness, and put on your pince-nez glasses. I have not the slightest notion why this formula works, but it does. I am not aware that the Protestant ministerhood is conspicuously deaf; I know many Catholic clergymen who are addicted to pince-nez glasses. But this juncture of afflictions will completely protect you against the hospital superintendent, especially if you embellish it with a cultured air of absent-mindedness and begin turning over the pages of the hospital register with the blithe insolence of a child.
“Can I help you?” the hospital superintendent will snap as she eyes with annoyance the liberties you are taking with the hospital register.
“I beg your pardon?” (Stop fiddling with the hospital register and put your hand behind your ear like a shell.)
“Do you wish to see one of the patients?”
“Yes, it is. But it’s nice and cool in here just the same.
“What is your business? What do you want?” (Her voice becomes refreshingly feminine when it is pitched high, and makes one believe that in her youth she may have taken singing lessons and have been a very charming little girl.)
“Is this the Babson Memorial Hospital?” (Remove your pince-nez glasses and begin to clean them.)
“Yes. Whom do you wish to see?”
“Oh, excuse me. I thought you were one of the nurses.
“One of the nurses! I . . . am the hospital . . . superintendent!”
This last statement, dictatorially enunciated, has reminded her that if she lets this situation get out of hand, it will hurt her prestige before the rest of the personnel at the information desk. Whereupon, she wheels about and says sharply to the telephone operator: “Miss Lyons! Take charge of him, please; and find out his business here!”; and then clicks her heels and disappears defiantly into an adjoining room.
The telephone operator now takes “him” in hand and approaches smilingly.
“Can I help you, Father?” (Disguises henceforth will be useless. There is a kinship of spirit between Catholics and an almost instantaneous recognition. There is not the slightest danger of your being mistaken by Miss Lyons. You might as well make the Sign of the Cross and give yourself away.)
“May I see Mrs. Nolan, please?”
“Certainly, Father. She is on the fourth floor, room number forty-six.”
“Thank you. And by the way — is that lady’s name Miss Babson?”
“No, her name is Miss Fussfield,” and, in a whisper: “She’s a Ku-Kluxer, Father, if you ask me.”
“I see.” (It’s marvelous how you can hear whispers when you want to.)
On your way up to Mrs. Nolan’s room, you will have no trouble with the elevator boy.
As you alight from the elevator and walk quietly along the fourth corridor, you will pass a pantry out of which will come floating a nurse, appareled like a white butterfly. She is not Mrs. Nolan’s nurse — Mrs. Nolan’s nurse is absent for the moment, having gone to the supply room for bandages and other paraphernalia — but she will be glad to confirm your remembrance that number forty-six is the room you are seeking.
Mrs. Nolan’s door is open. Evidently she has been prepared for visitors. Stealthily you approach the threshold and look in.
Your first reaction to Mrs. Nolan’s predicament will be one of horror. Everyone is, somehow, frightensome in a hospital. We wear our bodies so lightly when we are in good health that we often fail to notice what grotesque substances they are, until we see one like this, stretched on a bed and dejected with a disease. For what could be more grotesque than an exhausted animal with long hair . . . five feet eight inches in length . . . partially paralyzed in its movements . . . wrapped in sheets and propped upon a pillow . . . the daily subject of experiment by puzzled doctors who are endeavoring to correct defects in its mechanism and overcome poisons secreted in its chemistry?
Can this wretched object be Mrs. Nolan, whom one has been anticipating so eagerly? Has this tragic makeshift the power to laugh, sing, dream, pray? Does it possess qualities like intelligence, innocence, patience, reverence, resignation? Is it conscious of Mrs. Nolan’s personality, and does it answer to her name?
Look! Those light-blue mirrors under its forehead have unveiled and are regarding you with attention. Those delicately structured instruments at the ends of its arms are beckoning. Those waxen features are achieving a unity, assuming an expression, asserting their spirituality. Some mysterious lightning has flamed behind that oval mask and suffused it with a sudden loveliness. Thought — abstract, angelic, undimensioned — has taken place inside that gracefully turning head. It opens its mouth. It speaks.
“Won’t you come in?”
(There is a pause.)
“Are you Mrs. Nolan?”
“Yes, I am.”
Let the materialists take this miracle to their laboratories and solve it as they may.