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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

It was a beautiful Wednesday morning. I awoke in a tangle of bed sheets and to an IV stuck in my left arm. I had been in a road biking accident in the city the night before, breaking my now throbbing right leg in three places. The night had been a blur of ambulances, narcotics and doctors bustling around the noisy emergency room. It was quiet now. I had been moved to a shared room on the seventh floor. Long beige curtains had been pulled around my hospital bed, shielding me from the other patients. I could see the sunlight splashing through the window on my left, as I looked out to the surrounding city buildings. It was still summer, but mine was over.

A tired nurse interrupted my thoughts, rushing in with an awkward blood pressure machine and a temperature wand. I wondered if the frequent checks were to ensure I was clear of infection and perhaps, COVID-19. The ward was eerily empty of visitors. Strict regulations were now in place because of the pandemic, and the impact was evident. Suddenly, with fewer family members visiting, there was more for the staff to do. The nursing station seemed to be a never-ending symphony of ringing, as patients buzzed for attention.

On the other side of my bed curtain, I heard a patient cheerfully chatting to a nurse who had arrived to assist with his medication. The nurse’s smile was audible as she told him about her coming birthday plans at the beach, physically distanced, of course. I eavesdropped that day and I realized that my roommate knew the name of every care aide and nurse who came to his side. He greeted them with enthusiasm as they entered the room, as if welcoming each into his home. He called them by name and asked with sincerity about their families and futures. I never once heard this man whisper a word about his own pain.

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That night I wept, overwhelmed by self-pity and my coming trip to the operating theatre, where they would screw my splintered bones back together. I lay still and stared at the ceiling, listening to the hum of the machines around me. I thought about how I was going to get the kids to school, how my work would be affected and all the things I could, temporarily, no longer do. This year was not getting any easier. And then, as I attempted to use my bedpan, it spilled.

I awoke the next day to the sunshine dappling on my starchy bed sheets and the scattered magazines on my bedside table. It was agonizingly early, and the birds were chirping loudly as if to flaunt the beauty of the day. I was disheartened by my bedridden state, my swollen leg wrapped in plaster and the unsightly road rash that covered my body. I sat up in bed and dreaded the lonely hours that lay ahead.

The silence of the room was soon broken by a quiet voice from behind the curtain.

“Good morning,” the voice said calmly, clearly directed at me. “Are you doing okay?”

The patient next to me must have heard my sobs the night before. Hesitantly, I responded. From there he drew me into a conversation and brought me into his world, spinning my despair on its head.

For days, we talked endlessly through the hanging fabric to pass the time, without seeing each other. Each morning he would greet me with unwavering cheer, found somewhere in the depths of his own being, despite his medical challenges.

“Good morning, Caroline,” he would beam. “You are going to get through this.”

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He was almost 80 years old, he proudly told me. He had a wonderful life filled with a loving family, amazing friends and memories. His heart was full. And come hell or high water, he was going to get better and get out of this joint.

This stranger became my unrelenting cheerleader, as if it was his personal mission to lift me up from my melancholy. As I told him about my family, he reminded me to enjoy these precious years with my young children and how fortunate I was to have a partner who was by my side, when the hospital allowed. As we talked through the curtain, he encouraged me to find the best in all difficult circumstances, including this one, and to remember that the glass is always half full. Life is not always easy, he would say, but you have to carry on and look for the positive. His optimism radiated throughout our hospital room.

After our hours of conversation, we asked the nurse if we could see each other. Bedridden, connected to IV poles and draped in matching hospital gowns, we waited in anticipation as the curtain was drawn. As his eyes sparkled, he smiled knowingly and told me that I had so much to look forward to. I felt a sense of exhilaration, seeing him for the first time, after all that had been shared in our intimate room.

Despite his own ill health, he continued to coach me from his hospital bed in the days that followed, gracefully placing my injury in perspective. It was left unsaid that I was one of the lucky ones. I only needed to look over to the third patient in our room, who had been in a motorcycle accident, to count my blessings.

My roommate was wise and unrelenting with his words of encouragement. He was infectiously optimistic and didn’t complain, except about the food, assigning a score out of 10 to each meal. We joked about this often, that and the dismal TV options. My discharge papers were finally signed on the fifth day and I waited eagerly to get home to my family. As I was wheeled out of the room, our eyes met and we said our final goodbyes. I felt emotional, as I knew that I would likely never see him again.

I think of my exceptional roommate often and of what a gift he was to me. The impact he made during those difficult days on the hospital ward still resonates. Everything will be okay and there are brighter days ahead, for all of us. Thank you, Sanford, for being my silver lining, my ray of sunshine. I am grateful.

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Caroline Dickson lives in Vancouver.

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

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