I was eleven and the world was not less complicated, despite what the nostalgics suggest. I was at the ICU at St. Vincent’s hospital. I was told I was born here, in some faraway place called the maternity ward, but I had never seen this building. It seemed huge and labyrinthine. The lights were too bright on this floor, and the nurses too quiet. It was marked in its difference from the rest of the hospital, and by extension the bright pulse of the city and the rest of the world. This was not a place for celebration, or health.
It was a week before Christmas. I didn’t believe in Santa Claus anymore, but I could still feel the impending joy the thought of him recently engendered. Outside of this place it was in the air, crackling like buzzing electricity above us and through us. A shared connection and liked-mindedness I’d only ever experienced in a sports stadium when the home team player hit a ball long and deep and the crowd stood and waited for it to descend beyond the fence. That anticipation.
This place was immune to it. In the lobby there was a tree with white lights. Ribbons and wreaths adorned the walls. It all disappeared when the elevator doors opened. In the ICU, everything seemed blue, the color of veins returning spent blood back to its source to become replenished. Death returning to life, the daily miracle. I imagined veins to be similarly subdued.
I held in my hands a piece of green construction paper cut into the shape of a Christmas tree. Taped to the middle of the tree was a Polaroid of myself, my sister and three brothers sitting on the stairs that led to our bedrooms, peeking through the banister supports decorated in evergreen. It was taken a year ago. We were smiling and looking off to our right at some real or imagined joy. We were evergreen as well.
Around the photo I had drawn colored bulbs, red, purple, orange. At the top was a yellow star. I was no artist, but I liked the way it turned out, and I liked my mother’s and grandmother’s reaction when I showed it to them. Would you look at that! Ah, the creature. It’s beautiful. I wanted to give it to my Grandpa. Not just give it to him, hand it to him myself. I wanted his validation.
But he was sick, which is why we all piled into our rickety car and drove to the city, to our grandparents’ four-room apartment with the tiny Christmas tree sitting on top of the television. We were there so my mother could visit her sick father. I wanted to see him too. My parents looked at each other indecisively.
I was the eldest of my siblings and my grandfather’s favorite, as I heard in whispered declarations from my Grandma. When I was small I would sit transfixed at the kitchen table and listen to him tell tales of his bartending days in his Irish brogue. I remember few of the stories, but I can recall the cadence and intonation. He taught me to play solitaire and rummy. When my grandparents would come to our house in the suburbs, bringing endless brown-paper bags of food and love, he would sit in a lawn chair in our back yard and throw me ground balls. I loved him with abandon.
Which is why I brought red, green and yellow into this blue ICU. Whatever my Grandpa’s condition, I was stubbornly convinced, it would not be worsened by seeing me. I was his favorite and I loved him and I made this for him. But in this hushed place where the air seemed dense, my convictions wobbled. I felt wholly misplaced, in my color, my redness, my youth. I was an interloper, armed only with a piece of construction paper, and I was overmatched. I was left alone in a sterile waiting room while my Grandma and my parents went to assess whether my Grandpa was up to seeing me. The television droned, unwatched and unheeded. I could feel each second pass.
Visiting hours were nearly over when my father came to fetch me. You have to talk really quiet, he said, and we can’t stay long. You’re Grandpa’s not feeling well. OK, I said. I had lost whatever small will I had to argue. His bed was coming off the right hand wall and my mother and grandmother were standing on the far side. My Grandpa was facing them. His glasses were off. His hulk was contained in a light blue gown and a white sheet. He had an IV in his wrist and a breathing tube in his nose. The room was dim.
Look who’s here to see you, my Grandma said, and my Grandpa turned in my direction. He couldn’t make me out without his glasses. Who? Who is it? It’s Brian come to visit you. There was a jolt of recognition in his face, then he turned away and began to cry. I had never seen him cry. I didn’t think such a thing was possible. Can gods cry? I wept myself for causing his tears.
I didn’t want him to see me like this, he said. He came to bring you something, my mother said, something he made for you. I was struck dumb and lifeless. My father took the Christmas tree from my hand and handed it to my mother. My Grandma said, put your glasses on and look. He wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand and reached to the nightstand to fetch his glasses. They were thick, and when he put them on his eyes were magnified. I could see the leftover wetness from his tears. Look at that Jeremiah, my Grandma said, it’s a picture of the kids. My Grandpa nodded. Ah now that’s nice, he said. We’ll tape it up here on the wall, my mother said, so you can see it.
It was dark when we left the hospital, but lights abounded. Taxi headlights, storefront blinking lights, the red and green of the the stoplights extending down into the recesses of Seventh Avenue, turning from one color to the other in a rolling, endless spiral. The city was impossibly big and vibrant, and I was infinitesimally small. Holiday lights hung in odd apartment windows. Reds, greens and whites, shining boldly with arterial life and expectation. The air was cold and bracing. Vital. There was no blue.