Fifty years will carve a people-sized Grand Canyon into a person’s body and mind. Sure, the Colorado River took millions of years to gouge the real Grand Canyon out of the Arizona rock, but we’re softer and get hit with harsher stuff than water and wind.

My friend The Bean pointed this out to me, although she may not have meant to. She’s young and feisty and pregnant. The Bean has enthusiasm oozing from all her pores, even before she became a vessel for new life and the metaphorical hope for the future of all humanity. She also cooks a tasty Beef with Scallion and Mushroom Sauce.

This week The Bean said that there’s something strangely comforting in hearing your doctor say “That looks awful.” When her doctor says that, she knows she’s not complaining for no good reason. Plus, she loves her doctor, and that makes her observation more palatable. But I guarantee that I, being a generation older, would not find, “That looks awful,” comforting in any way at all. In fact, I might be inclined to do something rude with a tongue depressor, or at least make a cutting remark.

Annoying medical experiences have eroded me far longer than they have The Bean, and bad statements from doctors can find no welcome in the canyons of my psyche. I’m not criticizing my friend. When I was her age, I was the same damn way.

Another generation of living will dig the canyons deeper, and the patience for stupid medical remarks pretty much disappears. When a person of 75 years like my mom is lying in the hospital full of morphine with a condition no one has been able to diagnose for two months, and when the doctor unwraps the dressing, the words “Oh my God!” plunge to the bottom of the canyon to crash with a bitter thud. When every nurse and aide says roughly the same thing, then comfort, patience, and acceptance evaporate. Even a smile from the doctor and the words, “That sure is spreading,” only create the urge to rip the doctor’s heart out through his nose.

Of course, our reaction depends a lot on our proximity to Death, that snappy-dressing clump of fungus and slime. When you’re in the hospital you know you’re in Death’s stomping grounds, sort of like his favorite bar. At my age, when I go to the doctor, Death hangs out in the waiting room, feet on the couch and reading Guns and Ammo.  He wants to get the news right away. For The Bean, Death just runs his errands at the mall and maybe goes to see The Phantom Menace in 3D, trusting that she’ll call later if they need to have lunch.

But I think that Death’s distance is less important than how time has changed our understanding of the word “awful.” I’ve seen how people a generation ahead of me understand difficulty and suffering in a way that I can’t. I feel sorry for them, and to be honest I feel sorrier for myself knowing that I’m coming up behind them. On the other hand, The Bean is still young enough to feel comfort and even laugh at bad news. And in the end I feel happy that her canyon is shallow, and she hasn’t yet been kicked in a tender place quite as much as us old folks.

For someone whose leg bone resembles a sock full of toothpicks, my mom smiled a lot this morning. She splintered that femur a couple of months ago. Officially, she’s hanging out in the hospital rehabilitating. To me it looks like she’s working hard and then negating her hard work by lying in the bed a lot, complaining about meaningless bullshit, and keeping quiet when she needs real help. At least she’s eating more. Yesterday she ate nine grapes, three bites of chicken, and a Dorito.

This morning she complained from within the embrace of her bed, maligning the bacon (not crisp enough), the toast (not thick enough), and the eggs (not made of real baby chickens). I leaned back in the stiff hospital armchair and listened as she savored her frustration and disdain. I only needed to grunt a few times and nod occasionally to keep things going. She was like a barnyard goose, for which honking and biting are the signs of contentment. All she needed was something to honk at and bite.

She spent a few minutes complaining about Jay, the aide she had called 10 minutes before. Then Jay arrived. Rather than pouring displeasure upon Jay, she smiled and laughed to see him, and she greeted him like another son. As he helped her from the magnificent bed to the torturous wheelchair, my mom told him how much she appreciated his help, and how well he did his job, and how much she’d miss him when he went on vacation next week. Jay smiled in return and prepared her for her day.

As Jay left, my mom said, “Don’t forget to get your candy!” She pointed to a narrow table that held a bag of candy as big as a cement sack. Jay nodded and reached into the bag, pulling a tiny Milky Way from all the infant chocolate bars in the bag. Jay left with a wave.

I didn’t think that odd. My mom feels that the Apocalypse is near if everyone around her isn’t eating. I’ve seen her weep when someone left her house without taking the entire pizza she pressed him to accept. I am not kidding. So the world would actually seem stranger if she didn’t have a giant horde of food to force on people while she starved herself.

My mom explained how the hospital was a place of horrors, and she revealed that the people who worked there were coming into her room and stealing her things. Nurses had stolen all of her uncle’s things when he’d been in a home, and they were doing the same thing here. After some concerned questioning, I determined that the extent of her loss was one diaper that had disappeared four nights ago. I suggested that this wasn’t exactly the Brinks Job, but she clutched tight her fury towards the thieving staff.

At that moment the nurse, Nesi, walked in with my mom’s morning medication. She grinned at him like he was Santa Claus, and she gushed her joy at seeing him. That joy faded when she saw the two pills as big as cockroaches he wanted her to swallow, but she choked them down and instantly forgave him. As he left to take his insanely huge pills to the next patient, my mom said, “Don’t leave without taking some of your candy!” Nesi grinned, grabbed two Snickers, and left.

After my mom had spent several minutes bitching about her leg brace, which an aide had slapped on like she was making a burrito at Taco Bell, the physical therapist, Ann, popped in. My mom greeted her as if they’d stolen apples and skinny dipped together as girls. It wasn’t yet time for therapy, but Ann was just passing by and thought she’d check on my mom. My mom chatted with her for a minute, insisted that she take candy, and nodded approval as Ann left with a Snickers of her own.

My mom was only able to complain about her wheelchair for a minute before the doctor entered. My mom did not offer her a cheerful welcome. In fact, she looked as if a bad smell had walked into the room. The doctor listened to my mom’s heart with fierce efficiency, bragged about how cool her kickboxing lessons were, and swept out of the room without being offered candy. My mom considers the doctor to be some kind of management, whereas the nurses and aides are working people who deserve chocolate.

Five minutes later another aide, Olivia, joined us for no particular purpose that I could determine. My mom effused about how pretty Olivia was, and how good she was, and how smart she was to have just passed her entrance exam for grad school. Olivia held my mom’s hand and beamed at her for a minute before leaving with two Milky Ways and a Three Musketeers.

A few minutes later an aide poked his head to ask how my mom was doing, to bask in her adoring thanks, and to nick a little chocolate. Ten minutes later it happened again with a different aide. During these visits, my mom lavished sincere praise and affection on them. Between visits she explained to me the awful, crushing oppression of this institution and the callous contempt that the staff cherished in their hearts.

Perhaps an hour into my visit the nurse, Nesi, stepped back in, looked uncertain for a moment, and asked my mom how she was doing. She assured him all was well, and Nesi snagged another Snickers. Then he asked my mom to tell my father not to buy any more candy. It wasn’t good for the staff. My mom said she’d ask, but she didn’t have any control over what my father did or didn’t buy. Nesi sighed and grabbed another Snickers for the road.

I finally asked my mom about the candy, and she told me that my father had brought it in before Halloween, three weeks earlier. I observed that the bag was close to empty, so it shouldn’t be a problem for Nesi and his staff much longer. She looked surprised and explained that this was the third bag my father had brought. They only cost seven dollars a bag, so that wasn’t too expensive.

As I was contemplating that, my father arrived. After a round of greetings, my mom told him that Nesi had asked for a moratorium on the Milky Ways and such. My father shrugged and said, “They don’t cost much, and everybody seems to like them. I’ll just keep bringing them.”

My mom exclaimed over what a nice man my father is, and he continued, “Hell, seven dollars is buying you more service than any other money we’ve ever spent. Everybody on the floor’s coming by to get some of that candy. They can’t just walk in and ask for it. They’ve got to ask whether you need something.”

Then I realized what I was seeing, and why it looked familiar. You can be nice to people, and you can be a calculating son of a bitch, all at the same time. I’ve done it myself a thousand times. I must get it from my father.

My mom and my father, and their pets. Moments later the photographer gave us this photo for free when my father offered to fix his light meter.

I don’t have many enemies, but I look upon the ones I have with venomous wrath. If I were allowed to select their eternal torments, my first choice would be drowning in a lake of boiling excrement while insane hornets hatch from their ear canals. If that’s unavailable, my second choice would be sitting in a hospital room, staring at a sick person in the bed, feeling stupid and helpless.

People don’t go to hospital rooms for amusement. They are neither fun nor funny. I don’t know of any jokes that begin, “A nurse, a man with no kidneys, and a bag of plasma walk into a bar…” Patients don’t go to these rooms voluntarily—they’re carted in on vans like veal delivered to an Italian restaurant. Their family and friends are dragged along by affection, obligation, sympathy, and terror.

When you’re sitting in a hospital room, you know almost nothing about what’s happening around you. The nurse could be injecting a pain killer, or she could be sucking the blood out of your mother’s heart for a satanic ritual. You’d never know the difference. Your ignorance is matched only by your inability to accomplish anything more useful than shifting pillows and moving flowers closer to the window. It’s not exactly busy work, but you know it has nothing to do with whether the patient will be breathing when she leaves the room.

When a person lies in a hospital bed, the room tightens with the pressure of uncertainty. I imagine it feels like the inside of a shaken soda can. That pressure erodes you, and you start begging nurses and doctors for slivers of information that might say what direction things are headed, and how long this whole experience has to last. You unobtrusively consider death, even if the patient is only suffering from a hernia. Death has been in this room, and it marked its territory like a bear. It can snatch anyone it wants in here.

You focus on the patient, which is the one thing you think you understand. If she doesn’t want to talk about her pain, you talk about what a bitch Aunt Lilly is when she calls for a half-hour chat. If she does want to talk about her pain, you nod and tell her that things will be better soon. If she doesn’t want to talk, you hold her hand. Fussy patients are the best, since they give you a lot to do. You bring blankets, adjust the bed, help them cheat on their hospital diet, and comb their hair. It relieves you more than it relieves them. If the patient wants socks and ice chips, then maybe she wants life, too.

After a ponderous length of time, you find out how this will end. If the patient is going home, you first want to know when, because you’ve got to get out of here before you’re reduced to paste. You tell the patient how great she looks, and you talk about having dinner next week, and you pack up vases of flowers that she’ll throw away tomorrow. And everyone talks, with sterling reverence, about how glad they will be to get out of this hospital room. The tension bleeds off a bit, but not much, because pain still hangs in the air, and if it attacks again you couldn’t do anything about it. At last you exit this room with its fake air and crappy TV and wall paint that’s trying a little too hard to be cheerful.

If the patient will never ride a wheelchair out of this room alive, the pressure intensifies—sort of as if the hospital room was now on the ocean floor beside the Titanic’s engine room. You knew earlier that you couldn’t do anything useful, but at least you hoped that someone else could. Now you know they can’t. You realize that there are not many good things to say to someone about to die. Maybe there aren’t any. So you let the patient say what she wants to say, and you hope your answers aren’t stupid and don’t upset her—as if anything you could say would upset her more. As the patient slides away, the air gets as tight as harp strings. Each time she closes her eyes, you feel a nick of panic that you’ve forgotten something important and now time’s run out. When she’s finally unconscious, nothing else can be said. Maybe you try anyway and tell her things you think you’d like to hear. Maybe you stare at her, trapped like a bird in the ugly hospital sheets that have carried dozens into death before her. Maybe you lean back in a plastic chair and pretend you won’t be relieved when it’s all over and you can get out of here. Maybe you sing to her, and she cries in her sleep. That has nothing to do with your singing, but no one around is a big enough jerk to tell you that.

When the patient leaves the room, it collapses on itself. Occupied, it had character. All of its character was lousy, but it had some. Now it droops like an empty balloon, as purposeless and generic as you could imagine. The patient carried every splinter of life away with her when she left. Then you leave too, perhaps with a happy rush, or perhaps wandering out like the victim of a train crash. But in any case, you leave with relief.

That relief is what helps you go through this and not smash clocks and chew on tires. And that relief is what I wish to deny my enemies. Or at least I thought I did. After a little reflection, maybe I’ll just poke my enemies in the eye and put a rat in their beer.