Just Passing Through

By Madge Kaplan

PROMPT — If only ...

The day couldn’t get much stranger. That’s why hiding out on the 8th floor of the hospital is almost reassuring. Tucked away in this surprisingly quiet spot, I can’t hear the traffic on Lexington and 77th. I can’t hear much of anything. Eerie for a busy hospital, but there are always a few of these hidden pockets. Leaning against the corridor’s smooth wall, I consider closing my eyes while I wait for the unit to open, but first notice a woman standing around not far from me. She’s got a few bags worth of stuff — most likely food. She’s open to some connection with me, but in a tired, weak smile sort of way. That’s what I offer in return. After all, I’m just passing through. I live in another city — the one they’re talking about on the news, on the big screen in the lobby. In this city, bombs went off today during a marathon. Three known casualties so far. Many injured. I’m headed back that way tonight.


This is all in my head.


So is: Yeah, I know we’re both waiting outside a hospital’s locked psychiatric unit. But I won’t be doing this more than once or twice. You see my sister has never needed this kind of hospitalization before — my middle sister, not the oldest one who’s been hospitalized many times. No, my middle sister is two years older than me and she’s going to get better. She’s just had a rotten year. She’ll recover because, well, I can’t imagine anything else. We’ve always been there for each other. This is just a setback. And, if I meet your gaze too head on, lady, I might start to worry that I’m wrong. And I can’t afford to be wrong — I’m working hard on remaining hopeful despite how scary things have been. Serious depression can do that — my sister weighs barely 90 pounds. I’m also counting on my knowledge of how things should work in healthcare. Hey, I know the CEO of this entire health system and could contact him if I had to. So, you see, I don’t know if it’s even worth exchanging pleasantries. I know why we’re both here — to see someone inside this unit with significant psychiatric needs — but I’m not planning on making this a regular occurrence.


The woman in the hallway finally speaks.


“I hope they open up a little early. It already feels like a long day. “


“Tell me about it” but I’m not sure I’ve actually said this out loud.


“I’ve got a son in there. Trying to bring him the foods he likes.”


I’ve got some carefully chosen pastries in the bag I’m bringing in, too. I’m also trying to encourage eating over despair. What’s the big deal? At least tell her that.


Our heads turn toward loud voices and laughter near the elevators.


“A bit noisy for a hospital, don’t you think?” she says.


I finally say something audible. “Well, you never know what’s going on. Hospitals are tough. Maybe they just got some bad news—or some good news. Either way, they might just need a good laugh.”


She rolls her eyes: “Maybe.”


The door to the locked unit swings open. The staff person on duty says, “You two are kind of early, but come on in. Let’s get visiting hours started; sign in and remember, no plastic bags, no sharp objects. We’ll let your family members know you’re here.”


The other woman signs in first. When I do, I make sure not to look at her name. For the next two hours, I forget about her and her son completely.


I don’t see her leave and don’t think of her again…until now.

Throughout careers in teaching, broadcast journalism and communications, Madge Kaplan has written memoir vignettes, essays, poems, and short plays. Many of her pieces have hit the airwaves, appeared in online publications, and been performed. Writing prompts often surface memories and the first brush with topics worth developing further. One of those topics is mental health, about which Madge says she's not alone in wanting to bring greater visibility, humanity, understanding, and solidarity.