We are the volunteers. We volunteer, every second and fourth Sunday, at the Schmetterling-Kiteley Neurology Wing of City Hospital. It is our job, every second and fourth Sunday, to take the people in comas to Fritz Bemelmans Park. We push the people in comas in wheelchairs and on gurneys into the elevator that goes from the glorious glass-roofed vestibule of the Schmetterling-Kitely Neurology Wing, on the sixteenth floor of City Hospital, down to the mezzanine level and to the corridor that leads to the tiny cement-walled courtyard where the loved ones of the people in comas go to smoke and wait with faces full of a clouded hope that is indistinguishable from boredom. We, with our official volunteer badges and starched tunics, push the people in comas in wheelchairs and on gurneys past the parking obelisk and the retention pond, past the shuttle station and over the pedestrian bridge to the south entrance of Fritz Bemelmans Park. There is a Fritz Bemelmans-shaped space now filled with children who come up to us wanting to touch the hair and the faces of the people in comas. They all want to know the weather report. We say to each other “release the dogs” but of course there are no dogs, and the children push past us to the stone fountain half-filled with last week’s rainwater in which other, unparented children are splashing. We speak to the people in comas in low voices, trying to make our voices sound like warm soft rain. This is what it said in the job description, posted on the bulletin board in the community center: Hospital volunteers needed: must have voices like warm soft rain. This is our job: we do our best. We sit on wooden slat benches and brush away the tiny brown birds that cluster around the faces of the people in comas. Animals of all sorts are drawn to the people in comas, but mostly these tiny birds, some of which are no larger than your thumb.
On the day the city hauled off the statues everyone came to stand outside their houses and workplaces to watch the cranes and cherry pickers and big trucks head seaward.
The Loved Ones
The loved ones of the people in comas come on visiting days carrying tote bags containing soft balls of worsted yarn and pieces of dark, bruised fruit. We, the volunteers, and they, the loved ones, are often forced to stand uncomfortably close together in the elevator that ascends from the shag-carpeted reception area on the mezzanine level to the sixteenth floor of City Hospital, to the glorious glass-roofed vestibule, the long pale corridor and finally the hushed orangeness of the Schmetterling-Kiteley Neurology wing. We open our brown paper lunch sacks, and are not surprised to find them empty. Someone has been stealing our lunches, our dry tuna sandwiches and ham rolls. This has been going on for a while now. The doctors, when we approach them to tell them about these incidents, startle like antelopes gathered at a riverbed, and move quickly away.
We carry small red spiral notebooks given to us by the nurses, which contain graphs into which we are to insert marks denoting the involuntary movements, gestures, tics and twitches, and breathing patterns of the people in comas. When we return the notebooks to the nurses after our shifts end they peer into them and nod gravely, then deliver them in stacks to the doctors, who run from room to room, lit by the terrible glow of afternoon soap operas. In the cafeteria, they all sit together looking at their watches and eating pink and yellow fruit out of plastic containers. No doctor has ever said a word about Fritz Bemelmans.
We imagine that being in a coma feels like going swimming in a suit of armor. Soft armor, made, perhaps, of corduroy. Nights, at home in bed with our boyfriends and girlfriends and spouses and significant others, we sometimes have dreams about Olympic-sized pools into which fingers and toes are suddenly, icily, plunged. We slide in up to our waists; the water is freezing. Our legs become quite numb; our legs disappear; we have no legs; our legs have come loose —this does not hurt— and float, bobbing on the surface like canoes, to the far end of the pool.
The eyelids of the people in comas register subtle shifts in the barometric pressure. If it is to rain their faces sag like paper. Sometimes someone makes something that looks like a smile. There is a low-pressure front moving in from the north.