I was telling a friend about the Southern tradition of Sunday hospital visits, back when hospitalizations were week-long affairs for the arrival of babies, or surgeries or tests and observations. And I say it was a Southern tradition, but maybe it was more universal than that and I have attached too much regional significance to be strictly accurate.
My parents held great debates on whether to make such visits, weighing their sense of obligation against their longing for Sunday naps. But we were in the habit of going to church each Sunday and then to one of the grandmothers for lunch, and they thought, well, since they were still dressed up probably they should go.
But if they were going, they shouldn’t piddle around, because my mother’s feet hurt and she wanted out of those shoes.
I remember these discussions clearly because our Sunday afternoon fate hung in the balance. We would get a little more time at our grandmother’s while they made their calls, and that was fine by us. We might have held secret discussions of our own, wondering if we might squeeze in a whole afternoon without parents bugging us about “school tomorrow,” those dreadful, dreadful words.
My grandmother, on the other hand, loved such visits and sometimes it was she who had to make her hospital rounds as she rushed Sunday dinner and shooed us out the door. In those days, if she was lucky and the prayer list long, she might get to hit both hospitals in town.
She loved gory and disgusting procedures and would pump the poor bedridden patient for the details she would later spill for all and sundry at canasta on Monday.
I imagine the Sunday hospital patient was eager to tell her all about it, just for a little attention, since it was not uncommon for the room to be full of well-wishers talking to each other and not the poor patient in the hospital bed.
I was indoctrinated in the practice early, when my grandmother sometimes dragged me along. I hated it. I almost never knew the person, but that didn’t keep my grandmother from pushing me toward the bed to say hello. As more people arrived I circled back to a corner and watched as whole parties and gabfests erupted, the poor patient clearly wanting only ice chips and to be left alone.
Or worse, the visitors would gather around the foot of the bed with an expectant air as if the one in the bed was the afternoon’s entertainment. What was the thinking back there in the Sixties, the Seventies? But maybe, in a way, going to see someone in the hospital was a kind of entertainment, really, what with blue laws and bad afternoon TV.
The best hospital visitors I ever saw were my sister-in-law’s parents. My father, nearing the end of his life, was again in the hospital and they arrived early on a Sunday afternoon, not to visit, but to check on him.
First they poked their head in the door to see how things were, then, holding hands, they took a few steps inside the room, refused to sit down, said they just wanted to say hello and see for themselves how he was doing. They asked if we needed anything, gave their good wishes, and took their leave.
It was such a classy move, warm and considerate, that I haven’t forgotten it. In fact, in moments of boredom I have dissected it, deconstructing every move. For example, the hand-holding. While they were an affectionate couple, I believe it also served the purpose of keeping each other in check, to help remember and reinforce the mission, so that if one of them got too chatty, the other could lead them gently toward the door.
They smiled, asked concerned questions, maybe three or four, expressed their love and concern, then floated out on a cloud of goodwill. And they generated such goodwill, we almost wished to call them back.
Now, of course, even major surgeries and procedures might not require more than a couple of days’ stay. And Covid limits and sometimes prohibits visitors altogether. Weekend stays are rarer now, unless they can’t be helped. We designate visitors as we continue Covid precautions, and in most hospitals it is one visitor per customer.
For the duration.
And as long as it the visitor of your choosing, you might find that one is quite enough.