I come from a long line of hospital Bolters, on both sides of the family. I don’t know what this says about us as a clan, or about the DNA I’ve inherited and passed on to my kids, but it’s true.
My grandmother, hospitalized for heart disease complicated by diabetes, was the first recorded Bolter, pitching herself out a second story window at Lakeland General. She got up, got dressed, wrestled the window open, hiked one leg over the sill, and pushed off, landing in a nest of Indian Hawthorn, then called my mom from a mile down the road. “I need a ride,” she said, matter of factly. You’d think that after raising fifteen children, my grandmother might have welcomed hospitalization as a long overdue vacation, complete with meal service and fresh linens, but she didn’t. She had shit to do.
Her husband, my Grampa, was more content in the hospital after a serious stroke, probably because he quickly became the nurses’ pet. Whether this was due to his good looks and charm, or because he was angelic in comparison to the woman in the next room, who’d taken to pitching the Bible at anyone who dared to have a career in medicine in her presence, is anyone’s guess. But while Grampa’s friendliness was sincere, it was also a nice cover for what he was really up to, which was enthusiastically defying the Liquids Only order scrawled in red on his chart and door.
“Nurse, these are my grandkids,” he said. “I was just telling them about the wonderful care I’m receiving – especially from you. You make even the chicken broth taste good! But I am a bit cold. Is there any chance of another blanket?”
As the nurse, dazzled by his twinkling blue eyes and disarming grin, bustled out of the room to get a blanket from the warmer in the hall, he pressed a twenty into my seventeen year old brother’s hand. “Go, now,” he hissed. “Pastrami on rye, a dill pickle, fries, chocolate milkshake. The deli on Main Street. Tell Bobby behind the counter it’s for Al, and don’t get caught on the way back in.” I was assigned to be sentry at the door upon our return, a twelve year old standing lookout while my Grampa and brother evaluated the looks of the nursing staff and dripped mustard onto the sheets.
The children of these two Bolters became, as you’d expect, champion Bolters themselves. One of my uncles, a day after having a quadruple bypass, rose from his bed, untangled himself from the web of wires attached to his chest, unpeeled all the sensor pads, and took a stroll down to the hospital lobby, his scrawny white ass bared to the world. His later claim that he was only looking for a newspaper was quickly dismissed when the security camera showed that he walked past two racks of the local rag on his way to the parking lot. And he might have made it, had an orderly not turned up at his room to wheel him down for an X-Ray. Finding the bed empty, all hell broke loose. Codes were called, doors were locked, nurses ran. My uncle was found –- some busybody mentioned to a security guard that she’d seen a very frail-looking man outside pushing an IV pole and checking car doors — and returned against his will to the cardiac unit, where, he claims, he was punished for trying to get some doctor-recommended exercise with medieval restraints, heavy-handed sedatives, and an unnecessarily aggressive catheterization.
My mother, brother and I are horrible patients, too, summarily dismissing doctor’s orders as overly cautious and meant for other people. But as all of our hospitalizations have occurred under the modern Slice and Go policy of discharging surgical patients before they’ve fully regained consciousness, we’ve been free to disregard doctor’s orders in the privacy of our own homes, no bolting required.
Not so for my dad’s father, who, after a series of strokes that left his booming voice diminished and his outsized personality somewhat softened, was sent to stay in a nursing home. Surrounded by dementia patients who cradled plastic dolls, wet themselves, and spoke to ghosts, Pop retreated into himself. Always an avid reader, he hoarded books, watched old westerns on TV, and waited impatiently for the daily visits from his wife, daughter and son in law. Sometimes they visited together, but more often than not, my grandmother and aunt would visit mid-morning, and my uncle Jack would swing by after work in the late afternoon. A dutiful son in law and all-around swell person, my uncle brought Pop a treat a couple times a week: a dozen oysters, a good cigar, and one non-alcoholic beer.
Jack would walk behind Pop’s motorized scooter out to the veranda, where they’d sit in companionable silence while Pop smoked. When the cigar was a stump, or Pop had tired of watching people come and go, Jack would toss the oyster shells and beer can in the trash, escort Pop back inside, and leave. After three weeks of this routine, Pop, slurping the liquid from the last oyster, told my uncle he could go ahead home; no need to escort him inside. Figuring his father in law wanted to nap in the sunshine, Jack did just that – he packed up the trash, bid his father in law farewell, and headed for the parking lot. He was about halfway to his car when he heard a ruckus behind him.
“Start the car, Jack! Start the car!”
Pop, gunning his Rascal at top speed, was making a break for it. Careening down the ramp from the veranda, he was in hot pursuit of my uncle, waving his cigar in the air and bellowing to Jack to get in the goddamn car already and start it, sweet Jesus on a stick, let’s do this, boy!
After forty years of adventures with his father in law, Jack responded like a racehorse to a crop: he started to run. But just as he reached the car and fumbled for the lock like there was a gun to his head, Pop and his chariot – the Rascal 600 Deluxe — hit the curb. Confronted with this unexpected obstacle, the Rascal balked and, instead of clearing the curb as Pop anticipated, the motorized stallion came to a screeching halt. Pop went ass over teakettle, clearing the handlebars and landing, cigar still clutched triumphantly in his meaty paw, on the pavement.
Needless to say, and as was typical throughout his 85 year life, Pop got his way: after tending to his numerous injuries, all of which he categorized as “flesh wounds that don’t require so much goddamn babying,” the nursing home labeled him a security risk and banned him immediately. This delighted him no end.
I saw him a few days later. Ensconced in his Lazy Boy, John Wayne riding across the desert and my grandmother making a sandwich in the kitchen, life was good again.