I’ve been spending a lot of time in hospitals lately. And the thing about hospitals is that they make you think a lot about cycles of life and death. For one thing, you can’t avoid it. Death, that is. In normal life you can meet the thought of your own mortality with a healthy dose of denial. And even when you go into the hospital, you can cling to that denial. Death is what’s happening to the other people. You, on the other hand, well, you’re just there to have something taken care of.
You can hold on to that delusion until night.
Because at night, in the hospital, everything changes.
The halls that were blindingly bright during the day are dark and quiet. A faint glow comes from the nurses’ station, but the chatting and clanging of daytime motion and action is suppressed. The stillness is only punctuated by the contrast between that daytime clatter—you’d gotten used to it without realizing—and the quiet dark of night. In daytime, nurses rush up and down halls. They laugh and sometimes gossip. There are people who bring trays of food, there are visitors, doctors, and phones that ring nonstop.
And then there are the lullaby bells on the daytime loudspeaker.
Every time a baby is born, they play lullaby bells. The bells chime every hour. Often more than once. All during the day, you feel a sense of life bustling all around you. Life bustling down the hallway, life bursting into the world.
But at night it’s quiet.
The lullaby bells don’t ring—either they turn them off for the night, or not that many babies are born during the night, I can’t say for sure. Just that birth-bells don’t ring anymore.
Instead, death-bells call.
Code blue: breath has stilled, heart has stopped. It rings seven, eight, nine times a night. It rings so consistently in the quiet dark, you hear it as a clock chime. And it’s when the codes ring you can’t hold onto your denial anymore. Because there aren’t that many beds in a hospital, and you can’t hide from the bells when you’re lying in one of those beds. Every time you hear a code called while you sleep, part of you drowsily wonders if this one is for you. So, half-awake, you listen. For them to name the floor number and the room number, to call for staff in that area to rush over to whichever soul is hovering in that limbic space between life and death.
Never ask for whom the bells toll, right?
In Scotland they have a word for the limbic space between life and death—it’s the same word they use to describe that time when it’s not quite day… but it’s not quite night. It’s a word that describes the nether space that hovers in between any two things, neither one nor the other. They call it the gloaming.
A hospital is a gloaming. Inside it the veil hovers open, ushering in life by day, watching it go by night.
Codes must ring during the day too, but for some reason you don’t hear them then. Maybe some part of your mind knows that life and death are different sides of the same thing, so you unconsciously banish one into the dark place. The quiet place.
Sometimes in the night hospital, after you’re awake enough to realize, no, that was not your code, and, no, you are not sick enough that anyone expects it to be your code, you lie still for awhile. You’ve already checked your pulse ox monitor and your blood pressure cuff. You’ve already listened until you could hear the thumping of your living heart, already taken in a few calming breaths. There’s nothing left to do but lie quietly.
As you lie there, you see that there’s a green light in the hallway coming from somewhere out of sight. It bounces off the shiny floors—polished concrete. You hear a machine beep in the next room. You hear someone grunt out a soft moan as they turn over in bed. And after awhile you fall back into a restless sleep until pain wakes you up and you push the button for the nurse to come.
Soon enough morning comes and you can have your denial back once again. You can lose yourself in the lively chatter of nurses and visitors, phones, lunch trays, and the motion of daylight.
But you never lose that sense of gloaming until you’re back outside, back home. Away from the place of in-between.
And even then, it lingers.
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Kerry Spencer teaches writing at Brigham Young University. She learned about the word “gloaming” eight years ago in Scotland when she was teaching a study abroad course that included 200 miles of hiking over seven mountains. She accomplished this endeavor while undergoing a round of (pharmaceutically-intensive) in-vitro fertilization. She recently published an essay in Irreantum chronicling the many drug-induced hallucinations that ensued. She lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and two small children.
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