I sit up in bed and brush potato chip crumbs off the green printed snowflakes on my white hospital gown. I swivel to the side of the bed use my toes to feel around the floor for my white plastic slippers. I slide my feet into the slippers, gingerly rise to my feet. An IV machine attached to a pole with a wheeled base beeps and drips clear liquid into my veins. The battery light on the machine lights up green when I unplug it. I wrap the cord around the pole and then wrap my blue robe around my shoulders. I wheel the IV machine out of my room. The wheels squeak as I shuffle down the quiet hallway to the patient lounge on the 14th floor of Mount Sinai Hospital. It’s a little after 7 p.m., and most of the patients on the floor finished their dinners an hour ago and are getting ready for bed.
In the empty, dimly lit lounge, I turn on the TV and tune it to channel 6, CBC. Players from the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators skate in circles, warming up before game 3 of their second round Stanley Cup Playoff series in Ottawa. Senators fans dressed in red and black cheer and wave white towels. I push my pole to the side of a black leather couch, slowly bend down and plug the IV machine into a nearby outlet. I ease myself onto the soft, cold leather with a soft moan. I lean to my left to relieve some of the pressure on my right buttock, which has a tube running into it, to drain an abscess in my abdomen.
My hair is greasy and speckled with dandruff. Two day-old scruff darkens my cheeks, chin, and neck. “Washing up” in hospital is no substitute for an actual shower. Beneath my robe and gown, ribs push against my skin. An incision scar runs from above my belly button to below my waistline, ending at a beige bandage that covers a penny-sized wound. To the right of my belly button, a clear plastic bag sticks to my skin, envelops my new ileostomy, and collects the waste it spews out. My dysfunctional colon is encased in a jar somewhere in the hospital.
The players on the ice make their way to the benches the crowds cheering softens as the arena’s anthem singer prepares to belt out The Star-Spangled Banner. I use the armrest to my left for support and wobble to my feet, then mouth the words to the American national anthem. The crowd begins applauding again as the singer makes his way towards, “and the home of the brave.”
The cheering continues as the anthem singer gets into O Canada. I grip the IV pole with my left hand and cover my heart with my right. In a soft voice, I sing along to O Canada. I cry through the anthem, but I get all the words right. Even the French words in the middle of the dual-language version they sing in Ottawa. After the last, “we stand on guard for thee,” I ease myself back down onto the leather couch and wipe my eyes with the dangling arms of my robe.
~ ~ ~
I’m home now, after a 27-day hospital stay. My time in hospital cost me $15, the one-time fee for hooking up the telephone in my room. My colon was removed, I had a pelvic pouch constructed, and a temporary ileostomy was created during a four and a half hour surgery. Tests were done. Complications were treated. Medications were given. Nurses checked on me around the clock. Meals were provided. All the work that needed to be done on my wretched body cost me $15. I have no private insurance, and my bill after a major operation and nearly four weeks in hospital was $15.
I love my country. When people ask me where I’m from, I say Canada. If they persist and ask where I’m really from, I’ll tell them the same. I don’t hyphenate my identity as Indian-Canadian, even though both my parents immigrated to Canada from India. Our ethnic lineage goes back further to ancient Persia, but I’ve never called myself or viewed myself a Persian-Canadian. I’m Canadian, end of story.
I love my country. It’s been there for me when I’ve needed it the most. When I needed to learn, it offered me a seat in excellent schools. When I needed to earn a living, it offered me the chance to work. When I’ve been sick, it offered me care, and for the most part it didn’t cost me a penny.
I love my country, and I cry during O Canada because I’ve let my country down. For all that Canada has offered me, I haven’t contributed to the nation to earn my keep. Yes I pay taxes and yes I’m a law-abiding citizen, but I have taken far more from this country than I have offered in return.
I’m a burden. You can frame my illness any way you want. You can tell me it’s not my fault I developed ulcerative colitis. You can tell me it’s not my fault the medication and diets didn’t work. You can tell me it’s not my fault I needed surgery to slice out my colon. But at the end of the day, my illness, no matter if there’s someone or no one at fault for it, makes me a burden. I need the nation (more specifically, the province, but national funding comes into play too) to pay for my weakness. Money drains from government coffers to pay for my doctors visits, my blood tests, my CT scans, my colectomy, my hospital stay, my home care nurse, and for a while anyway, my ostomy supplies. Money that could have been spent on infrastructure or education or a million other uses that would have benefited more of the population has gone to funding my care. I’m a burden.
It’s not that I’m useless. I know that I have skills and abilities, that I can work when I’m fit, and that I can be a value to the nation, however small that value may be. But that doesn’t take away the reality that I’m one more bit of weight resting on the back of the nation. At least for now. One of the hopes I had going into surgery was that the pelvic pouch procedure would “cure” me of ulcerative colitis, and I could live and work without the constant upheavals caused by the disease. Then I could contribute to the nation in some way. I don’t know how yet, exactly, but something more than sitting on the toilet shitting blood all day. That life of productivity seems a long, long way away as I sit at home, jobless, and still struggling with a wound that brings pain to just about any motion, and an abscess that recently sparked a fever, which required yet another trip to hospital, and yes, more government funds.
Someday, Canada, I hope I can pay you back. Pay you back for all the benefits you’ve bestowed upon me, even though I haven’t earned them. All I want to do is earn them. Earn my keep.
I love you, Canada, and I’m sorry I’ve caused you so much trouble.
Image courtesy of Shayne Gray Photography