The World According to Garp by John Irving

What to Read When…you’re doing some hard hospital time.

We all know that there are different kinds of “hospital time.”  Time spent waiting in the emergency room with a colicky child, or waiting for a new member of the family to emerge, sipping bad coffee as a grandparent is rolled into a machine, or pacing the halls while a spouse has poison dripped into their veins.  And then there is “bedside” hospital time.  Equipment beeping.  Lights flashing.  Numbers that roll up and down and are suddenly the epicenter of your entire universe—a rollercoaster of hope and panic on a ride through a solar system you never wanted to visit.  Ass on a metal chair.  Back breaking from bending against the mattress.  Sleep that teases at 3am from the corners of the room.  Your whole being supported by the faint rise and fall of a blanket.

I was reading The World According to Garp, by John Irving while I sat vigil at my father’s bedside in the hospital.  Where I got this book, I don’t remember.  I still have it, tucked on a bookshelf in my office, a thick short shape, unlike any of my others.  It’s a bit battered, but I don’t remember if I battered it, or if it was so when I was reading it.

When I got to the airport, flying from the warm February skies of Phoenix, Arizona to the frozen tundra that is New Jersey in winter, I had picked up a Cosmopolitan magazine as I always did when I flew.  Back then, I was still a bit nervous on planes, so I liked to distract myself with foolish quizzes and makeup tips I would never bother trying.  This time, however, I flipped through the gaudily-colored pages, the blasting headlines, the rows upon rows of blinding white teeth and found myself having something of an out-of-body experience.  The faces on the pages seemed monstrous in some way I could not identify, and when I looked up from the magazine, I was horrified to see the same on the faces of the people on the plane.  Laughing with each other, blissfully sleeping, shoving all sorts of snacks and drinks into their mouths.  Monsters all.

I’m sorry to tell you that I don’t remember much about what Garp is about, which makes this a terrible book blog, I know.  But I do remember that every time I went back to the story during those eleven days at the hospital, it was like taking a deep breath of fresh air.  I hadn’t known I was holding my breath until I started to read.  The world inside those pages was safe, contained.  People were struggling, hurting, dying, even, and I felt all their pain as a way of feeling my own.  But where my own pain threatened to drown me, this story offered protection, a life vest.

I finished the book on the way home from the funeral and then didn’t read at all for nearly a year afterward.  Somewhere between stepping off the plane and arriving home to my apartment filled with bookshelves, I lost the ability to lose myself in a story.  The words on the page stayed words.  Letters.  Black marks against a white background.  I grieved this loss as well.  But what they say about time and grief is, mostly, true.  The stories eventually came back.  Not the same ones, though, my taste in books would be forever changed by those eleven days in February.  But yes, thankfully, the stories came back.

If you’ve put in hard hospital time, or divorce time, of being fired from your job time, or being evicted time…I don’t know if this book will bring you any comfort, or if it will help you breathe again.  But I hope you find one that does.

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