I gripped Eric Bensen’s room number in my fist and scanned the digits that stretched down the shiny Fish Memorial Hospital hall.
Eric, one of last year’s crushes, landed in the hospital after a lawn mower accident. He was probably bummed and worried about running hurdles on the track team his senior year.
Visiting the hospital—where Mom nursed 11-7 every night in the intensive care unit—didn’t bother me. My few hospital trips—getting my stomach pumped after ingesting a bottle of baby aspirin as a toddler, and a couple of ankle surgeries in high school—felt like take-your-daughter-to-work days.
Beeps punctured the antiseptic air around me, adding texture to planes of the place, pulsing healing in my mind rather than pain.
Laughter and voices filtered into the hall before I matched the room number to the scrap in my hand. I peered through the doorway, scanning fifteen familiar faces huddled around Eric’s bed.
I doubt he noticed me sidling to the far corner.
The curtain between Eric and his roommate billowed when someone brushed against it.
Gray day washed through the window, chalking the tan from the stranger’s skin, the gold from his hair—leaving his body as bleak as the expression on his face.
No one spoke to him, bothered to glance in his direction. They all buzzed around the Florescent light illuminating Eric’s half of the room.
When the guy looked at me, I said, “What happened to you?”
“Tore up my leg. Motorcycle accident.” The words came out staccato, like it hurt to speak.
I waved a hand at the curtain between his bed and Eric’s. “I’m sure the volume doesn’t help.” If it were me I’d envy Eric’s popularity.
He shrugged, like Eric’s party was the least of his worries.
“I’m Ann…” I waited for him to tell me his name.
He shifted and grimaced. Just when I’d given up, was trying to think of a way to slink out of the room and quit bugging the guy, he said, “Billy. Billy Daniels.”
I perched on the edge of the chair beside his bed, casting around for something to say, anything to keep the conversation going. “So, what’s messed up?”
His gaze measured me, like he was deciding whether he wanted to put up with my inane questions. “What’s not?”
I looked at his leg suspended above the bed. “Broken?”
He sighed, his expression empty. “Busted both bones.”
“How long will you be in here?”
He stared out the window where rain now pelted the glass. “A long time. Couple months.”
The sentence weighed a thousand pounds.
I decided then, I’d come back—whether Billy talked or not.
I visited Billy the next Thursday and the one after that. He’d turned 17 a couple days after the accident. I’d be 17 for another few months. Dr. Tessler took the pin out of my ankle over the summer and he patched up Billy with a handful of hardware. And that was all we had in common. But Billy brightened when I bopped into the room. He talked about his beloved Honda 350 that fared worse than he did in the wreck. I talked about competitive swimming. Other than Jim Russell, who knew every kid at New Smyrna Beach High, Billy was the only motorcycle guy I spoke to. And I was the only book nerd Billy knew. Our words unwound the mysteries of our different worlds.
A month later I stood in the doorway of Billy’s now familiar room.
A dark-haired waif of a girl slouched in a chair in the corner.
Billy smiled when he saw me, less pinched than last week.
The girl—the only other visitor I’d seen on my trips to the hospital—shot me the look of death. Well, maybe I imagined it. Regardless, she got up and walked out of the room.
Billy called her his ex. Maybe she wanted to re-up. She didn’t need to worry about me. I changed crushes like flavors of the week and Billy hadn’t worked his way through the rabble in my head. Besides, he’d wrecked on his way home from Ann Fisher’s—the only Ann he had on his mind.
The warmth between us was one human to another. He got somebody to talk to for half an hour. I got the satisfaction of knowing I made his day go a little better. Maybe he thought I was a do-gooder, but it just seemed right to visit Billy. I always felt better after a trip to the hospital, like he’d given me a gift. I’d only had to walk over to the hospital to pick it up.
Back at school, Billy hobbled around on crutches, having curried almost as much clout from his motorcycle accident as Clay Scarborough copped from a shark-bit foot. We smiled, said hi, and folded into our separate swarms.
In the tangle of history, my childhood friend, Kate Canfield, many years later walked the beach with Billy in the fresh horror of losing Kathie, his other half.
And Billy, I am certain, shouldered a long litany of suffering for the people in his life.
I learned from Billy that sometimes giving doesn’t cost a thing. That’s how I felt when my friend flew in a few weeks ago, her marriage and faith fracturing like fine bone china crashed against the crags of life. We jaunted off to Jerome, a Seuss-ical town on the top of a skinny hill, for our own version of Green Eggs and Ham, wine, and words. She headed home with hope and a few Thinks [She] Could Think.
This week I sat helplessly beside my almost-daughter April as she writhed in pain for five hours after her most recent operation. How could I not feel her pain in my body? I saw another friend last night who is heading to jail for four years. The stark fear in his face, the years he must surrender, sliced into me. But even when giving costs, I’m rewarded by knowing I helped. I wanted to be there for my friends.
I remember that want-to when the wheels wobble off my life. I call Jayne Grumbling in Indianapolis who’s been there for me through 36 years of heartaches of all sizes, along with the joys. She once carried me through so many months of depression, she collapsed when I crested into daylight. But she’d do it again—because she loves me and knows she helped.
I’m glad Billy and I exercised our humanity those short weeks we both were seventeen. He nudged me to make my life count in quiet ways that really matter, to let others count in mine.
Billy Daniels—lifelong New Smyrna Beach resident—restores boats, a career he loves. In his spare time he sails the Martima (spotlighted above). He watched the sailboat being built in NSB in 1979 and her first dip into the water. In 1989 he bought the Martima. Billy says he’ll probably keep her forever–she’s a part of him. Once in a while he rides his old ’77 Suzuki GS 750.