The Social Contract

February 9, 2011

On Tuesday night I went to go visit my grandma in the hospital.  She had gone through surgery to repair a broken wrist.  When I first heard that she was in the hospital I was upset.  Then I heard the story of how she broke her wrist and it made it all tolerable.

She and my grandpa were attending a SuperBowl party at their retirement home.  Typical stuff.  Buffalo Chicken dip, streamers, beer pong, etc.  When halftime rolled around and the Black Eyed Peas began performing, my grandma basically said, “I can barely stand-up at my age, but I need to get away from this awful noise.”  She got up in a hurry to run from the echoes of “Imma be…Imma be…Imma be…”  Unfortunately in her rush, her foot caught on a rug and she had a massive yard sale on the floor.  Calls to’s attorney have not been returned.

My Grandma is a very tough woman.  She is also a very sharp woman.  She always has been.  In fact, she was one of the first women to graduate from Pitt University with a Master’s Degree.  But she, like many other octogenarians, has become a rampant self-medicator.

Old people have access to the best prescription drugs and Grandma always took full advantage of that perk.  She would offer up these powerful pills to help her family as if she was our own personal pharmacist. If a family member at the dinner table said they had a headache, Grandma’s response was to rummage through her purse and say, “I think I’ve got a Percocet in here somewhere.”  It was like a drug dealer who was 85 and loved you unconditionally.

Coming out of surgery, we knew that the doctors were going to have to break out the Horse Tranquilizers to manage her pain.  They said she could take up to 4 Vicodin per 24 hours.  I think the nurse gave her a pill on an empty stomach earlier in the day.  My grandpa came in to see her at one point.  Apparently there were a bunch of names written in pencil on her hospital room wall.  She couldn’t tell if they were patient’s names or doctor’s names.  She asked my Grandpa to read the names to her.  His response was, “What names?”  She looked back and they had disappeared.  I’ve never had a Vicodin hallucination, but they sound pretty entertaining.  Maybe it was a list of all the people who had wronged her over the years.

She went in on Sunday night to have surgery.  I heard about the incident Monday and vowed to go in and see her.  I hate hospitals as much as anyone, but I knew my Grandma would make the trip to see me if I was in her place.  I was fulfilling my social contract as a grandson.  I always fulfill my social contracts.

A social contract is basically a guideline on how to act normal even in abnormal situations.  The guideline is built by human interaction and it assembles and amalgamates different social rules into specific ways to act in certain situations.  If someone who you hate dies, you still need to act sad.  When someone passes gas in your cubicle, you need to act like you don’t smell anything.  When your grandma is in the hospital, you have to act like you’re not bothered by the cold shadow of death stalking you at every turn.

When I entered the room Tuesday night, she was propped up in her bed with some weird foam apparatus that looked like Swiss cheese elevating her arm.  It was a two bed room but she was alone, which was nice.  My mom and sister were there already and we got to talking.  It was normal chitchat for the most part.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door.  A male nurse came in and announced, “We’ve got a roommate here!”

“Oh!” we all shuffled around and crowded more into the corner of my grandma’s side, trying to keep up the conversation while the nursing staff attended to this patient.

“Does anyone know how I would go about packing a suit for a trip?” I asked as there was a flurry of nurses and machines entering the room.  “Do I need a garment bag?”  We were fulfilling our social contract.  Nothing wrong here.  Everything is normal.  Just like if we were at home in the living room.  There is definitely not another seriously injured person being eased into a bed three feet away fro us.

“OK lay down,” the nurse said.

“It hurts!” cried the new roommate.

My mom winced, “I don’t think you need a garment bag.” Continue…everything is normal.  “You can just pack it in a suitcase.”

“Why are you in the hospital Ms. Grey?” the on-call doctor asked the new roommate.

“I just had a hard cap put in my groin.”

“Can I see it please?”

I looked over at my sister and she was averting her eyes at all costs.  The doctor at least had the decency to pull the fabric screen so she could examine the hard groin cap (whatever that is) in privacy.  “You can’t use a duffle bag.  It will get wrinkled.”

“Ms. Grey, do you smoke?” from behind the screen.

“Yes.  I smoke a pack a day.”

“Do you have any blood pressure issues?”

“Yes my blood pressure is high.  I have some hypertension.”

“Do you have diabetes?”


“And you live by yourself?


“Any family members nearby?”


“Ok.  Well you’ll probably be in the hospital for a few more days.”

“Can I turn the TV on?”

“Not yet,” replied the doctor as she and the nurses left the room.

“Can I have some food?”

“No,” the doctor was already halfway down the hall.

“Oooh” the patient let out a groan of pain and discomfort.

“Ok,” my mom took the lead.  “I think we’re going to skeddadle.”  Social contract fulfilled.  45 minute visit with Grandma complete.  Time to exit.

We said goodbye to Grandma and gathered our coats to leave.  Although this whole time a new social contract had formed.  There was a new roommate in the mix, someone we’d never met before.  We walked past this person’s bed as we left the room.  I looked at her and felt compelled to say something.  How would I act if this situation were normal?

“Hello,” I nodded towards the bed-ridden, diabetic woman with high blood pressure, a “groin cap” and no family members to comfort her.  “How are you today?”

She just stared at me, bewildered by the asinine question.  No words.  My sister ran out of the room trying to suppress her laughter.

Social contract fulfilled.

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