A few minutes after 6 o’clock on February 27, the sky was dark and a light sleet was falling. The bone-deep dampness disappeared as I stepped through the automatic doors into the lobby of the hospital. After speaking with the receptionist, I stuck a thin white sticker labeled with my full legal name and a room number onto my coat. My lips moved beneath my blue paper mask, chanting directions. Repeating them into remembrance. Down the hall, turn right, get in the elevator. Press the button for Floor 4, turn left, go down the hall and turn left again. The room is on your right.

Elevator doors slid open. Fluorescent lighting buzzed. Nurses walked purposefully in and out of rooms. Ambient beeping filtered through murmuring conversations. I inhaled. The air on this floor seemed to have lazily settled like an icky phlegm-filled fluid. It was still and thick and I detested the way it smelled.

In front of me, Room 64. The second bed had my grandpa in it. He reclined in it, eyes closed. He is more than six feet tall. I had never seen him so small.

“Hey, Grandpa,” I whispered, as if any noise might puncture something.

“Hey!” He fumbled for the remote that would raise his bed into a position closer to sitting. “I didn’t know you were going to be here today!”

I shrugged. “I wanted to surprise you!”

“I’m so glad to see you!” He labored over his smile. Raising it up, knocking loose oxygen tubes. Readjusting them and rebuilding the grin. A lifting mouth, dimpling cheeks. My grandpa always smiles face first and his eyes squint closed. Breath rasping, quickening with the effort of just moving his arms. I observed an expression that took work. A happiness that was crookedly human, contrasting with the sterile beeping of the oxygen machine. (Until the beeping became loud and erratic and a nurse entered, and my grandpa admitted, “Sorry, I took the oxygen monitor off my finger. I was busy talking.” Because obviously you cannot wear an oxygen monitor on your finger and talk at the same time.)

We talked, we laughed. He grew tired. Our visit drew to a close. I retraced my steps through the labyrinthine hallways. My phone buzzed, revealing a message from my aunt, who was in the lobby. Visitors were limited, so I’d need to pass my visitor badge off to her as I left.

We spoke by the sliding automatic doors, underneath a plaque with the name of the hospital. She pointed to the sign and said, “This is an important hospital. This is where my daughter was born. On my records, it says I was in labor for one hundred hours with her! One hundred hours! I need to save that and show it to her when she’s old enough to understand how much work that is.”

On the drive home, I thought about how much love went into labor. Or perhaps, the amount of labor in love. The Sisyphean task of keeping your own human body alive. To breathe in, and out, and in, and out, for what feels like forever but cannot be. And then, to love one another on top of all that.

Twelve days later, my grandfather was released from the hospital. He attended my cousin’s first birthday party–the little girl who had spent one hundred hours being born. I drove five hours after work that weekend. I tediously tied purple balloons just so and was directed on where the unicorn decorations must hang and then rearranged all of the rainbows. (Because obviously one-year-olds and their toddler friends are picky about how much work goes into their party decorations.)

We had cake. We opened presents. Tired eyes drooped on grandchildren and grandparents alike. Hugs, kisses, and expressions of thank yous dissipated into the evening springtime air.

Love is laboring to smile, laboring for a child, laboring over party decorations that don’t really matter. How laborious love can be. How worthwhile.

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