Where am I? Can’t see anything. Dark, but not completely. Eyes are closed. Why won’t they open? I try to reach for my face. Arms won’t move. Can’t feel them. Completely numb, paralyzed.
Something covering my mouth and nose, forcing air into my lungs, sucking it back out. That smell. Sterile, like plastic and rubber. How long have I been like this?
Hello? Is anyone there?
I scream in silence. Lips and tongue remain slack. Completely immobile, blind, helpless. Even as panic sets in, my heartrate remains fixed in a slow rhythm. Abdomen steadily rises and falls with each forced breath.
I hear air pushing and pulling. Electronic beeps and chirps. Mechanical humming. Fans, ventilation? What else? Focus. Muffled sounds, barely audible voices. The distinct click of a door opening.
Light brightens around me, shadows drift past. A door closes. Soft footsteps grow closer, then a brief silence. I feel eyes watching me.
“Can he hear me?”
Kate! I hear you! Help me!
“His brain scans show no response to sound, but there’s no way to know for sure.” A male voice speaks from direction of the door.
“I’d like a moment.” She’s close.
“Of course. Take all the time you need.” I hear the door gently open and close again.
“Hi Frank, it’s me,” she says in little more than a whisper. “How are you doing today? I got a call from a hotel this morning, confirming a reservation. You’ll be so mad they spoiled the surprise. I had no idea you planned our anniversary. ” She runs her hand through my hair. Her touch is soothing. Her voice is soothing.
“I didn’t cancel. It’s all still waiting for us. Palm trees, hammocks, sand. It’s all waiting for you to wake up.” Her lips gently kiss my forehead. A tear lands on my cheek and slowly rolls down to my ear.
I can picture her but I want to see her. I need to see her. I frantically strain to move my eyes. For a brief moment, my eyelids tighten then relax. It’s not enough.
“Colin’s home for winter break. He came back as soon as we heard about your second stroke. He was here earlier but they were running tests. He said he’ll be back tomorrow.”
Stroke. The word hangs in the air as she takes several slow, deliberate breaths. “He’s thinking of taking a semester off. He did his best through finals but, you know, it’s just been hard on him. He wants to be close.”
The bed shifts as Kate climbs in beside me. She rests her head on my chest. Her body presses against mine. I feel her leg cross over mine. I want to hold her. I want to wrap my arms around her, make her feel safe, protected.
For a long time we lay together in silence, our chests rise and fall in unison. She takes my hand, tenderly laces her fingers between mine. The tip of my index finger rests on her knuckle. I command it to move. I shout at my hand, move. Move! And then I feel movement. Just the faintest hint of a twitch, my finger taps her hand.
Kate freezes up, tightens against me. Did she notice?
“Frank.” She releases my hand, places her hand on my shoulder. “They’re asking about an advance directive. I can’t even think about that. We’ve worked so hard to get here. We’ve been through so much. This can’t be it. This can’t be it…” She begins sobbing into my chest.
Kate, stop. I’ll to be okay. Just take my hand, you’ll see. We’ll get through this. We’ll be back in the Caribbean getting drunk on the beach.
She gets up and places a kiss on my temple. “I’ll be back tomorrow. Please don’t leave me,” she breathes in my ear.
Kate, please don’t go. I am right here. To hell with their brain scans! I can hear you, every word.
My eyes flutter. My right eye opens slightly. Eyelashes stuck together. Through a haze I see her turn. I see her take steps toward the door. Exhausted, frustrated, my eye closes.
The door opens and closes. The room darkens. She’s gone.
I lay for what seems like hours, listening to the oscillating gasp and sigh of the breathing machine. I try not to think about what she’s going through. I debate cancelling the Caribbean trip. Maybe we’ll go skiing or white water rafting instead. The last place I want to be right now is a hammock.
I hear the door once more, followed by brisk footsteps and swift motions. Clicks and snaps. I feel a rush of cold within my arm.
“She’s a strong woman,” the doctor says. “She’s been here every day since your stroke. You’re a lucky man. Were a lucky man.”
“For months now as your condition worsened. She’s holding onto hope, but you haven’t responded to any of my treatments. It’s time to let go.”
You’re giving up on me? Run another test! I’m right here!
“I know you can hear me, Frank. Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of her when you’re gone.”