by Thomas Elson
It was on December 28, three days after Christmas, and unbeknownst to David while he rushed through the hospital garage at 5:15 in the morning, his wife, Nicole, had called him at home. In the days before cell phones and voice mail, their recording machine took her message. When he returned home the next day, he would hear his wife’s voice, “Where are you?”
He heard other messages, each from a different person, but each the same, “David, no need to call back. Just wondering how Nicole is?” Repeated multiple times on that single tape. Only one asked, “How are you?”
Three days earlier, during the best part of his week in the best part of their house, David sat at the table next to the bay window – in an area so deep it created another room between the kitchen and family room.
Early in their marriage, he and Nicole had crammed the table and four chairs into their small Chevy. The tabletop, with its legs detached, fit in the trunk; they stuffed two of the chairs in the back seat. The other two chairs Nicole stacked on the passenger’s side of the front seat on David’s lap – the backs of the chairs dangled onto the floor.
Near midnight that Christmas Eve, they had driven over icy roads and squinted against the glare of the oncoming headlights, left their warm car and walked through the dark night toward the vestibule of the church, then waited outside as others blocked the front doors and stomped snow from their feet. David and Nicole kept their heavy coats on until their upper bodies overheated even though their feet remained frigid.
Inside the church, the multitude of candles complimented the hanging electric lights designed to echo the stalactite glow of beeswax candle chandeliers in medieval churches. Mid-way through the services, David heard the military sounds of tramping as parishioners rose from their pews, genuflected, stood erect, and formed near-perfect communion lines with a precision learned in the first grade from nuns well-trained to channel unfocused youth into disciplined adults.
David recalled how he had stood ramrod straight during the services that night – proud of how he felt in his bespoke 42-long diplomat striped suit, proud that people guessed his age twenty years younger that it was; proud of his wife – beautiful in her one-of-a-kind dress; proud that people would believe him if he said Nicole was twenty-two years younger– her enthusiasm and laughter supplied all the facts they needed; proud that he continued to feel the desire to hug her in public, proud that he had survived three cancer scares thanks to skillful surgeons, and relieved that Nicole had not fainted during this three-and-one-half hour service.
Before their Christmas lunch later that day, David completed his ritual. He touched and kissed the inscription, “Forever”, on his mother’s marble urn, which he referred to as a vase – because life grows from vases. He whispered a few words, then returned the urn to the walnut bookcase his mother had given him on his seventeenth birthday. Afterward, David stayed close to Nicole – alone with hours of uninterrupted time. Tomorrow the world would begin again.
Late on the morning of December 26th, while he and Nicole sat in Dr. Keegan’s waiting room, it struck David that these rooms were all the same – no matter where located, or how festively decorated. No one wanted to be there, but all were eager to hear the test results, and receive relief. His emotions hung under a compound cloud of fearful anger and fearful stoicism. He knew that they waited alone no matter how many others tried to comfort them. They talked with forced smiles, in turns silent; then, with a start, they would look for a nurse, or doctor, someone to enter, see them, and tell them something hopeful.
Behind the receptionist’s glass curtain, the medical staff’s movements ranged from languid to hyperactive and separated them from the patients. David hugged Nicole’s hips, then held her hand as they waited. She cupped his hand within hers, then squeezed. The same movement she did three years ago when David was diagnosed.
On a July afternoon, three years earlier, as David and Nicole arrived at the medical clinic’s parking lot, Nicole saw yet another someone on yet another corner with yet another hand-written cardboard sign. She reached into a dedicated compartment of her purse to rifle out yet another five-dollar bill.
David sat in the exam chair in the ophthalmologist’s office that July morning for a routine visit. He felt the smooth plastic forehead rest of the retinoscopy machine – the alcohol rub still cold against it. He placed his chin in the alcohol coldness of the lower bar, then felt a sting as the intense light hit the surface of his left eye.
David heard the ophthalmologist gasp, “Oh God.” David felt the machine move to his left as the doctor’s eyes met his, “You have a rare form of-” Then the doctor said the one word that freezes families; makes them unable to move, think or speak. “I’ll have to call someone. Wait here.” He rushed into the office next to the exam room. In his panic, the doctor had left both doors open.
Within moments, from the next room, David heard, “Doctor Hollis, I have a patient here with a form of eye cancer I’m unfamiliar with. I don’t know how I should proceed.” There was silence followed by a few inaudible murmurs, then David heard, “Should I take a biopsy?” Of my eye? A biopsy? Now? Remove a portion of my eye? Then what?
“You have an appointment tomorrow at 3:30 with Dr. Hollis,” the ophthalmologist said.
The doctor walked out to the waiting room with David, and said, “I hope I see you soon. Good luck.” David felt as if he were heading for the arctic region with only a light jacket and a ham sandwich.
On that late December 26th morning, three years after David’s eye operation his bouts with chemotherapy, he waited with Nicole in the exam room. Their family practitioner, Dr. Keegan, a man who usually displayed a distinct Celtic sense of humor, entered with his head down. He landed mechanically on a round exam chair, clutched the papers in his hand as if they were fifty-pound weights, cast his eyes down, stuttered, coughed, then read without looking up, “The lab results came in, and you were diagnosed with-” Again David and Nicole heard the one word that freezes families.
Dr. Keegan finished, inhaled, coughed, wiped his face, then outlined the specialists he had arranged for them to see. Nicole remained motionless. David, four feet away from her, was rigid. That would haunt him later. He looked at his wife and felt his eyes pool.
In the afternoon of that same day, Nicole lay on the doctor’s exam table. The young and meticulous surgeon, lab report in hand, looked directly at her, “Here’s where the mammogram showed the growth.” David saw a mass as dark as midnight on the screen. Then, the surgeon drew interrelated circles with a permanent marker on Nicole’s upper body. After he detailed the hospital admissions process for the next day, he said, “I’ll leave the two of you alone for awhile to discuss the options,” then he left the exam room.
Nicole rose from the exam table, balanced herself , then lifted her eyes filled with the familiar look of determination toward David. “If I’m going to lose something, I’m going to get something out of it”. She opted for reconstructive surgery, including liposuction, to be performed immediately after the surgeon removed the mass.
Two days later, and the hospital admissions office was as bleak and airless as the hospital parking garage – despite elaborately wrapped, albeit empty, gift boxes, peppermint sticks, and toy soldiers.
Huddled in clothes too flimsy for winter, a rail-thin woman, her gaze frozen on the linoleum, sat near David and Nicole. He watched as the woman nodded “no” when an admissions nurse asked, “Do you have insurance?” “Is there any family in the area?” “Do you have a mailing address?” “Do you think you can walk?” “Do you have someone to call?”
David and Nicole were lucky. Both employed, both with insurance to cover all costs and co-pays, the admission officer ushered them into her office. Nicole was admitted by 7:15 p.m. Within minutes, a medical assistant escorted them to her private room.
Seated on the bed inside her hospital room, Nicole reached for school papers to grade, but her hand shook so much the papers slipped away. Gone was her laughter. Gone was her sense of humor. She reached for David. This time he reached back. They sat there, her unpacked overnight suitcase still at the side table.
That night, as David drove home alone and on autopilot, he turned right instead of left from the parking garage, and found himself lost four miles north of the hospital and across the street from the football stadium. He stopped the car, leaned his head against the steering wheel, and shook.
Three turns plus a driveway later, at a time unremembered, he arrived at their home eight miles south of the hospital. His call to Nicole was answered at the shift nurse’s desk, “She’s resting now – asleep. We gave her something mild.”
On the morning of her surgery, after David’s rush through the parking garage, he sat next to Nicole in the cramped prep room, amid the curtains, tubes, needles, and watched the surgeon apply his purple ink initials to Nicole’s surgical site. Afterwards Nicole received an unanticipated, but much welcomed, injection of liquid valium, David heard his wife exhale seventy-two hours of tension.
When she was rolled away, she waved at David with the abandon of a happy child. He returned her wave, watched the attendants turn her surgical bed toward the surgery hallway, and waved once more. David, short of breath with the sensation of liquid motion in the corners of his eyes, steadied himself against the wall.
Without notice, he was thrown back into another room of another hospital twenty-eight years earlier. His mother lay as rigid as a corpse, her eyes alternating between bitterness and panic. An anesthesiologist entered, and within seconds, her liquid valium was working. When they wheeled his mother to surgery, she shot David a carefree wave, her face looked as young as a schoolgirl, and said, “They’re taking me away.”
David fretted in the surgical waiting room for hours. A young doctor entered and every head in the waiting room turned toward him. “Dr. Hollis asked me to tell you that it may become a bit more complicated,” the doctor said as he placed his hand on David’s right shoulder, “He called in a second surgeon.”
Later that morning, Nicole’s first surgeon returned, looked around, recognized David, motioned him into the hallway.
They stood in the glass-walled hospital hallway filled with sunshine reflected from the newly waxed floors. David leaned against the telephone bank around the corner while the surgeon talked, “I completed my part, but we found a second mass.” The surgeon looked away for a moment; then continued, “This second one was not on the mammogram your wife had. My colleague will need to remove that mass along with a few lymph nodes for testing. It may be some time yet.” With a wet palm, he shook David’s hand and walked away.
Around six that evening, amid the piped-in Christmas music just above the din of the television, a second surgeon with near flawless bearing, walked through the waiting room doors. She looked at David, nodded to the hallway.
Once again, David was in the hallway by the phone bank. He leaned against the same phone bank that had supported him hours earlier. This time there was no sun through the windows. “We found two additional masses.” She rubbed her right hand against her spotless scrubs. “We removed them, but will have to wait on the results from the lymph nodes to see if it spread.”
The second surgeon continued to talk while a feeling swept over David that he was afraid to touch. Relief? Resignation? From that point on, he heard only white noise.
David sat at their table nestled in front of a bay window for the first time since Nicole’s surgery one year ago. Through the window, David was transfixed by the lush pasture protected by the parallel two-pronged barbed wire fence. In that room, he could see life forever; the endless land attached safely to the blue-gray sky.
He reached across the table for the telephone answering machine, listened to his saved messages. Once again, he heard his wife’s voice, “Where are you?” This time he felt her fear surge through the phone. Then he wiped wet spots from the table and his eyes.
As David began his ritual, he touched his mother’s urn, kissed the inscription, “Forever”, then whispered a few words.
He felt as if Nicole touched his hand. He reached for her, and, as he does almost daily, apologized for not moving toward her the day she received her diagnosis. Her response seemed comforting and understanding.
His ritual these days takes him a little longer – for now there are two urns.
Thomas Elson lives in Northern California. He writes of lives that fall with no safety net to catch them. His short stories have appeared in Cacti Fur, Clackamas Literary Review, Conceit Magazine, Cybertoad, Dual Coast, FTB Press Anthology, Literary Commune, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Perceptions Magazine, Potluck, and Walk Write Up.