It was the lightning that interrupted my sleep. The flashing blue-white strobe penetrated the dark behind my eyelids and pulled me back. In the moments before the deep thunder boomed from one horizon to the other, rattling the glass in the windows and rumbling deep in my chest, it was the light patter of rain on the windowsill that brought me fully awake.
I turned to look at the lighted dial of the alarm clock by my bed. It was 3:10 am. If I had not been wakened so abruptly I would have never believed I had been asleep. I threw my arm across my face to keep away any more flashes of light.
I lay a long moment considering if I should go on and get up. I was exhausted to my core. I had been that way longer than I cared to remember. Another hour and fifty minutes of sleep wasn’t going to make a difference. Getting to work that much earlier just might. I could get a jump on the day that lay before me. But for a few more minutes all I could do was lie with my arm across my face.
Then the events of the evening played out in my mind again. Working much later than I had intended and still leaving a mountain of work untouched on my desk, I bought another fast food dinner that sat untouched on the seat beside me when I parked at the hospital.
Visiting hours were over at 8:30 pm, but I had an understanding with the nurses that I could visit at any time. Usually by the time I left they had already changed over to the night shift so I eventually came to know most of the nursing staff on both shifts.
But last evening was different. Instead of just a passing nod when I walked by the nursing station, the head nurse came out from behind the desk to greet me, essentially blocking my path. I was a little impatient and she kept it brief.
“She is not responding this evening,” she said softly. It was simple and direct. She knew I did not like a long and flowery scripted speeches filled with false hope. Her eyes, as always, were sympathetic. I got these updates only when they were necessary. Her look also told me that she was being kind in saying “not responding” instead of “unresponsive.” The second was so much more final.
Inside the room nothing was really different. There were the smells I knew I would never be able to stand again, the faint stench of the urine in the bag on the side of the bed, the iodine-like smell of the antiseptic they used where the tubes entered her body, and always the pervasive smell of baby powder and perfume she wanted them to use. I knew I would always associate those smells with this room and be repelled by them.
I crossed the room and gently took her left hand. Her right hand was inaccessible on the other side of the bed, the injection portal taped to it and the middle finger clamped in the pulse monitor. At her request, it was her left hand they left free and it was the one I always held while I talked to her.
They said she might hear us and I believed that for a long time. Sometimes when I talked about my day I was sure there was the faintest change of pressure of her hand in mine and sometimes even a slight crinkling of the eyes when I knew she would see the humor in what I was saying. But my own world had grown smaller along with hers. Friends had gone on with their own lives and eventually stopped calling. It had been seven years, after all, with her in and out of hospitals and care centers. By now, there was really nothing left to tell her except my endless routine of work and the same drives between the hospital, my house, and my job. I just could not bring myself to encourage her to fight any more, to try to get well. Sometimes all I could do was just sit in silence and watch the blood pulse through the veins under the thin parchment layer of skin as I held her hand and marveled that, after all this time, she still wore her wedding ring.
But last night had been different. Just as the nurse had warned, there was no response. After I was talked out, I stood a long while in the silence. I looked at the tubes; the intravenous drip delivering fluids into her arm, the catheter tube taking them away, and the slight blips and constantly changing numbers on the monitor on the other side of her bed. And I really looked at her; the eyes now sunken in their sockets without even the slightest flutter of recognition. The mouth was slack but thankfully closed, and the hair that she once laughed and declared as her one true beauty was now so closely cropped it was barely there.
For a long while, I was unable to speak. It had been seven years but I still could not let her go. Even though I could finally form the words in my mind I could not speak them aloud. She had always given me everything that was in her power to give, but I could not give that one simple thing to her. As much as she needed to hear them from me, I could not speak those words.
I stood a while longer watching the blood faintly pulsing through the veins of her left hand, afraid it would stop as I watched. The skin was almost transparent. I knew what I had to say, but the words stuck in my throat. Goodbye was never going to come.
“I never wanted you to suffer like this,” I finally managed to whisper as a single tear splashed down on the hand I held. There was a faint tightening of her hand in mine, and then it was gone.
I’m not sure how long I stood there after that. The hospital had grown quiet outside the door. Finally I took her hand from mine, placed in gently on the bed beside her. I bent forward and kissed her cheek, same as I always did when I said goodbye at night.
But instead, last night I only said, “I will see you soon.”
This rain wasn’t going to stop. In fact it was raining even harder. I had to get myself up and close the window or the carpet would be soaked. I did not need a water stain on the carpet. Not now.
I sat up, turned on the bedside lamp, swung my legs around and was sitting on the edge of the bed when the telephone pierced the night with one shrill ring. The clock now read 3:25. I grabbed the receiver on the first ring, surprising the caller.
“Oh…Who is this?”
“You called me,” I responded rudely.
There was a rustling of paper while she verified who she was calling and that indeed it was me. “I’m sorry to tell you that your mother-in-law has passed away just a few moments ago, at 3:10.” She did sound sincerely sorry.
“My grandmother you mean?”
“Oh my word!” she exclaimed. “I was supposed to call your father, wasn’t I? Shall I call him?”
My father and I have almost identical names. It is a frequent mix up.
“No!” I was adamant. My parents were even more exhausted than I was. They did not need this call in the wee hours of the morning. I would wait and go to tell them in person in a few hours, after the sun was up. “I will tell them. Thank you for calling.”
“I am so sorry,” she said again. “Not just for calling you by mistake. You know, we all loved her here and will miss her. She truly was a remarkable woman.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “she was. Thank you.”
More remarkable than anyone would ever know.
Excerpted from "Myrtha: the Alexander Saga (Volume 1)" by Alan E Bailey. Copyright © 0 by Alan E Bailey. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.