“Heather is at St. Mary’s in the ICU.” That’s all the status line said. It had been up for five hours. Normally, I went days without checking her wall, but lately she’d been on my mind. I wanted her to know about Kelly, but I wasn’t sure how to tell her. And now something had happened. Already 12 comments had posted, but no response yet with any details.
I wasn’t sure who to ask. We hadn’t talked in about three years. Pulling out my phone, I pushed speed dial 5. She was still on my speed dial. It felt good to keep her there. It went straight to voice mail. Looking through my friends’ list, I found Lisa. She and Heather were close. She might know. My message probably sounded cold, but I didn’t feel like fake pleasantries.
When my phone buzzed to life, I actually thought it might be her for a second. “Hey.” My voice cracked.
Kelly knew something was wrong immediately. She probably knew before she called me. I don’t really believe in psychics or any of that stuff, but this girl could read people like the newspaper. And evidently through the telephone waves. She paused before she spoke. “What’s up?”
I wasn’t gonna give anything away that easily though. For all I knew she’d found my half-eaten breakfast and read into it that I’m sick or something. But she’s like an interrogator, so just being quiet wasn’t going to work. “Come on. I can hear it in your voice.”
“I only said one word. How can you possibly tell anything from one word?” She didn’t answer me. To be a woman, she talked very little. She waited. And I gave her what she wanted. “I just saw a post on Facebook. Heather’s in the hospital.” I half expected her to bristle just a bit. I’d never been so understanding when she wanted to talk to old boyfriends, but she’d never tried to make me feel anything different about Heather. I actually thought she loved Heather too. I’m not sure why I thought that. Maybe it was just how she listened to me and asked me questions and never once seemed threatened.
“You should go. Do you know any details?” So matter-of-fact, yet I knew every word she said had the hidden meaning of “I love you” coating it. “Do you want me to see what I can find out? Her husband doesn’t even know who I am. I could say I’m an old friend or something.” I love that sneaky side of her. She would’ve made a great spy.
“Maybe. I’ve written one of our friends. If I don’t find out something in a few hours, I’ll hire you as my own private investigator.” I could hear her mouth turn up into a smile. The way her breathing changes just a little. But only concern filled her voice.
“I’ll do whatever you want me to do. You know that right? And I won’t tell you what to do, but I think you should just go there. I can cover for you at work. Just go. It will take you a day to get there anyway, won’t it? Doesn’t she live out near your uncle?”
“Yeah, but I don’t think I should just show up. I don’t even know what’s going on.”
“Well, no regrets. Remember. Now’s not the time to stop taking risks. Just think about it.” The store phone started ringing in the background. “Now, I was calling because I can’t find the work order from the Houston project. Did you file it somewhere?”
I cursed under my breath. “No, I gave it to Ivana.”
“Great. We’ll start a thorough search before she decides to show up.”
“Sorry. I figured she could handle walking it over to the projects folder. When I get back, we’ll talk to her together.”
“So you’re going?” Her voice went up. Something about her made me feel like I could do just about anything. “Call me later okay. I’ve gotta go. Love you.” She clicked the phone off and I knew she was there for me. I thought falling in love once was a miracle. I never dreamed it could have happened to me twice.
* * * * *
The nurse gave me a sharp look as I stood outside the doorway. I had lied to even get into the ICU, and now this old lady was giving me the evil eye.
“You from downstairs?” She sounded like my fat aunt Marge, except this lady was as skinny as my nephew and had about as many whiskers.
I pulled at the collar of my scrubs. “Yeah, but I’m off duty. I know Heather. Just wanted to stop by.” Kelly insisted I wear scrubs. She said it would make me less conspicuous and give me a little more access. I didn’t have a security pass, but so far I’d only needed to sneak through the outer ICU door. That hadn’t been so hard.
The whip of a woman grabbed my shoulder with her iron claw. “Oh so sorry poor boy. That’s a sad one there. Ya’ll had no way of knowin’.” Sympathy filled her gruff voice. I still didn’t know any details. Kelly had discovered that Heather collapsed at school—a heart condition. Very serious. “Doctor Bryant said she could probably go home in a day or two.”
Her words should’ve sounded hopeful. Isn’t it good when they let you go home? But this lady had tears in her eyes. “Lord knows, I’d want to spend my last few weeks at home in my own bed. That’s for sure.” Everything drained from me. Putting my hand back on the cold wall, I steadied myself. A few weeks? I couldn’t imagine a world without her in it. “Have you seen her?” I just shook my head. I hadn’t had the nerve to go in. “She’s sleeping right now. Her husband left about an hour ago, probably won’t be back until later, if he even comes back tonight. That fella’s busy. You go on in.” She practically pushed me through the door. I don’t think I could have resisted her since she could probably beat me up and every ounce of my strength left me seconds ago.
* * * * *
Scruffy nurse woke me up. My head was resting next to Heather’s hip and my right hand-held hers. I didn’t remember scooting the chair over like that.
“Son, you might want to get up. The husband’s on his way in, and the doctor will be here soon.” Pulling me to my feet, she stuck a security tag on me and winked. “You can hang out in the employee lounge down the hall.”
As I pulled my hand away, Heather moaned. Seconds later her eyes fluttered open. The last time I’d looked into those chocolate eyes, she was lying next to me. Memories flooded through me and tears spilled down my cheeks. Leaning over, I whispered “I love you” in her ear. She smiled just a little and gripped my hand. Her nose tilted toward me and I knew she was smelling my neck. I’m not sure why she did that, but she liked to sniff me. I wanted to kiss her, but she looked so frail.
“Hey you.” Reaching up with her other hand she brushed my cheek lightly.
My heart completely stopped as I heard her husband bolt through the doorway. I’d never actually seen him face to face, but I’d imagined what I would do on the day I did. Little scruffy nurse jumped to my side and told me to follow her lead. What happened next was sort of sketchy in my mind. I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, hold Heather, because there was another part of me that wanted to rip his head off. He didn’t even notice me. Someone was with him and they were chatting casually. He must have thought I was a doctor, though cause he immediately sounded concerned and asked if there’d been any change. Before I could answer, gruffy chimed up.
“She’s awake.” But Heather had closed he eyes again, her pale lips still smiling. “Or she was.” They talked some more about the doctor and how things went through the night, but I just watched Heather, hoping I’d see those eyes again. With a tug at my sleeve, though I knew it was time for me to go, and I followed the nurse out fighting every urge inside of me to not lay my fist upside that guy’s head.
* * * * *
The coffee in the staff room looked like syrup, so I cut through the nurse’s station to another little hub that housed about three coffee pots. Evidently, someone else was particular about their java. The tiny room smelled like a Starbucks and looked like a teenage girl’s bedroom. Pictures and magazine articles dressed the walls along with handwritten notes of wisdom. One that stuck out to me was from Mother Theresa, “If you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love” I’d known a lot of hurt, but I think she had a point. Love surpassed the hurt. But now the hurt filled me all over again. And this time, it injured to a depth I didn’t even know existed within me.
Setting the coffee cup down, I leaned against the table housing the largest coffee pot and braced myself. It had to happen eventually. The sobs burst out of me. I didn’t even try to stop it. Who knows how many people came by and thought twice about grabbing a cup of coffee at that particular time. I can’t lose her again. I don’t know if I was saying this stuff out loud or to myself, but the feelings came out in waves, close at first and then gradually crashing into me slower and slower.
When I had finished, my coffee was cold. Right outside the coffee cubby was a restroom, so I cleaned up. My unshaven face hid a lot or that’s what I told myself. Walking back out into the hallway felt like I was leaving some of the pain in that little room, but not really, it came with me. I wanted to go back to Heather, but I could hear voices through the doorway. As they got louder, I turned to a cart in the hallway and acted like I was inventorying the contents. My body stiffened as Heather’s husband came into the hallway following the doctor.
“As I see it you have two options.” The doctor ran his hand through his grey hair and leaned against the wall next to the cart. “You can move her to inpatient hospice care or take her home. She’ll need a home health care nurse to stay with her 24/7, but we can arrange that through the outpatient work up. Either way, she only has three weeks at the most. She’ll be alert for a lot of that, but tired. I don’t mean to be insensitive about all of this. I know it’s hard.” The doctor paused, but Heather’s husband didn’t say anything. I wanted to look at him, read his face, but I kept my eyes on the cart. “The nurse can help you with all of the paper work for a bed and other supplies you’ll need at home.”
“So you think that’s the best route.” He sounded shaky, spoke slowly. “For her to go home? Do you think we can give her what she needs?” A cold chill ran through me. He didn’t want her.
“I think you need to think about what’s best for her and what will be feasible for your family. I don’t know your situation. Both options are good. It’s just up to you.” His beeper interrupted him. “I’ve got to go. I don’t want to rush you, but I’ve released her to leave, so as soon as you decide, she can go. Usually insurance doesn’t cover more than 24 hours of care in this after the release has been signed. And you’ll need to get pre-approval on whatever you decide.” He said the last words as he walked away.
Heather’s husband sighed and pulled out his cell. “Hey, they say she can leave. . .yeah, I know. Well, he said we can bring her home or put her in the inpatient hospice care, either way, she doesn’t have long. Yeah. . .I’m not sure what to do.” He turned and started walking down the hallway. Gruffy nurse came up to him and gave him a mean look about the cell phone, so he exited the floor to the outer waiting area. I headed into the room.
Heather smiled as I came around the corner.
“Hey you.” She sounded a little better. “I was hoping you’d be back.”
Coming along-side the bed, I grabbed her hand. “Of course, I’m back. Just waiting to get you to myself.” Her cold hand gripped mine.
“I want to get out of here. I hate being stuck in the same place. They won’t even let me go for a walk.” Tears glistened in her eyes.
I handed her a tissue and without thinking spilled the beans. “They’re gonna let you go home, I think.”
That brightened her a bit. “Really. John said they would probably move me to another facility.”
I didn’t want to think about it, any of it. But I forced myself. How much did she even know? Before I could ask her anything, my little nurse friend came back in.
“Can you come with me?” She looked serious, and I didn’t question her.
Giving Heather a squeeze and a kiss on the forehead, and a look to let her know I’d be back, I followed the feisty lady across the hall and into the employee lounge.
“Listen, I don’t know your story or hers, but I get a sense about this stuff. I’ve been around a while.” Her cool, blue eyes looked through me. “And I know what’s gonna happen in there. Maybe you can talk to that guy or maybe you can do something else, I don’t know, but I hate to see that girl finish out her life in the facility across the street, and I’d bet my paycheck that her husband’s working out the details for that right now. That guy’s too busy to sit with her for the next three weeks. And it takes a measure of love to watch someone precious to you fade away. He ain’t got that kind of love.” She spoke so fast it took me a good, quiet minute to process what she was saying. When she saw the light dawning in my eyes, she continued. “You think you could talk some sense into him.” I shook my head. I’d never talked to the guy at all, and I had no desire to do that now. Maybe if I thought her spending the last days of her life with him would be best for her, I would, but I knew that wasn’t right. The little nurse gave me a disapproving look and rolled her eyes.
I grabbed her arm. “Wait.” She pulled lose easy enough, but stayed. “Can I take her?”
“The doctor said he had signed the release. Can I take her if she wants to go with me? My uncle has a place near here. I could take her.”
Her angry face melted away and she gripped my arms with her claws. “Son. That’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard, but she’s gonna need special care. If you just drive off with her, she might not make it through the week.”
“I’ll take care of that. Can you take care of the legality of it?” She smiled, patted me on the arm and marched away.
* * * * *
Kelly’s care package arrived a few days into our retreat. Movies, food, games, she’d thought of everything. I missed Kelly. She’d handled all of this better than I would have, if I were her.
Heather’s husband was more interested in his lawsuit against the hospital. He’d come by once, but she asked him not to come again. She finally told him off. Although I’d longed for her to do that, hearing it made me sad for her. I think I cried more about it than she did.
My uncle’s house was only a mile from the beach. Soon after we got there, he and my Aunt Marge took off for their place in the mountains leaving us alone with the nurse. As it turned out, Heather didn’t need the nurse 24/7 like the doctor had indicated. She went days at a time without needing anything except for long naps and lots of me holding her. She was in my arms when her heart gave out. We knew the time was near. She said she felt different, weaker. Before she went to sleep that night, she told me how she’d loved me from that very first day when I beat her at checkers and then bought her an ice cream. We’d already talked through our past and our mistakes—the things we hadn’t said, but wished we had and she’d already told me so many times how sorry she was for hurting me, for not staying with me and then for not leaving him. I hushed her and told her I’d always love her. She knew about Kelly and was happy for me, and I knew she was really happy for me. Her eyes had that look in them, like they were actually speaking words from her soul. Sometimes she didn’t even have to say anything, I could just look at her and know her thoughts because of the look in her eyes. That night her eyes told me something I don’t think I’d ever really understood. I’d loved her, she’d loved me, but it had been more than that. It hadn’t been just two lovers or even two friends. It was different. And those light-chocolate eyes reached into my heart giving me something. As her heart gave out, she gave me her hope, her faith in me to be the man she’d always said I was, and a love that wasn’t her and it wasn’t me, it was something more, almost like a person. I can’t explain it really. But I’m not making it up. We think of love like romance or passion or even as something sacrificial, but this was something different. Alive, even though she was dying; real, in a world where the two of us together made no sense to anyone around us; and lasting. I don’t understand it. And I try not to think too much about it now. But sometimes it haunts me like I’m missing something obvious. Something so wonderful and perfect and I’m blind to it. I don’t know.
She died on a Saturday, just a little after 11 pm.