He arrives after morning service, having thanked God for another day in an upright position. He stops at the nurse’s station, not to check in but rather to greet whomever is on duty by first name, applaud the glorious weather, ask about the family, chuckle over the latest joke and say something as sweet and charming as his tousled white hair and proper bow tie.
He makes his shuffling way through the unit to his loved one’s room, wishing a good day to those he passes. He arranges tidy, fresh flowers in the vase on the bedside stand, saving the day-old blossoms for the aide to give to someone who has been forgotten by family and friends. He pulls the chair closer, takes pale, curled fingers in his hand and tenderly kisses cool, brittle lips, his eyes closed and heart hopeful, remembering the day 50 years ago when they knelt before each other with open hearts, fearless of the future, kissing away each other’s tears.
He begins reading the news, his tremulous voice breaking at the headline that cuts to social Security and Medicare are on the table, breaking at the ethos of national politics. He touches the still, cool hand for emphasis, editorializing on other issues, the fickle path of redistricting, the unyielding hope of a more considerate era. He poses encouraging questions, filling the silence with cheerful answers. After the paper is read, he rises to stretch and adjusts the blinds. He checks the nursing chart, which never varies, and says another prayer for recovery.
His lunch tray is delivered as he talks of the garden’s status, the latest goings on of the neighbors. He eats intermittently, distracted from the stillness by the rhythm of the respirator, the beeping pumps, the steady tempos that sustain life, their life. He closes his eyes, remembering the summer they danced so closely in the gazebo, swaying to whispered things not yet come to pass.
When the meal is finished and cleared, his voice resumes to fill the poignant voids with talk of moments that make his eyes moist. He asks if there’s anything he can do, and adjusts the pillows, fingers a tendril of gossamer hair.
He selects a book from those neatly stacked on the small shelf, settles into the chair and begins the afternoon reading. This day it is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese.” He reads with the passion of the words on his tongue and strokes the vein on an unmoving arm as only a lover can. He reads until the dinner tray arrives and silence returns, the respirator and pumps carrying the conversation. After dinner, he touches a cheek, a thigh, a belly, absently tapping to the beat of the machines.
At 8 pm, when visiting hours are over, he takes pale, curled fingers in his hand and tenderly kisses cool, brittle lips, his eyes closed and heart hopeful, remembering the chilly day, when they danced by the fireplace, grateful for the enduring joy of each other. Then he departs as he came, saying goodbye to the nurses and wishing them a peaceful night filled with sweet dreams.
And so he has done every day since the stroke, every day since a miracle interrupted death, every day. And so he will continue. He will continue to wait for an awakening, for his loved one to come back to him, to dance with him again, the moonlight glowing in gossamer hair and arms so light around him.
He doesn’t hear the doctors who say there’s little brain function, the chaplain who says it is not a sin to let go, the social worker who tells him to get on with his life. This is his life.
So he thanks God for Medicare, which pays to keep lungs breathing, hearts beating and food pumping through tubes, day after day.
Just as he thanks God for President Obama, whom he prays will have the wisdom to make the nation’s anguished decisions.
Just as he fears what those decisions might be.
Editor's note: Previously published in a different form.
Kit-Bacon Gressitt's commentary and political fiction can be read on her blog Excuse Me, I'm Writing and is republished by SDGLN, The Ocean Beach Rag and The Progressive Post. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize while working for the North County Times. She is also host of Fallbrook's monthly Writers Read open mic and can be reached at [email protected].