Life Support – By M. A. Macdonald
In many ways, life support is much like an alarm clock. It reminds you that time is a precious commodity, and it is incessantly piercing in the dead of sleep. Diana had found that even if she had wanted to shut the noise out, it would only be a temporary lull before the morphine wore off and she resumed consciousness. Its beep, beep, beep through the nights had kept time, and she had learned to regard each of the 24,000 notations as a notch in the walls of her mind. One more night, she mused, though I can’t say I know the endgame. She had come to fancy the noise as a sort of rhythm, the metronome of a machine beckoning her into a dance she could not perform.
Straining, she attempted to turn herself towards the window. Whitfield Medical had a breathtaking view of Lake Washington. She had taken to naming each of the birds that had taken it upon themselves to visit her shores – at least someone does. She envisioned her feathered children sharing a friendly meal. Daniel would be first in line, greedy as always; Eliza taking her share to a secluded shade to offer a picnic to her hatchlings; Mike and John, squabbling over sizes and making a racket…
But the nurses had tucked her in too tight. She would not move today.
Bitterly, she sank into her comforting constraints. A bead of sweat rolled down her brow, colliding with her pillow with a diminutive drip. Diana absorbed this sensation and couldn’t help but remember that she was, in this state, entirely helpless. Almost in slow motion, she traced in her thoughts the physiological steps about to unfold.
Her eyes would grow irritated. They always started everything, she suspected, because they were so close to the brain that birthed those chemicals destined to ripen into feelings. As the irritation grew, the tear ducts would activate, releasing a salty fluid in an attempt to salve the optic nerves. The excess then would flow in minute streams, pooling in the folds of the pillowcase. The evaporating residue would sting slightly, burning, almost as if wet mint leaves had been pressed into the skin and left to dry.
There would be no room, no hospital, no planet, no person here – all dissolve into the solvent of sorrow. In three seconds, she estimated, her body will experience all these reactions. It has happened five hundred times in this bed, and she has learned to observe the symptoms with the care of a surgeon.
If only the root were to be removed. She sighed. But what else would I do?
Two seconds to her breakdown and Diana catches a glance at the apparatus tethering her to reality. That she could think and react to stimuli at all, she had heard her doctor – Davis? – tell the nurses, was a miracle in and of itself. But far be it for the doctor to allow her the ability to actually utilize her functions. Even a working radio would be suitable. But according to… Damon, was it? According to him, the television was burnt out and awaiting a work order.
She couldn’t help but doubt their sincerity when they told her they were remedying the issue; she often heard the older woman gossiping outside her room, something about Sammy going out with the new supplier, or Quentin getting drunk watching the World Series at TGI Friday’s. Recently, they started into the new bitch of an RN making life a living hell.
Thankfully, they know what they’re talking about.
But at least the stream of names gave her inspiration for her birds, and she had no doubt they wouldn’t fill her waking moments with inane chatter.
One second to her outburst. She feebly scratched at her sheets, gauging the fabric. It was supple, at least in comparison to the other sheets she had been subjected to – appropriately absorbent, she estimated, for at least five minutes. If you cry too much, it causes the skin to chafe over time, and she had suffered her share of bed sores already. She was eager to get it over with. If she was lucky, the nurses would console her, and she could loosen the blankets binding her. Jonathan usually passed by in the morning, and she would give anything to catch his visit. Small victories were all she looked for at this point.
Just as she felt the itching creeping across her eyes, she heard a most wonderful sound. A lifeless buzz. The mechanical bee that heralded the injection of her best friend Morphine. Her mourning would have to wait, for now she was now en route to the comfort of numb release.
Darkness became her, and in a moment she felt the eternity of her stay lifting away, dissipating like so much smoke and smog into the stratosphere. She rose with her time, a spirit in flight with her feathered friends. She herself was a phoenix, blazing through the artificial night bathed in the flames of her body’s restlessness. This form gave her the purification she had wanted – sorrow and fear, confusion and impotence all singed to dust in an organic crucible. All that remained was her and her thoughts, and together they split the horizon into infinite shards, each glistening in the glory of existence. And lo, she did cleanse the remains with her psychic inferno.
“Are you awake, Ms. Randall?”
She shook her head. In an instant, her glory had morphed into a grim reminder of the present. Here, everything was too tangible, and the weight pressed into her. A man in white, taller than she felt comfortable with, loomed over her, cast in shadow. A brutal juxtaposition from her fantasy. His features were etched into the slab of his visage… But the artist is wanting for artistry. Sharp teeth emerged from an absent grin, and for a fleeting moment she hoped he vas here to suck her blood.
“I am glad to see you’re with me now. I have to discuss something with you.” She studied this visitor. His portly frame held an unwarranted tension – the burden of bad news. “Do you have any family? Parents, siblings, children, anything you withheld from your paperwork?”
She began to reply, but her throat was coarse and drained of vitality. A weak cough escaped from her, a futile attempt to sooth her speech. “No.” Sandpaper. She was not used to talking, and her isolation had rusted her voice.
He drew himself up. She knew what he was going to say, but he struggled to find the words. Finally, he forced himself to clear his throat and began the sentence:
“Your vitals are dropping. Steadily. There is no medical reason for any deterioration, but… I’m sorry. You probably won’t make it through the night.”
Bad news can be like an environmental disaster. No matter how much you brace yourself, no matter the preparation, an earthquake can destroy a foundation and destroy a home. A flood can suffocate a city. Much as before, the world was wiped clean. But unlike the morphine’s tranquility, this only brought fear. The morphine had brought her up; this buried her, deeper and deeper, into a swirling void. The gravity was constricting her, and her heart fought to keep itself alive before the emptiness consumed her.
And yet, a glint of peace shone before her in the form of a cardinal. She had named him Ozymandias, and he was the first creature to find her in this tomb. He perched on a sycamore branch mere inches from the window, and his gaze had caught her eye. He had fluttered off in a moment upon the first encounter, but over time his visits had become a daily reminder that she was not wasting away unnoticed. She had decided that upon her release, she would have gone to the lake and sought him out. Finding him out would be child’s play – he stuck out from his brethren by virtue of a single white plume extending from his brow. A regal designation, she knew he was special. A guardian spirit, celestial.
“If you would like, we offer grief counseling. I can arrange a session today if you like.”
The words rang hollow. She knew he meant it, and she recognized he was sympathetic to her plight. But as a doctor, she understood he had said these same words a countless number of times. They were as much an element of his profession as his scrubs, or the stethoscope. He may have even said them this morning? before arriving here. It was a professional offering.
“No.” She stopped, suddenly feeling a degree of freedom in her communication. “I…” The moment she started, a flicker of light and static caught her attention. She was momentarily dazed, until she realized the source.
The television, which had hung in disuse and carried the hint of negligence in the form of dust, was now broadcasting in some sort of building. She couldn’t place it in her memory, but understood it was somewhere familiar. A house, perhaps, or…
“You know, I don’t think it’s so bad. Dying?” The words issued from her mouth as if in automation. A programmed response she had formed at some point in her life.
“I tried it once.” At this, she noticed the screen populated. A woman, dressed in a heavy coat, argued with a man. She left, and he sat in an armchair. A child entered, and the man drew a knife.
“My parents… I mean, my mother. She left my father at midnight. She said she had just had enough, though I couldn’t imagine what it might have been. It wasn’t my place to know what their lives were like. I was just a child. So I hear the door slam, and… and I’m awake. I’ve heard this, so I go to check, and…
“My father was just sitting there. I have to admit, tequila had censored the room. Kind of a stinging potpourri, sage and thyme in a noxious fume. And he just… sat there in this cloud. Motionless. Clutching a knife, or dagger – something sharp. He never saw me before he… did it.
“You can smell the iron in blood, if you try hard enough. It’s heavy and dull, but it’s a clean scent. I ran down the stairs to him, and he had enough energy to whisper through the wound. His last words. But his voice, bloated and saturated, said nothing in particular. So I ran. Up and up, through the halls, into the attic.
“There was this beautiful sectioned window up there. The neighborhood boys had thrown rocks up there once, trying to break the window. They had succeeded only in splintering the glass, and light shot out in every direction. I went to it, and in this instant, I swore I could see a pair of wings. Angel wings. It was my father. He hadn’t disappeared – he just had to have something new, and this life wasn’t enough. And I knew I had nothing else.
“So with my lungs stained with the atmosphere of death and drugs, I leapt to him. Three stories of air hung between me and my fate. But the fall was so fun. I was laughing on the pavement. As much as I could.
“Now look at me. I am bound in a hospital, living only by the count of my heart and the birds in the lake. Morphine is the only attention I’ve received. So, no, I don’t need counseling. I’ve already learned the lesson. Dying is not so bad. Surviving is.”
Diana swallowed hard, and for the first time since she could remember, she tasted a hint of metallic residue on her gums. Iron. As she lost consciousness, drifting into some unknown realm, the last image her mind processed was that of a burst of red against her hospital window, a single white feather drifting in the wind and towards the water.