My father passed away one month ago today. I wrote the story that follows while he was still alive in the hospital because I couldn’t imagine anything more terrifying than what he was going through. Being on a ventilator, aware but unable to speak for himself or ask for help. This story is for him and the many horrors he experienced; real life turned out to be far more terrifying than anything I could write.
My dad was my biggest fan. He’d enjoy having this out in the world. I was honored to be one of my father’s ventriloquists and speak for him when he couldn’t speak for himself.
My jaw is numb. I try to lick my lips but my tongue is pinned to the floor of my mouth by something hard. My chest moves but I’m not the one breathing. Something reaches down my throat, an invasive finger choking me, and I gag. I’ve got to get this thing out of my mouth. I can’t breathe. Hurry.
No. Why am I strapped down to the bed?
“Needs sleep…” someone utters. The voice is distant, a whisper at the far end of a long tunnel. A hand touches my shoulder. “Rest now.”
That sounds like good advice.
An instant later, I wake and blink my eyes. The room is darkened, but light echoes from down the hall in hints and whispers of neon. My vision spins. Down. I’m falling. The ceiling has doors through which I should fall, but the straps on the bed keep me in place. For now. I’m thankful for them as the room twists again. A sharp tug pulls at my neck as I try to look up, only to find the rectangles of a drop ceiling on the wall behind me.
Why is it behind me?
Who would move the ground to the ceiling?
Help! Help! I scream but no sounds escape the hand shoved down my throat. Got to get it out. Now. I pull at the straps, reaching for the blue plastic tube snaking from my mouth to a machine. If I just reach a little harder…Something beeps. The electronic staccato rattles a drummer playing just behind my head. On the ceiling. Don’t think about the ceiling or falling through the wall.
Two alarms now scream in my ears, their melody discordant. I’m going to die.
My wrists ache. If I can just hold on a little longer, I might be free. Gotta try. Maybe if I turn my head just so…
“Stop that, Mr. White.”
A woman? Yes. Why does that seem right?
She pulled at my hands, forcing them back to the bed. I tried to kick, but my legs were likewise confined. Why is this happening to me?
“It’ll be easier if you don’t fight. You need to rest, Mr. White. Your body needs time to heal.”
Something jiggles against my neck. A rubber finger brushes my skin. “This will help you sleep.”
I don’t want to sleep. I want to know what’s happened to me.
I’m not given a choice.
That voice. I turn toward it, a moth seeking the burning light of a lantern. At least the floor’s not on the ceiling this time. That’s something.
“Daddy, can you see me?”
I blink. Reddish hair, oily from days without a shower. Lines – the wrong lines – pull her eyes down like the exaggerated frown of a clown. A constellation of pimples in the shape of the Pleiades has formed on her cheek. Seven sisters. But she didn’t have sisters. I had two other sons. A name returns to mind but chokes on the tube down my throat before I can utter it.
“Do you know who I am?”
I nod again. I want to ask her what happened. How long I’ve been here. Where’s Felicia?
I can do none of these things, so I close my eyes for a moment.
“No, that’s good. You’ve got him to respond again. It’s been a few days, so that’s something to hold on to. He’s a fighter.”
DAYS! What do you mean, days?!
My arms tremble, burning against the restraints. I’ve got to get out of here. She has to let me out. I need Felicia. I want my sons.
“I think he wants to say something…”
“No. He’s just disoriented.”
I shake my head, but with the restraints it’s little more than a tremble. If only I had my glasses on and I could see what was happening.
“But before he was nodding…and now he just shook his head.”
Yes. That’s it. Keep asking. I’m here.
The woman in the yellow paper gown puts her hand on my daughter’s shoulder and turns her away from the bed. “We see this all the time in these kinds of cases – small movements, sometimes days apart like this. It’s better for him to sleep, I promise. Till his numbers improve.”
Did she say days apart? But I had just closed my eyes for a second.
Worry shakes her voice, and for an instant we make eye contact. “With everything that’s going on…It might be better if I just spent the night here.”
Night. I cling to the detail, turning it over and over in my mind. How late: early evening? Midnight? Later? How many days have I been here? Someone tell me! What time is it?
“No, I don’t think that would be wise. He knows you love him. You’re here practically every day to check on him. You’ve got to be patient just a little while longer.”
Don’t be patient. Please. I don’t want to be alone.
But she leaves.
And the nurse follows.
Amanda. That was – no is – her name. Jason and Jeff. Those are my sons.
A tear rolls down my eye and catches in the tube running out of my nose. It itches and I want to wipe it away, but again my hands won’t move. Twice I flare my nostrils, but the dampness stays. The tube down my throat makes my mustache itch – or maybe it was the tears – but when I jerk against the restraints to scratch it, the nurse returns to the room.
“That’s a lovely daughter you have there, Mr. White. You’re very lucky. I’m going to give you a little something to help you sleep, okay?”
I shake my head no.
She fiddles with one of the lines going into my neck.
I will wake up.
This has to be a nightmare.
“We’ve got to make it look like renal failure,” someone says. A man, maybe, though his voice has a slightly Mediterranean accent. Why can’t I see anything?
“So you want to plant the diseased kidneys back inside him?”
What? Back inside? They can’t do that to me.
“I don’t see what choice we have. A simple scan would reveal the missing organs. Then there’d be an inquiry.”
No. No. Nononononononononononononono.
“Did you see that? His heartrate just spiked.”
This is America. Things like this don’t happen in America. I will wake up. I will wake up now.
“He might be going into a-fib. We should take him down now before anything gets damaged. I just…”
Reluctance. “I hate that it has to go like this, you know? He was probably a nice guy.”
“I’m sure he paid his taxes and donated to charity and raised his family well. It changes nothing.” The man pats my leg. “We’re fighting for the survival of our way of life. I’m sorry, Mr. White, but you’re going to save a lot of lives.”
Help me! I pull at the straps as pain needles up my arms. I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to wake up. Amanda will notice. She’s a good girl. Smart. She won’t let them do this to me. She loves me. Yes, she’ll protect me.
A wave of darkness pummels me under.
“I came as soon as I heard. What happened?”
“We’re very sorry, Mrs. Mason.”
I try to blink, but my eyelids are held down by something. Did they tape my eyes closed? No, there they go. My vision takes a moment to settle into blurry shapes. Amanda?
“You said that he was looking better after…after the kidneys crashed.” She sniffs, voice quivering. “I thought the dialysis was helping?”
Come closer. Please. Just two steps nearer the bed. You’ll understand. You have to. My kidneys didn’t crash! They took them.
“The dialysis was for his renal failure like we discussed a couple days ago, and it seems to be working so far. Unfortunately, last night his pancreas shut down. It sometimes happens in these cases, but there was no way we could have predicted it. The doctors tried to save it, but the surgery was unsuccessful.” Footsteps move around the room. Something sharp is yanked down once and then again, the sound like tearing cloth. “No need to cry. We’re committed to his recovery. This insulin drip will replace what the pancreas used to provide. When he’s stable, we can see about putting him on the transplant list.”
Oh god. Oh god. Ohgod, ohgod, ohgod, ohgod, ohgod. Did they take my pancreas, too?
“So he’s diabetic now?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“It just seems like he keeps getting worse. My father – he was always so healthy, you know.” She hesitates. “Hey, his hand’s moving. Maybe he wants to write something?”
“Sure. I’ll go get a board and a marker.”
The head of the bed grinds up, rotating the ceiling tiles so they look like they’re racing toward the floor. I need to close my eyes and shut out the nauseating sight, but I might never open them again. This is my chance.
“There we go.”
A round thing is shoved into my right hand and they place a board beneath me. No one thinks to adjust the restraints. I cannot see the board nor what I’m writing. Far-sighted since I was a child, I’ve never been able to see much past my nose.
My hands tremble as I try to draw a picture of glasses, so I press the side of my hand firmly against the board. I can do this.
“Is it a person? Is that you? Does something hurt? Do you want to know what’s going on with your treatment?”
I shake my head and gesture with my wrist from side to side.
“Clean the board?”
I nod yes.
They press the board back into my left hand as my right is given a dry-erase marker. My fingers are swollen, and manipulating them is like trying to use sausages as chopsticks. I manage to draw one circle-like shape, then a second.
“O, O?” my daughter asks, drawing out the last syllable. “I don’t know what that means.”
I try to draw a line between the two circles, but it veers off on one side. Shit. Frustration swells in my chest, a burning sensation that spreads up my throat and down both arms. My hands tremble as I fight the feeling back, but the marker slips from my sausage-fingers.
“Is that a popsicle? Do you want them to do the cleaning thing around your lips?”
Closing my eyes, I shake my head no. One of the machines starts beeping erratically. I try to turn to see what it is, but the tube has me immobilized. Searing pricks stab down the entire length of my body. It hurts so much.
You’ve got to help me, Amanda. See the beeping. Know what it means.
But it’s the nurse who speaks. “I’m afraid we’re disturbing him. I’m going to have to ask you to leave for the day.”
“If you think it’s best.”
I’m going to die.
The recital. Amanda’s daughter had danced.
Seven-year-olds with brown dots on their cheeks and yellow fabric petals around their necks and green tutus in barely managed chaos. Little flowers poking through the brown earth of the wooden stage.
Standing ovation. Flash of cell-phone cameras like lightning.
The instructor stood at the microphone, introducing the next piece of music. I squeezed Felicia’s hand and she smiled over at me. This, her eyes said, is what it’s all about. I kiss her forehead.
Gold fire and white heat.
The soft sound of sobbing wakes me.
A hand clutches my own, massaging the fingers. Something warm and wet hits my thumb. What day is it? How long have I been asleep?
She looks up when I squeeze her hand, then rubs at her eyes with the sleeve of her yellow gown. “Hey, you’re awake.”
I nod. Pointing to her – hey, the restraints have loosened a little – I squeeze my hands into fists and move them forward and backward. Why are you crying?
“Your bike? Is that what you’re asking about?”
I shake my head no and point to her twice.
I nod. Then I make the crying motion again with my hands.
Her brows furrow. “Did I ride a bike? Huh?
I let my head fall back against the pillow.
“I’m sorry, daddy. I’m trying to understand.” She sniffs again as her voice breaks. “Maybe I should get the board? Do you want to try that?”
I nod. Something’s better than this. She knocks around the room for a second before the whiteboard is pressed into my left hand. The marker goes in my right and she holds my forearm.
My arm trembles, and I can barely see what I’m putting on the board. The doctors stole my kidneys. They’re killing me.
Amanda takes the whiteboard and stares at it for a long moment. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Try something shorter.” She cleans the board with a brown paper towel.
Doctors. A circle, two eyes, and a downward curved line.
“Do you want to see your doctors? They were here a little bit ago and spoke to me. They said you were looking a little better.” She smiled but it didn’t reach her eyes. “They’re going to try to wean you off the ventilator soon, if you’re strong enough.”
I shake my head no. The doctors are trying to kill me. You’ve got to stop them. Please understand!
“Don’t cry, dad.” She pulled away from him. When she returned a moment later, she dabbed at his eyes with a cloth. “It’s going to be fine. You and me, we’ve got this. Okay?”
I pull the whiteboard closer. Kidneys. Stolen.
She shakes her head. “No, not stolen. They failed. The explosion was too much of a shock for them. Dialysis is very advanced. People can live on it for years.”
No. I shake my head once and again. They’re killing me, I try to write.
“No, you’re not going to die. I won’t let you.”
Please understand me. I need you to understand me.
“We have to lock down now. I’m sorry, but I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
“But we were finally -”
“I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do. You can come back in the morning.”
No. We were just starting to communicate.
I touch my forehead, then my chest, then point to her. I need you to stay. I need you to understand me.
A smile breaks out on her face like a rainbow after a storm. “I love you, too, Daddy.”
“…can’t leave him here. Not like this.”
“You have to, Amanda. They’ve called for an evacuation of this region.”
I try to shift – to let her know I’m awake – but the lower half of my body no longer works. When I try to move my arms, the muscles barely flex.
“What will happen to him?”
A hesitation. “The National Guard will move the worst patients via helicopter. The first ones should be landing any moment.”
She’s got to hear me. She can’t leave me alone here. Not like this. I hit my arm against the side of the bed once and then again.
“Is he…?” Amanda leaves the question hanging. “Daddy?”
Her hand slips inside mine. Tears blossom in the corners of my eyes and I squeeze to let her know I’m here.
“Hey, daddy. I missed you so much.”
I squeeze several times and try to blink my vision clear.
“You missed me, too?” she asks.
“I know.” She sniffs and rubs her eyes. “You scared me falling asleep like that after our last talk. Here, let me get your glasses so you can see me, okay?” Her hand leaves mine, and I want to yell at her to come back – that nothing is more important than her touch – but she soon balances my thick glasses on my nose. “Better?”
Her image resolves in front of me. Where she’d once been plump, she was now gaunt. Cheeks sunken in and rings of darkness circling her eyes gave her a skeletal appearance. One of her arms was missing.
She shrugged that shoulder. “I lost it in the blast,” she said as if that made perfect sense. “A falling ceiling beam severed it right above my elbow. If you hadn’t found me and used your belt as a tourniquet, I’d be dead now. I’ll never forget that I owe my life to you.”
I squeeze her hand again, and with my free one I point first to my chest, then to her.
“I know. I love you, too.”
“Miss, you’ve got to come away now,” the nurse called, tugging on her shoulder. Out in the hall, someone was shouting. “It’s time.”
“Just another minute.”
“No. The National Guard needs time to get people out.”
Amanda leaned over the bed and hugged me. “I love you, Daddy. I’ll tell Molina you love her and I’ll put some flowers on mom’s grave. They say we’ll be safer out west. The rioting hasn’t gotten that far, and there are bunkers spread throughout the mountains where we can hide. I’ll find you when you land, okay? Just hold on long enough.”
I squeeze her hand.
Then she’s gone.
I float, weightless, for what seems an eternity. No one comes anymore.
My body has abandoned me. I have no sensation in my legs or hands or skin or muscles. The smallest movements are impossible. This must be what sensory deprivation chambers feel like. I’d always been curious to try one; now, I regret the impulse.
People shout in the halls. Cabinets are opened, contents vomited out. Nothing should be left for them, whoever that turns out to be. Was it a terrorist attack? ISIS or the Muslim extremists or the Neo-Nazis or the militant rednecks up in the hills who think the government should be destroyed? Maybe it’s aliens.
I know then that there will be no National Guard rescue. That had been a lie to convince my daughter to leave.
Footsteps pound into the room. Someone shoves my bed to the side and pushes another beside it.
“Set up the IV and get those lines placed now. We don’t have long to do this.”
Hope surges in my heart. They will save me. They’ve come to set up lines and IVs and I will get to see my daughter and granddaughter again. If my lips were capable of moving, I’d have smiled.
A masked face leans over me. The voice is familiar. “Mr. White, I’m sorry but we don’t have time to set up sedation. I’m going to have to do this while you’re awake. A piece of shrapnel lodged in this young man’s left ventricle. The youth – you understand, the youth have to come first. They’re our only hope to win this war. You understand.”
I’m only sixty-three! They can’t give away parts piecemeal. It’s not legal. It’s not right.
I can do nothing to stop them.
The first blade slices open my chest.
My scream is smothered by the intubation tube.
A few years ago at Thanksgiving, my daughter had tried the spatchcock method for cooking the turkey – it was the fashion on all the cooking shows. Of course, the professionals make slicing open the turkey’s chest and breaking the ribs look easy – the reality had been quite different. Now, my ribs make the same horrible sound.
There’s no pain, only the sound. Worse than any dentist’s drill, my ribs pop one by one.
This is death. This is it. In a moment, I’ll be dead.
My body convulses as something is pressed between my ribs. A masked face twists the crank, spreading open my chest. The eyes are cold and empty. Resigned.
I’m no longer a person but a turkey for him to carve. No. No, please don’t. Please don’t do this. I want to live.
Hands reach into my chest cavity, plunging below my skin. Invading.
Rubber grazes my heart.
I choke as the rhythm stutters.
Oh god. I hope you exist.
A tugging sensation.
My body convulses, blood fountaining in the air for a moment.
No. Oh god, no. Someone tell Amanda that I love –