She lays in the hospital bed as he watches over her. The tick of the machines signals another breath, in and out, digital pulses all that keep the oxygen flowing. The bleached air mercifully kept out of her by plastic and tape. Robotic lungs keep the stink of death and dying away from her, and for a moment he wishes it were him lying still underneath cheap starched cotton.
Flourescent lighting reflects gray off of sunken cheeks and closed eyes, and he wants to scream as they chant like monks how peaceful she looks. How the worst has passed, how the sunrise will bring another day, new hope. As though hope were measured by the passing of another man-made day. He knows better; the one thing that she gave him is understanding, an unconscious knowledge of what it is to feel.
And the days pass, and he passes, too; passing through habitual motion, as alive as the shape under the sheet in the hospital, and with less hope. The ceaseless tock-tock-tock of ceaseless seconds echoes in his head, no matter how far away the only clock in his home. He finds himself returning to her pillow, inhaling, breathing in her scent, tears that threaten to wash away the only physical reminder of her prescence and yet still they flow, a river that refuses the definition of banks, a healing wash that tears open wounds and leaves tracks that would make a junkie proud.
Pain junkie. Addicted to the hurt, the sorrow, the empty and all-consuming ache buried somehwere within.
And he listens to the slick and gravelly noise that comes out of her as the tubes are removed and the doctors and family and friends gathered around hope and pray that she will find her own breath, that her lungs will contract and expand like nature intended, and when she stops, the air stagnant before her face, they chant, “Breathe, come on baby, breathe,” and he chants along with them, silently yet deafening to any who would listen.
And he thinks, too: “STOP! STOP THE NOISE!”
And he thinks, “Let her go this is what she wants why should she be forced to carry the pain of life this is not about you this is about her and you know it let her go let her go lethergo”
He once thought he would die for her. He still would, and one day will. The red light in front of him stares back, unforgiving and accusatory, blurred through tears that won’t stop coming, his hands shaking so badly that they must belong to someone else. And he turns up the stereo to drown the noise, but the voices in his head are louder than he gave credit, and they sing, oh how they sing: a chorus of fear and despair and loss of what might have been, hallelujah, Brother, can I have an amen?
And he stands over her, the light of her last full moon streaming in through a curtained window, unabated by state-issued fabric, touching her expressionless face, eyes that still reflect the pain of the world. And he is calm, frighteningly calm, and he feels her again, inside. It’s okay now. Everything is okay. Only he knows that it’s not okay, it’s over, it’s over, she said it’s over and now is his last chance to say goodbye and he can’t bring himself to say the words because he can’t let go and one last kiss while she’s still warm, while the heart still beats and pushes the blood through her veins and her lips are red not blue and there’s still some chance that a part of her no matter how sleepy will remember and then the buzzing drone of another computerized signal that life goes on even in the face of death.
Twenty four hours pass, a memorial service with hollow nostalgia and too many people that never understood or tried. He stands among them, apart, screaming inside and smiling, say hello and share a story. Never has a shadow, so surrounded yet so alone. One drink, two, six, and finally the numbness sets in, liver processing anaesthesia, gray blanket over vision, head spinning, and he screams a gutteral sound that wakes the dead, and people stare and mutter.
And he thinks, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry that I couldn’t make it all right and you could have been a shining star and why didn’t I say goodbye and why can’t you come back?”
And he thinks, too: “I love you. If you carry that with you, then all is well with me, as I know it is with you.”
But the dead still sleep, and his apologies fall on ears that can no longer process sorry, and love is another word that drifts in the air for someone to ignore.