Tuesday, June 14, 2005

11:05 PM


Night. I look around. The lights are winking on against the deep black of the Princeton skyline, and I have the perfect view. I'm alone on the roof of the hospital.

I'm leaning on the low wall. I know I'm awake because my cane is resting on the wall in front of me, and because I'm still tired and sore from the slow, painful climb up the last flight of stairs. I scratch my chin a little as I think. It's quiet in the way a small city is quiet; the only sounds are the crickets, the muted rumble of cars, the horn of a far-off train.

I stand there, alone. It's the same old story: I lose my temper and make an ass of myself and say something especially vicious, and for hours, for days afterwards, no matter how often I remind myself that I'm just a jerk, that that's what I do, the little voice in my head berates me; meanwhile the whole time another part of me flings out proud, petulant excuses, trying to defend the indefensible. That drama's been playing itself out in my head since before I could tie my own shoes; I know the whole script. It's just background noise now.

I just wanted to watch his limbic system light up
, I tell myself, that's all, but I'm just lying to myself. I lost my temper and indulged my jealousy and made an ass of myself down in PET scan. And yet I'm not sorry. And I'm ashamed that I'm not sorry. And now I'm just waiting for the inevitable.

Stacey whacking me with a newspaper for being a jerk... that I can handle. I'm used to that. The other thing I'm going to have to tell her, though... that's what I'm ashamed of. That's what I'm dreading.


Behind me, the door latch clicks. This is a nightmare come true. I know what's coming next, but I still turn to look. Sure enough, it's Stacey.

I turn back to the wall and rub my face -- here we go -- as she stalks across the roof.

In her fury, she grabs my lapel and turns me around, forcing me to face her, spitting out her anger: "...you were just screwing with him! Low even by your standards!"

"Medical screwing. That's what I do."

She ignores me. "And then you run away like a twelve-year-old, go hide on the roof like you always do!"

Has she forgotten?! "I haven't been up here in five years," I snap.

That shuts her up for a minute. I turn and take a step away, gasping a little as I take the weight off my leg, getting a little distance back between us. I look at her, and then look at the floor.

"I don't know what's wrong with him," I confess.

She reaches for the wall.

"It's not Alzheimer's... it's not encephalitis....it's not environmental, it's not immunological; every test is negative every time. He's perfectly healthy... but his brain is dying."

I can't face her as she stands there, stunned. When she speaks again, her voice is choked. "It never occurred to me...that you couldn't figure out what's wrong."

No anger, no jabs... only trust. I look up, warily at first. Her face is tight with anguish, and it pains me. Instinctively I step forward, clumsily, as she brings her hands to her face, and then I'm holding her, oh God, I'm holding her again, her head against my chest, the smell of her hair, my heart is pounding in my chest, and I tell her not what I want to say, but what I know she needs to hear: "I haven't given up."

The moment ends too quickly. Stacey looks up and asks, "So what do we do?"

I'm not ready to let go, my face is so close to hers, but she's asked me a question about Mark, it's Mark she's thinking about. I cast about for a better way to put it, but I can't find one and finally just blurt it out: "We wait."

Stacey is almost in tears. "For what?" she whispers.

"For something to change. It's one of the great tragedies of life, something always--" I drop my embrace, and my gaze, as Stacey backs away from me -- "something always changes."

A minute or two passes before I'm able to look Stacey in the eye again. She's looking toward the door, her hands still clasped over her chest. Her thoughts are downstairs, with her husband.

"I should get back," she says.

I nod, and start turning myself back towards the wall.

She smirks through her tears, being brave. "So, who else are you hiding from?"

All the other jealous husbands, I almost answer, but for once in my life I shut my mouth in time and just shrug. "Oh, the usual."

"I thought you said you hadn't been up here in five years."

I smile weakly.

"Come on," she says. "This the part where we go get coffee."

I sigh and limp over to get my cane. I take a Vicodin while my back is still turned.

It's one flight of stairs down. Stacey doesn't say anything as I carefully take the steps one at a time, my cane in my right hand and the banister in my left. Was she serious about the coffee thing? She could have run down and gotten back to Mark's room in less time than it's taking me to get down to the first landing. But she hangs back, waiting for me, until I finally step off the bottom stair. In silence, we head for the elevator.

It's a short ride down, and I'm just getting my nerve up to ask about coffee when the doors open. We can see Mark's room from the elevator, and something's going on -- there are a couple of nurses in there, and the call light is still flashing. Stacey runs ahead.

When I catch up, she's standing over the bed. Mark looks terrified, and as I approach the room, I can hear him saying, "I'm scared, Stacey, hold my hand." What a guy -- never too sick to talk about his feelings. Must be that stuff he learned in guidance counselor school. His lack of feeling -- that's way more interesting: Stacey is holding his hand, it's cupped in both of hers.
She must have looked at him funny; "What?" he asks her.

She turns and sees me in the doorway. She's frightened, but keeping her cool. "What's happening?" she asks.

"Time marches on," I reply. "He's paralyzed."

Stacey and Mark look at each other, and Mark leans back into the pillow. I stand and look at them for a minute, but they've forgotten I'm there.

I grab Mark's bedside chart, go to the nurses' station, and look for some coffee. It's not time for change of shift yet, so there's none to be had. I grumble; the nurses pay me no mind. I flip through the bedside chart, looking for clues, finding none; I write a few orders and head back up to my office.

I page Chase first, since he's covering that night: NEED COFFEE. Cam and Foreman have the next two spots on the speed-dial.

I haven't turned the lights on. I limp through the dark office and stare out the window. I'm exhausted, and as I stare four stories down to the pavement below, my head starts to swim. The sensation of falling is so strong, I shift my stance instinctively and wince -- pain shoots up my leg, breaking the spell.

I look up and see dim reflections in the window: someone's turned on the lights next door. I hear water running; it's probably Chase, making coffee. I carefully turn around, grab a couple of dry-erase markers off my desk, and head off to the conference room.

1 Comments:

Anonymous snood250 said...

I love the nice slow playing out of this episode.

And how *prescient* were you when your wrote those old roof top dreams?????

July 01, 2005 9:41 AM  

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