Thursday, March 3, 2011

Dying, Introduction and Part One: The Coma


            Scott Meyers was twenty-two years old when he found out he was going to die.  When I say that, I mean it quite literally.  It is not that he had a sudden realization of his own mortality due to his post-collegiate exposure to the ‘real world’ as some silly people call it.  Nor did the realization strike him due to the death of someone very close to him.  The realization of his own impending demise came to Scott through the words of one Dr. Audrey Kurtz, who told him that, due to the rare disorder, a number of his key organs would cease to function over the coming month.  I suppose it doesn’t really matter what the disorder was, I don’t see how me mentioning it now would help anyone’s case, especially not Scott’s.  The only thing that mattered to Scott was that whatever it was would kill him very soon.
            I have been Scott’s closest friend for five years now and I must admit, as I drove him to the hospital to receive the treatments that might extend his life an extra week, I had no idea what to say.  It seemed like only the day before we had been in the kitchen playing cards and he had started to cough blood.  Neither of us knew what to do, so I rushed him to the hospital.  Two days and ten tests later, Scott had a month to live.  He grew almost instantly weaker.  I think, to a large extent, it was the hopelessness more than the disease which caused him to lose strength so quickly.  Of course, it was probably a little of both.  At any rate, it was determined yesterday that he would live out the rest of his life in the long term care wing of Chester County Hospital.
            So there we were in my car, pulling into the hospital parking lot.  I was afraid to look at him as I chose a spot close to the elevator so that he would not have to walk far.  The hospital staff knew we were coming and would meet us at the elevator with a wheel chair for Scott.  That was another sight I was not looking forward to.  The idea of my best friend sitting in a wheel chair, skin pale, eyes sunken, turned my stomach like I had never felt before.  I felt instantly ashamed.  Here I was, dreading to see my friend in such a state, when he was the one near death.  I wished I could empathize with him, but what did I have that could compare?  As if on cue, I heard his thin voice wafted over from the passenger seat.
            “Don’t worry about it, Jack,” he said.  “It’s not like I’ve ever had to see you like this.  I can’t imagine what that would be like.”  Turning to him, I laughed a little.
            “I suppose it would be hard to imagine me lookin’ as terrible as you do.”  He smiled and popped open his door.  We chuckled a bit as we crossed the short distance to the elevator.
            “I guess this is just karma for always flaunting my handsomeness.  I suppose it’s my fault you’re still single.”
            “Yeah,” I replied.  “If only Jenny Hansgrove could see you now, I’d be lookin’ pretty good.”  When the elevator stopped, we got off to find a young male nurse waiting with a wheel chair.  We both tried to hide our disappointment as Scott took a seat. 
            “You John Henk?” he asked in a deep baritone.
            “I suppose so,” I replied, though I was pretty sure I was.
            “There’s a call for you at the nurse’s station.  He’ll be in room D8 when you’re done.”  Nodding, I walked off to receive my call.  Turning back for a moment, I saw Scott squinting at the nurse’s name tag.
            “Very well…Craig,” he said.  “Take me away.  I’ll have a morphine drip and your best pudding.  I trust you have…”  His voice faded into the din of the busy hospital.  When I reached the nurses’ station, I was handed the phone by a surly woman who looked as though she had been working three consecutive shifts.  I put the phone to my ear and spoke.
            “Hello?”  The shrill voice of Mrs. Linda Meyers answered back.
            “Jack, is that you?  Ohh, how is he?  Is he situated?”
            “Well you called a little early, Mrs. Meyers.  We just got here.”
            “Goodness,” she said.  “Oh, it’s terrible.  We’ll be getting the first flight stateside tomorrow morning.  He must be so scared.” 
            “He seemed ok to me,” I said, trying to avoid the hysterics I knew were coming.  On the other end of the line, Mrs. Meyers burst into tears and Mr. Meyers took over.
            “Hello Jack, how are you?”
            “Ok, Mr. Meyers, considering.”
            “Good, good,” he replied.  “Now, we’ll be back tomorrow evening if all goes according to plan.  Can I ask a favor of you, Jack?
            “Of course, Mr. Meyers.”
            “Listen, Scott’s never stayed in a hospital before.  I know he’s an adult now, but would you mind staying with him for a bit?  I do wish we could be there.”
            “No problem, Mr. Meyers.  Anything else I can do?”
            “No, that’s quite enough, thank you.  Bye now, Jack.”
            “Good bye, Mr. Meyers,” I said, and laid the phone down gently.  I smiled at the nurse as I walked away and she forced her exhausted features into a twisted grimace that I assume was meant to be a smile.  Walking down the hall, I passed the open doors of other patients, paying them little heed.  When I got to room D8, I walked inside to find Scott sitting upright on his adjustable bed. 
            “I guess this will be my last bachelor pad,” he said, a forced smile on his face.  “Always kinda thought I might get married some day.”  Sitting down in the chair beside his bed, I propped my feet up and shrugged.
            “I was pretty sure it’d be nothing but straight pimpin’ for you the whole way.”  He laughed quietly and turned away to look at the various machines strewn around the room.
            “Suppose I won’t be doin’ much of that anymore either.” 
            “I dunno, there are plenty of young nurses around.  We haven’t met a woman who could resist your charms yet, regardless of age, profession or relationship status.  Something tells me you’ve still got a chance in here.”  I tried to hold my smile, but I could feel the mirth being drawn from the room.  He turned away then, for the first time not hiding the feeling of fearful uncertainty that had followed him since he learned of his fate.  Looking out the window, a vacant expression overtook his features.
            “What do you suppose it’s like?” he asked.  “Dying I mean.  How do you think it feels?”  Not having an answer, I sat quietly, waiting for him to say something else.  After a few long minutes of silence, it became apparent that he would not continue.  He stared at me intently, wanting an answer.
            “I can’t say that I could even guess,” I said with a shrug.  “I suppose it’s not really something you understand until you go through it.”  Never one to concede that easily, Scott became more restless.
            “I can’t just sit here and find out as it comes.  I need to know.  I need to know what death is.”  At a loss, I merely shook my head.
            “I wish I could help,” I said with a sigh.  “I suppose I wouldn’t mind knowing myself.  I guess that’s something everyone wants to know.”  At that, I saw a flash of a familiar look cross his face.  It was a look I knew very well; he had an idea.  Sliding out of his bed, he smiled and said:
            “What do you say we find out?”

Part One: The Coma

            Scott led me haphazardly down the corridors, weaving between crash carts and medical teams until we came to his planned destination.  Looking around to check if anyone was watching, we quickly slipped through the double doors and into the Coma Ward.  Taking ten paces forward, he turned to the right and entered room C6.  Laid out on the bed before us was Mr. Henry Walker.  Mr. Walker had been a used auto salesmen, one of the biggest in Chester County.  If you lived anywhere within a fifty mile radius of Exton in the mid-1990s, you probably saw one of his commercials at some point in your life.  If you lived anywhere in that same radius on May 9th, 1997, you probably saw the news story about his accident.  In a triumph of natural irony, the brakes failed on his used Dodge Spirit, sending him and a prospective buyer careening into the divider on route 202.  The prospective buyer was killed instantly (though calling him a ‘prospective’ buyer may have been a tad optimistic at that point as, had he survived, he would almost certainly not have purchased the used Dodge Spirit).  Henry Walker, on the other hand, was plunged into a coma which had now lasted 12 years.
            Staring unabashed at the limp body, Scott spoke freely.  “This is about as dead as they come, save a trip to the morgue.”  I forgave his morbidity in recognition of his short time left.  I felt out of place and somewhat immoral to have encroached on the slumber of this man.  Looking up at my face, Scott knew what I was thinking.
            “What difference does it make to him?” he asked.  “We’re not hurting him.  There’s not even a way to be sure he knows we’re here.  He most likely doesn’t.”  Scott turned back to Henry Walker and looked closely at the man’s still features.  Somehow, his reassurance gave me confidence and I took a seat in the corner of the room.  Without looking up at me, Scott continued to speak his mind.  “What do you suppose goes on inside his head?  Do you think he’s dreaming or is it just darkness?  Is he thinking in there?  Who knows what could be going on inside his head.”  Sliding back in the chair, I sighed heavily.
            “There’s no real way of knowing that.  I suppose it could be different for each person.  Maybe we see what we know best.  Maybe he’s in there selling used cars to those in dire need of transportation.”
            “So say it was some kind of genius or something,” he replied.  “Do you think he could be in a coma just figuring out theorems and solving all those little problems he couldn’t figure out when he was awake because there was too much distraction?  Or what if he was a writer?  Maybe he’s in there writing the greatest novel the world has ever seen?”
            “I guess we’d never know,” I said, accidentally deflating my friend’s growing excitement.  “I know you want to understand death, but I don’t think you’ll find any answers here.  The fact is that this man will most likely never wake up.”  Scott lowered his head sadly, but jumped up at the sound of a voice from behind.
            “It’s true, at least, that’s what the doctors tell me.”  Looking up, I saw a young red haired girl standing in the doorway.  “I’m Bridget Walker,” she said with a quick polite smile.  “I don’t believe I have seen you two gentlemen here before.”  I froze, slack jawed in the corner of the room, but Scott didn’t miss a beat.
            “Oh, hello, Bridget.  My name is Scott Meyers and this is my associate Jonathan Henk.  We’re research students from the University of Pennsylvania studying the effects of coma on skin tension.”  Bridget stared back at him for a moment, and then turned to me.  I unfroze just long enough for a jerking nod.  She turned back to Scott and looked him over.  There was a long pause as all three parties stood in silence until Bridget spoke up.
            “Ok well, you’re still wearing your hospital robe,” she said, gesturing towards Scott.  “So…”  Another pause.  Scott scratched his head.
            “Yes well…”  This loss for words was quite rare for Scott.  He looked at me as though I should come to the rescue.
            “My friend is sick,” I blurted out, regretting it immediately.  Scott gave me a look that said, ‘let me handle this’.  He always handled things
            “Mr. Henk was always the eloquent one; known for his discretion,” he said with a smile, trying to diffuse the situation with his charm.  Perhaps the sickness had softened his good looks a bit, because Bridget seemed unimpressed.
            “You could probably just tell me the truth,” she said, flatly.  She put her hands on her gently curved hips and stood impatiently, her long slender legs shifting her weight from one side to the other.  Her pale brow furrowed a little over her striking blue eyes and brilliantly white teeth peeked out between her full pink lips.  She was hot, is what I’m trying to say.  This was an issue for me.
            I sat there, jaw hanging open, for a full minute before I could pull my eyes away from her and back to Scott.  For what must have been the first time ever, he was speechless.  Scott could tell any story but a true one.  When it came to honesty, Scott was out of his element.  I tried again.
            “My friend is dying,” I said, kicking myself immediately.  Another failure.  Bridget looked at me again and my heard began to thump out of my chest. 
            “I thought he was just sick earlier,” she said cooly.  “Your condition seems to be rapidly deteriorating.”  I was paralyzed, but her retort seemed to break Scott from his trance.
            “Sick and dying as it turns out,” he said, feigning a somber nod.  “Just found out a few days ago.”  Bridget looked him over one more time, and then turned back to me for a moment.  I nodded dumbly, not knowing what to say.  Then, as though fully satisfied, she walked over to the bed and sat down next to her father.
            “Well we should go,” I said, jumping out of the chair.  I sort of knew we weren’t getting out of there with just that, but I could dream.  I had almost made it to the door when I heard the words I knew were coming.
            “Wait,” Scott said and I let out a long sigh.  “Can I ask you something?”  I turned around to see him standing next to Bridget.  She sat in silence for a while, looking at her father with a great weight on her shoulders.  Closing her eyes she took a deep breath and looked at Scott as though she already knew what he would ask. 
            “What is it like?” he asked, haltingly.  “I mean, what does it seem like?”  Bridget’s face grew hard as she tried to pretend she didn’t know what he meant.
            “What does what seem like?” she replied, choking on the last word.  I could tell that she was fighting back tears and I knew Scott could too, but he wasn’t finished.  I could see in his eyes that he was not ready to give up on his question. 
            “No I…” he started, but stopped, trying to choose the right words.  “Like I said, I’m not going to live much longer and I…I thought…”   Scott couldn’t settle on what to say, but he wasn’t ready to quit.  He took a breath to start again, but Bridget cut him off.
            “You thought you’d come down here too see what death looked like,” she said.  She looked down at her father, his body covered in feeding tubes and vital monitors, and reached over to take his hand.  She squeezed it once and smiled like a serene angel.
            “You’ve come to the wrong place,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper. “My father isn’t dead.”  She picked up his hand and held it on her lap.  I felt terrible about our intrusion and I could tell Scott was, for once, unsure about his actions as well.  Finally composing myself, I tried to move Scott towards the exit.
            “Hey, we’re really sorry,” I said.  “Intruding on your father and all.”  I grabbed Scotts arm and slowly pulled him towards the door, but he resisted.
            “It’s ok,” she said, her eyes still shut.  “People have been coming in and out for twelve years now.  You can’t imagine what it’s been like.”  I tried to pull Scott away again but he shook his arm away and walked back to her.  With a familiarity only Scott could show a woman he had only just met, he put his hand on her shoulder.
            “Can you tell us about it?” he said, in a comforting tone usually reserved for a parent.  Bridget put her father’s hand back by his side and opened her eyes.
            “Ok,” she said.  “But not here.”  Bridget got up from beside the bed and walked out of the room with Scott and I close behind.  She led us down the hall and around a corner to the family visitation room of the long term care unit.  Scott and I sat down on a couch across from a TV and Bridget sat in an arm chair to our left.  She crossed her legs delicately and looked at us.  We looked back, Scott with an expectant look.  Bridget sighed and spoke:
            “Ok, what is it you wanted to know?”  Scott shifted nervously beside me.  I could tell he wanted to ask more about her father, but he knew he would have to approach it delicately.  If anyone could get there, I was certain Scott could.  He leaned towards her and looked her in the eyes.
            “Can you tell us what it was like for you?  When it first happened, I mean.  How did you come to terms with…all this?”  Scott had employed his most soothing tone.  It was almost frightening how well he could feign compassion.  Or maybe he really did care about what she had been through.  Things like this can change people and maybe Scott’s sudden illness had instilled in him some sort of empathy for the suffering of others.  Whatever the case, Bridget seemed to respond to his manner.  She looked back at him for a few moments with a sort of half smile on her face, and then began her story.
            “I was ten years old when my father went into his coma.  They were showing the crash on the television when I came home from school.  I sat there watching the news coverage for a long time before I could really comprehend what happened.  The other man was dead, but they weren’t saying anything specific about my father; just that he had been taken to Chester County Hospital and they would give more information as it came to them.  That’s the last single moment that I remember clearly.  An hour after I got home, my aunt came and to take me to the hospital.  From then on, it’s just been an endless flow of family, doctors, nurses, and old customers all saying the same thing: ‘I hope he gets better soon,’ but no one seems to have an idea when or if he ever will.  For the first few years, the doctors would tell me any good sign they saw to avoid the truth, but I guess around my sixteenth birthday they decided I was old enough.  They told me it was unlikely he would ever wake up and that he would probably stay that way for a few more years before he passed away. 
            “I guess my mother had already known for a long time.  After the first year or so, she stopped visiting every day.  I don’t blame her; she had to work to support me and my brother.  It must have been hard for her to leave Dad’s side.  I didn’t want him to be alone, so I just kept coming.  I’ve been here at least once a week since the accident happened.  I went to school nearby so I wouldn’t miss a visit.  In college, it became almost therapeutic for me to be here.  I didn’t make many friends coming to the hospital every weekend, but that didn’t matter to me.  Everyone needs someone who can be there for you and will listen to your problems without judging.  I know it sounds odd, but my father was always there for me.”  Bridget sat quietly for a few moments, a distant look in her eyes.  She sniffed a little and cleared her throat.
            “Maybe he can’t hear me and maybe he’s not even there anymore.  Whatever is going on though, I know my father cares about me.  Maybe it’s silly, but being with him is reassuring.”  She trailed off a little at the end.  Scott looked back at her, intensely, digesting it all.  After a few moments, it became apparent to me that neither of them had anything to say.  Bridget looked around the room a bit to avoid baring her soul any further and Scott put on an air of intense contemplation to cover up the fact that he had nothing to say. 
            “I don’t think it’s silly to feel that way,” I said, breaking the silence.  “Everybody takes comfort in things other people think are odd.  Hell, sometimes I hang out with my old stuffed animals.”  The last part slipped out before I even thought about it.  The embarrassment of my admission struck me immediately, but the full weight of what I had said did not hit me until Bridget turned to me with a look of surprise.  Her eyes then narrowed and I was struck with a sudden realization of what I had just said.  I scrambled to make it right.
            “No, I didn’t mean that your father was…” I trailed off, having no idea how to justify what I had just said.  Bridget’s look softened and she shifted a bit in her chair.
            “It’s ok,” she said softly.  “I know what you meant.  These days it’s a one way relationship between my father and I, but that doesn’t make it any less comforting.  He loved me when he was awake and that’s as good as loving me now.”  Scott nodded his head as though he understood.
            “Of course,” he said knowingly.  “We all need to find comfort somewhere.  Me?  I find comfort in knowing.”  He finished the last part with a poignant look towards Bridget; any attempt at subtlety seemed lost in his burning need for answers.  Bridget closed her eyes with a long, deep exhale. 
            “I told you, I can’t really help you.  My father is alive and even if he did know something, he can’t tell me.”  It was clear that this was becoming more and more difficult for her, but Scott would clearly not be satisfied by her answers, as reasonable as they seemed to me.
            “Yes, but he’s kind of like dead.  As close as a living person can be.  Is there anything you’ve seen in his face or anything the doctors have picked up while monitoring him?  Jack thought that maybe he’s just doing what he knew best in life.  Maybe if that’s true, that’s what we do when we die too.  Maybe we just keep on doing what we did best in life.  Do you think maybe he’s in there right now selling cars?”  By the last few words, Scott was not even trying to hide his excitement.  Bridget, however, was not amused.  She responded with a growing annoyance.
            “Look, I told you before that there’s really no way for me to know any of that.  Besides, I don’t think there’s anything ‘like dead’.  I think there’s ‘is dead’ and there’s ‘isn’t dead’ and my father isn’t dead.”  She nearly shouted the last two words, sending Scott back into his seat with a sheepish look. 
            “I’m sorry,” he said, all excitement drained from his voice.  “I hadn’t really prepared for this.  I’m practically still a kid and now I have to prepare myself for death?  How am I supposed to do that?”  Bridget shook her head.
            “I don’t know, Scott.  But I’ve been sitting by my father’s side for twelve years now and I don’t feel any more prepared for death than I was when I was ten.  Sure I see dying people all the time around here, but until it happens to you I don’t think you can be ready for it.” 
            “It’s just one of those things,” I interjected.  “You can’t know what it’s like before it happens and it only happens once.  You can think about it all you want, but who wants that?”  Bridget nodded.
            “Not many people.  I think that’s why my relatives rarely come by anymore.  What living person wants to deal with the idea of death?  If it were me, I would just do the things that I enjoy up until the point when I can’t do them anymore.  Why make your life all about the end?”  She finished with a comforting smile.  Whether it was the actual idea or the smile that sold me, I was all ready to help Scott make the most of the time he had left.  Scott, on the other hand, was not so impressed.
            “No, that’s not for me.  I’ve done all the things I enjoy plenty of times and I don’t need any reminders of what I’m going to miss.  I’m all for living a full and exciting life, but I don’t go into anything big not knowing as much as I can about it before hand and it doesn’t get much bigger than this.”  I wanted to argue, but Scott looked sure.  And after all, it was his last month to live.  Bridget breathed a defeated sigh and reclined in her chair.
            “So what are you going to do?” I asked.  “Interview the whole hospital on how they view dying?”  Scott looked surprised at first, then nodded.
            “Well I was just going to read some Emily Dickenson,” he said with a smile.  “But that does seem like an awfully good idea.”  I shook my head.  I had to stop giving him ideas.  Bridget laughed the kind of laugh that says, ‘what the hell is wrong with you’.  She climbed out of her chair and straightened out her shirt.
            “Well, I hope you treat everyone to the same level of tact you treated me.  Good luck with your little endeavor.”  She turned to leave, but stopped after a step.  Turning back, she smiled at Scott.
            “I do hope you find whatever you’re looking for, though.  Or at least some kind of peace.”  She continued towards to door, but Scott sprang up to stop her.
            “Wait!” he said, reaching out for her shoulder.  “Wouldn’t you like to come with us?”
            “Us?” I said, surprised, but Scott continued without missing a beat.
            “I’m sure anyone would be interested in knowing what death is really like and maybe you could help us be more personable.  What do you say?”  He finished with a vintage Scott smile that could melt butter.  Bridget shook her head, but still smiled.
            “I don’t know about that,” she said, obviously considering it.  “Look, I have to go be with my father for a while before work.  I’ll think about it.”  Scott jumped at the opportunity to show more interest.
            “Oh?  Where do you work?”  She smiled and unbuttoned her jacked revealing a red scrub top. 
            “I’m a nurse at Chester County Hospital.  I’ll be seeing you boys around.”  She turned and walked out into the hall back towards her father’s room.  We both watched her walk away until she rounded the corner and disappeared.  Scott turned around and walked back to the couch.
            “She likes me,” he said.  I laughed and shook my head.
            “Shut up.  So are you serious about this?” I asked as he sat down in the chair Bridget had vacated moments earlier.
            “Serious as whatever the hell the doctor said I have,” he replied with a smile.  He leaned back and put his feet up on a nearby ottoman. 
            “Hey Jack?” he said, staring up at the ceiling.  “If instead of dying, I for some reason slipped into a coma for twelve years, would you come visit me every week?”  I smiled and chuckled a little.
            “I don’t know, Scott.  I plan on being pretty important and I don’t think I can afford you holding me back.”  We both laughed, but Scott’s face stayed serious.
            “Really though.  I don’t have kids,” he said, pausing before the obligatory “that I know of.  I don’t have any brothers or sisters either or even any close cousins.  Sure my parents might come around, but that’s just kind of depressing.  If I’m going to be superficially aware of my surroundings, I’d like to have a friend around now and then.  You know, to remind me that I use to be cool.  Even if it’s just you.”  I thought it was probably a good sign that he could still joke a little in the midst of such a heavy conversation, but I could tell this was really weighing on him.  To be quite honest, I didn’t know if I would come every week under those circumstances.  I couldn’t even guess.
            “Look,” I said, trying to take on a comforting tone.  “I don’t know about all that, but I can promise you I’ll be around now.  And I’m sure other people will come by to see you too.  In the meantime, you have a mission, right?”  Scott seemed to cheer up a little at the mention of his plan.
            “Right,” he said, ambition stirring his tired frame.  “We’ve got some questions that aren’t going to answer themselves.”
            “Great,” I replied, inspired by his drive.  “Where to first?”  Scott rose to his feet and put a hand on my shoulder.
            “Bed,” he said.  “I’m tired as hell.”  He threw his arm over my shoulder as I stood up and I helped him into the hallway. 
            “So, how are we going to get through all this?” he asked, his breath growing deeper as we walked.
            “You mean answering all you questions or…”  I couldn’t finish, but Scott knew what I meant.
            “Both, I guess,” he said.  I thought for a moment, but I didn’t know what to say.  I could only guess what the next few weeks would be like.
            “Just take it all as it comes, I guess.”  He looked at me and smiled like the old Scott; a smile that told me he was ready to give everything he had and not give up until he’d found what he was after.
            “Right,” he said.  “Just take it all as it comes…”

End of Part One