I've written one short story, ever. And this is it. It's emotional, raw, and beautiful. It's open to interpretation and thought, but also delivers a strong message. It served as the major inspiration for my second novel, The Beyond Experience.
It's nearing the anniversary of the day I lost my brother in law, a man who fought the good fight but eventually, he was taken from this world. It revealed to me the importance of living in the present, because you aren't guaranteed a future. I encourage everyone to look at what surrounds them in this moment, rather than forecasting where you'd like to be 1, 2, 5, 10 years from now. The moments pass quickly, and I'm reminded of that every day while I watch my son, who is somehow five years old already, grow.
An entire body gasp. Not just from his lungs as an involuntary reaction brought on by his sympathetic nervous system, but his entire body reacted. He lurched up and down from the bed, monitors beeped over and again before the nurse decided it was best just to shut them off. It was the last of many machines that had been turned off.
For months, machines had filled the room like soldiers standing guard watching over him. Each machine performing a life-saving task. The ECMO, which used two massive transparent hoses coming from one opening in his neck, circulated and scrubbed his thin blood of poisonous CO2. It then went through a warmer and brought his blood back up to 98 degrees. The ECMO required so much of his blood at one time, that without a warmer, it could cause hypothermia over time. These long, thick hoses were checked several times a day, ensuring there weren’t clots in the lines. A dialysis machine was running along with the ECMO, his kidneys had failed following the events of the week before, where his blood pressure dropped significantly and caused liver failure. Dozens of IV’s entered his left arm. Most of which were trying to keep him from infection, low blood pressure, or the occasional blood transfusion. It had always been a long shot, but he had fought hard for months and the odds seemed to improve as the weeks passed, slowly climbing the transplant list till he reached number one.
Just last week, this man had broken a record for distance walked while on the ECMO machine. Walking required at least 3 people to assist him. Not to help him walk. He never would have stood for that. One carried a portable part of the ECMO machine, another pushed a chair, a third held his ECMO lines and IV stand. When getting back to his room he even stood danced to “Last Christmas,” while singing into his nebulizer treatment. The performance requiring a nurse to continue holding his ECMO lines leaving his neck. Her arms were on fire supporting the heavy lines high above her head, reaching up to match his height of 6 foot. She had to ensure the thick life-saving hoses didn’t tear his brittle tissue, but she laughed through her suffering. Was she accommodating because he was charismatic? motivated? care free? manipulative? Was it all of the above? Did it matter?
Sitting with him in the dark room, this family reflected on his life. The good times he had during his relatively short time on Earth. His gristly laugh, his charm, the fact that he couldn’t care less about other’s opinions of him, and most importantly, his ability to love. With each story, more hospital staff entered the room to participate in the living memorial service that was taking place. As the family and hospital staff rode laughter and fought back tears, they told each other their favorite memories. Familiar ones, new ones, similar ones, but all shared a common theme of his love and compassionate soul; his motivation to live life without compromise. Every now and again, the man would mumble, or simply smile, but nobody understood what he said or why.
His girlfriend, quietly sobbed and sat by his bedside holding his left hand with both of hers. His fingers were cold to the touch and clubbed at the tips. Gasps, quiet, ineffective gasps made the room cringe as they watched in silent protest over what was happening before their eyes. Prayers, a lot of prayers. Unanswered prayers full of hope for months had turned sour, and new prayers full of desperation and promises silently flowed through the thoughts of the family and hospital staff. Promises to change, to be a better person, to take nothing for granted. Prayers to go back to the church, to stop their sinful ways and to always be thankful for even the small things in life. Prayers of sacrifice, throwing themselves on proverbial swords as long as it meant he could miraculously live on for even one more day, one more memory, one more story.
Everyone who talked to him had loved him, had been touched emotionally by him; was forever changed having met him. The alarms which were previously silenced, now held everyone hostage. Eyes were constantly shifting back and forth to the man, then to the monitors that were still registering a small, and ever decreasing blood pressure. His nurse, the same nurse who had turned off his IV’s, his ECMO, and his dialysis machine, then walked to the monitors, and while wiping tears from her already red eyes, turned the monitors towards the wall. Nobody was held hostage by them any longer. The moment nobody had been waiting for was upon them. The nurse had finally gotten the pain medications from the hospitals pharmacy and administered them to the man. Nobody thought he was in pain, but, then again, nobody really knew what he was experiencing. A merciful last gift for this life.
He felt nothing. His mind was full as he sat on a stump in a field full of white flowers and grass being kissed by a low sun. The light highlighted everything in a beautiful yellow orange glow. The greens were intensified, contrasted against the fading sun. The sky was blue, with beautiful wisps of white painted by giant hands. He sat with a small girl on his lap as he smiled. He picked her up and laughed his gristly laugh in her face and blew on her stomach. The toddler shrieked and giggled loudly, kicking her feet and slapping the tattoos on his arms. They were wrinkled now, the years had been kind to the ink and spared them from fading, but his skin hadn’t been so lucky.
He looked to his right and despite the time of the day, the sun shone strongly on a group of tables surrounded by old growth oak trees in full bloom. The trees made music as the gentle, comforting breeze blew through the reed-like leaves. There were at least a hundred people he recognized immediately, even though he’d never seen some of them before. He took a deep filling breath and sighed, his body warmed over, and it felt home as he caught site of his true love. She stood regally near a table full of beautiful women whom he all recognized as his six daughters. He chuckled and found it ironic to have no sons. In fact, it was ironic to have had kids at all. He was told he was sterile, that it would be next to impossible to have children himself. But his whole life, his brothers and sisters lives, had been a case study in statistical variance and anomalies.
Standing without a hitch, he carried the young girl towards the tables. She giggled and touched his nose, his ears, his mouth over and over again. He opened his mouth and bit down gently as she reached to touch his lips once more. She laughed loudly and threw her dark curls back overhead as he jokingly chewed her soft little fingers with his lips. The tall grass massaged his legs as he moved close to the tables full of family. His bare feet kissed the ground and made accommodations for the small stones that pressed into the soft sole of his feet from time to time. He loved when she rubbed his feet.
He made eye contact with his wife and she shot him a knowing, excited smile. He was always the guy who had surprised people, but this time she had surprised him and nobody ruined it. He passed the first oak tree, the ground underfoot became more firm, packed down from the constant congregating of people. A sense of peace overwhelmed him when he heard laughter erupt from the tables. Music began, a song he used to dance to. He bounced his granddaughter up and down in his arms to the beat as the took longer and stronger steps towards the party.
He handed off the young girl to her mother, and received a playful kiss as payment, her soft lips pressing into his bony cheek and her hair tickling his long nose as she pulled away. He looked right and saw his wife again. He paused and watched her talk to the family, and admired how strong she was. She had stood by him when many others hadn’t. For a moment, he remembered just how poorly he treated her when they were younger. Each making mistakes in turn, back and forth forgiving and forgetting until there was no need to do so any longer. They grew together emotionally and their lives, their stories, became one.
He took a deep cleansing breath and closed his eyes. He smelled flowers, steak, hotdogs and barbecue chicken. He held the breath in and allowed it to navigate through his airways into each lung, lobe, bronchioles and finally into the alveoli where the body exchanged poisonous carbon dioxide for oxygen. He exhaled slowly, opened his eyes and walked to his wife. She saw him coming and smiled widely, his stride quickened as he floated towards her ignoring everyone else who looked his direction.
She reached out towards him and grasped both hands. Her left and his right arm sharing mirror images of a tattoo “I am always with you.” She let go of his left hand and traced an ink rosary that encircled his neck and dove down into his shirt. It was something he wore as a reminder of his family; two beads for his parents, separated by five beads for each sibling he had. The pattern was only for him, he spoke to nobody about the significance. Beneath his shirt was a dichotomy of good versus evil, the inner struggle of heaven and hell, right versus wrong choices that plagued him for much of his early life. On the left tricep “hate” on the right “love”. The right arm at the shoulder was heavens gates with angels all around, while demonic figures tried to climb their way up. On the opposite, were angels flying up to destroy demons. All were black and white except for one, faceless pink angel standing out against all the fighting, for his grandmother the cancer survivor. The tattoos he finished long ago, but even before they were finished he had won his inner battle. Love had conquered all when he met her.
He kissed her. It was a short, deep kiss. They met eyes and he squeezed her hand, mouthing the words I Love you as he turned and walked towards the central table and his place. He approached the chair and everyone followed, as if summoned by a silent call. They formed a half circle around the table in front of him, as he stood behind the chair. His nephew came carrying a cake and his sister followed with the candles, 65 in all. She and his four other siblings lit them one by one, laughing andstumbling to light them all before the wax ran down the candles and onto the vanilla cake with chocolate frosting; a family recipe.
The candles were finally lit. He savored the scene as he sat motionless for a few lasting moments, allowing more wax to run onto the cake creating a multicolored appearance. The sun had now set deeper on the horizon, and the sky became a watercolor painting of cotton candy blue and pink with purple streaks. It was the magic hour, when all existence looked its most beautiful. The sun sat low behind him, creating an angelic aura around his body. There was an excitement in the air as they sat anticipating him breathing in deeply and blowing out the candles. It is, after all, why they came here.
“I love you all!” He said extending his arms out overhead. He took one deep breath in, and blew out the candles with one long exhale.
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