BROKEN – A tale of fairness and maybes
It’s easier when they’re jerks, because you don’t let your barriers down near a jerk, on account of the danger of them… well, jerk you around. But the thing is, they rarely are, so it never gets easy. And when they don’t even belong there all together, it just makes it harder.
It’s not about illness being fair to some and not others. It’s not about anyone deserving to be sick. It’s about being a time and place for everything. Even illness.
You don’t see many elderly citizens with chickenpox, and even though it happens, it always strikes you as odd; you don’t see many kids in a cardiology department, yet, sadly, it happens. It still strikes you as odd… as wrong. As unfair.
I’ve worked in the same department of this hospital for nearly fifteen years now, except for the two brief months I tried the pediatric version of it and discovered that I wasn’t cut out for it. You see, it’s all about the fairness of things, and to me, it’s only fair that our hearts get tired and end up failing when we’re old and have already used them up to live our life.
There’s nothing fair about looking into a sick kid’s eyes and seeing the kind of fear that only comes from disease; or that deep sense of betrayal that you can only feel when you’ve been cheated out of something. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know that it’s something you don’t deserve to lose.
Because them, those kids, they were dealt a lousy hand in the fate game, even before they knew how to play. Damn! Some even before they knew they were playing. It’s even worse with the babies, the ones who don’t even understand why they don’t get a chance at a normal life like everybody else.
It just sucks.
Fifteen years of dealing with the big cliché that everything that’s good must come to an end. Years of struggling to find a way to be there for my patients, without getting lured in to giving too much of myself. Because if each patient that dies takes a little piece of me with him when he goes, then all too soon I’ll be left with nothing more to give. And that is not why I signed up for this life.
It’s not a big yard, and some of the patients have been with us so many times on and off that we know them by first name, know their grandkids’ names, know why they’re here. After coming here a couple of times, they stop being the ‘myocarditis in bed seven’ or the ‘AMI with triple bypass in bed two’ and they become ‘Mr. Norris with the three cats’ and ‘Mrs. Livingston with the cute nephew’. It’s a good evolution, but a bad prognosis.
A couple of them are ‘first warning’ material, the ones that thought they were immortal and that eating deep-fry dishes and cheeseburgers for breakfast would never come back to bite them in the ass… or the heart. They are surprise balls. The ones you want out of here before you can learn their first name.
That particular day had started surprisingly well. I had woke up two minutes before the alarm clock could start screaming at me, the sunlight that was coming in between the barely-closed curtains was still gentle enough to not hurt my eyes and my kid got out of bed at first call. Getting ready for work and dropping Andy off at school flashed by in a blur of normalcy and habit and the search for a parking space only took twenty minutes. Trust me when I tell you that this is a very good thing.
When I arrived at my station, everyone was already talking about him. The guy in bed eleven. The hero. The one that looked like a fallen angel. Ralph Burkovitz, the poor kid.
It was the “poor kid” part that soured the undigested remains of my recent breakfast inside my stomach.
From what I was told, he’d been brought directly from the ER the previous day, suffering from acute heart failure, triggered by a massive electric shock. His heart, like any other electrical device, had just fried. He had, however, managed to save two little kids in the process.
I had heard all about little James and Olivia Woodenhill. Small town, everyone had heard about them, about the despair their parents felt, not knowing what had happened to their kids. Every other parent in town was scared shitless that the same thing could happen to theirs. Everyone praying thanks that it hadn’t been their kid, everyone praying for a miracle.
He had saved those two kids. From what I could tell of his condition, we couldn’t even fix his heart to pay him back.
I left their tale of how this person had heard from that other person, who had heard from someone else, of what had happened, and picked up my charts. I knew how this particular tale could end up and the more I heard about how wonderful this guy was, the harder it would be to watch him go, little by little. I was late for my eight o’clock vitals check round and, because fate can be such a bitch, bed eleven was on my charts.
I could’ve taken a wild guess at what I would find just from what I had heard at the nurse’ station about ‘bed eleven’. I knew that he was young from their ‘poor boy’ talk, but I had figured that he was old enough to be in the adult cardiac unit. The ‘fallen angel’ crap I figured that I could either blame on him being handsome and having impressed the younger nurses, or the fact that he had in fact acted as one towards those children. I was a bit off the mark on both accounts. And I knew that he would be feeling like crap because… well, because that’s what heart failure makes you feel like.
I couldn’t really claim to know how he was feeling, but I could venture an educated guess. Awhile back I broke the radius bone in my left arm. It rendered my arm and left hand utterly useless for the entire time I had to wear that damn cast. I can still remember how it was to not be able to use a part of my body- a part that I hadn’t even realized how much I needed for my day-to-day tasks until I had to make do without it.
I figured that, at such a young age, the guy in bed eleven was probably feeling the same thing. Only, instead of an arm, it was his whole body that was ‘broken’. Never mind the strain such an electric discharge would’ve placed on his whole musculature under, making his entire body feel like it had been thoroughly beaten. The really bad part was the fact that, once the heart is no longer strong enough to get the rest of the body working, the body can’t do anything but struggle along, slowly shutting down, system by system.
Gestures that yesterday were made with little thought behind them, had to be carefully planned now; breathing that was taken for granted before was now a lottery, never sure when the last breath would really be the last one.
To be honest, if someone had dumped something like that in my lap overnight, I’d be freaking out, using all of my fading strength to climb the walls.
The guy- scratch that- the kid in bed eleven was a picture of calmness. No, not calmness… serenity.
I had to double-check my chart, making sure that I’d gotten his age right. He didn’t look twenty-six. He didn’t look like he belonged in the adult cardiac unit at all.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. Even from a distance I could see that he was a full grown man, a big man at that, from what I could tell from the space he took on that hospital bed.
But still, there was something undeniably childish about him. Maybe it was the slight turn of his head, his face unconsciously seeking the warmth of sunlight coming through the side window, or maybe it was the splash of freckles over his cheeks and nose, or maybe just something about the way one of his hands was twisted around the blankets around his chest, searching for comfort in the harsh fabric. Something about him screamed lost boy too loud to leave me unaffected.
I was quick to take note of the readings on his monitor and check the levels in his morphine drip and saline. Not much in the way of medication there; just trying to make him feel more comfortable. My work was interrupted by a deep sigh, coming from behind me.
“Can I help you?” I asked the tall kid with floppy brown hair who stood by the door.
At first I thought that maybe he was lost, because the other bed in this room was empty and certainly this kid was looking for a sick grandparent, or maybe even a parent. The sad, lost look in his eyes told me how wrong I was.
“How’s my brother doing?”
I couldn’t help to give a fleeting look between the blondish, round faced sleeping man to the sharp angled face of the brunet in front of me. Brothers, humm? Never would’ve guessed.
“Have the doctors talked to you yet?” I asked, not wanting to say anything that would add more sadness to those soulful eyes.
He just nodded.
Of course they had. I knew the look this kid was directing at the sleeping man in bed eleven. It was the look of someone who was trying to commit an image to memory, the look of someone not ready to let go. Of course he knew.
“He’s comfortable for the time being,” I explained, feeling that he didn’t needed details about blood pressure and barely controlled arrhythmias. “I’ll be out of your way in no time.”
To my surprise, he actually took a step back.
“No, it’s ok,” he said quickly, quietly, afraid to wake the sleeping brother. “I have to go anyway, stuff to do…” he added, already half way to the exit, “… I’ll come back later. If he wakes up tell him that…”
he never finished the sentence, turning absent minded and making a quick exit. Before he was out the unit’s door, I could have sworn that I saw his hand reach for his face to wipe something away, but he disappeared too fast for me to be sure. What the hell had happened here?
“Don’t worry… that Sasquatch knows the freaky amount of space that he occupies. He’s just making sure that there’s room left for you to work.”
The quiet, slightly raspy voice could’ve only come from the sleeping man, who was not so asleep after all. Had he been faking it?
“Do you want me to call him back?” I asked, nearing the young man, Ralph I reminded myself.
I could see the resemblance between the two brothers now. Soulful, beautiful sad eyes. They both had them.
The amount of emotions that flickered through Ralph’s green eyes then left me slightly out of breath. ‘Do you want me to call him back?’ Such a simple question it was for most people, and yet for this young man, it was enough to bring out unbelievable depths of sorrow, longing, love and sadness to the surface, feelings that I thought to be too complicate for such a simple question.
As quickly as it had surfaced, one blink and it was gone, replaced by an indifference that looked both practiced and incredibly fake on his face.
“Nah… he’ll be around again.”
It was mesmerizing to watch, the way his mouth said one thing and his expressive eyes said the exact opposite words. Words like ‘stay’ and ‘hold me’ and ‘I’m scared’, normal words, expected words that I somehow knew he would never say, not because he was too proud to say them, but because he wasn’t used to them.
I was about to ask him if he needed anything else, but gave up when I realized that his eyes were once again closed. I couldn't tell if he was faking it again to avoid me like he had avoided his brother. But this time, I was sure that it was a tear I saw sliding down the side of his pale face.
The rumour mill ran wild all through that day. One of the other people working here had a cousin who worked in the police station. As it was, the rescue of the two kids had made the front page in that morning’s paper. I was filling out my charts with all the data I had been collecting from the various beds and couldn’t help overhearing them.
“Fred said that those kids were sooo lucky. He can’t even believe it’s possible,” Jenny, barely out of college, said excitedly. “Apparently, some years back, the same thing happened to a bunch of kids in several towns around here.”
“What happened to those kids?” One of the more eager members of her audience asked.
“It’s a really creepy story, if you ask me. Kids went missing and some were never found. The ones they did find were in an old abandoned basement, but by the time someone got to them, it was already too late. Fred didn’t see it, it was before his time in the force, but he was told that it looked like something had fed on them,” she whispered, as if talking in a lower voice made those poor kids any less dead.
“Yeah… Fred said that the other guys at the station were all thinking that the Woodenhill kids were as good as gone too, given what they knew. It was nothing short of a freaking miracle that bed eleven happened to be passing by that specific house and heard the kids screaming.”
“Oh, but you don’t even know the best part yet,” Jenny said, lowering her voice to a conspiring tone.
Despite my best efforts to stay out of this, I found myself walking closer to the group to collect a form for which I had no use whatsoever. It did allow me to hear Jenny’s words better, though.
“The kids said they weren’t alone in that basement where they were found… that something had taken them there.”
“Something… not someone?”
“No, you heard right. They were too scared to give the cops a proper description, but they talked about it like it was some kind of monster. From what they said, the big brother carried them out while the other one stood behind to fight the thing… and that’s when it happen’.”
“Double wow!… Wait, isn’t the big brother the one that’s in bed eleven?”
“No, that’s the older brother… I was talking about the really big guy that was here before.”
“Well, they look the same age to me… and so cute, even the one that’s sick. You sure they’re brothers? Damn good genes those parents had…”
“Not the point… this is so big that Fred said the Mayor’s even considering giving these guys some kind of medal… you know, if they can rush the paperwork before the guy in bed eleven… well, you know.”
“This is so unfair… I mean, if this is how good deeds are repaid, I’m done with helping old ladies across the street. The guy’s a freaking hero and this is how Karma pays him back?”
“Yeah, totally sucks, but you know, Karma doesn’t really work like that…”
I couldn’t find any more reasons to stick around, so I never did discover how Jenny thought Karma worked, but she was right about one thing… this whole thing sucked.
I know myself fairly well, and I knew how hard it was when I grew attached to any of the patients. And I damn well knew what was in stored for this kid, so I damn well knew that the smart thing for me to do was to keep my distance and see him only as a patient, as a damaged heart, as one more chart in my list of charts to manage. Switch i.v. drip, check morphine dose, and collect vitals that only proved he wasn’t getting any better.
It was a perfect plan but it was doomed to fail every time I heard one more detail about how he had come to be there. It was a plan that went down the toilet every time that I entered his room and looked at his eyes. I don’t remember much of what he said to me in those times, and it really didn’t matter. His words never matched what his eyes were saying anyway and it was his eyes that told me everything about him and his life.
How was that even possible?
I’de been feeling angry with lots of things lately, but mostly, I’de been angry about the fairness of things. Or more to the point, the unfairness of things. Little things. Big things. Tossing and turning in my bed that night, thinking about the new patient, hadn’t helped matters one bit.
I mean, was it fair that my mom didn’t go to my wedding because she didn’t want me to change towns? Or that my husband died, ten years ago, and left me with a small child to raise? Was it fair, last night in the supermarket, when I let that old guy go ahead of me, just for him to take the last piece of ham that I had my eye on? Was it fair that this kid, with a whole life ahead of him, had stumbled into our town for no apparent reason, only to get served with a death sentence?
As I drove to work the next morning, I reached the conclusion that life wasn’t fair at all, that I was too tired to deal with this and that this could possibly be the patient that made me lose my mind. I had a headache too, and that wasn’t fair either.
Still, fair or not fair, I saw him as soon as I turned onto the hospital’ street. The fallen angel, the reason for my impending insanity, the town’s very own hero, right there on the sidewalk, gripping the lamppost like it was the only thing keeping him upright, looking impossibly fragile and lost. And that too wasn’t fair, because as soon as I pulled over next to him, intending to tear him a new one for being out of his bed, all it took was one look into his tired eyes and I knew that I would do whatever he asked me to.
“Hi there,” he greeted me, looking for all purposes like he didn’t have a care in the world. The words, however, lacked the energy usually associated with them.
“Hi yourself. Out for a stroll?” I said in the same tone. Uncompromising.
“Got tired of the view… thought I might as well check out the rest of the place,” he replied, as truthfully as a long-nosed Pinocchio.
His legs must’ve been made of wood too, because the moment he tried to let go of the lamppost and walk away, they locked up and he came dangerously close to taking a nosedive. He grabbed the post again, nonchalantly, like it had been his intention all along.
Intellectually, I knew he shouldn’t be out of the hospital, and I was sure that no sane - or insane for that matter - doctor had authorized his release this soon. Emotionally, I felt that whatever little time he had left, he should be spending it with his family, not with us.
So, I couldn’t really blame him for leaving against medical advice, whether he’d done it with all the proper bureaucracy to cover our asses signed, or had simply escaped. I didn’t know, and I really, really didn’t want to find out because my next words would make me guilty either way. “Need a ride somewhere?”
He nodded slowly. I was sure that the gratefulness in his smile was more for me not ratting him out than for my offer to drive him somewhere. I was also sure that he would give me the address of his brother’s motel, the one just around the corner where we all knew he was staying.
Once more I was wrong.
“Is there a bus station somewhere near here?”
I blinked, certain that I had either heard him wrong or that he was having a laugh at my expense. “Bus station?”
He nodded again, not meeting my inquisitive eyes.
“Sure,” I agreed slowly, unlocking my car doors. “Hop in.” Because at this point, it was either my car’ seats or the street floor.
He let himself drop in the front seat with a tired sigh and hugged the large clothes he was wearing closer to his body. Where had he gotten those?
The professional in me took over for a couple of seconds. He looked terribly pasty, with black smudges of black under his eyes that did not go well with his bright green gaze. Even across from him I could feel the small tremors that he was trying to control, feeling like miniature earth quakes in the front seat, leaving me to wonder if he was cold or if it was something else. I really should take him back. I raised the temperature of the heater instead.
It really was a small town and just five minutes later, we stopped in front of the bus station. “This is it,” I announced needlessly, just to break the silence. “Your brother’s waiting in there for you?” I asked, finding the idea strange in itself, but not wanting to believe any other option. The car his brother had been driving around was another legend all in itself.
“Not really,” he said in a quiet voice, bracing himself to leave the hot comfort of my car.
I sighed against my best advice. Shook my head. Counted to ten and looked at him.
“He doesn’t even know you left the hospital, does he?”
I saw him building a lie in his head even before he turned to look at me. And then, just as quickly, he gave up and graced me with a sincerity that I somehow knew he rarely gave to total strangers. No idea why, but it made me feel special.
“I don’t want him around when it happens,” he whispered.
I wanted to look away, afraid that he would mistake the sorrow in my eyes for pity and leave the car, but I didn’t, and he didn’t either. Instead, he waited for me, someone that he’d never met before, to tell him that he was making the right decision by sparing his little brother the trauma of watching his big brother die. But his eyes… his eyes were once again betraying him. His eyes were telling me he was truly terrified of dying alone. No one should die alone.
Somehow I knew it was up to me to convince this kid, this stranger, that it was all right to do the selfish thing once in a while.
“I don’t know your brother,” I began slowly, weighting each word, scared shitless of saying the wrong thing. “But I doubt he would ever forgive you if you did something like that.”
I waited, anxious to see if this was when he would yell at me to mind my own business and slam my car door on his way out. He stayed silent, watching the other cars pass us by. Up ahead, the traffic light changed to green.
So I went on. “My husband was killed in a construction accident, died instantly,” I said, repeating the words that had taken me three years to voice. “It was over ten years ago and not a day goes by that I don’t wish that I’d had time to tell him one more time how much I loved him. Not a day goes by that I don’t wish that my face and his son’s face were the last ones he saw before he closed his eyes.”
Ten years later, and talking about it still brought tears to my eyes. I looked anywhere but at the stranger inside my car, the emotions too raw to share. The change in his breathing made me look back at him, worried that his heart had chosen that precise moment to crap out on us.
I caught the quick movement of his hand as he finished wiping his face, a gesture so similar to his brother’s that it made me smile. The gesture, however, did nothing to hide the moisture still leaking from his eyes. “Can you do me one more favour?” He asked in a calm voice, meeting my eyes with nothing more to hide.
“Moterhead Motel… could you drop me there?”
I arrived at work really, really late that morning, but late as I was I couldn’t keep the smile off my face.
My thoughts rarely went back to Ralph Burkovitz, not after the day I drove him to meet his brother. A year went by in no time at all and, even thought I hadn’t been thinking about it, I knew that he was probably dead by now.
So, when I walked into a road restaurant in Milwaukee to meet my sister for lunch, I knew that the young man that I was seeing- seating by the corner table, wolfing down a large cheeseburger while talking to a tall man seated in front of him- couldn’t possibly be Ralph.
As if sensing my eyes on him, not-Ralph paused between bites and met my gaze. Even from that distance, I could tell his eyes were the same colour as those of the Ralph I had known. For a moment, I thought he too had recognized me. For a moment his green eyes seemed to smile at me. But then they flickered back to the man in front of him, who called him Dean, and just like that the moment passed.
I knew I would wonder, later, if it would’ve been better to just approach him and settle my doubts then and there. To suffer the momentary embarrassment of interrupting two complete strangers in order to make sure that I wasn’t really seeing dead people. To be certain that Ralph and Dean weren’t the same man.
I never approached him, and I couldn’t say that I was sorry about it either. It was a nice uncertainty to live with, the possibility that maybe the kind young man who had arrived from nowhere to save two young kids hadn’t died after all. The possibility that maybe some things were still fair, that maybe, just maybe, there really were angels out there, watching over us.
“Hey, Mary, we gonna order or what?” My sister grumbled, calling me back to reality.
I looked back at her, forgetting about the two strangers. “Sure thing… I think I’ll have a cheeseburger.”
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.