She knew she was lying on the bed, her body sunk deep into the sagging mattress, but she thought she might be hovering a few inches above it. What did they call it? Levitation. Experimentally, she flexed her right leg and felt sheets against bare skin where her nightgown had ridden up a little. Yes, she was quite solidly planted on the bed, but there was a general feeling of lightness, airiness. Like a balloon tied to a tree, drifting in the wind, only a thin string keeping it from floating up into the clouds.
She surveyed her bedroom, which was looking more than ever like a hospital room what with the oxygen tank and IV and white-jacketed nurse. When she looked at him she thought doctor, because she was used to doctors being men and nurses being women. In her case the hospice nurse was a man and her oncologist was a woman. Welcome to the 21st century.
“Is there anything I can do for you, Miriam?” the nurse asked.
“What time is it?” she gasped. Talking had become difficult recently. There simply wasn't enough air, even with the help of the oxygen tank. She felt the tubes coming out of her nose and silently cursed them; they must look hideous. Whenever David looked at her now he winced; the very sight of her wasted body hurt his eyes. Yet another reason why she was glad he was gone.
“Eleven forty-five p.m. and twenty seconds,” said the nurse, with typical precision. So David had fifteen minutes left of his eighteenth year. Miriam nodded slowly and carefully, so not to upset the machinery that was hooked up to every orifice in her body. And she wondered if David was having a good time, wherever he was.
The nurse seemed to have a sixth sense for what she was thinking, and answered her question before she asked it: “Your nephew called a short while ago, while you were asleep. He and the girl are at a hotel in Boston. I have their number.” He stopped as if he was trying to decide whether or not to say something more, then added, “Better this way. Better that he has a distraction.” And he spoke the very words she was thinking: “It’s his birthday after all.”
The previous morning Miriam and David had had a hushed but heated argument over whether or not he should celebrate his birthday. “Go,” she had told him. “Take your girlfriend and take my credit cards and go to the city and have a good time.”
He had protested, “No way. I’m not leaving you when you’re…sick.” He sometimes formed the correct word on his lips, but never pronounced it. Both of them knew but neither spoke of it. He had taken care of her, devoted himself to her, all these long painful months. He was loath to stop even for a day, but she had insisted.
“Your book is getting published,” she told him.
“And I don’t care.”
“But you should care. You must take some time off, enjoy yourself. I’ve had the nurse phone your girlfriend for me. She’s picking you up this afternoon.” He had turned away from her just then and she admonished him gently, “Now, don’t cry. You’ve been wonderful, but I insist...”
He had argued some more and she had continued to assert herself until she ran out of breath. And finally he had agreed in a hollow sort of voice. Miriam had wondered if he really would have a good time, what with his worrying about her, but when the girl had showed up, bubbling cheerful enthusiasm, she had seen David’s eyes light up and she had known he would be okay.
She sighed now and the sound was drowned out by the steady hum of medical machinery. David was such a good boy. He had never caused any trouble for her and after she got sick he proved to be tremendously loyal. Miriam knew, for instance, that he was inspired and anxious to get started on his second book, but that he had not written a single word in many weeks, sticking close to her bedside. In fact, sometimes the nurse even got annoyed because David was doing his job. And he was good at it too, but he was young and it was his birthday.
The nurse knelt and did something to the oxygen pump, and it began to hum little bit louder. He stood up again. He was a big powerful man, built like a Saint Bernard. His physique was better suited to football than nursing care, a fact Miriam never failed to notice. “Do you need to go to the bathroom?”
He always knew, somehow. Perhaps it was something they taught at nursing school. Miriam nodded reluctantly and he slipped the bedpan under her. All these months, and she still felt humiliated. Just a year ago she had been working full-time and playing tennis twice a week and volunteering at the nursing home. Now she ought to be in a nursing home herself. She had never stopped to consider how the patients felt about the bedpans. Of course, you never thought that sort of thing would ever happen to you—especially when you were only forty-nine and perfectly healthy. Or thought you were perfectly healthy.
Miriam didn’t even smoke. The oncologist had said it was just one of those funny things.
After a minute the nurse took the pan away. She tried shutting her eyes, but it was no use. She could see anyway—lights and shadows, dreams and nightmares. She opened them again, trying to clear her head. David was probably eating his cake now, chocolate, washed down with copious amounts of wine. Miriam worried about David’s drinking. When he was only a kid, fifteen or sixteen, he’d often fall up the porch steps coming home from friends’ parties late at night. She hadn’t been concerned about it, because kids did that. Boys will be boys, right? Now he didn’t go to parties anymore but she had often smelled alcohol on his breath nevertheless.
“What time is it now?” she asked when the nurse returned from washing the bedpan.
“Eleven fifty-two.” David would be nineteen in eight minutes.
Miriam shut her eyes and saw. Saw her past life. She hadn’t had much of one—lived quietly, never married, never even had a really serious relationship with a man. She had wanted a child and she got one, late in life. David had been sent to her by Child Protection Services when he was fifteen. His mother, her sister, was helpless to stop her alcoholic husband from beating him. Miriam had been happy to take him, loved him like her own son. And he loved her too, probably more than he’d ever loved his biological parents.
Such a talented boy. Getting a book published already, well on his way to fame and fortune. She only wished she’d be around to enjoy it with him.
She opened her eyes again. The nurse was sitting in the bedside chair now, reading and watching her steadily at the same time. David sometimes read aloud to her. Poetry usually. All kinds of stuff, from Shakespeare to Ginsberg. She studied the book the nurse was reading: a Reader’s Digest condensed novel. Not something she’d want to listen to. Miriam wondered if she could ask him to get one of her Auden books off the shelf and read to her, but she decided not to bother.
The nurse noticed her staring. “Is there something you need?”
Suddenly she knew that she wouldn’t be there to welcome David’s return. That she had only minutes. What would David say? Would David be all right? But she would never know. “What time is now?”
She wondered what heaven would be like, assuming she was good enough to go. She had tried to go to church on at least a semi-regular basis, but there always seemed to be more pressing things to do. She wondered if she should say something, like recite the Lord’s Prayer. But she couldn’t remember the words...
Pain seized her chest, like a knife slashing open her lungs. Those terrible lungs, weighed down with disease. She felt her hand move over her heart, felt its beat faltering beneath her fingers. She opened her eyes and saw the nurse stand up quickly.
“What...time...” she gasped. The world was sliding away from her, like water.
She shut her eyes and gave up, the string cut, the balloon taking flight.