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January 23, 2023

A New Sleep

By Tom Hamilton

"No, it's all right, Anna." Pat's head said. "I know ... I mean I realize you're still a young woman."

But she would not take her face out of her hands and continued to sob uncontrollably. The tears escaped from in between her svelte fingers and ran down her florescent pink nails, making them seem even brighter. The tiny drops of her sadness splashed daintily onto the cold tile hospital floor.

"Anna." He repeated, as his brain gave his arm the command to reach out to her. But that electrode never reached the intended muscle, blockaded along that path by the sabotaged bridge of his severed spine. So the paw stayed put, resting against his ribcage in a rapidly curling and nearly fetal position. A long slow moan escaped his wife's throat.

"No, really ... " he tried to begin again. "I understand, I mean ... this ... this ..." He was groping for words. "It's no good."

"Pat." When she finally spoke, it sounded much more like a hiccup than a word. "I don't think you do understand, I mean not really ... it isn't just the sex with him."

"Oh" He said, as what she was telling him really penetrated his mind for the first time and the room swam. He could not see much of his drab surroundings from where he lay on his back in the hospital bed, and for that he was thankful. But from memory he knew that there was one narrow hall by the entrance. Next to a six-by-six block that held the toilet, shower and tub. This branched out into a wider opening which held two adjustable steel framed beds. One his warden, the second mercifully empty during his spouse's harrowing confession. A faded mural depicting a vase of bronze flowers hung on the opposite wall within his lone field of vision. A television, on the same type of steel frame which supported the beds, jutted out slightly above the lifeless painting and to the right. The volume on the tube was turned down, but Vanna White could be seen twisting a glowing letter B around while flashing a professional smile. Far below, a statue of the Blessed Virgin sat on a tray table. She must have looked overwhelming in blue and gold to her congregation of sealed cups, straws rising in the air at the foot of her gown like arms raised in worship. His helpless kind needed such gimmicks just to take a simple sip of juice. A pitcher of water sat next to the icon. But he could not envision the coolness through the hard plastic container. If he could just catch a glimpse of the clear refreshing liquid, maybe the air wouldn't seem so hot.

"Pat" Her soft voice eased into his troubled thoughts. She had stopped crying now, and when she looked up her eyes were surprisingly free of redness. They did not appear bloodshot or affected by the strong tears in any way. Instead the leftover liquid formed a luminous sheen which coated her brown irises. A color which should have seemed septic, but it was more like the swirl of a dark and delicious caramel. That stare was set inside her pale vanilla face, which was framed by the deep black licorice-hued locks of her thick hair. Her soft-serve serve skin was totally free of any blemishes. Her lips were the pink tone of a young strawberry, with just one strained lick of moistness. It was no revelation that she was beautiful. It was not as if he were looking at her for the first time. Still, it was impossible for him to believe she had been with another man.

"I don't know if it's him or all this but ... " she began as she gestured around the depressing hospital room.

"Oh" Pat interrupted her before she could finish the thought she was voicing. But he felt no rage. Only frustration and helplessness.

"I mean I've ... " She struggled to continue. "When I'm with him I just feel free of it all."

"Well" Pat conceded. "I can understand how you'd want to be." Then she did what he could not and leaned over to take his hand. He imagined that her white fingers would look somewhat red if they squeezed his tight enough. But he had no way to gauge this, since he could not see where their grip was joined from his back. He could not even feel her warmth through his expired limb.

"It's not you, Pat." She whispered as the tears welled up in her eyes again. "You ... why you've been so good to me. It's just ... It's just this ... " She stared at the floor. "I mean I haven't been able to do it. Just looking at you like this. And to have them tell me that there's no chance you'll ever get any better."

"You don't have to explain." He said with his lip quivering, yet his voice stayed firm. Sheer misery seeped into his brain as surely as if someone were standing over him, pouring it onto his head like hot, black, cornbread coffee from a scalding silver pot.

She let his hand go and slumped back onto the pumpkin colored imitation leather hospital chair. "Don't you even want to know who it is?" She asked from a drained, drooping and defeated posture.

"Well." He started to shake his head no. But not even those muscles would react in any kind of traditional way. So his head just shriveled into a pathetic shiver. "I don't even see how that's pertinent."

"Pertinent" Anna mocked and sat bolt upright in her chair. "God damn you Pat!" She said through a quiet and controlled rage. "How can you be so logical at a moment like this? Don't you realize what it is that I'm telling you? Don't you ever want ... "

"Want to what, Anna?" He chopped the last part of her question off with a loud voice. "I can scream you know!" She bit her nails in shame, and avoided his glance by looking to her right. And now the rage did come. He could feel it swelling up inside his chest like heat blowing up liquid glass. Bubbling, like a two dollar bottle of champagne with his sick purple and tan face drawn on as the cork. And he wished someone would stick a giant version of that twisting spring popper into his head, until it twirled the noggin off from his neck. So that all the desperation he felt could come foaming out and find the ground, like some filthy garbage wrecked rainbow, soaking into the concrete outside a dumpster after a hard rain had ceased.

"I can scream if that's what you want!" This voice was louder and she was startled and embarrassed by it. "What do you want me to say Anna? How could you? Is that what you want me to ask? Hmm?" She fidgeted in her chair. "What kind of gall does it take for you to ask me anything? You want me to be a man, hmm?" His eyes bulged out like two marbles being squeezed through a soft cloth. His inanimate body could no longer be an outlet for his rage. So his head, which seemed to shrink a little bit more each day, had to bear the brunt of his fury. "I'm a man, yeah." He spat out finally with a deep breath of quieting sarcasm. Then, just as suddenly as it had came, the madness was gone and his brain just felt tired. His body would have gone limp if it hadn't already done so permanently.

Anna didn't answer. She only continued to chew at her attractive and well manicured nails. "I'm sorry Pat," She said simply, while trying not to cry again. "It's not you, it's ..." She paused as an ice-colored tear ran silently down her cheek. "It's what's happened to us." She stopped and shook her head no, her brown eyes like a muddy river on an icy Spring day. "No, that's not fair." She was breathing in heaves. "It's what's happened to you."

He gave up on making sense out of it all, and just stared up at the ceiling.

"You know, Pat ... " She began a bare and honest speech. "Every day, as I start to drive over here, and I just ... I can feel the dread before I even get here. And sometimes I just ... " She stood up, like she couldn't bear to confess this final part and still stay in the room. "Sometimes I just ... " When she stood, it was at a much better angle for his restricted vision, and their eyes met. "Sometimes I just ... take a left."

He sighed so thoroughly that the sound turned into a painful whistle before it escaped into the air. "Is that what it was like, Anna, just like freedom?" He asked. "Is that why you did it?"

"Nah" She picked up her Louis Vitton purse and draped it over her shoulder. "I did it to try and remember." Out of tears, she began to walk towards the door. "To try and remember what it was like before ... " Instead of finishing her sentence, she waved her hand over the length of his body. Indicating that she meant before his catastrophic injury.

"You know, Anna." He said. "I've changed my mind. I would like to know who it is."

"I'm not coming back Pat." She gave him the answer to a different question.

"Who is it, Anna?"

"Well Pat, I've changed my mind too." She paused at the hospital room door. "I don't want to tell you who it is anymore."

"Who is it, Anna?"

She smiled roughly and Pat almost thought she was going to snicker. Instead she said. "It's the pool man, Pat."

"Oh," Pat's head said. "The pool man." Then after thinking for a second or two he added. "Anna, we don't have a pool." But she was already out the door. And even as he heard the weighted hinge swing lightly then shut tightly, he was sure that she could still hear him laughing all the way down the hall.

***

"Sean!" Pat shouted at his son. "Get down from there right now. That's too high."

"Look at me, Daddy." Sean replied. The child was hanging upside down from the top rung of the monkey bars, his sandy brown hair sucked straight down by gravity, until it hung like spaghetti from a round serving spoon.

"Look at me daddy, I can hang upside down just like you was."

"Sean." Pat got up from where he had been sitting on the park bench. Flakes of old faded brown paint clung to his Dockers. He walked towards the play set. "That's way too high for you to drop to the ground." He said. "Go ahead and climb back up." The boy giggled and threw his weight. As quick as a small chimp, his fingers effortlessly caught one of the bars. He ambled back onto the top of the horizontal ladder. When Pat was satisfied that the lad was safe, he strolled over to the sandbox. Once there he scooped up a shovel full of sand, (which was really more like a shovel full of kitty litter when he considered all the strays which had converted the play pen into a rest room) and playfully dropped a spade full of it onto his second son Kevin's Keds. The younger sibling howled and stole the mint green toy back from his father. He then thrashed it violently to and fro. completely demolishing a city of Lego blocks. Pat walked back over to the bench. It was starting to show plenty of bare wood thanks to the paint flakes which were deserting it. He sat back down.

The first aching massage of Autumn tickled the trees, and the boys and he were sporting light jackets. Yet the Sun reflecting off of the surface of the old seat created enough warmth to insulate his body. While the cool air kept the breath in his chest. So, he was content to just watch the children play for a few more minutes. They still had plenty of time before they had to go and meet Anna.

The green was pretty much gone from the leaves these days. And the branches were trying on all different styles and shades of bronze. Although the temperature was cold, the beaming sun still brought quite a few summer stragglers out to the park. Young college gridiron types, with their NFL team logo sweats, fired up from watching their favorite football stars on TV, then doing a dirt-poor imitation of them on the fading kelly lawns. Young lovers strolling on the asphalt rubber paths, taking advantage of the romance created by the chill. All the better for snuggling. Middle-aged joggers who weren't really joggers. Actually they were just fat guys fighting a losing battle with that spare Michelin, which would settle around their waists like an angel food cake halo in the death of February. There were even a few vendors still around. Just the old Italian stalwarts mostly, and a couple of Mexicans. You probably couldn't buy an ice cream cone in these cold conditions. But you wouldn't be hard pressed to come up with a hot dog or a brat. He looked down at his Rolex. "Let's go boys." He shouted.

Kevin looked up without much interest from the sandbox. Sean clambered down from the massive frame of fused pipes, ran over to his father and asked. "Daddy, will you do that flip like you did that one time off the monkey bars?"

"No son. We've got to go and meet Mommy." "Please, Daddy." The boy begged. "It only takes one half of one half of a second." The child took his thumb and forefinger, then pressed them together, indicating just how miniscule one half of one half of a second might be in actual size. Pat surveyed the playground. It was getting even colder out now, and a good percentage of the parents had either left or were preparing to take their kids home. There weren't too many people left around to see him make a fool out of himself.

"OK, Sean." He said. "I'm going to do this idiotic trick just this once, OK! Then you're going to turn around and were going to walk out of the park. With no sniveling, no crying and no complaining. And were going to go and meet Mommy right?"

"Yeah, uh huh, uh huh." The boy was shaking his head 'yes' throughout the lecture. Still, Pat knew this was a promise that his son could not possibly keep. Yet, he walked towards the monkey bars anyway, eager to get this nonsense over with, make the kids laugh, then go and meet Anna outside of Nordstrom's.

He athletically leapt up from his flat feet and grabbed one of the rungs, which was located about halfway across the horizontal ladder bridge. Then he swung the lower part of his body upward, and angled his lean legs in between the narrow bars. His hands released their grip from the cold pipes, which left him hanging upside down by his knees. He could already hear Sean giggling. Pat glanced towards the sand box, albeit upside down, to check on Kevin who was gawking at his father with bewilderment and wonder.

"OK." Pat said. "Here we go." But as he put his full weight onto the bar, in order to generate enough power to swing into the flip, something went terribly amiss. Without warning and while not making an audible sound, the tube from the crossbar by which his knees were hooked, popped directly out of its failing weld. Before Pat knew he was in the air, he was on the ground. Which had to be a good twelve feet, from the Earth to the top of the play set. He landed at an obscene angle. More on his face than on his head. With such force that the backs of his ankles nearly slammed into his previously well styled and still expensive hair cut. He vaguely heard the sound of his elder son scream. Like the muffle of a bell under water. He knew that something was seriously wrong immediately. The pressure on his neck felt as if someone were winding down the weight of a tractor trailer onto his throat. His breath heaved in short, sharp rasping gasps. He felt as if he were trying to suck oxygen through a cocktail straw. Or like a dying insect trying to preserve the last breaths of evaporating air through the slits cut into the plastic top of a silver coffee can.

"Daddy! Daddy!" Sean quickly ran to where his father had fallen. Pat began to try and tell the child to run and get some help. But no words came from inside the wounded sneer that was now his mouth. A mixture of phlegm and foam ran down the side of his cheek. His mind gave his hand the order to wipe the spittle away. A command that the limb should have easily been able to carry out. And that's when it first hit him.

He could feel absolutely nothing from the neck on down. Total numbness. You could have taken any surgical instrument from scalpel to saw to sledgehammer, and he would not have been able to experience so much as a pinprick. His head was completely isolated, as surely as if it were laying in a basket at the bottom of a guillotine. The image of a bull being euthanized blinked into his panicking mind. The horns guided into the harsh, cold, steel slaughterhouse stall. The betrayed ears rubbing up against the leather holster. The contents of the throat retching onto the indifferent abattoir blade. This was the type of shock he now felt. Like a butcher knife quickly hacking off a piece of living steak, exposing the stunned bone to the unexpected and painful wind chill.

"Daddy! Daddy!" Sean cried again. Vaguely, Pat could hear the sound of a small child crying, although it was weak and distant, like a bad cell phone connection. He realized that it was Kevin, who he assumed was still sitting in the sandbox. Since he could not maneuver his body around to check on the child's position. Instinctively, he knew that the baby's diaper needed to be changed.

"Are you OK!?" Suddenly he heard a third voice. The gravity had pulled him down onto his side. Now he could see the source of the call. A young mother, who had been pushing a cherub cheeked toddler in a plush Eddie Bauer Stroller, was now standing over them.

"There's something wrong with my Daddy." Sean answered her through a heavy accent of sobs.

The chubby young mom, who looked like the grown twin of the baby in the the fancy wheeled seat, got a fairly critical look at Pat for the first time. "My God." She said flatly, and her pretty face went through a stone aged metamorphosis of disgust and terror.

Pat tried to focus on that face. Just to have something for a reference point. But the sky quickly dimmed. A black blanket without stars roved past the clouds to be tucked into the horizon. Until the only things left that he could see were the blonde highlights in the woman's brown hair. Yet they faded like the sunlight. Danced like lightning in the stolen moon Heavens. Pat's body began to writhe in spastic convulsions. The young mother gasped. Kevin continued to cry. Sean screamed. It would be the last time, during the short duration of his remaining time on Earth, that Pat would ever be outside.

***

"What you're talking about isn't just unethical, Pat," Doctor Burke began. "It's practically murder."

"How can it be murder, Tom?" Pat addressed his childhood friend by his Christian name. "You wouldn't even be in the room."

"It's out of the question Pat." Dr. Burke shot back. "I shouldn't even have to remind you about the oath all doctors must take. An oath to preserve life, not end it."

"Do you call this swill I'm laying in a life, Tom?"

"Not a very high quality of life, No."

"C'mon,you're not going to hit me with that crap about an oath are you? Don't you remember that doctor?" Pat's head continued. "You know, the one who assisted people who wanted to die? He was a real doctor. I'm sure he had to take some kind of an oath."

"Dr. Kevorkian is still in prison, Pat. And you're not even terminal as most of his patients were."

"Look," Pat reckoned. "You wouldn't even half to assist. All you'd have to do is just bring me the stuff."

But the doctor just shook his head. "Cyanide? My God, Pat do you realize what kind of pain you'd be in?"

Pat's eyes narrowed like two miserable snake slits and his pupils gleamed with terror. "More pain then I'm in now, Tom?" He said. "Do you have any id ... I mean can you even begin to fathom what it's actually like to be me these days? I can't even feel the bedpan for God sakes."

Doctor Burke sighed and got up from his chair. The same cheap, plastic, pumpkin hued special Anna had told her seedy tale from the day before. Even after his friend rose, Pat continued to stare at the top of the cushion. His eyes pressed as far their limit would take them to his right. The sick burnt orange color of the seat made him realize that it was one of the boundaries of his tragically obstructed world. Along with the prosaic plastic plants. The caged TV. The ignorant and intolerant nurses. The calculating Doctors, who drove home in their BMWs whether the patients lived, died, dried up or became paralyzed. The beeping, buzzing, wheezing, whirring hospital machines, which still coughed and dripped out their cold mechanical antidotes, even when only the night lights were left, to bluntly cut through the many bad dreams as the clock passed three A.M. on the ward.

"Listen, Pat." Dr. Burke began. He had walked across the room, and was now looking out the window. Studying the grounds below. Which of course, the bed ridden man could not see. If pressed, Pat did not even think he could tell someone what floor he was on, or how many stories it was to the ground. "It's only been six weeks since the accident. And you are right about one thing: I cannot possibly comprehend the Hell in which your mind is locked away in right now," Dr. Burke continued, as his eyes scanned the yards below. "Six weeks is just not enough time to encompass this type of shock."

"Uh huh." Pat grunted without much interest in the Doctor's speech, which continued.

"It's only natural that you would have fantasies of suicide. As a way to cope or escape. But if you can come to terms with your condition, you can still live a rewarding life. Many people have worked to overcome injuries very similar to your own." Pat just stared at the roof and said nothing as the Doctor persisted. "Who was that actor? You know the fellow who took the tumble off of the horse.?"

"Christopher Reeve." Pat answered finally.

"Yes, Christopher Reeve." The Doctor was trying to pick up on any optimistic vibe. "They say he directed an entire movie from a wheel chair. Now that's the type of determination that you should be subscribing to, Pat."

"He's dead Tom." Pat said in a voice which sounded almost as dead. Doctor Burke sighed. But then he shrugged off the negativity and tried to launch a new point. "Besides Pat, you're a Catholic. I believe, that in the Catholic faith, suicide would veto your right to enter Heaven."

Pat had thought about this. So the comment bucked his funk and finally initiated some reaction from him. "Veto?" He made fun of the Doctor's choice of words rather than tackling the subject head on. "Do you think it's a democracy up there Tom? Do the Saints take a vote?"

"It's your faith Pat." Dr. Burke countered. "You're going to have to die with these ramifications under your grim plan."

"Hades could not be any worse then this," Pat said darkly. Doctor Burke sighed again.

"Listen to me." He said. "In a situation of this nature, the attitude of the person is paramount. Now I know this is easy for me to say. But I've seen patients who do choose to fight." Pat said nothing as the Doctor continued. "I've seen men and women come back from the edge. And I mean rally from terminal illnesses. With the kind of outlook you're choosing to employ, and make no mistake Pat, it is your choice. You won't last six months."

Pat almost conjured up a laugh. "Maybe you haven't been listening, Doc." He quipped. "I don't want to last six more minutes."

Instead of acknowledging that pessimistic comment, Dr. Burke posed a new angle. "What about Kevin and Sean?" He asked. "How would they be able to understand something as final and traumatic as their father's suicide? Even if they were lied to about it, to protect their innocence, they'd find out the truth eventually."

Pat scoffed. "You know what Sean showed his class at school the other day? You know for one of those 'show and tell' type deals?" It was a question that neither man really expected an answer to, and Dr. Burke didn't supply one. "He took one of those puppets you know ... What do they call those fu ... a muppet!" Pat continued on, in what was becoming a rant. "You know? Where you take your hand and you prop it up to create head movement. Like the toy has a working neck. Well Sean took this thing, you see, and he laid it flat on the teachers desk, you know? So that the body was totally limp. Then he took his little hand, and he shoved it up through the neck so that ... "

"I think you're being incredibly selfish." Dr. Burke interrupted the inane story. "Children have their own way of coping. They can only associate with the things they're familiar with."

"I'll never play baseball with my sons again, Tom." Pat pleaded. "OK, so I'm not a Major Leaguer. I'm just talking about messing around in the back yard. Knees in the dirt, using the garage for a backstop."

"Those boys need their father, Pat. If you can't think of yourself, think of them. They'll get used to your condition in time."

"Maybe, but I won't." Pat went to shake his head no, and did not even realize when his neck refused to do it. "I won't be a talking head for the rest of my life. Not this cabbage. I'm out."

"My God, you've always been such a fighter. The toughest one. I can't believe you'd fold your tent so easily."

"Have you ever felt dread Tom?"

"Of course."

"Well, I want you to just imagine the most dreadful minute of your entire life. Something that you just could not bear to do ... OK, you got it." Dr. Burke refused to participate in Pat's one man survey and instead continued to look out the window. But Pat acted as if the Doctor had pinpointed the scenario in his mind anyway. "OK, now imagine that you felt like that, every waking moment of every second of your life. And you could not walk away from the dread because you were the dread. You! Your own mind was your captor. Not just a paralyzed body. But a paralyzed spirit. A mind which never quit. Like a pong ball of dread bouncing off the walls of your thoughts. Like a ... "

"What about Anna, Pat?" The Doctor tried to jar Pat out of his miserable lecture.

"She's having an affair." Pat said blankly. Dr. Burke turned his attention from the window, to stare at Pat in shock.

"She's having an affair." Pat repeated. But just little quieter.

The Doctor lost interest in the panorama outside. He walked back over to the chair, studying Pat's face the whole way. "You're paranoid." He said as he sat back down, nervously straightening the charcoal tie on his smart gray suit. "What would make you think something like that?"

"She told me." Pat answered with the certainty of someone stamping ink onto a letter.

"My God, how could she tell you something like that? In your condition!" Dr. Burke was sitting bolt upright in his chair. Riveted by this new revelation.

"A better question might be: 'Why did she do it?'" Pat deadpanned.

"It's the shock." The Doc surmised. "She's had a nervous breakdown."

"Well, nervous breakdown or not ..." Pat's voice trailed off into a sarcastic, petulant and almost inaudible laugh.

Dr. Burke sat still stunned. Until a new thought entered his mind. "My God, with whom?" He asked.

"The pool man." Pat said through a strained sneer.

"The pool man?" Dr. Burke repeated, confused. "You don't even have a pool, Pat."

Pat's sneer sparked into a snicker. "I guess that was just her way of saying that she didn't want to say." Pat's smile sputtered and was replaced by a sadness which had never really left his eyes anyway. Dr. Burke continued to stare into nothingness. Trying to rationalize the sorry state of affairs. "So, you'll do it then?" Pat asked him suddenly.

"Do what?" Dr. Burke was still lost in the fog of his own thoughts.

"Get me the stuff to kill myself." Pat disguised the heavy question within an innocent tone. Like someone asking for a Dr. Pepper. Doctor Burke came out of the trance and his forehead wrinkled with the force of his annoyed frown.

"Pat," He said in a reverential tone. "How long have you known me?" When Pat refused to answer, the Doctor answered for him. "Since the fourth grade?" Pat's eyes rolled around the room. Yet he still refused to reply. "Then you already know the answer to that question. Of course I won't do it. Furthermore, I'm going to tell your doctors to put you on a suicide watch."

Pat spit a painful laugh. "What am I going to do?" He said. "Bite myself to death?"

"I don't know, Pat." Dr. Burke posed it to him as if Pat had not been joking. "But you can be sure I'll notify your doctors. To prevent you from doing anything rash. Or having someone else do it for you."

"Just tell them my Blue Cross/Blue Shield ran out." Pat wisecracked. "They'll kill me themselves."

To be continued ...

Article © Tom Hamilton. All rights reserved.
Published on 2006-11-06
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