By Kristy Gustafson
He had been in that room more times than he cared to count, he practically had it memorized. The open windows that cast the day’s light no matter how dark it felt from the inside, the sprawling gray carpet with abstract shapes of red and purple that weaved no real meaning, the front desk that insisted on baby blue surgical masks for each visitor that passed through the front doors, pressing them daily with the same questions. Shortness of breath? Fever? Cough? Muscle aches? Vomiting? The answers always no. After all, his family couldn’t afford otherwise. Time wasn’t exactly on their side.
Down the hall, around the corner and behind two thick wooden doors marked “Authorized Personnel Only,” he can still picture every square inch of the room where time had once hung most uncertainly. The hospital bed he didn’t leave for four straight days, save to use his bedpan, and eventually a shower, along with a few laps around the floor when enough strength had returned to him, a walker or his wife’s elbow there to support him. Though even that was a miracle.
It was a miracle because just four days before he hadn’t walked into that hospital, or even driven, but was flown in by helicopter. The arteries of his heart, the very thing meant to keep him alive, struggling to do so. One of them in particular dubbed “The Widowmaker,” a nickname he wasn’t yet ready to prove.
Surprisingly, that wasn’t even the worst of it. This attack, at the hands of the very organ we feel love from, the one our palm meets to salute our country, and the thing we spend our whole life looking to fill, had followed something even bigger. Stage 4 melanoma that metastasized from the smallest mole to tumors beneath his arms, along his spine, even his brain.
That was the fight he feared the most. Until this one. Until the pain in his chest suddenly had his days numbered to mere minutes, shooting down his left arm, his body keeled over and clutching at something, anything.
He recalled later that he could feel it then, even see it. “The light,” as it tends to be called, this warm, glowing pull towards some mythical paradise in the sky. From the stories, it didn’t seem like such a bad alternative to this current state. Or was it? Towards this incandescent light meant away from the pain, sure, but it wasn’t that easy. It also meant leaving something else behind: his family. He thought of his son, the not-so-little boy that made him a father over three
decades ago, who shared things like the shape of his hands, his work ethic, his stubbornness. He thought of his two daughters, born just over a year apart, by accident or miracle it was hard to say. Though really, it wasn’t. They both took after his athleticism, one his hazel eyes and the other his Scandinavian features, his light hair and sun-kissed skin. Also, his stubbornness. He thought of his wife. His wife who, on some days he didn’t want to admit, he couldn’t live without. And in this moment, who he refused to.
He’s not sure how he did it exactly, but when these four faces came to mind, his own likeness in three of them and 39 years shared with the other, he had no choice but to fight, like hell, away from heaven, towards the very people who put it all to shame.
With his eyes closed now, he could feel the phantom pangs of that day extending down his arm from an organ now maintained with stents and a barrage of daily pills, and, now…
“Are you ready?” Came a hushed, familiar tone.
He nodded, staying silent.
When he rose, one of the nurses in teal scrubs, Stacey, who’d been there from the very beginning, grabbed his hand and placed the wooden apparatus into the other before leading him to the corner of the room. He stepped gently, wanting to slow down the moment, to memorize it, every step of the rubber soles of his tennis shoes on that questionable gray carpet. He took in the faces around him, some painted in longing, some proud. And then, his wife’s. Tears, disbelief, smiling. The proudest of them all. He thought once again of his kids, a regular occurrence, especially now that they were scattered every which way. One in Los Angeles, another in Florida, his youngest in San Francisco. No longer around his hospital bed trying to push away the thought of what time remained with him. For today, he had managed another miracle, to gain even more time on his side. More time with the people that pulled him earth-side, kept him fighting, without even knowing, without even trying.
With a swing of his right hand, and tears in his eyes, the gong rang that sweet, triumphant sound. The people and nurses cheered as the sound reverberated, the day’s light just a little bit brighter.
And with it, Dad kissed his hands and pointed to the sky, perhaps in gratitude he could not yet put into words, a deal struck with a particular gatekeeper of that mythical paradise in the sky. That his time would surely come though not a moment too soon. For now, the hours, minutes, and seconds were back on his side. Borrowed? Perhaps. Precious? No doubt. And in this moment, a choice: what he would do with them.