Amidst the defeated shuffle of hospital gown pant legs, rubbing against one another as the nurses and podiatrists pace the length of the cold rectangular auditorium, a deflated, yellow balloon beneath white bedsheets is being periodically pumped full of air, and is then allowed to exhale noiselessly and completely, until it is pressed flat against the bed again.
I say balloon because it’s easier to imagine him as something that might have been fitted to a helium canister and permitted to float away, should he will it. Yellow, perhaps as a result of the iodine steriliser rubbed into his skin.
It is clear to me however, that in this moment he will not soon be levitated. Flowers have been made up in quite a hurry. From Safeway or Fred Meyer’s, I suppose. Although the question of at whose benefit becomes hot and tangible, and it burns deep into the centers of my cheeks when a nurse moves frantically past the bouquet at his bedside once more. This man won’t enjoy a hallmark, plastic-wrapped arrangement of flora ever again.
There is death in these daffodils.
“T-boned,” I hear one of them say.
“Left ocular cavity: collapsed...” another tells his physician.
I can see that the man beneath the bedsheets is turkey to them. All they’ve left to do is begin drawing up diagrams, deciding where to make the cut, and what there is to salvage; who is going to get the dark meat, and who is going to get the wishbone.
I’ve watched already, the carefully delivered sentence of this man’s unlikely recovery, as told by the solemn arrival of his lead surgeon. I’ve watched the recipients of this news, shattered and fallen to their knees, in the excruciating waiting room.
At best, he will be a vegetable from now on, a house plant with broken and immobile fronds. At best, the machines give out, and his passing will’ve been at the hands of some mechanical fairy, and no one will think less of those who’d been fighting hours already in vain to save his body.
“Or we can kill him for you,” I imagine the nurses telling me. “We can let him die, and that’ll be that.”
He’ll never know it, but he’s been dealt the best hand out of all of them. All the rest is a man on the table whose sole remaining purpose is to be considered effectively alive and dead. There is no hospital bill waiting for him at the end of this; no wheelchairs; no Adult Depend Undergarments.
For what it’s worth, I know this man.
I know that this poor broken creature at my feet is his wife. I know that the girl, quietly holding her knees in the dimly lit hallway, that’s his daughter. But moreover, I have an idea of who this man was before today.
I know that the scar sustained on his right forearm is from an accident involving monkey bars, and schoolyard rough-housing. I know that he loved in fact, to say the words: “rough-housing.” I know that tattooed in green cursive, just over his heart, are the names of his two children.
I know that the name I can overhear the greener of the nurses whispering, albeit incorrectly, is his middle name. And that it isn’t Willard or Wooster.
I don’t know yet where he’ll be in a week from now; he will be quietly strewn about in neat, powdery tufts by the churning of the Pacific Ocean, having been hurled from the outermost peak of an unmarked cliff, by his younger and only brother.
I don’t know yet who will come to mourn him; there will be a great hall that I couldn’t tell you the name of, filled by a throng of bodies, pretending to know one another. Each, half present and awkwardly avoiding conversation about the inebriated widow who’s arguing over the P.A. with the master of ceremonies about which words he’s chosen to tell the story of a man he’s never met.
I don’t know yet how I will come to think of him; I will dare to wonder what the man might’ve had to say about the person I will become one day. Delicately, I will even play with the idea of his approval – try to guess which ties he might have taught me how to tie, and each time I’ll see him looking attentively back through the mirrors and street-view windows that everyone will have kept so painfully clean for me.
But as it is, the man spread out on the table before me is no more my kind than the grotesque assortment of instruments protruding from his mouth. He is a cavernous pit, and I am standing at his precipice.
I have been told that the centers of his mind, at least the ones responsible for pain and suffering are long gone, along with the rest of him. And although it doesn’t seem like it now, what I’m really being told is that there is no one left in the room who could possibly have any sort of idea what there is left to experience behind the two salmon backs of his eyelids.
In all of the stories I’ve heard from people who have had the chance to watch another person discorporate in front of them, one detail never seems to go by the wayside in their accounts of the experience. And it’s that irrational as it might be, to wonder what happens to us next, we can’t help ourselves from it; however much we’d like to put to bed the thought of a life after death, in the moment, it’s the not knowing that finally deflates us.
And had I known what was to come next – had I gone up to touch him one last time: my fears would not have been in my shouts going unanswered, or unsung from atop the pale void I stood beside. They would have been in wondering whether or not if I’d pulled back then, at the sheets that hid him, I might have caught a glimpse of the name he’d given me once, tattooed still on his chest, and staring placidly back up at me.
Felix Paul Graham is a part-time poet and student from Portland, OR. He is currently studying at Portland Community College, and when he isn’t delivering the groceries at 138 beats per minute, he’s killing cops and reading Kerouac.