The world had been heavy for several days. It weighted on him, bore down, exhausted him. He was consumed by death, the idea of it, the finalirty of it. He felt helpless and afraid, like a passenger in a car with a strung out erratic driver.
He had watched a man die. This is not what kicked off his burden. He had been in the grip of panic for days. Then fate or God, coincidence or chaos, reinforced that fear by taking the life, suddenly, no more than thirty feet from him.
He was sick, as were the people around him. It wasn’t cancer, or AIDS, or Ebola, or any of the yearly epidemics that seemed specifically designed by higher powers to scare the populace into submission, but it was bad enough. If ignored it could kill him, but in the end, even with treatment, it would kill him anyway.
The man lay in his chair. He appeared to be asleep, as he always appeared to be; sleeping through this process was one of many coping strategies to deal with the stress, the boredom, the fear. There was beeping. There was always beeping. It warned of temporary blockages in blood flow. Kinks in the line or needles against a way. It almost never signified a heart had stopped beating.
The beeping was ignored. There were other, more pressing matters to attend to. He couldn’t fault them for that; again, the beeping was constant, how were they to know? And then there was muted panic, controlled chaos. Hushed instructions and professional response. Why alarm the others? But they knew, and they watched.
There was a ring of men and women in blue paper coats. Their bodies hid the men, but as they moved about, there were glimpses; a foot, crooked, or a hand, pale and limp. He heard the compressions of one of those paper coats pressing down on the man’s chest. The sound of them counting, one, two, three, four, five, all the way to thirty, quick and urgent. The thud of pressing flesh, meaty and violent.
A feminine, mechanic voice instructed them where to stick the pads, to push the button, to stand back. There was no dramatic jump, like in the movies, just a long alarm as the shocks to the man’s heart were administered. It did it again. And again. And again.
They did not give up until the paramedics arrived. Then they lifted his body onto the stretcher and wheeled him, as discreetly as they could, out of the room.
The room was somber the remainder of the night.
And so, his fears violently reinforced, he was neck deep in his fears of the unknown. To know that your disease makes your timeline shorter, but to not have a definite, or even indefinite, length was a horrible sort of limbo. It was waiting, and watching. It was experiencing the decay of his own body, one year after the next. Everybody decays, everybody dies, he knew that, but there, in that room, it seemed accelerated.
There was so much to do, and who knows how much time?
And so he was consumed, a frightened, and bordered on depressed. He thought of that man, and how he slipped away from life, alone and ignored. If he were to die, he considered, he wanted his end on his own terms, with more dignity, more control.
He thought of pills; quiet, in his own bed, like falling asleep.
He thought of carbon monoxide; a car radio softly playing, and breathing deep.
He thought of a single bullet; brutal, quick, and final.
He thought these things, and it scared him even more.
He wanted to talk to somebody, needed to talk, wanted to be understood. His friends, over the past years, had fled into their own lives, being married and living up to what married life was supposed to be. Even if they were still around, they were guys, and as such talking about feels and emotions was rare and taboo. He had a circle of friends, but somewhere along the line had been pushed out. He saw them, now and again, but it was always himself quietly forcing himself back in, temporarily, into their clique.
He felt alone, which did not help his fear of death.
Perhaps another factor that reinforced his panic and depression was the endless loop he felt stuck in. Work, sickness, sleep. Work, fatherhood, sleep. Work, sickness, sleep. Work, fatherhood, sleep. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. He had one day every two weeks to do something for himself, and that rarely involved other people.
Stuck, alone, and dying. Who wouldn’t be locked in quiet, cold panic?
He did have one thing; his girl. She was short, and five, and the closest thing he could call hope. She was his silver lining. Sure, they had their arguments – she was, after all, an extension of himself. She was stubborn, and headstrong, and loved to argue. She was surprisingly quick witted. She had her mother’s eyes and her daddy’s everything else.
He painted a picture for her, once. It was the earth, blue and green and floating in the black of space, and a single red balloon, connected to the world by a long string. He could not tell you if he were the earth and she the balloon, or he the balloon and she the string. He thought maybe the latter; if that string broke, he would slip away, quietly, into the black of space. He would be lost, and he would not return.
To be one person’s hope and connection to life, was that undue pressure, waiting to build?
He was stuck, and frightened. There was so much to do and so little time. He was in quiet panic, he could not let go, he could not speak about it, and his fears, and what they might bring, frightened him just as much as everything else.
But then she sat on his lap.
She had be playing as he put together their dinner. Sometimes she helped, and he encouraged her to; he wanted her to cook, for fun and for necessity. It was art, he told her. Art you could eat. She liked that, as she loved to draw and paint and create. She was, after all, his daughter.
Now she sat on his lap, unexpectedly. She put her tiny fingers on his chin, curled them into his beard, and she studied him, closely.
“You’ve been crying.” She said. It was not a question, but a statement of fact.
“Yes.” He answered. He did not tell her why, it was more than he felt she could understand. Also, he did not want to give her his fears, a poisonous present that would sit and fest and taint every memory and emotion that came close to it.
“When I get married,” she continued fingers still on his chin, “you can live with us. We will all be together. You’ll be my two boys.”
He smiled. His heart lifted, just a bit. It was simple and silly, idealistic. He was sure her future husband would be absolutely thrilled that his old, sick father-in-law, was occupying their basement and, most likely, making strange demands centering around comic books and pro-wrestling.
Her two boys. That one boy, he was imaginary, but hopeful. But right now, and forever, yes, he was one of her boys. That seemed to cement him to the earth, give him a place.
He did not know how much time he had. Nobody did, not really. But he was stubborn, and headstrong, and he loved to argue. But she was there, and she had her fingers in his beard, and she had a future to see; proms and graduations, marriage and children, and then, near the end, he in her basement, tormenting her poor husband, playing, every day, with his grandkids.
It was all worth arguing for.
“I can’t wait.” Was all he said.