The elevator door slid open with a slight stutter and a man in a blue hospital robe and the woman who was presumably his nurse shuffled out slowly. Following closely behind, with an air of impatience, was a middle-aged woman with spotty grey hair in a long red fleece overcoat. She scooted out of the elevator just behind the patient and nurse as the doors squeezed close. She was immediately confronted by the strong odor of ammonia and pine-scented cleaning products and physically recoiled, tilting her head slightly and surrendering to a grimace. The heels of her shoes echoed loudly up and down the sterile hallway. The sound was unwelcome in the hushed gloom of the hospital. She felt compelled to tiptoe, but didn’t. She passed door after door, most of them open, and glanced discretely in each one. She justified her intrusiveness by telling herself that all people shared the same primal voyeuristic tendency. It was all part of a need to belong. Human beings were social animals, after all.
She reached room 322 and stopped just outside the open door. She pulled a hand mirror from a red leather handbag and examined her hair and makeup. After briefly tinkering with a few strands and applying a fresh coat of lipstick, she replaced the mirror and turned her attention to her clothing. She unbuttoned her overcoat and brushed a few stray hairs from the grip of the fleece. She took a deep breath and straightened her white blouse underneath the coat. She knew that her appearance was likely just as unimportant this day as it had been the last 33, but she always considered the possibility that today might be different. Every time she came, she hoped against hope that today would be the day. She stepped lightly in to the room with a cheerful “good morning” and saw him.
He was lying in the bed on his back as he had been for the last month. His mouth was slightly agape and a thin line of dried saliva descended from the corner of his lips down to the edge of his lower jaw. Maintaining her smile, she rushed to his side and wiped the spit away from his face with a soft cream-colored handkerchief. A heart monitor beeped steadily on the other side of his bed while a bag of sodium chloride dripped steadily in to his I.V. line. The beeping of the machine and the drip of the I.V. bag counted off the seconds as they passed, announcing each moment as a triumph. He was alive. The doctors had told her that the longer he stayed unconscious, the less likely it was that he would wake. He had been unconscious a lot longer than that to her. She hadn’t seen his face in 11 years or spoken to him in four. He had slipped from her conscious mind into a place where the memory lived like a deadline, looming over everything she thought and did. When she received the anonymous call explaining that there had been an accident and she should contact the U.S. State Department, she didn’t hesitate for a moment, despite the distance that had grown between them. His face was older now than when she had last seen him. It was full of his years. He carried the weight of his life on his sunken cheeks. What had happened to him?
The nurse glided in to the room in her sterile white uniform and leaned over his bed to adjust this and check that, without noticing the woman in the room. When the nurse turned to leave again, she jumped slightly as she realized there was another person sitting on the other side of the bed. When the nurse saw who it was, she relaxed and smiled at the woman. She pointed at the man in the hospital bed and said something in a foreign language that the woman didn’t understand. The woman narrowed her eyes and shook her head as if to indicate that verbal communication between the two of them was bound to be fruitless. The nurse made another hand gesture that resembled counting inches on a yardstick in front of her and repeated the same foreign something.
“I don’t understand,” the woman said in exaggerated slow syllables, making her own indecipherable hand gestures.
The nurse shook her head in short little jerks. She pointed at the calendar and touched each day of the month sequentially. Then she pointed at the man laying in the hospital bed and, then, at the woman and spoke in a thick accent, “love.”
The woman smiled and her eyes filled with tears. The nurse said something else, bowed deeply to the woman, and left the room. The woman wiped her eyes with the handkerchief and leaned over the man. She looked at his face, brushed his cheek with her hand, and kissed him gently on the forehead. She hardly recognized him, but she did love him. She stared at him and saw past the faint wrinkles and heaviness in his face. Underneath, he was concealing the boy that she had known all his young life. She finally recognized him and her eyes welled up again. A tear rolled down her nose as she leaned over him and fell to his cheek.
She smiled and spoke aloud, “this is my son.”
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