“Dr. Mort, report to emergency. Dr. Mort, report to emergency STAT.” The operator’s nasal voice roared in my head as the odor of disinfectants crawled up my nostrils. It was suffocating. The “Bing” of the elevator was a welcome relief from the chaos in the hall and in my mind. One by one, floor by floor, they crammed me further into to the back. An intern with huge, dark circles under his eyes, played with his stethoscope to avoid my eyes. No words were meant to be spoken in this sterile place. The arrow pointed up to heaven, as we approached the fifteenth floor, yet my heart knew we were headed toward hell. I adjusted my sunglasses to shield my eyes and especially my heart.
The heavy metal doors screeched open. My wobbly knee headed toward room 1512. The bright linoleum corridor ran the length of a football field. At the twenty yard line, I passed a young man gripping his side rails of his bed. An older woman spoon fed him as tears streamed down her face. At the forty yard line, a man stared into space, hooked up to bottles that drip..drip…dripped life into his veins. His dark, glazed eyes stared past me. At the sixty yard line my heart sympathized with a running back. I couldn’t catch my breath. My clammy fingers reached for the already damp tissues in my pocket. I closed my eyes refusing to believe that my friend Tom’s room was approaching at the eighty yard line. There would be no touchdown today.
I’d blocked out the four letters, AIDS. I prayed this was just a nightmare. Any minute I’d wake up and our friend would be his old self. Surely the blood test was mistaken. The doctors were wrong! Even now as the wall supported me, my heart tried to follow this path of denial. I pushed my sunglasses back into place and blinked my eyes toward the ceiling to keep the tears at bay.
I met Tom five years prior to him getting sick. He was a business associate and we quickly became friends. My husband and I were very fond of him. I used to joke that if I could pick a brother, I would pick him. He would make a perfect uncle for our kids. His job as a sales rep was to convince us to sell more products. He did so by complaining that if we didn’t increase our sales, he’d be forced to replace his blazing red BMW with an olive green used truck for his sales calls. He would grimace and tug on the collar of his Polo shirt looking like a forlorn kid. “Come on, Anne. Please, I can’t drive a truck” he stuttered, like truck was a dirty word. My husband, Scott suggested he get mag wheels. “You’d be great driving a nice truck.” Tom broke into one of his award winning laughs. He was twenty- five then. He had it all: charm, a great sense of humor, self- confidence. He was tall with sun bleached streaks in his brown hair, tan and had the world in his hands.
As I reached room 1512, I lifted my sunglasses, but closed my eyes and prayed. “Dear God, don’t let this be true.” Gently I pushed the door open. His eyes were so sunken that his eyebrows looked like caterpillars. He was sound asleep. His once trim body was a bag of bones. Little sticks poked out of the covers making his feet look gigantic in comparison. A thunder storm raged in my chest. I gulped for air. He opened his eyes and smiled. “Hey stranger,” he said softly as we hugged hello. And then the damn burst without warning. Tears rolled down my face. “It’s alright,” he lied to me, patting my back. His backbones felt so fragile, I was afraid I’d squeeze him to death.
“You’re my only visitor,” he said quietly. His family lived states away. His eyes, once full of spark, were dull and tired as he stared out the window. “My mom is going to keep my puppy. He’ll have a good home. But who will drive my beamer?” He gulped as he asked, “Who will watch over my mom after I’m gone? I’m her favorite.”
Then we talked of superficial things. I didn’t tell him how much I’d miss my “pick a brother” choice. Hours later, we hugged farewell and we vowed to keep in touch. Words were circling in my head. I wanted to ask him to send me a sign that he’d made it to heaven. Just the thought brought a sting to my eyes and the firing range blasted my heart. “No tears, No tears,” he insisted, raising his skinny arms in protest. His haggard face turned toward away to avoid my eyes. He rubbed his chin nervously. Without tears, I couldn’t say, “I’m going to miss you. You are a kindred spirit and I’m glad our paths crossed. I wish you a sweet and painless journey. I hope the angels escort you on gentle wing, so swift that it feels smoother than a ride in your BMW…Only the best for you!”
The words lodged in my throat. I wanted to tell him. I really did, but I put on my darkest shades and walked out the door.