Room 137 of the hospital’s Critical Care Unit is the loneliest place on earth. Life is precarious. All life tenuous. No where is that more evident than the small glass box filled with mechanical tubes, wires and diagnostic panels. The small, patient wheeze of the machine that breathes for her husband. The submarine ping measuring each frail heartbeat with a corresponding digital blip traversing the bedside panel like a steady, robotic sine wave.
And worse still, the orderly transit of nurses who no longer even bother enforcing visiting hour limits or pretending her husband’s care is anything more than mere watch keeping. And the faithful way of the custodian who visits twice each day to sweep this immaculate room and remove the already empty trashcan. And the way the custodial staff can not look her in the eye. Even they know what is very plainly evident. Her husband, Mark, was victim of awful circumstance and there was nothing more to be done. Her husband Mark had a bad heart, and he had come here to die.
It was a four day vigil. The crippling expense of it. The exhaustion of waiting for miracles that stubbornly refused to arrive. The chaplin who made the rounds every afternoon and every evening and seemed, each time, genuinely surprised to find them still lingering there. He had prayed but the words were just words. They went nowhere, failing to escape even the closeted curtained space of this little medical unit.
And on the fourth day, she thinks to pull out Mark’s cell phone to find the number of a longtime friend, to tell the news. But when she turns the cell on, the text messages arrive, landing like a plague of flies.
WHERE ARE YOU?
ARE YOU OKAY?
WHY WON’T YOU ANSWER?
HAVE YOU LEFT ME? ARE WE THROUGH?
She drops the phone. It is a living, offensive thing. Her heart and mind swirling as she puts the plain text of the text into view.
The messages are there when she picks up the phone.
ARE WE OKAY? DO YOU STILL LOVE ME?
This was the deepest kind of shock. She stares at her husband, the unmoving weight of his body, still athletic and seeming fit despite the extremis of wires and leads and intubation tubes.
Not fair. This fine, good, decent man who she has loved her entire adult life, grown up together, raised two kids, worked for charities, helped the neighbors. Good, decent husband. Good, decent wife.
And she knows without knowing there had been much, much more to the story of their life.
Who was she? How long had he known her? How long had this been happening?
A maelstrom of question that would have no answers.
And she looks to the phone, hoping to find some name or other clue about the hidden depths of her husband’s secret life. No name. Just a phone number. And scrolling back, no further texts. The history had been dumped, purged clean.
And that was the creeping horror of it. Exhausted from her four day vigil, hungry and tired and feeling diminished. Now needing to have the most difficult conversation of their marriage only to find herself with half an unanswered conversation with a stranger on her husband’s phone.
She sits there, contemplating her next act when the doctor comes in. He enters the room with practiced determination. It is meant to be an act of comfort, this air of focused purpose when there is absolutely nothing left to be done.
“We need to talk about your husband’s wishes. He isn’t likely to recover. We don’t have to decide anything right now but we need to be ready.”
She looks down at the phone, trying to see the stranger on the other end.
ARE WE OKAY? DO YOU STILL LOVE ME?
She nods, tries to smile through the yawning sickness that has become her whole life. “I know,” she tells him. “Heroic measures.”