Paging God, Please Hold

As a forward, this is not my work: this is my brother, Julian’s.  He’s pretty much abandoned his blog, so when I made a promise to do something, and I didn’t, I was tasked with placing this on my blog.

I haven’t read it yet, so this’ll be an interesting post…

The building is white on the outside save for a bronze plaque that says “Serving the State of New Jersey since 1897”.  Nothing has changed in almost a hundred years.  On the inside, there is nothing interesting save for the greenish-puke-ish colour of the floor tiles.  People are waiting, some are coughing, one man is bleeding just above his eye, another is writhing in pain slowly slipping from his chair onto the floor waiting for his medical insurance to kick in, but it won’t because his insurer doesn’t cover him for that.  So he begs and pleads and screams for the hospital receptionist to give him medicine,

“I’ll be with you after I help this woman” and then to the woman standing in line “yes, sorry about the wait, how is it that I can help you today?”

“I’d like to visit a patient, his name is Leonard O’Connor.”

“Yes yes, Mr. O’Connor is located in the west wing of the hospital, on the first floor, room 1123.  Doctor Kaufmann is his specialist.  Shall I page him for you?”

“Please.”

Obnoxiously loud, the speaker above is always in use informing those in waiting rooms, telling them to be patient, giving out directions to newcomers: The ER is located in the north wing, the intensive care unit is in the west wing.  If you have parked your car in the roundabout, you are kindly asked to move it.  If it is there for more than 2 minutes it will be towe—

The receptionist’s voice – now with a metallic quality – breaks in over the intercom, stopping the pleasant voice female voice from finishing her sentence.  “Paging Doctor Kaufmann.”  Now speaking to the woman at the other side of the desk, “Please wait here until he has arrived.”

“Alright thank you.”

The screaming man pleads once more,
“I’ll be with you soon,” and to the next one in line “Hello, how may I help you?”

I see the doctor, he has dark, curly hair, the classic white coat on and he wears round glasses like the ones John Lennon wore.  His pen that he carries in his coat pocket is a fine quality pen, a Montblanc.  A nurse walks up to him with what I would assume to be a prescription, he signs it with stylistic flair and keeps walking towards the desk.  Before he gets there he realises that it is me that he has been asked to find.  I have waited now for an hour in the waiting room.  The man who keeps asking to be taken care of is still pleading.  I wonder: how long will he last before a doctor will walk by and declare him dead at the scene?

“How are you Miss O’Connor?”

“Oh no, not O’Connor anymore, its Whitman, Eavan Whitman.”

“I see, pleasure to make your acquaintance.  Now I suppose you are here about your father.  I will assume you know by now that he has extremely advanced pancreatic cancer.

“Yes I know.  Let us not dance around the subject: how much time does he have?”

“To the point I see.  A generous estimate is between two and fourteen days.”

“That’s not much time… I’ve got a lot of… there’s just a bunch of stuff – things we need to talk about.  Could I see him now?”

“I would let you but he is in chemo-therapy currently.  You could come back in three hours; his session should be over by then.”

“What is the point of the chemo if it is this far gone?  Is there any hope for the cancer to dissipate?”

“It’s very unlikely that the cancer will go away; his is a very potent cancer.  If I may be blunt, only a miracle can save him now. In any case, he will be ready in three hours; would you like to come back then?  I realise how late that is, but I can arrange for you to stay overnight if you wish.”

“Overnight will not be necessary.  I will be back in three hours.  Would you show me where his room is so I can go straight there when I come back?”

“Most certainly.”

The doc said that my daughter would show up tonight.  After all the times I’ve called, waited, gotten the answering machine, hung up, then said to myself that she was busy praying for me, for this fucking cancer to be eradicated from my system, she’ll be here.  She sends me cards; that’s how we keep in touch.  They say “Happy Birthday!  May your year be full of joy and happiness and may God bless you for your compassion.”, “Merry Christmas!  On this day of happy tidings, may Jesus’ love envelop you and protect you.”, and my personal favourite: the get well soon card.  “Get well soon.  Everything will heal with patience and prayer.  We pray to our lord Jesus Christ to help you along the road to recovery.”  I got one of each of those cards every year since I came back from my tour.  Each year I would get signatures that I couldn’t put a face to.  Each year a tear falls for every signature without a face.

“Is he asleep?”

“I’m sorry, the chemo-therapy takes a lot of energy from patients; he fell asleep only a few minutes ago, would you like me to wake him?”

“No, no, that’s fine.  Could you give us a moment please?”

“Of course.  If you need anything, I am on call for another two hours.  I’ll be making my rounds; shouldn’t be too hard to find me.  If anything urgent comes up, just press the little red button on the side of his bed.”

“Thank you.”

“It’s been many long years since we’ve spoken.  I’ve always wanted to come down and see you, but I-I.  I’ve been busy.  The church has me volunteering everywhere and I can’t find very much time for myself.  The homeless people need food and blankets… comfort.  Sunday school needs a teacher.  My work at the community center is pretty tough too, but I know I am doing the right thing, helping these people.  I feel like I was sent by God himself to help.  He has plans for all of us you know?  Maybe you don’t because you didn’t embrace the church much, but there’s still time for you to talk to Him about these things.  The sceptics say prayer is useless, like talking to thin air, but He listens.  He always listens.”

There is a little blue light that shines in this dark room.  It comes from a machine that tells me that he is stable.  There is also a green line that bounces up and down on a little screen.  A red light blinks from another machine, informing me that his IV is almost out.  As I go to switch it I begin to think about how still the room is.  It’s so static, but below the surface, biological warfare is taking place.  It’s not so much a war as it is genocide; red blood cells being outnumbered by the white ones, the situation spinning out of control.  There is a certain stink to hospitals, an antiseptic smell, but in this room, it is overpowered by something more grim: pain.  All alone he lies there with not one soul to hold his hand.  He is dying.  It is this death that will shake me most of all.  I have seen death before in the war as a medic, holding the head of those whose wounds make crumble the light of life; eyes dimming as you look into them.  One bullet will often do to kill a man.  It is sometimes a gift that you are taken down from life in your youth, because what I see before me is among the most terrible things one can witness.  It is a slow painful death, one that begs for the bullet.  He said it himself, he would have wanted to have ‘bitten some more Viet Cong lead’ as he put it.  He wishes I hadn’t saved him, hadn’t inserted my fingers into his chest and pried out the bullet lodged between his ribs, wishes I hadn’t found him beneath the tropical brush.  As a doctor, I made a pact with myself and I swore an oath to society never to let somebody die if I can save them.  I did, but at what cost?  Had this man died, he would not be in pain now.  It would hurt only for that one split second and then it would be over.  Now he is hurting physically and emotionally; a depressed sack of cancerous skin.  What have I done?

“I fell asleep didn’t I?  Damn it!  I wish I hadn’t.  The one time she shows up, I’m passed out.  I look like I don’t care don’t I?”

“No Len, you don’t.  I’m sure she understands that you’re tired because of this.”

“Look, I’m not asking for anything special, I just want to be awake today.  Anything you can do for that?  I don’t want her showing up again and then here I’ll be asleep – again.  Her patience with me is already thin; last night probably didn’t help any.  I just want to be awake.”

“Len, I can’t give you anything that keeps you awake, it’ll just help the cancer grow even more out of control.  It’ll stimulate not only the healthy cells but the cancerous ones too.”

“Karl, we both know I have very little time left, what’s a couple more cancer cells going to do?”

“Leonard, even if I did, it wouldn’t help that much, you’re body is so tired – so used up – that you would probably fall asleep anyhow.”

“Figures… Well, its still worth a shot isn’t it?  Pardon the pun.”

“Why do you always have to be so light on everything?”

“I’m not being light, I’m very serious; I want to be awake.  What do you think the chances are that it would work?  Give me the honest answer, not the healthy one.”

“You probably have a twenty percent chance of being able to stay awake for the whole day.”

“Perfect.  Alright doc, shoot me.”

A child is lumbering down the stairs of a hotel lobby with his mother.  Waking from a deep slumber, he can barely open his eyes and consequently trips down the last couple of stairs.  Needless to say, the wails can be heard from outside the building on the other side of the street, disturbing the patrons of nearby coffee shops.  After a bag of ice has been applied to his elbow he seems to calm down, knowing that the ice will make everything better.  He asks why this happened to him, why he tripped, because it certainly wasn’t his plan.

After some thought it dawns on him.  “Maybe it was His plan.”

“Of course it was His plan; it taught you something didn’t it?”

“I guess.  He’s mysterious.”

“That’s how it works unfortunately.”

“Well I don’t like it.”

“Have faith young man, someday you’ll understand.”

Eavan has phoned up from the reception to say she is coming.  Karl is telling the good news to Leonard until he suddenly stiffens up as if he is scared.

“What’s wrong?”

“Am I presentable?  I mean, it’s been a long time you know and I just… I don’t want to screw it up.”

“It’ll be fine; you look fine.”

“You sure?”

“Yes, I’m—“

And there she is, and she’s brought along another, her little boy.

“I’ll leave you two alone.”

“No, no doctor, stay for a while.  Adam, say hello to everyone.”  But he does not because he is scared of Leonard and Karl.  He hides behind his mother’s skirt as if it will shield him from harm’s way.

“I should get going, patients to take care of, they don’t pay for nothing do they?  I’ll be back in a little while to check up on you Leonard.”

“Bye Doc.”

“Goodbye Doctor.”

The room is brighter now that the sun shines through the windows.  The machines are hard at work, but they seem less obtrusive now that the darkness has receded.  Leonard looks more lively, but it is only stimulant, and beneath his skin the cancer has doubled its pace, overthrowing the last of his resistance.

“Hello Adam, do you know who I am?”

“You’re my grandpa.”

“Yep, that’s who I am.  Hello darling.”

“Hi dad.  Am I allowed to hug you with all these wires and things?”

“Just don’t tell the doctor.”

“It’s been a long time Eavan.”

“Did you get my letters?”

“Yeah, I got ‘em.  I tried to call you, but you must have always been out.  I’m going to need a schedule to find out when I can reach you.”

“I’m working a lot at the church and the community center.  People need help out there.”

“They aren’t the only ones.  You could come to work at the hospital see me every day, we could chat, make up for lost time, talk about this young man here.”

“I couldn’t quit the community center.  Who would replace me?  We’re already stretched thin, only a few of us doing the work you know.”

“I know. I know.  Just checking. … Adam, there’s a little play area in the common area if you want.  It’s got little toy cars and army men.”

“I don’t like army men, they fight, and fighting is bad.”

“The cars are still there.  Go and play with the cars, imagine you’re taking me for a ride around the town.  I haven’t left this place for three years.  Show me the sights!”

“Go play Adam.  I’ll be there after I’ve talked to your grandpa for a little while.”

“Why did you leave Eavan?  I mean the letters are nice, but they don’t replace your beautiful face.”

“You know why I left.  You’re a patriot.  You fought in ‘Nam and I can’t live with someone who believes that that was a necessary fight to fight.”

“The communists would be HERE now if we hadn’t fought them back.  Millions died on both sides.  Millions died for you to live the way you do now.  I almost died so you could live the way you do now.”

“Yeah, I know.  Okay?  I know.  This isn’t the first time you’ve said this.  I will still stand by what I believe in, just as you do.  I’m just a different kind of patriot.”

“You are God’s patriot.  Fighting the good fight.  What’s the point?”

“Dad, have you ever tried to pray?  Have you ever even considered his existence?”

“Why would I pray?  Praying to God is like calling up the phone company and waiting for them to take you off hold.”

“Whatever.  I’m hungry, so I’m headed down to the cafeteria, you want anything?”

“No, no.  I’m fine.  Go ahead, take your time, we’re in no rush.  Could use a little shut eye in any case.”

“Okay.”

“Where’s mommy?”

“She went to get something to eat.  What are you doing here anyways?  Had enough of the cars?”

“The other kids weren’t sharing their cars.  I had this ugly green one.  I wanted the red one.”

“Oh, well, that happens sometimes.”

“What does?”

“Unfair stuff.”

“Why are you dressed up like a robot?  With all the wires and things?”

“Life got unfair with me.”

“I know what I’m going to do tonight.  I’m going to pray for God to make those other boys share the red cars.  How is it unfair?  You’re always dressed up – like it’s always Halloween!”

“Ha!  You’re a bright boy.  It’s not Halloween for me.  Not ever.  I’m trapped you see.  These tubes are like chains, keeping me in this place.”

“You should pray so that God can help you out of them.”

“I’ve never been that good at the whole praying thing.  How about this: since grandpa is tired, you can pray for me while I take a nap.  And we’ll see if the praying thing works out.”

“Okay.”

“— and make those boys share the red cars, and let grandpa out of his chains.  Amen.”

“Why are you praying?  What chains?”

“I’m praying so that I can get a red car next time and so that grandpa gets out of those chains.”

“Oh, no, those aren’t chains sweetie.  They are helping grandpa.  He is sick, and the tubes are helping him.  Is he asleep?”

“He’s been sleeping for a long time.”

“Oh my God.”

And the little red button on the side of the bed was pushed.

Paging God, please hold.

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