Exactly What I Hoped He Would Say

Chapter 66

My eyes are fixed on Frank and the gun, as I very slowly walk backwards towards the head of Nathan’s bed. Frank doesn’t say anything about hurrying up. The arm holding the gun has a bit of a tremor, which he tries to hide by bracing his wrist with the opposite hand.  

For a minute, I consider he might not be fully committed to euthanizing Nathan. He’s drunk and out of control. Maybe he’s as terrified of himself as I am. 

 Peripherally, I take a quick inventory of what makeshift weapons are available to me. Next to me are the IV poles, supporting their multiple pumps. There’s the board at the foot of Nathan’s bed that OT has us using intermittently to prevent foot drop. On the bedside table is the bottle of hydrogen peroxide I used to clean Nathan’s trach. I’m afraid to get close enough to Frank while he’s holding a gun to use them though. I look again at the IV pumps on the pole, and get an idea.  

“Frank, I utter softly, “Frank…”

“What?”

“Dr. Polk started weaning Nathan’s sedation medication this morning, because his trach is healing.” I point to the mini infuser pump clamped to the IV pole, with its syringe of fentanyl. “That means Nathan is more awake now, and can breathe some on his own, without the ventilator. If I unplug the ventilator from the wall, Nathan will struggle to breathe. He won’t die quickly. Frank, he’ll suffer if we unplug the ventilator.”

Frank looks confused. “You’re lying! How can that be?”

“I told you, Frank, Nathan isn’t brain damaged. He’s paralyzed. The parts of his brain and spinal cord that control his breathing still work. He’ll suffocate slowly, gasping for air if I unplug the ventilator.”

“I don’t know if I believe you.”

“He’ll suffer, Frank. Is that what you want?”

No! Goddamnit! I want to stop his suffering. That’s why I’m here. I don’t want my son to suffer like this!”

We stare at each other in silence. I’m afraid to push Frank further. He’s too volatile and unpredictable. 

“Put the sedation back the way it was.”

“What?”

“I said, put the sedation back the way it was. Make him sleepy so he doesn’t feel anything.”

That’s exactly what I hoped he would say.

Code Silver

Chapter 65

Frank has a handgun aimed at my head.

Liz, still unconscious, lies motionless on the PICU room  floor.

I didn’t sign for this when became a nurse.

Silently, I begin to cry, thinking about Maddie, and that I may never see her again. Did I kiss her before she went to school today? Probably not; she’s too old for that. What was the last thing I said to her? I hope she knows how much I love her.

Frank slides the PICU room door shut.

“Code Silver! Pediatric Intensive Care Unit! Code Silver! Pediatric Intensive Care Unit!” is called loudly on the hospital’s PA speakers.

Thank God. Someone saw the gun.

Frank and I stare at each other, the gun pointed at my head. Facing each other, we stand like this for what feels like hours. How long have we been standing here?

I need to calm down if I’m going to survive. I need to keep my wits about me. I begin counting my breaths, focusing on the exhale.

Frank starts sobbing. “My son, my only son. Nathan, my Nathan. How could your mom let this happen? I’m not going to let you be a vegetable, son. I’m going to let you die like a man.”

I feel sick to my stomach, and try not to retch. “Frank, Nathan’s not a vegetable. He doesn’t have brain damage. He can probably hear us talking about him. He can probably hear you talking about him.”

“You fucking nurses are all alike; all positive, and thinking you can change people and fix everything. You don’t see what’s real, what’s really happening even when it’s in your face. You think if you keep cleaning up the messes, they’ll stop happening.

My boy is damaged. What kind of man lives his life in a chair? That’s no life for my son. You should of let him die the night of the accident.”

“Frank, Nathan’s heart never stopped. He never tried to die. He’s strong. He can go to college, get an education. He can inspire others going through something similar. He still has a meaningful life. This is a challenge, yes, but it’s not the end.”

“Shut up!”

“Frank…”

“I said shut up! Now, go over there, and pull the plugs.”

What?”

“I said, go over there, and pull the plugs to all the machinery out of the wall. Especially the plug to that breathing machine.”

“Frank, I can’t…”

The gun is still pointed at my head, and I hear it click.

 

This is Your Fault: Frank Lashes Out

Chapter 64

Liz is assisting me with Nathan’s trach care. The stoma is healing well, but still a tender pink, with frothy secretions. Carefully, I swab around the collar, while Liz measures and cuts new ties to replace the old ones.

“It sounds like Nathan’s going to begin weaning from the ventilator soon,” I say, trying to sound cheerful. “He’s starting to do more breathing on his own since Dr. Polk had us lighten his sedation.”

“He opens his eyes every now and then too, that makes me so happy,” says Liz. “I swear he squeezed my hand when I was talking to him last night. Maybe he’ll regain some movement in his hands.”

“That would be great, Liz. I’ve known patients who were able to use a computer, and navigate their mobility chair independently, using a single hand. He’s strong, and young.”

“Should we wash Nathan’s hair this morning, Niki?”

Before I can answer, I sense in my peripheral vision a shadow standing in the doorway. It’s Frank. He grasps the side of the doorway with one hand, swaying a little. I can smell the alcohol he’s been drinking from across the room.

He’s staring at Nathan in the bed, but doesn’t step further into the room. Something about him blocking the doorway sets me on edge.

“Hello, Frank.”

He doesn’t take his eyes off of Nathan.

Liz looks uneasy too, but ventures to speak to him, “We’re just finishing Nathan’s bath and trach care. He had a good night.”

Frank turns to Liz, fury in his voice. “You raised our boy to be a fucking pussy. How’s he going to learn to be a man and toughen up when you keep letting him be sensitive and all that shit? I told you time after time, and now look where he is. You made this happen, Liz. This is your fault!”

“Frank, that’s enough,” I say to him. I need you to calm down.”

“You’re a cruel asshole,” mumbles Liz, barely audible.

Frank takes a step forward into the room. “What did you just say?”

“Nothing, Frank. I didn’t say anything.”

Frank looks at Liz, and his shoulders relax. In a voice frighteningly calm, he says, “Oh, it was nothing.”

Then, with the speed, and precision of a striking rattlesnake, Frank grabs Liz by the throat, pulling her away from Nathan’s bed, and slams her head against the wall. He releases his grip, and she slides to the floor, unconscious.

I scream, “Call security! I need help!” from the room to the nurses’ desk.

And then Frank pulls out a handgun, and points it at my head.

A Bad Feeling About Frank

Chapter 63

Several days ago, the neurologist treating Nathan held a family conference, and updated them on his prognosis.

“Nathan’s spinal cord was severely damaged in the accident. While there maybe some improvement after several months of healing, he will be paralyzed for the rest of his life. However, I believe that Nathan will not be ventilator dependent as he is during this acute phase. Since it may take many weeks for Nathan to breathe on his own without mechanical support, I recommend we place a temporary trach until he fully recovers and gets stronger.”

As the nurse caring for Nathan this shift, I was present at the family conference. Liz was prepared for the news, but openly sobbed anyway.

Frank had a lot of questions for the neurologist.

“What makes you so sure Nathan’s spinal cord damage is permanent? What about alternative treatments?” and “If we transfer Nathan to another hospital that specializes in this sort of care, would they offer more advanced treatment that could heal him?”

The physician answered his questions with patience and empathy.

I watched Frank as the neurologist answered his questions. Chameleon-like, his facial expressions changed from sorrow, to anger, to tears, and then to stone. Sitting in a chair next to Liz, I noticed he was lightly kicking her in the ankle under the room’s coffee table. She appeared not to notice. I almost said something, but thought better of it. A few minutes after the conference ended, he left the hospital.

Liz stayed in the conference room, asking more questions about what rehab services for Nathan will be offered, and how long would he be there as an inpatient.

I went back to the PICU, and resumed Nathan’s care.

“How’s Liz holding up?” asked Sue.

“Like a nurse. She’s focusing on what’s next; asking about rehab services, and what equipment she’ll need when he comes home. I don’t think his dad, Frank, is doing so good though. He was kicking her under the table during the family conference.”

Sue frowned. “I’ll have a talk with the nursing supervisor about that,” she said. “We may have to place some boundaries on Frank’s visits. Night shift said he came in late last night, intoxicated. When he started acting out they had security escort him to the hospital parking lot, and he took Uber home.”

I have a very bad feeling about Frank.

I Hate This, All of It (Maddie Talks to Niki)

Chapter 51

“Maddie, open the door.”

“Go away!”

“Maddie, I know you’re upset, but we need to talk.”

“I don’t want to talk. I hate you! And Amber, and Dad too!”

“Maddie, I’ve heard Amber’s side of the story, now I want to hear yours. Please open the door and talk to me. 
”

I stand at Maddie’s bedroom door not hearing a sound. I’m about to knock again when I hear footsteps. The door opens revealing Maddie’s face, reddened and damp with tears.

“Can I come in?” I ask.

Wordlessly, Maddie steps away from the door, allowing me entrance. We face each other awkwardly before I give her a hug.

“So what’s going on? Amber says you’ve been picking on Wade. I thought you loved having a little brother.”

Maddie remains silent.

“I have to admit picking out all the marshmallows from the box of cereal was clever.”

Maddie cracks a smile, and we both start laughing. “You should’ve seen his face, Mom. He kept turning the cereal box upside down and shaking it, looking for the marshmallows.”

Still laughing, I work the conversation. “It is funny, but was it still funny after Wade found out you tricked him?”

Maddie stopped laughing. Her eyes squinted at the memory. “He made a face at me, and then ran into his room.”

“How did that make you feel?”

“Kind of bad. He used to look up to me. He trusted me.”

Putting my arm around Maddie’s shoulders, I guided her to her unmade bed where we sat down. “What’s this all about Maddie? What’s bothering you?”

“Ever since you and Dad got divorced, my life has changed.”

“The divorce changed all of our lives Maddie. It isn’t easy for any of us.”

“Yeah, but you and Dad got to choose. Nobody asked me what I wanted. Now Dad’s married to Amber, and she expects me to do all kinds of stuff around the house, like keeping track of Wade while her and Dad spend time together. At first I thought Amber thought I was grown up, but now I know she just wants me to stop being a kid and take care of things for her. I didn’t sign up for that. I’m still a kid.”

“I’m sorry Maddie. I didn’t know this was happening. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because you’re always at work. If you’re not at work, you’re sitting around drinking tea and listening to music. I don’t think you want to hear about Dad and Amber anyway. I feel like I have to pick. And you know what, it’s not easy always having to pack my stuff back and forth between your house and theirs. Sometimes I forget my homework at the wrong house, and I get in trouble for it at school. I hate this, all of it.”

How did I not know how hard this has been for Maddie? I’ve been way too distracted with my life, and it’s hurt my daughter. I need to get my priorities straight.

“Maddie, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you felt this way. I’m glad you told me. I see I need to make some changes around here. I’m going to make things better for you, I promise.”

Moving On (more changes)

Chapter 46

Taking Maddie and Kaylee out for dinner distracts me from the sadness of saying good-bye to Corey in the mall. We watch movies in the family room until I’m too tired to stay awake. In bed, alone in darkness, I listen to their laughter until sleep overtakes me.

The next morning I deep clean the house in a burst of energy. When every surface is scrubbed clean and polished, I start on the closets, pulling out their contents and filling boxes with items for donation. Having stayed up into the wee hours of the morning, the girls are asleep, curled in sleeping bags in the family room, only their is hair visible from the fabric cocoons. Though I pass them several times while loading the boxes of used household items into the car, they remain asleep. I drive the boxes of old clothes, flower vases, and linens to a parking lot donation site, where a volunteer asks me the estimated value of the goods, for the receipt. I struggle to come up with a dollar price for items I’ve already deemed disposable.

At the nearby big-box store, I buy three baskets of fuchsias, and hang them from the porch rail at home. The anticipation of hummingbirds feeding from them while I watch through the window, drinking coffee, tea, or a glass of wine makes me happy.

“Moving on,” I tell myself.

* * *

The next day is Monday. After dropping Maddie off at school, I finish drinking coffee at home, and then go for a run, weaving and bobbing between roller bladers, bicyclists, and people walking their dogs along The Strand. The morning low clouds usually clinging to the coast are gone, and sunspots glitter on the surface of the sea. Mothers with young children arrive, making a patchwork quilt of the sandy beach with their blankets and coolers.  It’s a beautiful day.

Before school lets out, Maddie texts:

DAD PICKING ME UP WILL BRING ME HOME L8R

Around 7:30, Simon’s car pulls into my driveway, and Maddie pops out. She slams the car door shut before running into the house, laughing and smiling. She gives me a hug, and then blurts out, “Mom, guess who’s getting married?”

I knew this was coming.

“Your Dad and Amber?”

“Yes! I’m so excited! I get to be a bride’s maid. Amber says I’m too grown up to be a flower girl, and she wants us to be really, really good friends!”

“Well, that’s wonderful Maddie. I’m sure they’ll be really happy. When are they getting married?”

“In six weeks. Guess what else?”

“What?”

“Amber’s pregnant. I’m going to have a new brother or sister!”

* * *

The next night I wear the new scrubs, clogs, and lipstick I bought at the mall. Once again there’s a cake in the PICU. This one has Congratulations Kris! scrawled across its top in blue icing. Kris stands in the middle of the room with her left hand extended. The diamond is so big and sparkly I can see it from the door.

“Congratulations Kris! You and Jon the bass player decided to get married?”

“Niki, where have you been? Liz laughs. “She’s not marrying Jon the bass player.”

“That was so four months ago, says Kris. I’m marrying Spider Rodrigo.”

“The lead singer of Kushion? That Spider Rodrigo? What happened to the rock band rehearsing in your garage, and that guy you were living with?”

“That was Kushion.”

“But they’re huge! How did I not know Kushion rehearses in your garage, and you’re marrying Spider Rodrigo?” I blush, realizing how I sound.

Kris just looks at me.

Liz intervenes, “You’ve been a little self-absorbed lately Niki. You’ve had a lot going on.”

I try to recover. “I’m sorry Kris. Really, I’m very happy for you. Congratulations!” I give her a hug to prove it.

“Thanks Niki. That’s not all. Kushion is touring to promote their debut album, and I’m going with them. Spider’s mother is a diabetic. He won’t leave her. I’m going to keep track of her blood sugars, and be her companion. I’ll be the tour’s nurse.”

“Congratulations, Kris,”

I mean it. I really do.

Your Problem Arises (Niki Confronts Corey)

Chapter 45

As soon as I realize I’ve bumped into Corey, I turn to run back into the women’s restroom, but he caught me by the shoulders before I reached sanctuary.

“Let go!” I hiss.

A woman shoulders past us, looks back, but determines I’m not in danger so she keeps going.

“Niki, will you just wait a minute, and hear me out?”

“I don’t have anything to say, Corey.”

“Don’t be like that. This isn’t only about you. It’s about us, and I have things to say to you.

I turn towards him, and he releases me.

“What do you have to tell me?”

“Okay then, um, first, I want to apologize Niki. I never thought about something happening to Sheila; that maybe I wouldn’t be the one leaving first. I mean, we have our problems, but I never wanted anything bad to happen to her.”

With an intentional look of annoyance, I interrupt him. “Corey, we already went through all of this. I get it. You’re not leaving Sheila. Go away, and leave me alone!”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you Niki. I can’t leave you alone. I love you.”

“Right, you love me, but you can’t leave Sheila. Corey, your problem arises from between your legs.” I turned to escape down the hall, but Corey’s retort stopped me.

“Yeah, but what do you really think of me, Niki?”

Leave it to an ER nurse to know how to diffuse a tense public moment.

I laugh despite myself, and softly reply, “I really think I’m going to miss you, Corey.”

“I know. I miss you terribly, and that’s why we’re leaving.”

“Leaving? Where?”

“Seattle. You know, Sheila’s from there. She’s stayed in touch with her boss in the realty office. He’s offered her a job. The housing market has improved, and he needs someone. She’s nearly done with chemotherapy, and he said she could pick her own hours until she’s fully recovered. Her oncologist referred her to someone else; Seattle has a renowned cancer center.

Having cancer made Sheila see my skills are important, and how much she needed me to navigate the health care system for her. Now she understands that nursing is complex and an important job. She understands that she can’t expect me to carry everything on my shoulders. She’s ready to become a full partner in our marriage.”

I’m feeling annoyed again. “Well isn’t that special. What about you, Corey?”

“There’s more Niki. Remember I told you I applied to NP programs? Well, I was accepted to a program in Seattle. Sheila and I have a long way to go to make things right between us, but I owe it to her and our children to try. We don’t have the connection that you and I have Niki. You and me, we’re the same. So moving is a good idea. I’m too tempted by you.”

“What am I supposed to say, Corey?”

“Good luck?” He reaches out tentatively for a handshake.

I hesitate, staring at his hand. A flood of memories engulfs me. I reach out, pulling him into a tender hug. He lightly kisses my forehead.

“Good luck.”

“Thank you, Niki.”

Releasing me, Corey turns, and I watch him walk down the hallway to the food court and his family without looking back.