Maybe it’s the medication. Maybe it’s the essential tremor. A cold right hand, marbled with bursting capillaries, trembles and twitches and fumbles as if detached from its body and is struggling to stay alive. The quivering hand conducts a blind, uncoordinated sweep of the bedside table. After several frustrating minutes it spills a plastic cup of stale water (the ice had melted some time yesterday).
The first and only Christmas gift his daughter had ever made for him. She was six years old and in the first grade. On tippy-toes she had propped it against the coffee pot where she knew he’d find it at four in the morning. That was many long years ago.
The water will ruin it.
The very thought increases his already thready heart rate. A rapid pulse is visible through shiny sausage skin.
“What a mess you’ve made,” says the oncoming night shift nurse. These are the only words she’ll say to him all night and the final time he’ll see her face until the morning light. Another boy or girl may or may not round to change his briefs, reposition his body, and fluff his pillows.
He wants to ask for assistance but his tongue refuses to obey his brain. His parched throat is sticking together, provoking a sudden, dry, hacking cough. She offers him no water. The water is spilled.
Before the nurse is forced to do something about this inconvenient red-faced coughing fit, she exits the room and shuts the door. A jet stream of strong perfume remains.
Calming himself, he closes his watery eyes to the scent and remembers the mall at Christmastime. Ever reluctant to spend an English teacher’s Bob Cratchit salary, his wife would window shop and sample perfumes and hot chocolate and Tai cuisine stabbed with toothpicks and whatever else was offered freely in the spirit of the season or commercial enticements. She was a cheap date and forever young. Their holiday tradition was always to close the evening at O’Brien’s with two Irish coffees, extra Jameson. The restaurant bar overlooked three tiers of holiday shoppers and, best of all, a long curlicue of children waiting to sit on Santa’s lap. Her lips were extra smooth with whipped cream and her breath smelled of sweet whiskey. She was always smiling. Oh, how he loved her.
“A” bed is empty. Horace died two days ago. Lucky chap. No more Jeopardy and Judge Judy or his constant calling out to Margaret . . . Margaret . . . Margaret. Hallelujah.
Silence is a gift. Especially to a man at the midnight hour of his life.
Eighty-year-old Albert Compton, his blackening ankles twisted in stained sheets, is now the sole occupant of Room 212, existing midway down C wing, far from any exit, far, far, far away from the front entrance and the false impression of a home with a couch, a grandfather clock, a bird cage, a fish tank, fine art hanging on the walls, and a warm gas-lit hearth. There was a man in a black suit and a woman wearing a brown dress. Both were smiling when he arrived four years ago. Tanglewood is a funeral home disguised as a nursing home and his room is the Green room in a fetid theater of death. He’s merely waiting for his name to be called. This will be his final act.
In life, Horace had been completely blind and suffered with a Circadian Rhythm Disorder known as Non-24. This reminds Albert of his favorite Stephen King T-shirt which was black with a huge wide open eye above the caption, “We never sleep.” Non-24 Sleep-Wake Disorder: a loss of light perception that leads to a perpetual disorientation. Albert isn’t blind but has lost the light of his life and struggles with a similar issue that blurs the calendar and the hands of the clock 365 days a year. He never knows what weekday it is and has stopped asking because it no longer matters here on Death Row which marks only the passing of seasons through barred windows. For two years, he was wheeled daily to the outdoor patio. Spring was extra sweet, summer extra hot, fall extra haunting, and winter was avoided at all costs because there is a cold that settles deep into the bones and Al knows what it’s like to be frozen meat. During the holiday season, he’d be transported to the front hearth where there was a bookshelf and he’d sit by the fire and read poetry for hours. Cataract surgery had cleared the fog from his elderly eyes and left him with 20/20 vision thanks to the healthy lenses of a young dead donor like his daughter. Excellent eyesight for an old dinosaur is a surprising grace. His mind is as clear as his eyes. This is regrettable. He often wishes for a blank memory because the loneliness of loss is too vivid and a pain for which there is no medication, save Christ Himself. His wife and daughter are gone and both have left him with a phantom pain that never goes away.
He’s been bed bound for almost two years now because of a fractured hip. Unfortunately, he survived the whole ordeal. He prayed fervently for a huge blood clot to take him fast but nothing–NOTHING–about his long life has ever been fast or merciful. For some unknown reason, he’s been forced to walk this never-ending Green Mile. He misses his evening allotment of two cigarettes and one tall can of beer out on the back porch. The area is fenced around a maple tree that stands tall and centered and whose leaves blush crimson red in the fall. It is the simple things that become the greatest things. The squirrels delighted him and the whistle of a far away train at the six o’clock hour made him long for a blessed reunion with his wife and baby girl one distant day.
He thinks again of his daughter’s gift and feels a sharp stab in his heart. For a moment he can’t breathe.
Al and his wife Molly used to joke about growing old together and shacking up in a nursing home. He promised to chase her as best he could with his walker and pinch her diapered bottom. One lifetime wasn’t enough. He promised to love her beyond the Beyond. She wasn’t supposed to leave him so soon. After their daughter’s accident, Molly died of a broken heart. He returned home from teaching on a Thursday evening and found her in Dana’s room, in Dana’s bed, clutching Dana’s pink Linus blanket to her nose. She was staring at the ceiling with wide, lifeless eyes and a trail of tears, the salt having crusted on her cold cheeks. He gave her one final, disbelieving kiss goodnight.
Initially, he was mad at her. Later, he was happy for her and sad only for himself.
Dana had arrived much later in their married life in-vitro. Molly lovingly referred to her as their Petri dish baby. She was with them for only seven years but it felt more like seven days. Those were the happiest days.
Carolers came to Tanglewood last week. They weren’t allowed in the resident rooms but freely roamed the halls. Albert saw only their Platonic shadows outside the cave of his imprisoned existence. Their voices were a rare blend of young and old. The singing reminded him of church days and school days and of his ongoing temporary family: thirty years of English students in the jaundiced photo album of his memory.
Grammar and other people’s children guarded his sanity. Dana was always the main subject of his chalkboard sentences and in this small way, he had kept her alive.
See Dana run…
An Anglican priest, Father Andrew, makes regular rounds. He’s not an employee. He just comes. Middle aged. Not handsome. Not ugly. A wee bit pale with an unspoken sadness behind kind brown eyes. Albert doesn’t hear as well as he used to but tonight his senses are heightened to the soothing voice coming down the long and lonely hall of C wing.
And there he is. Finally. Standing in the doorway of Room 212. Clean and tall.
Father Andrew stares for a moment at the empty “A” bed before approaching the never empty “B” bed. He pulls a chain once–too bright–twice–dimming the bedlight and reaches for a chair. The scraping sound on the floor is the comforting sound of a friend drawing near. Not wanting to blind Albert with too much light, the priest uses his iPhone as a flashlight in the search for a clean towel. The kind Father mops the spilled water and retrieves some more with fresh crackling ice and offers Albert a sip.
The priest repositions Albert with a youthful and capable strength. He fluffs his pillows and straightens his bedding. Then, with a warm hand, almost hot to Al’s shoulder, Father Andrew prays a long, thoughtful, personalized prayer over him. “Almighty God and Everlasting Father…” he begins. Ten or fifteen minutes later, the collared minister ends with these strange but comforting words, “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints.”
An unleavened soft wafer is placed on Albert’s tongue where it melts. “The body of Christ, broken for you. By his wounds you are healed.”
A swallow of wine from a disposable cup. “The blood of Christ for the remission of sins. And you shall be whiter than snow.”
The red wine tastes extra delicious tonight. Christmas Communion.
Afterward, Father Andrew doesn’t go away. He reaches for Albert’s trembling hand. The man in black always smells of pine-scented candles.
“Is there anything I can do for you, Mr. Compton?”
The words are somewhere deep inside of Al’s brain. Circling. Churning.
Father Andrew waits patiently and says nothing. Albert pulls his hand away from the priest’s gentle grip and flops it once more upon the bedside table in a frantic search.
The minister stands, walks to the other side of the bed, and notices nothing on the stand other than the plastic cup of water and a tube of antibiotic ointment. Albert’s world is a barren place.
With unspoken permission, Andrew slides the top drawer open. A plastic freezer bag with something inside. “This?” he asks.
Albert Compton nods.
The bag is wet but not it’s contents.. A folded piece of purple construction paper, fading to brown over many years, is pulled ever so carefully from the protective pocket by the priest. He hands it to Albert, cradling the the deteriorating craft in the palms of his hands, as if he were handling one of the moth-delicate Dead Sea Scrolls. There is a golden ribbon for binding. A manger scene is waiting on the inside. There is Dana’s first handwriting, “Pees on erth,” under glitter and glue and cotton balls swirling into a galaxy behind one huge sticky star and a crayoned arrow pointing down to the manger. The little girl had clipped a square of her face from the front row of a kindergarten group picture and pasted it over the words, “I luv Jeezus and daddy.” Her countenance is radiant and her cut-and-paste head is endearingly deformed. She was so proud of her gift and what made Albert smile so bright once upon a time now brings a flood of tears. Every time.
Having guarded this delicate treasure for decades, he puts his nose to the ancient scroll where his daughter’s fingers have been, sniffs the aging construction paper so scratched and splotched with glue and crayon and finger paint and Dana’s last Christmas thoughts. This sad ritual is the only time Albert can ever recall what the child’s voice actually sounded like. Syllables like bells.
Father Andrew, tears in his own eyes, weeps with those who weep. He sits with the old man until Albert falls asleep, then he seals the card back inside of the freezer bag and returns the sacred package to the drawer. Before exiting room 212, he opens the blinds to the winter stars. Standing over what barely remains of Albert Compton, the priest pronounces these words: “The LORD bless you and keep you, Albert Compton. May the holy countenance of the LORD shine upon you and give you peace (Pees). Forever. Amen.”
At 4:03 a.m., Albert is dreaming of something being propped against his coffee pot when, suddenly, he’s awakened by his daughter’s voice. He sits up without actually sitting up and discovers that he’s floating high, high, high into a Christmas card sky.