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I traced her hand with my fingers as if the veins on her hands were rivers on a map. The veins protruded through her aged skin. As I caressed her hands and trailed the rivers, her body rose up and down, rhythmically. The machines beside her hummed harmonically, up and down, in and out. The machine forced air into her longs and in a matter of seconds took the air right out. I sat and stared. She didn’t know where she was; she didn’t know I was there. Her hands showed the years of wear and tear. Years of gardening left her skin tough and leathered and the endless amount of IV's left her forearms callused and scarred.
The door creaked open; it was a nurse. "Everything okay?"
She asked as if Kate’s condition was about to change. Her voice was full of hopeless optimism. I had learned my lesson a little late in the game, but this was a losing battle. I tried to fight Kate’s battles and I tried to protect her from the war, but there was nothing we could do.
I replied quietly, "The same, as always."
"Chin-up Ken, we all know Kate's headed straight to the heavens."
I think that this comment was supposed to help; at least I wanted to believe that was her intention. I knew she was dying, but it hurt to know that even the doctors were letting her go. They told me to let her go. Let her go they said, but what did that mean? How could I let the only person I had ever loved go? I knew all I had to do was press the button, and I thought of how demeaning it was to think that just one press of the button could end somebody’s life. Just one press and she would be dead; that's all it took. I heard the words over and over again, "Let her go."
These past twelve days had been entirely selfish on my part. Kate had told me the idea of artificially keeping her alive disgusted her. In her world she'd have it "taken care of” right away. We’d had the discussion years earlier, and never spoke of it again. I told her to keep me alive just until she was ready. I could care less if those robotic machines kept my lungs pumping for years to come. Kate wanted it done quickly and painlessly, she talked about it as if it was as easy as flushing her goldfish Frenchie.
I knew it was day twelve, and her body was nearing death whether or not I pressed the button. I sat there all day; the nurses who had grown to know me would let me spend the night. The nurses who were there when we were teenagers had become doctors and every once in awhile popped in their heads to say hello. This hospital I had grown to love. I spent more time here than I did in my own community; I wanted to be wherever Kate was. Over and over that button taunted me, as easy as it was to press, it was the hardest decision of my life. Kate wanted to be set free; she was never one for faking it.
The night crew bustled about; there wasn’t much action on Kate’s floor. Her floor was reserved for those about to die, and I liked to think of it as the floor for the most indecisive people ever. George was in the room next to us; he was dying. Millie, his wife, and I would talk for hours about how to choose, when we'd know. That was the problem; how do you know? With every artificial breath there was a hint of optimism that it was really her lungs breathing. That somehow she was strong enough to carry the weight of the world, that her lungs were functioning. How did I know that this was it? That Kate was really dead, how did they know?
I blamed the Lifetime movies Kate made me watch during her endless chemo sessions. In every movie, somehow, within the last ten minutes, just before the credits started rolling, her eyes caught the light, or her hand grasped her loved one’s, magically, just as the doctors pulled out the breathing tube, her lung kept refilling. I had been brainwashed. Lifetime had filled my head, more importantly my heart with relentless hope, hope; that she would come back to me for just a moment. How was I supposed to know that her life was over; how did I know that for sure? The words haunted me. “Just let her go.” The clocked ticked midnight; it was officially day thirteen. Day thirteen brought no new surprise and no miracles. That’s all I needed was a miracle, I needed a lifetime moment. I needed some sort of sign or mystical lighting; I needed an angel to save my angel. I spoke to Kate as if it was just any other day, not like it was day thirteen. I told her that there were twins born on the maternity floor, I told her what was for lunch and how the lunch ladies still were skimpy with the meatloaf.
The movies had told me that Kate could hear me, that talking to her would trigger a miracle, but I knew they were wrong. If Kate could hear what I was saying, she would have put me in my place. I was scared of losing Kate, because that meant I would lose myself. I knew what would come next, the movies warned me. Once you lose your soul-mate, you lose yourself. I was scared of death; there was no way around it. I carried a lucky penny in my pocket and a rabbit’s foot on my key chain, and a four-leaf clover in my wallet. I guess I was scared of dying alone, of dying without Kate to send me off properly. That’s the thing about Kate, she was never scared of death. Her whole life she was on the brink of death, and Kate skated along that edge with ease.
The darkness of the room illuminated as Millie opened the door. “I pressed it, I let him go.” Millie’s eyes were fogged with tears, and her cheeks were tear-stained.
“Millie, I’m, I’m so sorry.” I wondered if I would be like that. I wondered if I would be just as much a mess as she was.
“Me too, Ken. Me too.”
I got up and hugged her; it was the only thing I knew to do. Her cries were muffled in my shoulder and her body shook as each tear fell. Millie had been in love; she had been in love and her lover died.
“I’m gonna go get some jell-o,” Millie muttered through her tears. I gave her one last hug, and she went back to George to get some Jell-o.
I realized how Jell-0 had become a pathetic crutch for those on my floor. I think it’s because it was the one thing we knew would be there, forever. That’s what we needed, consistency, even if that meant an addiction to hospital Jell-o.
Kate would have thought my vice was ridiculous, and she would have made fun of me for it, that’s how I knew this was really it. After my sentences I held for a long pause, waiting for one of her witty comments. I waited for a snarky comeback; I waited for her. The things is, I knew this life with Kate wouldn’t be easy, but an easy life wasn’t what Kate wanted. Even without cancer, Kate was the biggest challenge in my life.
I’m guessing I fell asleep around two that morning. I woke up just as the sun was peeping through our window. It was my favorite time of day. Just as the world was beginning to awaken, it was a new day. It was the only time of day that Kate looked alive. The sun radiated off her skin and gave her the natural glow she’d once had. The sun was the only medicine that worked these days. For a mere fifteen minutes, it looked like Kate was just sleeping. The birds were out, and their songs drained out the daunting sound of her life support. I knew that if there were to be a miracle, it would be now. I imagined it over in my head a thousand times. Just as the sun was peaking and almost out of sight from our window, it would happen. Kate’s hand would slightly squeeze mine and for a second I would think it was my imagination, but I would look closer and see her eye lids flutter. I imagined the pandemonium that would occur. I’d call in the nurses, tell them what I saw. These series of events would consume my thoughts and replay over and over.
For those fifteen minutes I gave into my imagination. I held Kate’s hand delicately and attentively, just in case she came back. I watched her eyelids for motion, and I spoke to her, hoping just this once Kate would hear me.
Before I knew it, the sun was gone. Kate looked ill. I was abruptly shaken back to reality. The birds had moved along, and the sun had risen into another hospital window. I sat disappointed. The sun gave Kate a natural heat to her body, the kind of heat we’d felt for each other when we first met. It was the butterfly heat, the nervous excited feeling you feel. Without the sun I couldn’t bear her cold hands held in mine.
Selfishly, I left. This kind of disappointment happened daily. I left to the cafeteria for nothing other than Jell-o. Today was Wednesday, which meant, it was strawberry with whipped cream. On any other day this would have been a good day; strawberry was the best flavor the hospital had. I slowly nipped away and watched. I realized that the hospital was just as uncomfortable a place for the patients as it was for the families. The air was too cold, the smell was unwelcoming, and the furniture far from comfortable. Absolutely nobody wanted to be in the hospital.
The Jell-o slipped down my throat with ease. I was thinking of Kate; I was remembering Kate. I moseyed my way back to her room, and a wind of fatigue whipped over me. For twelve nights I’d been averaging four hours of sleep, but today was the first time the deprivation had caught up with me. I could feel with each step how my body dragged and just begged for sleep. Thankfully, the nurses had found it necessary to give me a hospital bed. I remember the conversation. They said that with the amount of time I spent here that I was just as much a patient as Kate. The nurses really went all out, too. Kate’s white board said “cancer.” Mine was right beside hers and it said “well-being.” I slid my bed right next to Kate’s and put down the bed guards.
The machines made it difficult to sleep. The life support sounded nothing like the way Kate breathed. The breaths were too fast and happened too frequently. I missed the way Kate would snore, as much as she denied it. Or how when her allergies kicked in, her nose whistled away. I missed the way Kate burrowed her head into my shoulder as if she were going into hibernation. I missed the way her hands were warm against my chest. The whole scenario was artificial, but who was I kidding. This wasn’t my Kate. This was a Kate that cancer had taken over.
We all thought Kate was out of the woods; that’s what they told us. Kate had rallied into remission three times and the third one was what we all thought to be the last. Nobody thought cancer would strike a fourth time, but then again nobody thought Kate could beat cancer three times.