Dante in Death

I hate hospitals. Always have. I hate the stale air that meets you when the tinted sliding glass door slowly, painfully pulls open. I hate how the desk clerk attempts a wavering smile in my direction as I walk by. She has a greeting like “Have nice day!” or “Enjoy your visit!” on the tip of her melancholy tongue before she realized her place and tucks it away. I hate the way I’m too afraid to run my hand along the wall, poke the elevator button, and perch stiffly in the waiting room because I fear catching a “hospital related disease” someone or other is always talking about. I hate having to be quiet when I pass down the halls, so quiet I can hear soft, pain filled moans that I can quite place. I hate peeking into patients’ rooms, eyes roaming full of wonder and awe, only to realize that the person inside is dying and there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, I can do about it. So you see, I hate hospitals.

I count 287 tiles, black, white, blue, yellow, black, white, blue, yellow, that is their order. I am jealous of the tiles. Nothing ever changes for them. Except for the occasional stranger passing through the ICU, the lives of the tiles remain the same. Mine is exactly the opposite. Black, white, blue, yellow, black, white, blue, yellow. Focus, Stephanie! I think, my eyes never leaving the ground as my family and I pass ten different ICU rooms. I dare not look up into one of them to catch the eye of a bald headed child, her mother tearfully listening to the prognosis of the doctor, or a drugged old man, who has already lost his wife and now waits for his turn to pass. My eyes remain glued to the floor, counting and relying on the stability of the tiles.

The ICU smells funny. It’s like medicine and stomach fluid mixed into one horrid scent inflicted on visitors like a curse. You shouldn’t be here. It taunts, wafting in and out of my nostrils, pushing me away from the approach of the room. It forces the walls around me to close, choking, suffocating me, like an iron vise clamping onto my lungs. I stagger as we get closer, tears banging at the back of my eyes, begging for their chance to see the world, but I don’t dare give in to the temptation.

“Dad,” I murmur, gripping his arm like I’m a scared kindergartener on the first day of school. “Daddy, I can’t do this.” Pinching the bridge of my nose with my other hand, I stare him dead in the eye. “I’m afraid.” The corners of Dad’s lips tenderly turn upward as he places his calloused hand on mine. Dad’s face is cheerless, but his eyes are filled with compassion.

“Yes you can, my strong girl.” He kisses my forehead and reels me in for a fatherly hug. “Dante is in God’s hands now.” Wrapped in my father’s arms, I can see my mother and brothers file into the awaiting room one by one, their faces transforming into soft smiles as they step forward to stare death straight in the face, for Dante’s sake. “Just talk to him like you would any other day.” And with Dad’s last nugget of advice, we both advance toward the room, following the footsteps of the rest of the family.

How many others have done just the same as we are? How many families have walked into this room to bestow a visit on a dying loved one? How many families have been torn apart because of the death in this very place? Walked along these very tiles? Comforted each other in this very way? How many? What was the verdict for them? Two years? A month? A week, like Dante? These questions pound through my brain as my footsteps echo off the quiet walls in the ICU. I look down quickly. Black, white, blue, yellow, I recite rapidly, breathing heavily and leaning on Dad’s arm. Black, white, blue—

“This is it,” Dad whispers, his voice coarse, tugging his arm away from my rough hold. “If you need a minute, take it.” Dad pulls the door open and closes it silently. He disappears, in the blink of an eye, behind the sliding glass door. Deep purple curtains cover the windows looking inside the room, prohibiting me from eavesdropping on any normal conversation. Prohibiting me from knowing if any normalcy still exists in this place

God, I pray, hands shaking and soul raw with anguish. God, Dante is in Your hands. He always has been and always will be. Show me to not be afraid. Show me how to be strong. Show me how to be like Dante. I draw in a short breath. I lift my hand to my lips to muffle a sob. I wipe my eyes. This is it. I think, willing my hand to reach for the door. I lift my arm slowly, higher, higher, higher, until it lightly brushed the handle. I grasp the door. I tug. The door succumbs to my strength. And that’s when I hear it, without seeing a thing. Six voices, ringing out in harmonious laughter. It must be from across the hall, I ponder, No one would be laughing inside this room. There’s no reason to. But I hear one voice in particular ringing out above all the rest. Dante. Pulling back the curtain, I gaze at him. His eyes are shining. His laughter lasts longer than anyone else’s. Dante is Dante. Death hasn’t changed him; in fact it even looks good on him. He’s happy to be alive just another day, no matter if he only has one week left in life. Today is enough for Dante.

And today is enough for me. My fears evaporate and with new found confidence I enter the room. Everyone is grinning. I was expecting more sorrow, more pain because of Dante’s prognosis, but no one seems upset, no one seems troubled or clouded, angry or feared. In fact, everyone is themselves, maybe just a touch more gentle.

Seeing Dante joyous, even in the midst of chaos, pain and death, just shows me the value of life on a larger scale. Dante is seventeen, the same age as me. That could be me laying on that itchy hospital bed, waiting, counting down the moments until my last breath, the only stability around me being the tiles underneath my feet. That could be me. The reality hits me straight in the chest. I thank God , right there, for the life He’s blessed me with and I pray I will never, ever, ever take it for granted again, just like Dante.

Then suddenly, my bald, beaten, skinner than a rail, cancer infested friend looks up at me. His eyes piercing mine, I gaze at the brilliant blue from behind the bags of his worn face and realize he has never looked more beautiful. More like himself. Dante watches me for a moment, he doesn’t smile, he doesn’t laugh, he only looks.

Until finally he proclaims, “Hi, Steph!” And breaks out into a grin so bright it would give the sun a run for its money. And that’s when I know, when I know with my whole being, that everything is going to be fine.

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