It Doesn’t Matter
It was just after 2am when Jan, the ICU charge nurse, called Carl. The phone rang twice before it was answered by a sleepy voice.
“Sorry to wake you at this crazy hour,” Jan said, “but we have another one for you, if you’re up to it.”
Carl rose in bed and said, “Of course.”
“An elderly man just off a vent. Don’t think he’ll last until morning.”
“I’ll be right there.”
They hung up. Rosa, a young nurse charting at the next computer, had only been on the unit for a week. She’d watched the exchange and asked, “What’s that all about?”
Jan paused a moment before she said, “Carl Gilbert. Retired as an elementary school teacher a couple years ago. Started volunteering here at the hospital afterwards and asked to sit with patients who were nearing death and had no one with them. Or had next of kin we were unsuccessful reaching or who they’d been estranged from. So that the patient wouldn’t be alone at the end.”
Rosa frowned. “What’s he do with them?”
Jan gave a small shrug. “Talks to them. Holds their hands.”
“No, nothing religious.”
Rosa shook her head and said, “Wow.”
Rosa gestured with her chin across the counter from their work station. “Peter? The old guy in 2C?”
Jan nodded. Theirs was a small regional hospital with only twelve rooms on the unit. The respiratory therapist had just left Room 2C where they could both see a large man in his eighties lying propped up in bed on his back. His eyes were closed, the rise and fall of his chest just visible.
When Carl had kissed his wife’s forehead and said goodbye, she’d only mumbled something unintelligible before falling asleep again. It took him less than ten minutes to reach the hospital. He entered through the emergency room, showed his volunteer badge to the receptionist, and was buzzed in. He passed the ER bays, pushed through the double doors at the far end, and turned left down the short hallway into the cramped ICU.
Jan and Rosa looked up as he came beside their counter. He and Jan exchanged sad smiles. Rosa regarded him silently. He was tall and slender with short, salt-and-pepper hair and was dressed in corduroy trousers with a cardigan sweater over a plaid shirt. His rimless glasses covered eyes that were gentle and kind.
Jan pointed to the dying man’s room and said, “His name is Peter. Pneumonia, plus heart and renal failure.”
Carl looked from the room back to Jan. “Nobody at all has been with him?”
Jan shook her head. “There’s a son across the state we’ve tried calling several times a day, but have only been able to leave messages. None have been returned.”
“Has he been conscious?”
“Not since yesterday.”
“All right,” Carl pursed his lips and nodded. “Thanks.”
He went into the tiny room and pulled a plastic chair to the bedside. He studied the numbers on the sat monitor hooked to Peter’s probes, the drip from the morphine bag, then the old man’s wide face. He hoped to see something like peace there – sometimes he did – but Peter’s held a sort of scowl.
Carl sat down and took his hand. He said, “Peter, I’m Carl. I’m just here to be with you.” He gave the hand a slight squeeze. “If you can hear me, Peter, squeeze back.”
There was no response.
“Okay, Peter. We’ll just be together here, then. Just two old guys being together. Two old guys who’ve lived good, full lives. Two old guys with lots to be thankful for.”
At the nurses’ station, Rosa watched and asked, “So he comes anytime day or night?”
“Just about,” Jan said.
Rosa shook her head again, then went off to check on one of her patients.
Over the next hour, Carl alternated between sitting silently with Peter, softly stroking the old man’s thumb with his own, and talking quietly to him. He told him that everything was all right, just as it should be. He told him a little about his own life and a couple of his fondest memories, chuckling when he did. He asked Peter about his own favorite memories and suggested he think about those. During that time, Peter’s nurse came in twice to check his vital signs, and the respiratory therapist came once to suction his mouth. Peter’s breathing grew gradually slower and shallower, and the beeps from the sat monitor grew further apart.
A little before 4am, a heavyset man perhaps a decade younger than Carl came into the ICU and made his way tentatively up to Jan.
“My father is Peter Navarro,” he told her. “I got your phone messages.”
Jan felt her eyes widen. She pointed. “He’s in there with one of our volunteers. I’m afraid it won’t be long.”
A confused pain filled his face.
When he made his hesitant entrance into the room, Carl immediately saw the resemblance. He said, “You’re Peter’s son.”
“Yes, I’m John.”
His eyes went to his father, and Carl saw his jaw set. Carl stood, gestured to the chair, and said, “Please, sit. I’ll get out of your way.”
“No,” John blurted. “Stay.” He shook his head. “I don’t know how to do this. We haven’t been close. In fact, I haven’t seen him in over thirty years. We have a…troubled past.”
Carl nodded several times, then said, “Doesn’t matter. You’re here now.” He turned the chair towards John. “Go ahead. Sit.”
Carl stepped away, and John lowered his girth into the chair. He looked from his father to Carl and said, “What now?”
“Take his hand.”
Slowly, John wrapped his father’s hand in both of his own. His lips began trembling.
Carl said, “Talk to him.”
“Can he hear me?”
The big man blew out a breath. “Dad,” he whispered. “Papa…”
It was warm in the room, close. The gaps between beeps on the sat monitor lengthened further still. They were barely audible.
William Cass has had over 200 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as J Journal, december, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. He was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received three Pushcart nominations, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal.