The Sacrifice

By Jessica Scott

It’s a simple scene. In a sterile hospital room, a woman lies in a bed with the right rail down, tubes leading to machines that are monitoring her vital signs, pumping medicines into her thin, fragile veins. Her name is Julie. She is emaciated, skin sagging in places, and her eyes so sunken into her face that it’s almost like looking into the eyes of a skull. A man sits as close to the bed as he can, holding one of her wasted hands in his, her pale white skin a stark contrast next to the sun-kissed tan of his. His name is Eric. Every so often he runs his thumb across hers, so thin and bird-like that I marvel at how even that light touch does not break the bones.

I am watching them, an invisible spectator in this vignette. It is my job to witness this, to be a fly on the wall and keep a record of every moment of a passing. I am not Death, though I might as well be. Soon, I will become visible to her eyes only, but right now she sees nothing but him, her husband and the love of her life. This moment is sad for them, and my heart breaks as well. I do not like being a part of this pain, but I know I would hurt more if I could not help her cross over. It’s a kindness I do for the passing ones, and I enjoy talking to them after, while they still remember what it feels like to have been mortal.

This hospital is a good one. Her pain is manageable. What bothers her is leaving him behind to care for their daughters without her. So, while he caresses her hand she is telling him how she has written down instructions on how to take care of the girls day-to-day activities. She did this while she still felt good, before I was needed. She also recorded a video to each of her girls, as well as some showing him how to do the girls’ hair the way each likes it, or what to say when they ask certain questions. They have two girls who look like her, but they have their dad’s smile and nose, though one has his ginger curls and the other her mom’s straight honey-blonde hair. They are good girls. I have watched them, too, when they have come to visit. But right now, they are with their grandmother so Julie can get some rest. Eric is on duty tonight which is good. He should be the last to be with her. It’s who she wants with her right now.

I close my eyes and look into her heart and her mind. I can feel her love for him. It is strong and deep. They met on a plane. She was flying home from a business trip and he was returning from a conference. His seat had been next to hers in the economy section. He had managed to keep bumping an elbow or knee into hers and apologizing over and over again, completely charming her and making her laugh. He had been mesmerized by her eyes and her smile. Plus, she had joked about the situation, putting him at his ease, and winning his heart. By the end of the flight, they had exchanged numbers and by the end of the year they were engaged. A year later they were married and eleven months after that, their first daughter had been born. Three years later their second little princess came along. I scanned these memories of hers, and felt the love woven throughout all of it. Love is why I do what I do and what I am made of. Angels are love after all.

Julie is speaking to him now, something about wishing she could have a milkshake and how he could run out right quick and sneak one in. Eric smiles and begins planning how he could do it without getting caught. She jokes about alarms going off before he could get it to her and how she’d have to come rescue him. They both laugh, but she begins to cough and has trouble catching her breath. His smile is gone. They both know there will be no going for a milkshake. He can’t bear to leave her side for a minute, and she really doesn’t want one anyway. She will try to keep him laughing until her last breath. She can’t bear the sadness she sees in his eyes. They both know these are their last moments together.

He reaches up to her face and cups her cheek with his free hand, the right still holding hers as if it alone can keep her soul tethered to his. He stands up as if he can’t stand to sit anymore, and he leans forward and kisses the top of her bare head; the blonde tresses have long since fallen out. They had chosen an aggressive course of treatment but it didn’t help. They tried alternative medicines and experimental treatments. Sometimes there is no reason or rhyme why these things don’t work. When it’s your time, it’s just your time. It’s unfair, but I am not in charge of why or who dies. Though, right now I wish I could save this woman. She has loved, and been loved, so completely in her life that she knows no other way of being. She is kind-hearted and generous. She speaks no unkind words to people, and she knows no strangers, just people she hasn’t met yet. She volunteers everywhere she can, not from a feeling of guilt, as so many people do, and not because she’s trying to save her soul, which cannot be done with an insincere heart. She is one of those rare people who do because they truly care, who believes in the overall goodness of people. Would that I could save her. But I cannot. I have not the power.

Julie closes her eyes at the touch of Eric’s lips, and she reaches up with her free hand and rests it on his cheek. She can feel a tear slide between their skin and she tries valiantly not to cry as well. He needs her to be strong for them both because he is just barely holding on himself. And so she takes as deep a breath as she can and forces the tears to be stilled. She asks him if he will go get her a small cup of ice. She is thirsty and can only handle the ice melting in her mouth. He hesitates, not wanting to leave her, but she smiles and shoos him away, telling him she’s not going anywhere, not with all these tubes to trip her up if she tries. He leaves then, and she puts her hands to her eyes. Her heart is breaking. She does not want to go. She isn’t ready. Why, oh God, why do I have to go, she thinks. She doesn’t know I can hear her. I wish I could answer but I must remain silent until time. I do, however, walk over to her side while he is gone and I kiss the spot on her head he did. She feels her spirit calm, and her fear is replaced with peace, acceptance. These are the gifts I can give her, to help her pain and to ease her way. As I walk back to my previous place in the room, she reaches up and touches the spot on her head and smiles. She thinks of him and now she can be strong again, for him.

Eric is back with the ice only a few minutes after this. He hands Julie the cup and looks her over as if he can sense something has changed while he’s been gone. He doesn’t know what it is. Did she cry? Is she in more pain? He scrutinizes her face, her body. Everything seems the same. He thinks it must be him. He sits back down in his chair and takes her hand back in his. He needs the skin contact and she doesn’t mind. She begins asking him ‘remember when’ and they talk about memories from when they were dating or just married or when the girls did this and that. I close my eyes again but I look at the memories they are not discussing. The fight they had two nights before he asked her to marry him. It had made him realize he couldn’t live without her. He went out the next day, bought a ring, and then went to her apartment to apologize with a bouquet of red roses. She had let him in and he had gone down on one knee, catching her off-guard. He asked her to marry him and she had said yes with tears streaming down her face and a smile as bright as the sun. There were other fights but they were usually soon mended because both knew what they had was rare.

Another memory they did not discuss, that crazy night their daughter, Joy, was conceived. They had left Emma, who was then three years old, with her grandparents so they could take a much needed vacation. They had decided to go to Hawaii. It was like a second honeymoon, spent exploring the secluded beach resort, the ocean, and discovering each other all over again. The sultry nights had led to moonlight swims under the stars with the moon, large and bright, their only witness and accomplice. They had splashed and chased each other through the shallow waves, laughing when he tripped and she fell on top of him. He thought she had never looked more beautiful, not even on their wedding day, and she had never felt more of a woman than she did when he kissed her deeply and made love to her that night. They had enjoyed each other. And that was how Joy received her name. No, these memories they did not talk about, but they were present in every glance each gave the other.

Eventually, their words faded as the memories crept ever closer to the one that changed their world. They didn’t speak of this memory either but it was as present as the proverbial elephant in the room. They had been trying for a year to have another baby but it had not happened. Then Julie began feeling unwell. Her monthly cycles had never been normal, but her last annual exam had revealed nothing. She began bleeding before she thought she should have. Then, she began feeling bloated, and she had terrible back pains. She scheduled an appointment and her gynecologist did a basic exam and had found something she wanted to have checked. A biopsy revealed the traitorous cells were malignant, and had been for some time. But, the doctor had wanted to run more tests, just to be safe, and Eric had gone with her. There could be no doubt. It was stage 4 ovarian cancer. Julie and Eric were devastated. The doctor referred them to the best cancer center in their area and warned them that they should begin treatment as soon as possible. And they had. They had not known how to tell their girls about Julie’s disease and in the end they hadn’t needed to focus on the details. “Mommy is really sick but we’re going to try and make her better” was all they needed to hear. They ‘helped’ in their own little ways, by being quiet when Mommy was sleeping and helping Daddy fix dinner. Julie had cried quietly at night in bed after Eric was asleep, or watched her girls sleep when she couldn’t. Sometimes just being near them and hearing their soft breathing was enough to calm her soul, and Eric would find her asleep on the floor in their room, her fingers wrapped around one of her daughters’ hands.

At first they thought the treatments were working. Julie began feeling better and stronger. Even the doctor at the cancer center thought things were looking up. She had already lost her hair by this time, making Eric shave the rest of her head when the first blonde locks had fallen out in the shower. He had shaved his head in support as had her father and brother, and several of her girlfriends. Even the girls had wanted to have their hair shorn, too, but Julie had said no. Instead, Eric helped them plan a trip to a salon for a spa day for Julie and the girls, and they had come back home with their fingernails and toenails colored a bright blue, Julie’s favorite color. Julie had allowed them each to cut their hair in short shoulder-length hairstyles and donate their hair to Locks Of Love, to help make wigs for kids who need them. She had been doing so well then. But, four months after the diagnosis, Julie had to be admitted to the hospital and she had been here ever since. She started going downhill fast after that. Now here they both were, knowing her time was closer than they wanted.

Now, all the words have been spoken that needed to be said, and Eric and Julie just gaze at each other. She eventually falls asleep and when she does, Eric bows his head and cries silent tears. He prays over and over for a miracle. His words break my heart, and I am amazed at how strongly humans can love another person, how incredibly compassionate they can be at times.

“Please, make her well.” “Oh god, I can’t live without her.” “I can’t do this on my own.” “Take me instead, please, take me and save her. She’s my life.” I hear all his thoughts in this moment. And then, as if on cue Julie’s machines start beeping as her heart stops beating. Eric yells for the nurses who are already on their way. They push him out of the way and begin chest compressions on Julie. There is nothing they can do. I watch as Julie’s soul appears next to Eric. She reaches out to touch his shoulder but is not surprised when it falls through him like smoke. She watches as the nurses continue to work on her body, and then she turns and sees me.

“Is there no other way?” she asks me, and I shake my head no. “Will he be alright?” she asks. This I can answer.

“Yes. He will. He will see you every day in Emma and Joy, and he will eventually learn to laugh and love again,” I tell her. She smiles and nods.

“Good. I don’t want him to be alone,” she says and turns to walk to me. But then she stops, confusion on her face. “What is happening?” she asks me. “I can’t move.” I watch in amazement as she disappears from my sight. Within seconds Julie coughs on the bed and the nurses begin checking her vital signs. The machines begin beeping with their normal steady noises. Eric rushes to the bed and grabs Julie, the tears streaming down his face, but Julie tries to push him away so she can sit up. She looks in my direction but she cannot see me now, though I know she knows I’m here.

And then I feel her. Not Julie. Her, someone else. I turn around and see an old woman walking down the hall towards me. As she comes to me she smiles.

“Well, aren’t you a handsome one,” she says. “I just knew you angels existed and now I get to talk with one. Too bad I can’t go back and tell my neighbor. He doesn’t believe in angels and God and all that. Rubbish he calls it. Wish I could be there to see his face when he gets a look on his dying day.” The old woman has reached my side and is looking at Julie and Eric. “I’ve been watching these two since she first came in. Seemed like such a shame, them with those two little girls. Reminds me of my sister and me at the same age. Much too young to be losing their mother like this.” She looks at me. “So, I been praying every day and telling your boss that he needs to do something about it. I told him, ‘You know, Father, I’ve lived my life and I’m ready. I’ve got no family and nothing worth leaving to anyone, so no one will miss me. Take me in that sweet woman’s place.’ And you know, I thought he hadn’t heard me until I saw you standing here waiting, thinking you were supposed to take her.” She cackles with laughter. “You could have been in my room talking with me and keeping me company. Not that you’re much of a talker, but you are easy on the eyes. I used to be a looker in my day, too.”

I smile as she continues talking about the old days. I look back at Julie and Eric. I reach out and sense her heart and am pleased to find it beating strong. I look up towards the ceiling but see through it to the heavens outside, the stars dancing in the sky, and all is right with the world now. I send a thank you from my heart and feel a warmth fill me, His answer. Julie will be alright now, and they are all about to find out they received the miracle they had been hoping for, though I doubt they will know how it came about. The world requires balance, so when a life is given, a life is taken. And sometimes, you receive the answer to your prayers in the form of a simple sacrifice of love.

I look down at the old woman whose appearance is already beginning to change to the form she used to know best. Her age is beginning to disappear, and her stooped back is straightening. She is still talking and hasn’t noticed the difference in herself. I have to interrupt her because it’s time for us to go. Her name is Elizabeth but she used to go by Liz.

“It’s time for us to leave now, Liz,” I tell her gently. She stops talking and looks at me.

“Well, it’s about time. Lead on, Mr. Angel. I have some things I want to talk over with your boss,” she says and holds out her hand. I can’t help but like this outspoken woman. I bet she lived quite a life here on earth. I take her hand and we begin to walk through the hospital, heading towards the light at the end of the hallway.

“Liz, what was your favorite thing about life?” I ask her. She looks up at me and smiles widely.

“Oh honey, that’s easy. My favorite thing was love. Nothing else like it. Your boss knew what he was doing when he created that. Now lets get movin’.”

 

© 2014 Jessica Scott.
All Rights Reserved.

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