by Anne Britting Oleson
He'd been clutching at his head, curled into a ball on the kitchen floor when she'd returned from the store. She could only stare down through her good eye, the plastic carrier bag dangling from her fingers.
“9-1-1,” he cried out. His hand flailed, and she saw then the telephone on the tiles a few feet away.
“Jerry,” she gasped, momentarily paralyzed.
He let out a strangled sound, no longer recognizable as words, clawing at his skull.
She dropped the bag, fell to her knees, carefully avoiding him as she reached for the phone.
The paramedics came to the back door, as she'd instructed. By then, his writhing had subsided, though she had remained on her knees beside him, close enough, yet not too close. When she rose to let them in, she felt the gazes on her black eye, before the professional masks closed them off and the three bent to their patient. She slipped into a chair by the table and, shaken by their impersonal assessment, lowered her head into her hands.
When they were maneuvering the gurney out, a woman paramedic asked if she'd like to ride in the ambulance.
“No,” she said, her voice low. “I'll follow in the car.”
Jerry was unresponsive, though still alive. She followed the gurney into the emergency room,to a cubicle, where she sat off to the side, hands clutching her purse. She filled out paperwork,answered questions through lips that felt numb. Nurses, a doctor. She listened to their words without meeting their eyes. She nodded. Her brain refused all of it. An orderly took Jerry to x-ray, brought him back again. Still unconscious.
“We'll have to admit him,” the doctor—Donovan? Donaldson?--said. “We need to do more tests. We'll know how to proceed once he's regained consciousness.”
She nodded. She followed her husband and his handlers into the elevator, down a corridor, and watched them shift him gently into a bed. Tubes snaked out of him now, oxygen, IV. His body seemed shrunken in the hospital jonny. His hands, though, still threatened. She looked away, feeling again the aches in her stomach, her ribs, her left arm, around her eye. Old aches, mostly. Remembered.
In the morning someone brought her breakfast. She had dozed in the orange plastic chair,waiting for answers her brain refused to entertain; when she awoke, Jerry was gone, a nurse's aid changing the sheets on the bed.
“They'll have him back shortly,” the woman said cheerily. “Cat scan. You know.”
She didn't know, but she ate the bagel, chewing slowly on the side of her mouth where the teeth weren't broken.
The only word she grasped, like a drowning person grasps a life ring: tumor.
She lifted her eyes, one blacked, one not, to the doctor's face this time.
“It's unlikely that he'll regain consciousness,” the doctor said, a hand on her arm. “I'm sorry.”
She didn't know how to answer. She swallowed, nodded once.
He seemed uncomfortable. His feet shifted. “Is there someone you'd like us to call for you?”
“No,” she said after a moment. She looked back at the doorway of the darkened room. “No, thank you. I'll just go back in with him.” She swallowed again, forcing herself to keep looking at the door. “To wait.”
Slowly she returned to the orange plastic chair and sank into it, looking at the shadowed bed,the blinking lights. She could not quite make out his features, but his hands—those hands—were folded atop the sheets.
She would wait. Just to be sure.