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I was dying.
I knew it, my doctors knew it, and my family knew it. It has only been sixteen weeks since my official diagnosis, yet here I lay, trapped in this generic hospital bed, surrounded by various machines, beeping and wheezing in a haunting melody that has likely been the last lullaby for countless souls before me. I mean for God’s sake, I’m 56 years old; how the hell did it come to this? I was given a hundred different reasons why my legs gave out on me before this team of specialists came to a consensus: Guillain-Barre Syndrome. I was told my immune system was attacking my nervous system, and although potentially treatable, it was not curable. So far, in my case, it’s been neither. It started with my legs, first attributed to a pinched nerve in my lower back. Over the next several weeks, my breathing became weaker and weaker until I could barely breathe on my own. My arms began to feel like ship anchors weighed them down, then they didn’t feel like anything at all. I should be living the best years of my life; instead, I’m trapped in a body that four months ago was perfectly healthy, now relegated to blinking and tear shed to express an entire range of words and emotions.
At this point, the doctors do nothing but tell me to think positive; if not to aid in my “recovery,” then at the very least for the sake of my family. I know they’re right, but at the same time, the timing of it all could not be any worse. I was able to comfortably retire in the spring, and my youngest had left home the month after, joining our daughter in San Francisco to work for some Internet start-up. That just left my wife and I to travel the world, just as we had talked about since our first moments as husband and wife.
God, Katherine, I’m so sorry.
I can’t help but feel like I’ve let her down. We sacrificed so much time for each other for the sake of our kids and an early retirement, assuming we would have all the time in the world for ourselves down the road. Well, down the road came and went and here we are. To her credit, she’s been nothing short of amazing. She’s always been quite literally my better half, and it’s showed most recently more than ever. This whole process has been just as devastating for her, if not more so, and yet up until now she’s been the only source of positivity between us. Now though, even she seems to be nearing the realization that she may end up leaving this hospital alone. As these thoughts enter my mind, my eyes well up with tears. As my eyes meet hers, I notice they begin to glisten as well. They are an incredible shade of blue, like looking into the deep of the ocean from the window of an airplane. I could stare into them forever, and it breaks my heart to think that for me, forever isn’t that long at all. After a few seconds that graciously seemed more like hours, I break her gaze as the door to my room opens and another doctor makes his way in.
I hadn’t seen this doctor before. I wasn’t all that surprised or concerned; a lot of them have been in and out, giving their useless input and expertise on my condition. I watched him as he calmly walked across the room, around to the bed and to the seat right beside my wife. She didn’t seem to pay him any attention. I didn’t want to either. I was tired of these people coming in, experimenting with new treatments that did nothing but fuel my frustration as this disease continued to rip me from my life and from Katherine. I could tell she was still looking at me, finally letting her pent-up emotions get the better of her as tears streamed down her face like condensation and her smile became hidden behind tightly pursed lips. I wanted so desperately to squeeze her hand, to look at her and tell her everything was okay, but I wasn’t able to, just as I wasn’t able to take my eyes off of my new doctor as he took a seat next to her. He was wearing a typical white robe, and looked to be wearing a nice black suit underneath; he was probably a research director or some other head high up on the pay scale. His face was devoid of any emotion, and it didn’t appear as if he had any intention of speaking to either of us. He was holding his hands out in front of him, the same way someone would hold a candle at a vigil. I uncomfortably turned my eyes to his hands as he sat unnervingly still. I didn’t know what this man was doing, and it seemed that although Katherine didn’t acknowledge his presence, she had grown increasingly upset since the moment he entered the room. I was furious. He had taken away the only source of positive energy I had and I just wanted him to leave us in peace. As the curiosity in my stare turned into menace, he reached his hands in front of my wife, and placed a small black box between us.
It didn’t look like a jewelry box, nor did it appear it could even be opened: it was just a cube, black in its purest form. It was dark enough to appear as if it was an absence of space rather than an object sitting on my bedside, like a broken pixel on a computer screen. I looked from the box to my wife, expecting her to be inquiring to this man about the box or even of his presence in general, but she still had yet to look away from me. If she was so upset, why hasn’t she asked this man to leave? I would be screaming this man out of the hospital if I could, but all I could do was turn my attention back to the doctor and hope my eye contact was enough to relay the message. As it turned out, he hadn’t taken his eyes off me either, his emotionless appearance a perfect contrast to my near unhinged wife. I had no idea what to make of this incredibly strange situation, but before I could even compose a thought about it, the doctor reached for my arm and extended it towards my wife. I was hoping he did so in an effort to comfort her, so she could grab my hand and we could pretend, at least briefly, that things would be okay. However, my wife did not extend her hand in return, and instead my hand fell short of her as the doctor rested it directly on top of the black box.
My eyes shut tight like I’d just been shocked by a loose wire, and my heart was racing, pumping faster than it had in months. It was a few seconds before I was able to open my eyes again, and when I did I was practically blinded by sunlight. When my eyes adjusted, I found I was no longer in my bed, but in a yard. My yard. Well, my parent’s yard I suppose. I was at my childhood home in Indiana, running around like I’d done every day when I was little. Unbelievably, I was able to move again, but I soon realized that my movements were not my own. It seemed so familiar, but it didn’t hit me until I began to run towards the garden my mom had in the back of the yard that this was a memory. A very real memory and one of my first to be exact; it was the first time I was stung by a bee when I was three years old. All I could do was watch as it all played out for me. I ran next to all the flowers, stopped at a bright red tulip right as a busy honeybee was crawling out of it. I knew I would grab the bee with my hand and it would sting me right in the middle of the palm, causing me to wail in pain as I ran towards the back door and into the waiting arms of my concerned mother.
Except that wasn’t how it happened.
I grabbed the bee just as I remember, but instead of immediately dropping it, I swung my hand towards my face and threw the bee directly into my mouth. I panicked as the bee hit the back of my throat and its stinger pierced the lining. I then began to sprint towards the door like I remembered, but instead of making it inside I fell several steps short as my breaths became strained and my throat began to swell and close. My heart was beating out of my chest as it desperately worked to keep me moving, but soon I was unable to take in any air at all and my vision began to fade. I turned over to see my mother, and the last thing I could make out was the unforgettable look of terror on her face as she grabbed me, her hysterical screaming sounding miles away as darkness enveloped this horrible, distorted memory.
My eyes shot open again, and just as I was about to shout to my mother that I was okay, she was gone. I was breathing just fine, and as I regained my bearings I realized I was off the ground, and on a bike. I was in another memory, this time one of my first times trying to ride a bike. My dad was jogging lightly behind me, excitedly urging me to keep going as I had finally set a good pace following several falls into my neighbor’s yard. This was such a happy memory, but after that warped nightmare I had just endured, I wanted so badly to turn around to him and scream for his help. Try as I might, I couldn’t. Instead, I was laughing along with my father. I was proud of myself for finally getting the hang of it. I continued to pedal faster and faster as my confidence grew, and I began to pull away from my dad. I remember looking back at him with a smile as he told me to stop, because I was approaching an intersection at the end of my block. I had stopped just fine from what I could remember, but for some reason I continued to look back at him to tell him to hurry up and stop me. I didn’t know how to use my brakes. I thought I did, but then I began to scream as I reversed my pedaling to no avail and my hands frantically waved across my handlebars in an attempt to grab the handles. I gave up fast and turned back again to see my dad right behind me, his hands outstretched to within about a foot of the back of my seat. I took my hands off the handlebars to try to reach back to him, but just as I was within inches of his hands, I was violently pushed away as a sickening thud and a high-pitched screech replaced the sounds of my frantic screams. I felt the air shoot out of my body as the front tire of a pick up truck crushed my bike and rolled over the middle of my back. I felt like my eyes were halfway out of my head, and I couldn’t feel much of anything. As I once again faded out from this horrible memory, the last thing I saw was my dad lying next to me, arms still outstretched, and blood pouring from his exposed neck as his head rolled slowly a few feet in front of me.
Again, my eyes opened. I didn’t want them to. I was so afraid to see any more of my life ruined by these twisted variants of my memories, but this new experience began anyway. It was dark, and I was driving rather fast on an empty, winding road. As things progressed, I had a hard time putting together when and where this was. This was the first memory so far that I didn’t really, well, remember. It didn’t help that I felt a little disoriented, but I just assigned it to the effects of what I’d already seen during these terrible nightmares. Had I fallen asleep with that doctor there? Did he do something to me? What about Katherine? Just as I had thought about her, I heard a laugh coming from the passenger seat of the car.
God, no. Not Katherine. Don’t do this to me. I couldn’t bear to see anything happen to her, I don’t give a shit if any of this is real or not. I looked over to see her laughing in the passenger seat, and couldn’t help but laugh myself. Hell if I know why, laughing is the last possible thing I felt like doing, but I did anyway. She looked younger but still as beautiful as she always has been, and she was dressed up in a costume. She looked like Wonder Woman. As I saw myself, dressed as a Clark Kent/Superman combination, it hit me like a ton of bricks. We were on the way back from a Halloween party back in college. I couldn’t picture when this happened because I didn’t remember it; I was drunk. For years the both of us talked about how lucky we were to make it back safely to my apartment that night, and she was mad at me for a week when I told her I was as drunk as she was that night. As our laughter continued back in the car, I dreaded what was yet to happen. I looked over at her again and I couldn’t help but stare: she really was beautiful. I was completely lost in those same blue eyes, to the point that when my car began to veer off the road, I still didn’t look away. Even when my head snapped forward and the windshield shattered from the force of the collision with a telephone pole, I kept my eyes on her as her seatbelt snapped and her body propelled forward over the dashboard and straight into that pole. Her body contorted and snapped as the steering wheel cracked the front of my skull wide open. I fell back against my seat as Katherine’s lifeless body collapsed in a jagged heap next to mine. Her eyes were wide open, still with a look of blissful laughter as a small stream of blood ran slowly between them. As I drifted from consciousness, her piercing blue eyes continued to stare through me.
My eyes opened. Of course they did. And they keep opening. Memory after memory went by, nostalgia and happiness replaced with torturous, morbid misery like all the others. My parachute doesn’t open as I’m skydiving during our honeymoon, and I’m forced to watch the ground below envelop me and listen to my body splinter. I wake up again to a late night run to get my pregnant wife fast food. She had asked me to go a half hour earlier before, and her favorite take-out was surrounded by police by the time I made it. This time though, she woke me up just in time to be next in line as a man put a bullet in the back of my head before jumping the counter for a few hundred dollars. All of these dreadful phenomena blend together as my memories turn against me and leave me in perpetual agony. As the familiar darkness begins to set in, I almost welcome it as a sweet, yet temporary relief.
As I open my eyes, I feel as if my body has finally caught up with all that my mind has been through. Through bleary, tired eyes, I observe my surroundings, trying to piece together what moment in my life is about to be forever ruined. I recognize the flickering halogen light on the ceiling, and the persistent sounds of beeping and wheezing machines. My eyes scan the rest of my hospital room and I realize they were moving of my own volition. I was back in my bed, and Katherine was at my side just as she’d been all day, and many days before. Before I could look at her, I looked at the space on my bed in front of her where that awful box had been. It was gone. Relieved, I looked into my wife’s eyes, full of life and love. Through the horror I was forced to experience, thoughts of real happiness began to break through. I spent so long in this hospital bed being so upset with life for taking me so early that I didn’t think about what a miracle it was that I made it to this point to begin with. I was raised by loving parents, I was able to meet the woman of my dreams and spend 35 beautiful years with her, raise a wonderful family together, and despite not being able to continue living this wonderful life I had, I felt so thankful for the years that I was given. I was so happy to see Katherine again that my eyes began to well up with tears, and hers returned the favor. While we shared this visual embrace, I felt a brief rush of strength. It was my arm. I was so overcome with emotion that I hadn’t realized that my once lifeless arm had come up off the hospital bed and extended slowly towards my wife. Tears burst from her eyes, and her lips tightened to keep herself from audibly sobbing as she reached her arm out and took my hand in hers. I thought my tears began to blur my vision, but as the room began to grow darker I knew that I had finally reached the end. I hated to leave her this way, but as I thought back to the memories the nightmares attempted to ruin and the countless untainted memories I shared with her, I was astounded at how lucky I was. Finally at peace, I closed my eyes as the door to my room opened and a doctor made his way in.
I opened my eyes.