A child’s laughter bubbled in the air. A little girl was lost in play, twirling and dancing with a toy bear swinging from her grasp when she unknowingly wandered out onto the street. The whine of the breaks led in a grating shriek; it was all that she would hear before it happened. The scream of grinding metal turned her away from her beloved toy. It was all so sudden. Joy was still caught in her eyes even as the terror flooded in. Putrid smoke swirled from burnt rubber as the bulky tires slid across the asphalt. By the time the air-breaks hissed it was done. An old man came scrambling by as quickly as he could, dragging his walker behind him. He moved on pure adrenaline, ignoring the condition that has tormented his joints for most of his years as a senior citizen. He was screaming her name. The bus driver stepped out and threw his hands over his mouth as he heaved a lamenting chorus of guilt-ridden dread. He staggered back staring at her, eyes white and hands trembling. The old man cursed him as he went past, demanding that he contact an ambulance. The driver did, stammering panicked confusion to the operator on the line. The old man fell in beside the little girl. She held out a frail, tremulous arm, covered with bloody gashes and black grease from the radiator that had struck her down. She was pointing toward the heavens when she spoke her final words.
“Pa’pa… L…look,” she said, her voice weak but touched by wonder. “There’s a girl, she’s beautiful….”
Then her arm collapsed, falling with the faintest thud beside a rainbow-colored teddy bear. Before long she was asleep, never to wake again.
One hundred and one.
Like a cruel joke, God had to add one more year. It was the morning of Gerald Heidrich’s birthday, and as always not a soul came to visit him, nor would he receive them with warm praise if they had. These days he found the fair extol of one’s success at escaping the ever-tricky hand of death to live yet another year upon this bleak and miserable earth a borderline insult, and he took it to mean as much. Most bothered not to disturb the wayward old man, even when he was exploring the vacant halls of the hospital with delight upon his haggard old face. If ever he did smile it would no doubt be perceived by now as a mere bait to offer him an ear to chastise; a honey trap if you will. Leaning over his walker and dragging along with him his IV pole he went about his business, carrying a gaily rainbow teddy bear by its stuffed paw. The dirty old toy dangled from his lissome fingers as he labored along his way, merrily forsaken.
Gerald was often misunderstood as a despondent fellow with little gratitude and a whole lot of temper. There were few that understood his truth. He had lived long enough to watch his wife, his daughter, and even his granddaughter pass away before his eyes. The latter of which, Macy, being the most vivid and tragic. While in his care an inattentive bus driver accidentally ran her down as she was playing in the street. He looked away for only a second when she disappeared from the yard. Before he could even rise from his chair the worst day of his life was already well underway. He never forgave himself for that. Having been forced to mourn all the people he ever loved on this earth he wondered even if forgiveness would ever be enough to heal his wounds or mitigate his losses. Though thankful he was to still have his wits about him at such a ripe age, the takeaway was that his well-preserved memory haunted his every waking hour with regret. He was beginning to believe that he had somehow outlived all there was good to live for. And so, for years, the only gift he truly wanted to receive for his birthday was the gift of death.
His final days were spent shambling about the hospital with a diagnosis of some queer bone disease, with a long and complicated name that he could barely pronounce. After all he has been through, to be slowly tortured and killed by something he could not name was probably one of mortality’s greatest jests. Often his condition crippled him when he sought to use his muscles for anything more than to punch buttons on a remote in a foraging search for the damn weather channel; though why he cared to know about the status of a hurricane brewing halfway across the globe escaped even his own mind. He chalked it up to sheer, cold, unbiased, madness, being confined to his designated room nearly every day for three years. Recalling the astronomical fees, he had once gotten after spending the night at a hospital in his younger years, he wondered how much of his social security would remain once he finally kicked the bucket; or would they just pull the plug the moment the piggy bank went dry—either way, good riddance! Here, they just poked him with needles and prolonged his end. No end should ever outstay it’s welcome, however; just ask anyone who watched that godforsaken Lord of the Rings movie.
It was only a few weeks past that he finally found meaning to go on living again. She was a new patient he had met by chance, working his way down a hall to scold some nurse for some distant reason he could no longer recall. A little girl with a single mom who needed special care for her daughter whilst she tried to carry on with her fulltime job without having a mental breakdown. She was beautiful; clad in a plush white gown, with the biggest, brightest blue eyes he had ever seen. The girl sat upon a cloud as a tranquil as an angel looking onto him with a brilliant smile that instantly melted his heart. She asked him why he was so angry, he had explained, and that made her laugh. Her words that would follow that initial exchange he would carry with him until the end of his days.
“Life is too short,” she protested, her smile never faltering. Then the elevator doors her nurse had been waiting on opened like the grand gates to a Heaven he no longer believed in, and they were gone.
Gerald soon found her again and had since spent countless hours with her, reminiscing on the trials of his long life and sharing magical tales of fantasy. She was his friend; the last friend he had, and a friend he knew he would not have long with. He told her about his days in the service. He was a medic. He didn’t much like firing that awful rifle they made him carry around like some glorified world security guard. But he loved to take care of people. He met his wife then, at a library where they were stationed at in Germany. They found each other in the fantasy aisle looking for the same book. Love at first sight is embarrassingly cliché, but that’s what it felt like. They had three kids. Looking back on it he realized that he had it pretty good. He had a long life with a wonderful woman.
His new friend just smiled and listened.
On that day when he came to visit her again, he knocked on the door and was immediately answered by a woman in her mid-twenties with a pretty figure and an ugly scowl.
She glared at him long and hard, crossing her arms, and answering coldly, “Mr. Heidrich.”
Unfettered by her curt greeting he answered her with his signature disgusted tone, “Nurse, Ashley.”
“It’s Doctor Donohue,” she promptly corrected.
The old man sighed, exasperated. He has done this dance with her many times before. “Yes, well, marrying the doctor doesn’t exactly qualify you as one. Being that you are in fact merely a medical assistant, I thought I was being kind by hailing you as a Nurse, as opposed to how I would normally address you, which is, ‘Move-out-of-the-way-you-dumb-blond, I’m here to see Sidney.’”
Somewhere in the room a young cheery voice cried out, “Gerald!”
The temperamental old man moved aside, and the fuming medical-assistant stormed out muttering words of bitterness under her breath. With the woman clear from his path he was free to advance into the room where he found a little girl of five in a white gown laying upon a gurney, her blue eyes piercing and her perfect smile beaming. Her eyes were sunken and dark now, as were her cheeks, the details of her skull sickeningly visible. She had no hair, nor even eyebrows. She was ailing and teetering on death; as ill as any could possibly be in this place, yet she was so full of life. She scarcely spoke of the pain, though she often stopped in mid-sentence to wince; waves of anguish overtaking her. The chemo bag hovered over her like a yellow demon to taunt her with her own depleting mortality, though it seemed not to trouble her even a little.
Gerald brought up the toy bear and said with a hoarse voice, “This once belonged to someone,” he paused, fighting back the old emotions, “someone very dear to me. I’d like you to have it.”
She lit up with merriment at the sight of the stuffed-animal as she perked up in her bed, but she hesitated. Falling back into a slouch and giving him a guilty look, she said plaintively, “But… It’s your birthday, not mine. And I’m afraid I have nothing to give you.”
“Your time is more valuable to me than any gift that anyone could possibly receive,” he said, smiling, his outstretched arm starting to shake under the weight of the bear.
Still she was reluctant to accept, drawing from the old man a choke of laughter tainted with frustration as he insisted in a tone that was almost a plea, “Please, Sidney, just take it.”
Eagerly, she snatched the toy from his hand and pulled it in for a deep, loving embrace.
Gerald turned and used his walker to carefully easy himself on the edge of her bed. Again he smiled, admiring the girl. “You know that bear has not been held like that in many years.”
Nearly bouncing with exuberance that made Gerald exhausted even to watch, the girl held the stuffed animal against her cheek and sang joyously, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
“You are very welcome, my dear.”
After a moment, she flashed him a curious look and asked, “Could you maybe tell me another one of your stories?”
Gerald gave her a tired glance in return, feigning irresolution.
“Please,” she pleaded, squeezing the bear in her arms. “They make me feel… strong.”
The old man then conceded with a weary grin, saying, “Oh alright.” And so he began, “Once, long ago…”
Tales of his life’s triumphs, and fantasies about swords and sorcery enveloped her mind. He wove her a web of imagination that expanded beyond time and the universe, and suddenly they were whisked away to another world. He was the bard that guided her journey, and she was a mounted warrior-woman with a bow and arrow, and a rainbow bear. It was so much fun. But it didn’t take her too long to fall fast asleep. He left, praying he would have the chance to tell her just one more tale in the morning, and yet one more still the next day, and the next day.
No more than a month had passed before her condition grew worse, no more than a dream away had she been in Gerald’s life. It was only then he understood why he came to adore the sweet gregarious little girl from only a few doors down: After a century of breathing, seeing three women that he so dearly loved slip from his fingers, and carrying on with a life he no longer cherished, he found a friend who reminded him how to love again. This innocent little girl found death before a man who has lived well beyond his years could even find happiness again. Through his stories, he knew, she lived ages, and through her adventurous spirit he rediscovered his own worth. So young she passed, never knowing her first kiss, never worrying of taxes, or stressing over traffic, or paying bills; wanting only to be a child and to have a friend to play with. Though Gerald wasn’t much for playing games, he was however particularly fond of telling stories, and that seemed quite enough for her. She would oooh and awe, asking how and why, always intrigued, always listening. She feared sleep, and often begged Gerald to stay up past his hour to tell her the tales of a man who had a full life to live. Those were her favorite stories: the true ones. He never quite understood why, until it was too late… always when it was too late.
One morning a knock came at his door. The medical-assistant barged in and announced, “Mr. Heidrich,” she let it hang, as scornful women often did when uttering a name that which they so very much despise. “You have a visitor.”
She helped him out of his bed and after he found his balance upon his walker he made for the door, allowing Doctor Donohue to lead the way.
A young lady in a red and black dress was waiting for him. Her flowing blond hair was held back in a messy bun, and her heavy curls were hanging at either side of her scalp like spiraling Christmas tree ornaments. In her hand she was carrying the gift he had given to Sidney: the rainbow bear.
He nodded to Doctor Donohue, and said, “Thank you, Nurse, Ash.” The ‘ly’ from her formal maiden name, ‘Ashley,’ now lost to him by his nagging contempt. “Ill take it from here.”
“It’s Doctor Donohue…” she seethed.
“Don’t you have a few years of collage to complete somewhere?” he fired back.
Groaning, she stomped off down the hall, muttering her disdain as always.
Gerald gave his confused visitor a contrite glance. “I’m sorry about that. How can I help you?”
“Are you Gerald Heidrich,” the young woman inquired, her beautiful voice like smooth silk to his ears.
“Yes, I am.”
“I,” she stammered, her face turning flush, “I’m Denise Wright… Sidney’s mother.”
“Oh, I am so very deeply sorry for your loss,” he said with dolor, wondering how white his face had just gone. “She was a friend.”
“I know.” She was looking down at the bear now, trying to contain her sorrow; it was a look that he was quite familiar with himself. “She talked about you moments before her passing. She made me promise that I return this to you.” She held up the toy. “She kept saying that Macy wants you to have it… That Macy wants you to remember that she is still with you; that they all are.”
If it hadn’t gone white before, he was surer than not as pale as a ghost in that moment. He swallowed hard, his quivering hands reaching to accept the stuffed-animal. She took them in hers. They were warm and gentle, but strong. She pressed the bear into his wan grasp. Gerald noticed hard calluses from many hours of scrubbing dishes and cleaning the kitchen she worked at. She set a hand on his arm. She looked at him with rheumy eyes.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” the woman said. “Who is Macy?”
“M…my…” His words were caught in his throat. “My granddaughter. She passed years ago.”
A tear broke from her lashes and ran down her face. “Oh, I’m sorry.” She paused to collect her thoughts. She looked so very tired “Sidney told us how she made a friend who had so many wonderful stories. It must have come from something you shared with her.”
His eyes welling now, the old wounds reopening within, he shook his head and said, “No, I never told her about Macy.”
A chill raced down Denise’s spine as she recalled her daughter’s very last words. The memory returned to her like a haunting dream.
What little strength the girl had to spare she stretched her finger out to touch her mother’s arm. Tears moistened her cheeks as she accepted her tiny, cold hand into the warmth of hers and asked, “What is it, darling?”
“Mommy…” Sidney breathed weakly, hot with fever. “Can I go play now? Macy wants to play.”
She leaned in and kissed her daughter on the forehead, her tears dripping upon her rosy nose. Forcing a smile she answered, “Go on, Sidney. Go play.”
She imagined they were the hardest words a mother could ever say to her child. When the heart monitor flatlined and her hand went still she knew it was true. Her mother moved in to rest her head upon her daughter’s quiet chest and she sobbed. Her elbow knocked into the teddy bear at her side, sending it tumbling to the floor. When it fell, there came a faint sound on the languid air like the sigh of waves crashing on a somnolent shore. Denise perked her ears and lifted her head. She swore she heard something over the screaming heart monitor…, something like children laughing in play.
Credit : Jeffrey Arce
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