One Less Breath

It’s never pleasurable having to drive to St. Vincent’s hospital through the crowded traffic of Birmingham and annoying construction of bridges. The hospital looked the same as always with its dark gray paved parking deck and useless broken gate arm. The wheelchair was being more stubborn than usual, as I tried to heave it out of the off-white colored CRV. Barbara opened her door carefully and slowly settled down into her wheelchair, barely making an imprint. Christmas decorations covered the main lobby with twinkling white lights that draped the enormous pine tree tucked in the corner. A miniature scene of Jesus in the manger was placed on top of the shiny black piano with a rough sackcloth under it to prevent scratches. No one was playing the piano. By now I had learned the route perfectly through the mazes of hallways, signs and elevators. I was greeted by the typical two-door entry covered in red signs with all kinds of warnings such as, “DO NOT ENTER IF SICK.” The smell always caught me off guard, as I smelled a mixture of sterilized equipment and decaying flesh. The stench of urine was particularly overpowering within the hallway. Room 345 was at the end of the half-circle hallway facing the window which led outside; the door was open as in all the rest of the rooms, with nurses coming to and fro every 10 to 15 minutes to perform tests or change fluids. Chet’s bed centered the room with his heart pump placed at the end of the right side of his bed. He was still asleep as I wheeled Barbara between the bulky heart pump and the dark tan wall. The wall to his right was made up of three large windows; it was nice clean glass that was thick, good for sound proofing. The view wasn’t really a big comfort, though, because it was nothing but a dark brick wall with only a tiny view of the city. Chet’s breathing and heart rate was erratic. It never beat the same way twice; of course a major heart attack would do that. I sat down on the window sill as Barbara struggled to wheel herself closer to Chet. His bed was raised to a 50 degree angle so he wouldn’t choke as he lay there. Barbara called out his name softly at first, which he undoubtedly did not hear. The second time she called out more firmly, and he finally responded. After a few minutes of furious blinking and gargled coughing he regained his whereabouts and looked at Barbara with a face that looked dead, but with eyes that confirmed his sanity and life. He gargled out a jumble of phrases that neither I or Barbara could make out. Then as if nothing was wrong with him, he said softly, “Will you hold my hand?” As she was reaching for his hand I hurriedly found  “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles on YouTube. I had just finished an in-depth study of the Beatles, and instantly thought of it. The music seemed to echo from my pitifully small phone speaker and fill the room which then flowed out into the ICU.

Barbara turned around with a smile and said, “I love that song.”

A suit that had been given to me by my uncle a few years ago was sitting in the passenger seat of Chet’s CRV. I just got off work at Publix and rushed to get to the church. I quickly changed in the car, which was parked in the back of the building. It was dark outside and cold and dry. The family was huddled in the front left corner of the building with Barbara sitting in front closest to the large wooden table that centered the building. Flowers were spread throughout the front of the stage and were even hung on the columns that rose upwards and curved inwards to meet at the top of the wood ceiling. A dense line of people ranging from young and old, some in beautiful suits and dresses and others in casual attire with the occasional few in street clothes, filled the center carpeted walkway to meet Barbara. After the long procession of hugs and greetings were over, everyone found a seat. However, most were out of luck and either sat in the floor or stood against the walls. Jared, Barbara’s son, who was a bald and round man, stood up and addressed the large crowd. He announced that we were having an a cappella singing since that’s what Chet loved to do. Silence filled the room with the soft sound of breathing being faintly present as the first song leader stepped up on stage. The silence didn’t sound like it used to. Finally it was my turn as the leader before me took his seat. It felt like an eternity as I walked up the three steps to the stage. I could feel every set of eyes in the building resting on me as I looked out into the crowd. The mic in front of me turned on with a quiet puff of static that seemed to fill the entire room with sound for a moment that quickly vanished back to the silence. I quietly told the crowd the song number for those who could not see the glaring projection screen behind me. I said “The name of this song is ‘Your Life is But a Vapor’ written by Barbara Ellis.” With that I started the song with the first note being solely me. In that moment I was mortified at the thought that no one would join in. Then as if an 80 foot tall wave crashed on me, the voices came. The whole building shook with the sound of the bittersweet song. The chandeliers that were hung every 5 rows jingled and hummed every time we held a finishing fermata. Throughout the song, no one cried. It’s hard to sing and cry at the same time, but most everyone had tears running down their face. No one wanted the song to end as they came to the final stanza with a retard that prolonged with power. Then the voices vanished and the room was back to the awkward silence. By now we all knew why the silence sounded so out of place.

There was one breath that was no longer amongst the silence.