“She’s resting quietly,” the kind-looking, white-haired lady said, “First door on your left.”
Derek Whitfield nodded but didn’t smile. He had not had a female patient yet, and did not look forward to this one with too much happiness. He stopped outside the hospice room and stared at the patient’s name. Susannah Brite, just black letters scribbled on white cardboard and taped to the wall. The patients were no longer getting top notch care. Basic care, yes. Food. Water. Bathing…sometimes.
The care-giving lady who had answered his knock at this house seemed very nice, and probably was giving excellent care. Not the case with most of his patients, least not excellent care. There were just too many sick people, and the victims were the age-group who should have been providing the care. Twenties and thirties, nineteen being the youngest yet to die, thirty-nine the oldest, with the most by far being between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five. People over forty—it was reasoned—had maybe experienced enough viruses in their lives that they simply had built up a natural immunity. At least it was hoped that reasoning was true , and that simple. Why very young people weren’t dying the scientific community had no clue.
But even with the shortage of professionals there was one stage of the sickness that got the best of care: The end of life, which usually lasted just one day, sometimes only hours. The signal of the end was the beginning of a lowering blood-pressure and a slight rise in body temperature: Shallow respirations, officially. End-of-life care could be given by just about anyone, so the word went out for volunteers: Age fourteen and above, no particular qualifications. Medical establishments soon had a list—though not a large one—of local volunteers. So when shallow respirations began, volunteers were called in the order their names appeared on the lists.
Derek Whitfield, age sixty-four, twenty-five-year Army veteran, qualified. It took him a long time to volunteer, seven months into the world-wide outbreak, long after the experts had deemed the face masks useless. Most volunteers kept wearing them anyway, but Derek refused. He considered the masks an insult to the victims. “Just be there for their end…,” he was told. Somehow that seemed…useless. What difference could it make? They were dying. Most, after their week or so of suffering, probably just wanted to get it over with. Derek’s attitude wasn’t great, but he did think that what he was doing was important. And he did think most of his patients appreciated his presence.
Susannah Brite would be his forty-second patient. He had requested only young men, and—until then—had gotten only young men. He had thought they would be easier. They weren’t. Some went out like men of honor: Stoic and at attention. Most went out not quite like that. Some even went out crying. Dying was dying, and nobody actually knew what waited on The Other Side, if anything. Derek was pretty sure nothing but blackness waited, but of course he never suggested that to anyone. “Just hold their hand,” he was also told, “Kiss their forehead, or their cheek, if you want, if you think they want,” and, most importantly, “Have a soothing voice.”
That all had seemed easy enough. He hoped this woman would be that easy, and just one more number to him.
He raised his hand to knock. Usually nobody answered. The patient was usually alone when he arrived. Quite often not even family was available. In the new millennium families often were separated by thousands of miles, and often even lived on different continents. Very likely, when some young person got sick they didn’t even have time to get home. And as more and more people died the travel industry soon became…less then efficient.
But at least everybody usually got a private room. When the hospitals filled, and the patient was determined to have that specific killer virus, he or she was immediately shipped to a private home. Large homes, once housing mostly university students, were used first, but they soon filled too. So any private home and even business places came to be used, if the owner could guarantee even the minimum basic care.
Derek’s eyes closed. He released a breath, his fists tightened. He had about reached his limit for this unhappy business, he wasn’t sure he could even face this young woman. He didn’t know why he had finally agreed to even see a woman. A twenty-nine-year-old woman who should be in the absolute prime of her life, but instead was dying of a disease that science had yet been unable to control. Except for pain. Painkillers still worked, and the victims nearly always died before their body built up a tolerance to the painkilling drug. Even though bedridden and very weak the victims spent their last days in somewhat a state of euphoria.
A good thing—if anything about the disease could be called good—there was no disfiguring at the end, no oozing of sores or bleeding like in the movies, just organ failure, of all the major organs. So once that started the end came quickly.
His hand still raised to knock, Derek pulled it back to his forehead and squeezed his temples, and let out another breath. It was the sort of uncontrollable shallow breathing that he had experienced so many times in his life, always just before some dangerous activity, like waiting his turn to parachute, or waiting for a deadly storm to run its course, or drawing that first bead on an approaching Vietcong, a man he was soon to kill, if the man didn’t kill him first.
But approaching these sick people was not dangerous. Breathing should have been normal. Physically, of course, they couldn’t hurt him, but they always tried to break his heart. None did, but they all tried.
Very gently, he knocked, and released yet another very shallow breath.
No answer. The door was already open about a foot. He pushed it open further and, with one step, crossed that gaping chasm. And saw her, and released one last breath.
Her eyes were closed. Her face was pale. He imagined her cheeks being usually rosy, blending with the tiny freckles gracing both sides of her face and disappearing into that rich-looking, dark auburn hair…that appeared to be freshly washed and curled. She must be getting really good hospice care here. At least three pillows propped her up. Hospital beds for everyone were out-of-the-question, but pillows were cheap.
He took three steps to her bedside. Her eyes opened. Her mouth opened, slightly. She licked her lips, once on the upper lip, once on the lower, but no words came. Her eyes closed again. “Susannah, I’m Derek.” He waited, “I’m here to spend some time with you…, if you would like that….”
Her eyes opened again. Her left hand raised, slightly, “Yes, I would,” she said. Derek barely heard but he knew what she had said. They all said the same thing, and he always said the same thing. He put his left hand under her left hand, and felt her grip him with a strength that surprised him. The strength though, was short-lived, but the grip itself remained. Without even thinking about it he lifted her hand and leaned down, and pressed her hand against his cheek.
For a few seconds she gripped his hand tighter again, “Thank you, Derek,” and again closed her eyes.
Barely above a whisper but he heard and understood. He then lowered her hand and placed his other hand, too, over hers. And there he stood, feeling what strength she still had gripping his hand. And he felt embarrassed, and a little angry, Why, God? Why are you taking this beautiful young woman, and all the others? Does Heaven have a shortage of young people, or something? Why, God?—for Christ’s sake! Why?
Then he felt surprised for talking to God. If he truly believed everything only turned black after death, why on earth would he talk to God, who he, evidently, didn’t even believe in?
Time passed, at least an hour. The grip in Susannah’s hand remained. Derek had not moved. He didn’t want to disturb even the air around them; he didn’t want to cause her even an imagined discomfort, and he liked looking at her face. A peaceful, gentle, face, at peace with the world. She was so lovely. She probably had been a model, or an exercise diva, maybe an actress, or maybe even a sultry, enchanting, spy. No, she had been none of those things. He imagined her being a minister in her short life, or maybe a school teacher of very young children, or a nurse. Yes, a nurse, a hospice-care nurse. She probably had spent her last healthy days doing exactly what he was doing: Caring for dying people.
He thought of the women he had known, made love with, and for one reason or another, rejected: No values, or morals. No financial sense. No good sex. Too clingy, too whiny, too this, too that. He had never found a woman good enough to climb the very high pedestal he had set out for her, so, consequently, he had spent his life mostly alone. He loved women though, just didn’t necessarily want one full time.
Susannah, he felt, would have climbed that pedestal easily. Her grip said she would have. No problem…
Her grip increased, “Derek….”
“Yes, Susannah…?” He loved the sound of her name, Susannah, it seemed to roll off his tongue smoothly, like a small, sparkling, waterfall.
“I’ll get you some water.” He let go of her hand with his right hand and started to pull away. She held on. He stopped. “Susannah, I can’t reach the water. I have to let go of your hand for a few seconds….”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
But still she didn’t let go. Maybe she couldn’t. He brought his right hand back to her hand, first gently squeezed her hand and patted it, then, one finger at a time, he loosened the hold she had on him. Instantly his hand felt cold and alone. That thought shocked him, that he was missing her touch, even wanting her touch.
He got the water from a nearby table. A glassful. Probably that was stupid. She maybe couldn’t lift her head enough. Very likely she couldn’t. There was something else where the water was. He returned. A white sock. It looked clean. He smelled it. It smelled clean. He returned to Susannah, dipped the sock in the water, then touched her lips with it, and gently squeezed it.
Her eyes stayed closed but her lips opened, “Ummmnn….” Her tongue moved against the sock. The sounds she made reminded him of times making love. The good times making love. The good women he had made good love with, and then aimed them toward that very high pedestal that none could climb, so he had rejected even the good ones…for one reason, or another. But he would never have rejected Susannah—
Footsteps. Loud footsteps in the hall, then at the door, “Sir?” An approach, and a slightly-muffled, not-nice-sounding voice, “I’m going to have to ask you to wrap this up.”
Derek faced the speaker, faced the wide-open, wildly-staring eyes above the face mask, then returned the sock and water to the table, then returned to Susannah, put his hands on her shoulders, and squeezed them, “Sweetheart, I’ll be right back.” Sweetheart. How long since he had called anyone ‘Sweetheart’? Maybe a niece long ago, or maybe a young daughter of one of his girlfriends that he rejected…for one reason or another. Then he took the arm of the owner of the voice and escorted him quickly, and somewhat harshly, through the door and then away from the door, hopefully far enough to be out Susannah’s hearing, “What the hell are you talking about? This woman can’t be moved. She’s dying!”
The eyes above the face mask got even wilder, “She’s a fucking whore!”
Derek felt his mouth fall open, and for just one tenth of one second he felt dismay at the news, then felt anger at feeling that dismay.
“Yeah, right, they didn’t tell you that, did they?”
“You son-of-a-bitch,” Derek poked his right index finger into the man’s chest, which made the man step back, “I don’t care what she was in another life. Now she’s waiting to die! She deserves the dignity of any other human being.”
“Christ, she’s been here over a week—she should’ve died by now!”
“You bastard.” Derek spun the man, then escorted him to the door and through it, then grabbed him by the scruff of neck and seat of pants and pushed him off the porch onto the lawn.
The man landed and rolled, “Mutherfucker! You think you can just throw me out of my own house?”
“I just did.”
“Well, I want that woman out of there. I need to get it cleaned up. I’ve got a new renter coming for Christ’s sake!”
“Well, you’ll have to go through me to do it, and I don’t recommend you try.”
“Mutherfucker, I’ll be back with the police!”
“You do that.”
Derek stepped back inside. The woman of the house, the very nice woman he had spoken with earlier, was there, “I apologize for my brother, sir, but he owns this house. I just care-take for him. He’s been on me all week for even allowing this.”
“You mean the girl….”
“Yes, but there are so many. I felt I just wanted to help.”
“You did right ma’am.” Derek turned to start toward Susannah’s room, but then waited and faced the woman again.
“He will return with the police, sir.” Her face was stonily sober.
“But surely the police will support Susannah’s staying here.”
“Maybe six months ago they would have.” The woman’s face remained sober, “But now there are so many sick…people are getting overwhelmed…and impatient.”
“How about you?”
“Will you support her staying here?”
The woman’s face changed. Still sober, but after a few seconds, “Yes. I will.”
“Good.” Derek nodded and started away again.
In Susannah’s room Derek quickly got the sock and water and returned to Susannah’s side, “I’m here again, Sweetheart.” He dipped the sock and again placed it on her lips, and gently squeezed it.
She again made the appreciative sounds, and, this time, opened her eyes.
Those eyes. Derek felt sincere love for this woman enter him.
“I heard what that man said.”
Her voice was little more than a whisper, but Derek had no trouble understanding her, “That man is a fool, Sweetheart.”
“He said the truth.”
Derek set the water and sock aside, then grasped both Susannah’s hands, “Don’t worry about what he said. I don’t know what will happen, but I won’t let them take you, and I won’t leave you.”
More time passed. A lot. Derek remained in the same position, but he was getting tired. He longed to sit down for just a few minutes.
The care-taking woman appeared at his side, “I know you haven’t moved for at least two hours, sir. I’ll hold her hand for awhile.” She nodded toward a cushioned chair, “Go sit.”
“I….” He didn’t know what to say.
“Go ahead. I’ll stay with her. Anyway, I’ve been giving her basic care all week.”
“All right. Thank you.” Derek sat, and felt every muscle and bone relax. He hadn’t realized how tired he had become, but then, for years, since leaving the army, he had done nothing to stress himself so. The hours spent with his other forty-one patients, all men, he had often sat down, but of course had never left the room except to relieve himself. The restroom usually was not far away. Here…, “Ma’am, may I use your bathroom?”
He didn’t know if he wanted to get that far from Susannah, but, he had to go. So he did, “I won’t be long.”
Only about three minutes had passed when Derek heard the scream, and his name called out. He zipped up and cleared the stairs in four leaps, and heard the care-taking woman trying to comfort Susannah as he reached the room’s door, “…went to the bathroom.”
He hurried to her bed and put his right arm above and around her head, and his left hand on her right cheek, and pressed his right cheek against her left cheek, “Sweetheart, I’m here. I won’t leave you. I promise.” He leaned back. There were tears in her eyes, “I won’t leave you, Susannah. This kind lady was just giving me a break. You know her.”
“I’m sorry.” Susannah’s eyes were open, “When I didn’t see you I became so afraid…that you had left me.”
Derek moved his left hand back to her hand, “You sound stronger, Susannah.” He stood up straight, “Are you getting better?”
“Yes. I think so.”
“That’s good.” Derek moved back to his regular position and began holding both her hands again, and, from the corner of his eye he saw the care-taking lady shake her head, negatively. He glanced at her and nodded that he understood. Susannah was not getting better. Sometimes they appeared too. He knew that, but it was always only temporary, and usually happened just before the end. He wasn’t ready for Susannah’s end. He didn’t want her to end, and he knew that when she did end it would hit him harder than his other forty-one patients all put together.
Time passed again. The care-taking lady had left and Susannah had long ago quieted, again, and, weakened, again...except for that grip in her left hand. It wasn’t much, but definitely a grip, a sign that she still held onto life…and onto him. He gazed at her face. Angelic she was, so peaceful. When her time came, surely God would take her completely into His arms. Having experienced a woman like Susannah was changing Derek’s mind about The Other Side. Surely there was more than darkness.
She stirred, “Derek…,” her eyes opened, “Please don’t hate me for what that man called me.”
“I don’t hate you, Sweetheart.”
“But, don’t you wonder, why, I did it?”
“Actually, Susannah,” he smiled, the first since arriving, “No. I haven’t been wondering why. You…probably didn’t have a choice.”
“But I did. I know some girls don’t, and are abducted into prostitution, but I did have a choice. I was what they call…a high-end prostitute.”
Derek didn’t know what to say, so kept quiet.
Susannah was quiet too, for a moment, then went on, “I did it because it was good money. But for you, Derek, I would do it for free. But now I can’t.”
Again, Derek did not know what to say.
“Say you don’t hate me, Derek.”
“I don’t hate you, Sweetheart.” He smiled again, “I could never hate you.”
“I love it when you call me ‘Sweetheart.’” She choked, slightly, “Nobody ever has.”
“Everybody else is a fool.” Derek kept a hold on her hand and moved up to her head, leaned down, and kissed her cheek right above her upper lip and next to her nose.
“Thank you, Derek. I love you.” Then the grip in her hand at last relaxed. She was gone, but she had stayed as positive as could be expected to the end.
Derek whispered, “I love you, too, Susannah, my one true sweetheart.”
When the house’s owner, the police, and the medical authorities arrived, Derek Whitfield, the staunch twenty-five-year army veteran, his heart at last broken, still stood holding the lifeless hands of Susannah Brite. And he stayed with her right up until her cremation, then took home the ashes of his forty-second—and last—patient.