“Mr. Bradford? Here, they’re on the line.”
The ICU nurse hands the telephone to Randall and I listen, sitting next to him on a chair I have pulled over from the wall. She is very thin, the nurse behind the reception counter, Diet Coke lean with highlights and a tan. Her wrists are sinewy and she wears no wedding ring though I remember she mentioned having a son. In those last minutes around the gurney when we’d called in select friends and family to pray, sing and say goodbye before we turned off the ventilator, she had mentioned, this nurse trying to be casual and conversant in the thickness of sacred silence, how handsome our son was. Almost the same age as mine, she had said.
Working ICU in Pocatello to put the kids through school. A loyal girlfriend to many and street smart, her face told me. There to witness the last assisted breaths of the son of this woman wrapped in a blue hospital blanket that an earlier nurse had brought from room seven. There to stand at the foot of the son of this woman who had been singing church songs in different languages and had been reading from her scriptures into the left ear of her firstborn.
During those thirty-six unspeakably holy ICU hours, I’d pulled myself only four times from the gravitational suction that held me inside of room two and next to my son who lay first on his face in a neck brace, tubes running into his nose and down his throat, then on his back when they’d turned him over a few hours before Randall was to arrive. We had been on the telephone at least a dozen times or more off and on in the last twenty-four hours, Randall and I — from my parents’ in Provo to our apartment in Munich, Utah’s Interstate-15/Germany’s Autobahn, Pocatello/Munich International Airport, Port Neuf Regional Medical Center/Philadelphia International Airport — although I had wished we could have spoken constantly. Impossible from over the Atlantic. As never before in my life my body yearned to have his body next to where mine was, next to our son. He stagger-burst through the ICU doors in his navy suit jacket, gray-skinned not from that round-the-world flight from Munich but from horror, the crazed end of passion, the heart-melt middle of devotion.
One of those times I had walked into the hallway I had felt the abrupt difference in air quality, as if I had passed through a gelatinous film at the threshold and stepped into a one-dimensional, vibration-free world. Flat. Tinny. Void of resonance. I had walked through the door, with the reception area off to my left as I had made my way to the right, to the bathroom. The desk was the place where folks congregated, professional folks like doctors and paramedics and people who live daily around other folks’ deaths, where they read X-Rays and check stats and chat about room six or five or two, and about when their shift was supposed to end, maybe about their worthless lawnmower or about how bad this stupid coffee is. Who brewed this cup of crap anyways?
I had passed them. I had smiled at them, a Polite Girl reflex. Had smiled at them while my son with his trademark smell and full lower lip and the tiniest almost invisible mole on the tip of his nose, while that son had lain dying or really, had probably already long since died.
(Did you see how I just wrote that? Those two words with “D”? Not even a flinch? Five years and I still cannot say those words or any version of them. Cannot hear them associated with my son without feeling my spine revolt and turn titanium. But write them? Cold fingers don’t taste the metallic flavor of the words, so I type them quickly just like the rest of the string in that sentence. Mole. Nose. Dying. Already. Died. . . See?)
I had passed them, smiling on my way to the bathroom. And whatever had been their internal joke that had caused the one doctor to slap the other guy’s shoulder and throw his head back in a chuckle, it had been doused by my presence. Friendly banter with coworkers, that’s all, so the other two nurses had just dropped their heads ready to let out a laugh. Then there I was, Mom From Room Two. Out in clear sight. Strange, nervous soberness and elbowing among the five there behind that counter of Formica. A woman with a face mask hanging down around her neck starts shuffling papers, turning her shoulder a bit from me.
And now The Parents From Two sit in front of that same lightly speckled Formica reception desk. And the thin nurse who is a single mom, I’ve decided, with the son my beloved son’s age is handing us the phone and my husband is going to do the talking while I watch my legs and hands and even my shoulders and ribs begin to shake, quake as if all the cold of a distant and soundless black universe has now inhabited my limbs. My teeth chatter. My nails are blue. I wrap the blue blanket more snugly around my thighs, pull it higher over my shoulders and push it up around my neck. My husband’s voice is paced, warm, and the nurse steps away, eyes following the top of my husband’s head as he nods and agrees to the voice on the line. He is, even in this ice block of time, an impeccable — though decimated — professional.
He will take the questions from Organ Donation. He will repeat to me in fragments the impossible litany of queries this interview requires. This Organ Donation interview scheduled out of necessity within two minutes of when room two turned off life support.
My mind stretches to that room. I can still feel its heart beat from over my shoulder. Room Two. The door is left ajar. Family has filed out. My brother, ten years my junior with a physique normally the mirror image of his favorite nephew now lying inside that door, looks ninety-seven. He is hunched head first against a wall.
“Has your son ever used recreational drugs?” the voice is asking my husband through the receiver.
“Pot? Meth? Ever abused prescription drugs?”
“Has he abused alcohol or even drunk socially?”
“Sexual activity, Mr. Bradford. Was your son sexually active?”
“No. He has never engaged in sexual activity.”
“Mr. Bradford? Um, can you be sure of that? This is to rule out any chances of STD’s or AIDS, you know. We can’t use his organs if there is any chance of those in his system. Any activity? With women, Mr. Bradford? Or with men?”
“No. None. I know this for sure.”
“Okay then. Ah. . .yeah, okay, next question, Mr. Bradford. We still have quite a list here. . .”
While the voice from Organ Donation asks for a detailed profile, I watch another nurse walk toward my son’s room. This is the same son whose strong back I’d hugged in the full-blown sun just three days earlier, the one who is lying still warm under a crisp sheet of white, but whose life is no longer supported there. Whose last struggling breath I’d stood by and watched. From where I sit, watching Randall, watching my body quietly convulse, I can not see what this other woman is now doing. But there she goes. Into that room. With my son. I have no strength to follow her or the thought any further. And part of me is trying to be here in this plastic chair so I can love my husband through this disorienting phone call.
“Where has your son lived during his life, Mr. Bradford? Idaho, right?”
“For nine days, if that counts,” Randall answers. “And Utah. And Hong Kong. And Pennsylvania and New Jersey and Versailles then Paris, France.”
“Whoah, okay,” the voice laughs lightly, “Moved, I see.”
“What year would that have been, Mr. Bradford?”
“Years. From 1994 to 1999. We lived five years in Norway.”
“Ok. Mr. Bradford, can you just please hold on for a sec?”
Randall looked at me and tucked the blue blanket up under my chin, up behind the nape of my neck. I smiled at him, but not out of some polite reflex. It was love as never before.
“Mr. Bradford. Seems there’s a problem. Government records show that there were three cases of mad cow disease in Norway during those five years you lived there. This means your son’s organs are unfortunately unsuitable for donation. But we do thank you for your time, Mr. Bradford.”
I was in this gummy state, all senses on hyperdrive but by soul tuned to fold-into-origami submission. All my joints , though chilled through, were limp, my will utterly pliable. So we can’t even give his organs, I thought. He’ll be unhappy about that. Unable to move myself from this hospital chair with its aluminum legs, I stared at my hands. Randall’s hand reached over to mine. We had to find Luc, our youngest. Had to tell him. We made our way to the room where he had been waiting in the lap of our dear friend all these hours.
And this is when my brother, who has since turned from the wall, saw what he saw. He told me all this later.
She walked into room two, this gently efficient woman, wearing her scrubs, her brown hair in a pony tail, ready to do what she was trained to do. She walked right to my son. To the body of my son. My handsome — my gorgeous, my sweet — son on the gurney. Those were his feet whose toenails I’d taught him to trim. His hands I’d marveled at in the delivery room the minute he was laid on my chest, hands he’d pushed up against my breast when I nursed him all those eleven months. He’d pushed and pushed with those miraculous mits, routinely kneading my flesh as he suckled life from me. They were the same hands whose callouses and blisters he’d shown me proudly after all those hours spent pummeling his djembe with his Tunisian and Algerian buddies on the steps of the Trocadéro facing the Eiffel Tower. School exams, pressure, finally over. It was early summer in Paris, his home, and now all of life lay ahead of him. So he drummed and drummed till his palms and his knuckles bled.
Now this stranger, this woman with white nurse’s shoes and a metal rolling trolley was walking toward those hands, hands with callouses she could not read, toward an entire geography of flesh and blood she could not know. Nothing but foreign soil to her. And then with everyday grace softening her movements, she proceeded with the speechless routine of turning and lifting, wrapping and bending, of dipping a cloth in cool water and tracing a limb with it. Wringing it out, that hospital rag, in a utilitarian metal dish. This unnamed woman, cradling my son, following the curve of his mortal landscape, sharing with him his final sacrament.
Toth was his name, Laszlo Toth: the death man
who one midmorning charged Saint Peter’s sanctum
lunged with frenzied hammer at the polished Madonna
frothing at the mouth
shouting he wanted Him as his own
cracking with mallet swing the curves of submission
breaking her soft hold on the dead Son.
The camera crowd gaped then contracted
wrestled him to the stone floor sentenced him
deported him declared him deranged.
Have pity on him.
Hard it is, to insanity hard, to behold a son’s graceful bow
In the hold of another (doctor, technician, nurse, mortician)
to glimpse quite by mistake through the sanctum doorway
as another cradles the warm form wilting, folding under death’s weight
as the gurney sheets must be removed from this side
and the tubes extracted from that side
and the limbs placed neatly at his sides
and machines are rolled away into shadows
as the muscles melt
twisting the stone sturdy man in the
deference to death.
Hard it is, to derangement hard,
to not swing a mallet or hammer, to not fling oneself
onto the stone floor,
to not break into sharp marbled shards.
Have pity on me.
Printed first in Fire in the Pasture: 21st Century Mormon Poets, ed. Tyler Chadwick
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.