There is more to death than dying.
By Sebastian Cahl
In my youth life was hard. Many doctors had convinced my mother that her difficulties with raising a boy were due entirely to a damaged, diseased child and that they could make me right with a few unconventional therapies.
My first stop was a hospital that sported a children’s only environment. Fairlawn at Clinton Valley Center was paired up and supported by a larger, darker and more notorious asylum. They erased years of my memories with ECT which as it turned out had been previously banned from the facility. Recovery from this dark place would be at the Children’s home of Detroit which was in Gross Point. I learned my first lessons in humanity and compassion. They saved me the first time.
My second challenge was to take place in California. At the hands of a monster (my words) who thought it fine to convince my mother that his untested drug would be a great benefit to me. They did not try just one drug they pumped my small frame full of more chemical than a Dow plant could produce in a lifetime. My recovery would take place in Napa.
The final resting place was a group home in San Rafael where my education in humanity and compassion would be the strongest. I am eternally grateful for the love and care these people gave.
In all these dark years there was one constant, all the other children who I lived with were in the same boat. Convinced that they were a problem, their parents left them at the vile whim of people who espoused a great care of children but housed an unorthodox will to use them as test subjects. We were family. My brothers and sisters from other mothers and misters would find solace and comfort in caring for each other. We formed our families and while the laws that governed our lives kept us apart after moving from one facility to another, our care of each other stayed firm.
I watched as children were crushed under the weight of bad parents and disingenuous doctors. Many of us would never make it to freedom and see the light of life outside the confines of those dark places. My own best friend succumbed to the ignorance of his parents and took his own life.
It is these things that drove my story. The hope that someone cared so much for the life of a young child it could consume them. The wish that my best friend stirred more than just myself with his passing and that in that final moment even death was kind.
Across the Veil
Nothing in this world or the next is quite as painful to witness nor inspires more fear than the burning anger of Death when he must guide a young child from the warm embrace of life.
At this time of the evening, the hospital is quiet. The usuals have gone to their rooms, home, or shuffled off to get what rest they can. Medical residents are checking up on the emergencies of the morning. Nurses are taking that breather between morning rush and evening run. Carts lined with trays full of hospital food have the run of the halls. The office staff turns their monitors off, rearrange the little toys that keep them sane enough to endure waves of pain, and orderlies take the rare time to dispose of dangerous red bags containing the remains of the morning’s screams and tears.
In this hospital, at this hour, three members of the staff talk at each other. Each one so separate as to be in different rooms. The nurse waits for the doctor to give instructions. He keeps his eyes cast away trying hard to find needs his job provides as a diversion to considering the weight of the last hour. The hospital insurance agent is less fortunate, composed and stable. The last hour has been spent staring through a plexiglass window whispering prayers to anyone who might listen. She is good with numbers. The job was supposed to be simple. No attachments, no pain, an 8 hour a day job that would give her time to spend with her trusty dog. None of her preconceptions has ever come true. The job is a full life in and of itself. The people she helps navigate various documents are important to her. The various forms covering the hospital financially are confusing to state it lightly but necessary. Every day that her duties are not useful wears at her. Today she was not needed. The administrator hoped today she would be. That her forms would be important for the life of this little patient. That she could take that moment of talking with the family to smile and comfort the child who had been about the same age as her sister when they lost her. The words came unbidden. The anger, pain, and resentment bouncing off of a distracted doctor and the nurse trying as he might, to avoid eye contact. The pain was palpable. The anger was felt deep within.
Dr. Marion Nates had dealt with pain and loss regularly and every time he had to deliver the horrible news it got harder. The practice was key and this was the state his nurse and the hospital agent found him in. He was going over the words to get them right. They just did not feel right. Every time they rumbled from deep within his mind they flowed over who they were for and why they were necessary. No combination of looks, words, pauses, or offers of comfort felt right. Nothing about this felt right.
With a sudden step, the tall doctor lurched into motion walking with purpose down the long hallway. His mind firmly fixed on the subject of the words quietly whispered under his breath. He didn’t know exactly what to say but he was going to say something. The mother needed to know. He could sense the agony she had been going through over the past hours. He knew it would hurt as he passed patients parked in the corridor awaiting testing, tall carts draped with coverings that held lightly flavored foods, formulated to be easy on distressed digestive systems. He barely noticed the tall young orderly holding aloft red bags with biological hazard written on them standing off to the side to give him the way. The walk ended far too abruptly in the examination room occupied by a young mother. Obvious tears drying in streaks under puffy red eyes. Stumbling at the threshold he caught himself with a steady hand on the industrial door frame. The words he had rehearsed started to pour forth only to be drowned out in screams flowing from deep within the young woman.
Eyes that had seemed to be empty of tears from hours of worry found reserves to extinguish the flames of anguish but it was too little too late. The raging inferno was not to be abated and the young mother’s pain raged unchecked. The orderly, nurses, other patients, and even the nearby police officers took note. The sounds of suffering were heart wrenching and raw.
The doctor had learned from some of the best. His own surgical residence was rife with these types of conversations and despite his personal rules, despite every hospital administrators rules he reached out: His arms found purchase on an anguish wracked mother. She fought the comforting grip though much of her had been spent. The doctor’s arms would find purchase and comfort the grieving young woman. Her rage filled tears drenching the tall doctor’s shirt. Her wracked sobs occasionally shaking his encircling arms. The white hot pain reduced to dull embers as they stood there for what seemed an eternity.
The young police officer moved his handcuffed charge down the hall and into another exam room. With doors closed the sounds of conversation could be heard in muted tones as the hospital came to life and the evening run picked up.
Wrapped in the grinding anger of the moment; Death was caught off guard when his arm started to jerk about without his willing it to do so.
Tethered to the boney ashen hand was a small child. Clad in only a simple one piece pajamas, yellow with a swath of white fur down the front.
The small mittens tethered to the end of yellow sleeves flapping unused as she gripped his long gray finger bones with both of her tiny hands and rocked about on her heels. The hum of a childish melody emanating from her upturned face: framed in red curly locks and sporting innocent eyes she gazed up at him with a playful smile.
Death’s stony gaze locked with that of the child’s he bent down to demand she release his hand, only to ask simply “What are you doing Child?”
Those innocent eyes lit on him and shifted to the clear window into life for which he had been gazing.
“I wanna see too!” she replied. The young child’s attention was clearly held firm by the portal used to see through the veil and into the living world.
Before he could deny her the prize she sought, the child seized the moment and started to climb. First gaining purchase on his bent knee and outstretched arm. While he sought to fathom what was happening; tiny hands had gripped his shoulder and her little sock clad feet found ample purchase within the gaps in his stony rib cage. The finishing move of her acrobatic feat saw her rock back, then up while swinging her hips up and around in one smooth motion to come to rest sitting on his boney shoulder. Her hand resting gently on the opposite side of his ashen skull.
Without a second thought, he stood and in one swift motion, they were both looking into the living world.
Delicately she asked, “is momma going to be okay?” The question hung for a moment and she continued.
“Momma cried a lot when the men came and told her daddy wouldn’t be coming home anymore”. The simple story brought back smoldering anger the ashen figure had subdued. A little more virgin bone loss to ashen stone as the fires of rage burned within.
Without thinking his skeletal hand reached up to support the shifting toddler.
As they gaze through the window, the world rewinds to just before. Before the doctor walks down the hall before the orderly almost drops it all before the administrator sees loss and before the mother cries out in burning anguish. To the quiet part of the day.
Next to the nurse’s station is a tall man with trimmed beard and manicured nails. Standing disheveled and bruised in the near empty emergency waiting room the look of shock etched unconvincingly across his face. Impatiently he paces back and forth.
“There’s nobody here” he exclaims in mock exasperation. “What’s the damn hold up?” “I have things to do” His statement emphasized by both hands slamming the plexiglass window that served to protect those inside from difficult patients.
“Sir” She repeated for the third time. “Please sit down sir, the doctors are” Her words drowned out by the tall man’s insistence. Sitting farther away from the window she rests her hand on the small red button labeled “HelpCall” on a cheap sticker barely holding onto the face of the button.
“Sir, the doctors are busy!” Her words come out more forcibly than intended. The button half pushed and ready to send its message of “Difficult patient getting physical, bring large people to hold him down”.
Just as the nurse is convinced she will need help a young man with shaven face and wearing the blue uniform of local police walks through the automatic doors of Mercy Hearts emergency entrance. His hands occupied by a simple disposable pen and a small pad of paper with lines and notes scribbled across its surface. “Excuse me, sir, why don’t you come over here and tell me what’s going on?” His calm tone is well practiced and the tall well-dressed man looks around not meeting the calm gaze of the officer but making his way over to the corner to lodge his complaint.
“They don’t have enough people here!” The words stagger from the tall man as he notes the officers pen and paper. “Uhh, I am sorry bout hitting the window officer but I am in real pain.” His injuries emphasized by pointing to various bruises and a small cut on his face and hand.
“Let’s just remain calm sir, you’re not going to hurry them up with that kind of behavior”. The officer’s voice trailed off at the end of his sentence and a follow-up deep breath helped him conceal the emotional turmoil from an earlier tragedy. He surveyed quickly the injuries and asked calmly, “What happened?”
The tall man quickly responded, “Uh, nothing Officer, I just took a bad tumble.” covering the injuries on his hand with his other hand he seemed uncomfortable. “I’ll just go sit down and wait” He turned to sit in one of the many unused tan chairs that lined the wall.
The officer and the tall man in a brown suit were interrupted by the sound of knuckles rapping on a Lexan window pane. “Sir, we have a room for you to wait in,” she said as her gaze passed between him, the officer and her screen. “Someone will be out in a moment to show you back to the exam room”
“Without hesitating, the officer chimed in “I can take him back there ma’am”. “I know the way. Which room is it?” The officer offered a hand to carry the injured man’s attache case. The offer of assistance went ignored as the man gathered his worn briefcase.
The two made their way through the triage doors which opened silently for them well before they needed it and held the doors far longer than the two would be.
“Sir, I know injuries and those generally come from defending yourself.” The officer kept his even tone while he looked about, trying to find the exam room for the tall man. “Look, officer, I don’t need.” The exchange ended abruptly as the officer announced their arrival.
“Sir.” the officer said in a hushed tone. “There was an accident involving a tan SUV, a little girl and her mother,” The officer said looking from his open notebook to the tall man.
The disheveled man seemed to gain a little in height as he stood straight up with a professional bearing “Uhh Officer” He gazed at the nameplate above the uniformed policeman’s badge. “Bradshaw” he completed. “I don’t know what you are talking about and unless you need anything else from me; I am going to go into this room alone and wait for the doctor.” The words came out in an even cadence with an emphasis on “Alone”. “Unless you have something else for me, please go deal with your case or what not.” The sudden shift in tone was not lost on the officer and after a momentary pause, he said: “Sir, that little girl was hurt bad and”, “she may not make it” He said as the door slowly slid closed.
As soon as the door latched closed the tall man fished his large phone from the worn briefcase and thumbed through his contact list. He dialed the person he sought with a quick flip of his thumb. While waiting; he quickly surveyed the exam room and the various medical posters that adorned the walls.
“Cmon, pick up.. pick up..” The urgent whispers seemed to be directed at the recipient of his call.
“Keith!”, “Yeah yeah, shut up a moment” He took a breath and let the pause handle any residual greetings the man on the other end of his call would have.
“Look, Keith, after all, I have done for you; I need you to help me with something” A moment and the barely audible “What is going on”.
“Keith; your car hit someone and I need you to say you were driving” With a quick breath he urged the recipient “ Look, man, this is as much you as me, and I can make sure you make it clear of this”.
“You can’t do that man, and I can fix it just like before.”
A sigh of exasperation interrupting the protests of his conversation. “I cleared things up for you before and this is no different Keith”.
“Either we can both take the fall for this or just you and if we both get screwed I can’t help you out at all”.
“If you do this for me, we are clean and as a plus, you’re covered for an alibi this morning”
“Believe me, this works for both of us, you more than me so can I count on you?”
“Okay good. Here is what you have to say, Oh and wear something brown”
The sounds of conversation drone on as the smoldering hatred burn fiercely in the shadowy figure staring through a portal from the other side of life.
As if sensing his anger the child is shifting around on Deaths boney shoulder; trying to find a comfortable spot in which to stay and watch.
“Keep still Child or you may descend to the hard ground next to us” Death’s grating voice comes from deep within his cavernous rib cage. This harsh tone instantly silences the child and she turns to stare into death’s stony sockets as death looks up at her kind eyes and rosy cheeks framed in curly red locks.
Realizing the direction he was casting his pain the visage of Death found himself lost for words and his boney lower jaw hung open as he contemplates a simple apology.
“You. You don’t know what I see. Do you child?” The words stagger from deaths deep cowl as the little child looks down on his upturned skull.
“I hope you don’t know” He finishes with the last words trailing off into silence.
The rapt attention of the child’s gaze is suddenly broken by the fragile sound of a scared little girls voice. “I did somfing bad?” she asks with little wells of sadness brimming in her brown eyes and the cheeks starts to show a deeper rosy hue than before.
With a smooth gesture, death sweeps her from his shoulder and down to the strange dark hammered earth of the afterlife.
“No child.” His tone has taken on a gentler tone “Please do not weep little one, you have not erred”. Death could not remember the last he had used such a tone but it came easily to him as if practiced for this very moment.
“That man we spied child; he has committed an act terrible in nature.”. His comforting tone had brought her calm. The reaper could tell his tone was threatening to change as he thought about the transgressions of the mortal just beyond the veil.
With a quizzical tone the child’s question “What’s terrible?” came wafting up to death and broke his momentary smoldering rage.
“Little one, this man has been far worse than wrong”. Everyone who passed through his gates asked questions but none had so held his attentions as the simple questions his tiny charge seemed to be able to.
With immense effort, he buried the deep ember glow of his rage and began to explain to his little charge the terrible act this man seemed poised to get away with.
“Little one” He locked the little girls gaze. “This man has taken from the world a wonderful person who had so much potential” A pause to scrub the anger from his voice and remain calm. “He was not paying attention and thus does not know what he did. Which is far worse than being a cruel monster who thinks they are doing the right thing” The grating anger could not be held in check as he formed words to describe it’s source.
As if he himself was close to wailing he fought to finish his explanation. “There will be no penance for him” The look on her face was now familiar to him and so he explained “Penance my child means he will not have to sit in the corner or go without cookies. He has committed an act so bad that he should be here instead of you”.
Death’s disdain for the tall brown suited man sitting in a waiting room on the other side of life could not be contained any longer.
“Oh little one, I could reach into him and make him pay for this,” He said in a pained rush. “I can make him feel this pain”. Death hesitated with the child’s innocent eyes still locked on him. “I have that gift my little one and I want to be terrible and make him feel my anguish”.
“Why don’t you?” the little child whispered with her eyebrows furled in an undeniable question that death seemed to have missed.
Quickly death rose and grasped the edge of the mirror that served as his window into the waking world. With power welling within him as he stared intently through the window of the living world and into examination room #4, he paused.
All details laid out and his preparations with Keith done; the tall disheveled lawyer put his worn smartphone back into the worn briefcase and found himself facing the mirror with cool water filling the sink below.
The room had grown hot and seemed far smaller than when he first entered.
His tie had grown tight and he fought to loosen it. When it had finally come loose and slid from under his collar he threw it half haphazardly across his briefcase.
So much had happened over the course of three simple hours.
As water rushed into the sink he took a moment to rest against the edge and found himself staring into the mirror. At first, it was the thick red line above his right eye and the deep angry bruise that started to bloom in that same eye that caught his attention.
He could see it all so clearly now. The call was important, he was close to completing the agreement for his client and the money it provided would change everything for him.
The sounds of the city were fighting with the simple speaker of his aging phone and he had been trying hard to hold it up against his ear as he navigated through the morning rush hour of cars and crossing pedestrians. Without a second thought, he believed he could make it between the young lady with her small charge and the long line of people waiting to cross after them. But the way he gripped his phone with his arm crossed over to hold the steering wheel was awkward, to say the least. At that moment when he could see his path clearly the steering wheel had slipped from his grasp and the woman and her child disappeared under the front of the borrowed SUV.
The image of him in the mirror blurred as he lost his fight with the tears welling up inside him.
Death knew what the wrong use of his power could do. With a heavy heart, he turned to explain his choice to the child. The little girl had vanished. In her place there stood a beautiful angel clad in flowing simple white robes with great feathery wings sprouting from her back. The familiar curly locks now framed the face of an ethereally beautiful woman who held his face in her gentle grasp. She leaned forward and with a smile placed a quiet kiss on his forehead. “It’s okay,“ She said with a gentle voice.
For the first time in his vast memory, he could feel hot tears stream down his face and his chest shuddering as he sought to hold back the wracking sob of anguish.
The brown eyed angel looked deep into his soul and smiled. “It’s your turn now” was all that she said and the brilliance of her purity poured around him. Covered him in its comforting embrace and without hesitation, he gave into it. The anger, rage and smoldering hatred melted away to be replaced by wonder and a wild-eyed awe.
The tall disheveled man clad in his worn brown suit took a breath and wiped away tears from puffy red eyes. Quietly he turned the faucet off with shaky hands. With a single glance back at the mirror he stood up to his full height and walked to the door. The door opened easily. He could see the young officer just outside talking with a woman who carried a clipboard and had the badge of hospital staff.
“Officer,” he said with a tightly held sob “I need to tell you something?”
Life has a way of happening whether you are paying attention or not and so does indeed does death.
Rarely did she get this moment to gaze across the familiar veil into life for reasons other than to guide the recently departed. This time though she did so with a smile. She knew what was to come next and could barely hold back a dance of her anticipation.
She placed her hand on the golden furred noble canine sitting quietly beside her. “It won’t be long now my good boy” The last words seeming to command his tail to wag vigorously.
With a smile, she bent down with her slightly worn robes and the singed feathers of her wings held back to give her charge a great hug. The sound of a child crying echoed down the halls of the living and out into the depths of the dead.
Copyright © 2017 Sebastian Cahl