Sleep tight, my son
The echo of my dad’s voice sounds fragile in my hospital room, as if he fears my heart will stop beating when he speaks too loud.
“He’s asleep,” Mom says.
“He shouldn’t be,” my younger brother Josh answers.
His voice somehow resonates with the throbbing in my head. I’m not asleep, but no one can tell anymore. Six months ago I had a mild headache. Today I have a brain tumor with only one purpose in life: to kill me. It will soon get its way.
Squealing hinges that sound like a cat in distress tell me the door to the hallway opens. It’s completely different from the bathroom door that screeches like a badly tuned violin. A whiff of fresh cut pine tree tickles my nose, telling me my doctor enters. He has a pleasant voice, as if a melody is ready to erupt and he is going to sing, rather than speak.
“I’m afraid the last brain scan only confirms my worst fears,” he says.
The words come out at just the right speed, as if he studied them in front of a mirror. Only a slight quiver betrays his real feelings.
“There remains not much we can still do for him…”
His voice falters like smoke in the clean morning air.
I’m sure Mom knows what’s coming. When my eyes went dark, I overheard her talk to Dad as they waited for the ambulance to arrive. She told him my end was near. Dad told her not to be so negative all the time.
“We can only try to make his last hours as comfortable as possible,” the doctor says.
I think Mom cries and maybe Josh does as well. I’m sure Dad swallows a sob as he fumbles with my hand. I imagine he tries hard to conceal his tears, but I can’t be sure as everything drowns in another lancinating pain. Each new attack lasts longer than the one before and this one doesn’t seem to pass until finally I can once more hear my own ragged breathing and I feel the tension in my muscles relax.
“Can you at least take away his pain?” Dad asks.
I have never heard his’ voice so raw before.
“I just raised the amount of morphine… Again,” my doctor says.
He adds a deep sigh and maybe even more, but by then the morphine takes possession of my body and draws me into a flickering abyss with no will of my own.
… I’m back home in my bed. It’s a little over a week ago and I’m reading; or at least, I’m trying to. Mom thinks I should sleep, but I don’t want to. My books are the last vestige of a time when I was still carefree. As long as I can read, there is hope – even if reality dictates something entirely different.
Yet tonight even my stubbornness can’t stop the words from dancing off the page. I’ve been reading and rereading the same sentence over and over again. Each time the bopping words nauseate me. They literally jump and stab me before they bury themselves in my tormented brain. Time and time again my muscles tense while I scream without uttering a single sound so I don’t wake up Mom and Dad.
I don’t want to worry them.
My book slips from my hands and drops in my lap or maybe even onto the floor. I don’t care anymore as I bring both hands towards my head and violently apply more and more pressure on my temples until my skull feels as if it will fracture or maybe even implode.
At no avail.
With the blinding madness of something that has nothing to lose, the pain scorches my inside before it explodes in white rage. This time it worms itself through my gritted teeth and for the first time I can’t stop myself from screaming when one final burst of agony turns my world into a dark, hostile place.
I’m weak and my breathing is shallow. I shift between dreams and reality, between what is and what could be. Sometimes I hear my parents talk and once in a while I hear voices I can’t place, using words such as Traitor King and Haunted will save the day.
“I love you,” Dad mutters.
His voice shifts and maybe he says something entirely different. I can’t tell anymore.
“I don’t love you, Dad,” I want to tell him. “I love you so very, very, very much.”
I was about seven when I told him so and he always rewarded me with a warm smile. Today I would like nothing better than to tell him that one more time so he can smile again.
“His breathing is stalling,” someone shouts.
I’m a knight in a rusted hauberk fighting a deadly dragon with a broken sword while wading through a numbing stream of ice cold water. I’m tired and I feel cold and warm at the same time while I suck in the little oxygen that is left around me. With each new step I take, I get in more trouble…
A series of loud peeps vibrate with the harrowing pain and a female shouts. Or is that my voice? Then I hear the comforting hum of my doctor’s voice, his steady footsteps and the smell of fresh cut pine tree before he hits me hard in my chest.
It’s already difficult enough as it is. I feel like I’ve been running too long and too hard and now I can run no more.
“I love you, son,” Dad says.
His voice chokes. Even as my life slips from my fingers and hand I try to hold on to his touch as if it’s my last buoy to life. Slowly, so unbelievably slowly, the pain in my head disperses into oblivion, as a puddle of muddy water that evaporates on a hot summer day. I smile, but I’m not sure anyone notices it as a myriad of colors bloom open around me.
The sudden thought is vivid and painless; for the first time in so long. To prove myself I’m not dreaming I try to open my eyes. Mere minutes ago I would have failed. Now I open them as I always did and I see colors, shapes, lines and a face; a pale face with closed eyes and a few strands of hair.
“Did he die?” Josh asks.
He’s looking at me.
“Of course not, you dummy,” I say with good humor.
Everyone in his right mind can see I’m alive.
“Yes, he has,” Mom says.
The hand in front of her mouth muffles her answer as her red brimmed eyes fill with water, so maybe I misunderstood. How else can she say that when it should be obvious to everyone I’m alive?
“Mom!” I say.
Or maybe the morphine plays tricks on my ears. If so, it also plays tricks on my eyes because tears run down her face. When she tries to choke them, her auburn curls bounce up and down.
“This is not funny,” I protest.
The words sound weirdly strangled.
I turn to Dad because at least he won’t make fun of me. Yet, he, too, fights back his tears.
He ignores me.
“Dad: I’m cured; I’m all better now,” I protest.
When Dad still doesn’t respond, I spread open my arms to offer him a hug – something he’s never ignored before, not even when we were angry with one other.
Today he ignores me.
Horrified my arms hover in midair.
“Please Dad: I need you,” I choke.
My voice shudders and whines, but Dad’s facial expression doesn’t change.
“I’m healed,” I plead.
I reach out, certain Dad won’t be able to ignore me once I tap him on his arm, but when I do my hand passes right through his!
I’m three and I’m playing in the bathtub. In my left hand I hold an orange bath duck with no air hole in the bottom. It took Dad weeks to find that duck. Mom didn’t want any other because of the coat of bacteria that otherwise formed inside.
A booming thunder rocks the house just when I smash the duck into a wall of bubbly foam and steer it back into the air; a trail of froth on its tail. I look up startled and drop my duck, ready to cry. Dad immediately claps in his hands and pulls a funny face. As a result my clear laughter floods the bathroom once more.
I pull back my hand and immediately the stream of images stops.
Not really sure what has happened, I look at my hand. I must still be drug-induced; how else do I explain it felt as if I saw myself through Dad’s memories?
Soon the morphine will wear off and the pain will return and both Mom and Dad will try to comfort me.
This time I close my eyes before I reach out for Dad once more.
I look through Dad’s eyes, his vision troubled with tears. I see myself immobilized on a bed. With my closed eyes I look peacefully asleep – for the first time in so long.
A scream gurgles up from inside me.
One year ago I was a chubby little guy with round cheeks, a slightly tanned skin and green-grey eyes. Today my fat is gone, my chest no longer moves up and down and my lips have that bluish transparency Dad connects with…
I clench my fists and refuse to see what is so obvious and impossible to deny.
I. Am. Dead?
Reeling I try to get away as far as possible until something tugs at me.
“Look mom, there’s Dane!” Josh says.
I turn towards Josh. He’s pointing his finger at me and I can’t help but see a tiny smile break through the tears covering his freckled face.
“You can see me?” I ask.
There comes no answer until I form a U and next a C with my index finger and thumb before I end with pointing three fingers down; thus showing him the letter M. You See Me?
To my surprise I see Josh’s smile widen as he nods before he mouths two letters in return. GL or Good Luck.
It’s all part of a secret language we once developed.
“I know, Josh. I know Dane is in Heaven,” Mom mutters.
She barely looks up but Dad does, though I’m not really sure what he sees. Tears run down his face as he waves and suddenly all I want to tell him is that everything is all right, that I am finally free of pain and that I want to say my good-byes. Yet, across that gulf of space between life and death, there is no way for me to explain anything at all anymore.