Caring Christopher

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#39 Pull me into the light

Christopher

Francesca flops down onto the couch in the doctor’s lounge, sighing deeply. I put an arm around her as she rests her head against my shoulder. We both remain silent, silent tears streaming down her face while I try to keep my composure.

We lost a kid today, before we even got to operate on her. We had been treating Sophie for the better part of a year, and I was supposed to scrub in or her liver transplant in a few hours, but she got a heart attack half an hour ago. And now she’s gone. Such a vibrant little girl, with wonderful parents and three siblings.

I try not to let deaths get to me too much, since it’s a part of being a doctor, but some days just feel like they’re never going to end. Franny hasn’t been back from maternity leave for that long, and this is the first patient she’s losing since getting back, so it’s hitting her even harder than usual.

“I’m sorry,” she sobs, her fingers digging into my skin.

“Don’t be,” I assure her, stroking her hair. “This kind of thing… it’s brutal. I think it’s worse because we’re in peds. Kids dying… it’s the worst.”

“It’s so unfair,” Franny agrees, rubbing her eyes. “And now that I’m a mother… I keep imagining Zachary in a hospital bed, fighting for his life. Joshua says I need to let go of that fear, but I know all the shit that can happen to my little boy. I’ve already seen so many kids dying…”

“And getting better,” I remind her. “Don’t forget that we cure most kids, or make their lives livable again. Today is hard, and we couldn’t save Sophie, but you and I have made the lives of so many kids better ever since we got into medicine. Don’t forget that.”

Franny hugs me close, and we hold onto each other for a long time, both trying to pull ourselves together. I haven’t shed a single tear so far, knowing I can’t afford to. I’m the head of this department. I’ve got patients to see, parents to talk to, operations to get to. I need to be on top of my game. I will break down later, when I get home to Abby.

“Okay, I’m good,” Fran decides, straightening her small frame and pulling her pink hair into a tight ponytail. “No more crying. I’ve got rounds. Let’s go.”

I nod and follow her lead, getting back to work like a robot. I know some of my nurses, interns, residents and surgeons calls me a machine, and I have to say I pretend to be one from time to time. I imagine I don’t have feelings, that I am just a doctor, not an actual person. Some days, it is the only way to push through. Today is one of those days.

***

When I finally get home, the kids are already in bed. Abby is in the kitchen, softly singing along to a song on the radio while she pokes at something with a spatula. I inhale deeply, my stomach growling at the prospect of a hot, home-cooked dinner.

“You’re home,” Abby says simply when she turns around and sees me standing there, my coat and shoes still on, my briefcase still in my hand. She turns down the stove, walks over and takes my briefcase from me, helps me shrug out of my coat. She points at a chair and I sit down, too tired to do anything but comply. She walks back into the kitchen and makes me a plate.

“Smells great,” I mumble right before digging in, too hungry and tired for more than those two words. Abby doesn’t do anything but just sit there, watching me eat, her feet pressed against my leg as she sits across from me at the dinner table – it’s just a small gesture and not romantic or sexual at all, but it’s exactly what I need. To be reminded that she is still here. That even though I had a shitty day, she is here, waiting for me, happy to cook for me and understanding that I don’t want to talk right now.

“Sophie?” she asks softly when I’m done and she gets up to clear my plate.

I nod. “Before we could even get her to the OR.”

Instead of replying, Abby walks over, sits on my lap and wraps her arms around me, holding me close. Finally, I break. With Franny I couldn’t. I had to be the strong one. Now that I’m home with my girl and we’re the only two people in the room, I don’t have to pretend anymore. I stain her shirt with my tears, but I know she doesn’t care about that. She pulls her fingers through my hair and makes soothing noises while I cry. One of the best things about Abby is that she’s doesn’t tell me everything will be okay. She knows even better than I do that sometimes life is cruel. Not everything will be okay in the end.

“Let’s get you to bed,” she whispers when I finally pull myself back together.

“Yes,” I agree, letting her pull me to my feet. I know that if she wasn’t here, I wouldn’t have cried. Before her, I kept it together even when I was alone, I got myself into bed and slept it all off, going back to work like nothing happened the next morning. Abby’s strength allows me to be the weak one sometimes. I loved my ex-wife Gianna, but even with her I never felt like I could break down like this. Abby doesn’t need me to be strong all the time, she doesn’t need anything from me but to just be myself.

Abby undresses me slowly and carefully, tucking me in like I’m a kid. She pulls off her own clothes as well, snuggling against me under the blankets in nothing but her panties. Her skin on mine relaxes me further. Maybe I should want to have sex with her, but I don’t, and I can tell she doesn’t expect me to. I’m spent. Hurt. Burned out. I need to sleep.

“I’ll take the kids to school in the morning,” Abby whispers into my hair as she strokes my hair. “You sleep in, baby. Take your time. We’ll talk when you’re ready. You’ve still got the day off tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah,” I say, pressing my lips to hers, needing the affirmation of her love more than anything right now.

“Love you,” she says, kissing me back. She knows me so well that I don’t even have to tell her what I need. “I’ve got you, Chris.”

Those words allow me to finally let go completely, and I sink into a deep, dreamless sleep.

***

Waking up alone isn’t something I enjoy, but I know that even though I’m in the bed alone, I’m not truly on my own. I can already hear the sounds from downstairs: Abby walking around while she sings along to the radio, cleaning up after our boys. It’s only been a little over three months since she moved in, but the sounds of her rummaging through the kitchen makes this house feel more like a home than anything did when I lived here on my own.

“Coffee?” she asks when I walk in after a shower, wearing my favorite sweats and an old T-shirt that should probably be in the washing bin already.

“Yes please.”

We sit down at the kitchen island together and she pours herself a cup as well, waiting for me to start the conversation so I can decide what I’m ready to talk about.

“Thanks,” I say after a long stretch of silence. “For… everything.”

Abby rolls her eyes and pulls her long hair over her shoulder, combing it with her fingers. “All I did was hand you a cup of coffee, baby.”

“You know what I mean.”

She smiles and leans in to kiss me, moaning against my lips when I slip my tongue in. We kiss slowly for a while, enjoying that this sweet tranquil moment. God, I love this woman.

“You seem… better,” I say when we break apart and get back to our much-needed caffeine. “For a few days now, actually.” It’s been over a week since I met her mother, it’s a new year, the boys are back to school, and after shutting me out for days, Abby seems to be herself again.

She shrugs and smiles a little. “Jagger can be weirdly insightful sometimes,” she says cryptically. “And… I made an appointment at the hospital.”

“For…?” I ask, not daring to hope that she’s saying what I think she’s saying.

“I’m getting tested.”

“Oh thank God,” I breathe, pulling her in for a hug. “When?”

“Next week. And it’ll be another week before I get the results, so… two weeks.”

Two weeks. It feels an eternity, but I know it’ll be over before we know it. I can’t believe Abby is truly ready to find out if she carries the gene for early-onset Alzheimer’s, and I’m not sure what Jagger said to her to convince her, but I do know I will be eternally grateful to him. Whatever the outcome, I want to marry this woman, but she will never say yes before she knows what the future holds. Before I know. She hasn’t said it out loud, but I have a sneaking suspicion she thinks I will bolt if it turns out she does have the gene. I won’t, and I’ve told her that, but she still feels like I will, and I get that. It’s hard to believe that someone will stay with you even though they know they will end up heartbroken at one point.

That’s just what love does to you, though. Loving someone means that you embrace all the lovely parts, but also the knowledge that they can break you. My divorce sixteen years ago nearly broke me, but here I am, kissing my girlfriend, knowing I will be adopting two – maybe even three – boys soon. And if it’s up to me, Abby will be adopting them too. I just pray she will agree to it, no matter the outcome of her genetic test.

“I love you,” I tell her, gazing into her eyes. “I’m all in, no matter what.”

“I know,” she says, her gaze just as intense as mine. She seems a little apprehensive, but not as much as I expected her to be. “Two weeks and we’ll know. For now, though, there is nothing we can do about it and I don’t want to talk about it, okay?”

“Okay,” I agree, swallowing all the reassuring words bubbling up in me.

“Tell me about yesterday,” she insists. “Sophie. What happened?”

I take a deep breath and start filling her in on one of the worst days in my career as a doctor. Abby’s soft gasps and her hands in mine make everything feel better, even though what happened still sucks. She has a way of doing that. A way of pulling me back into the light and out of the darkness, while also giving me the space to disappear into the night when I need to, to truly feel the sadness of losing such a young patient with such a bright future ahead of her.

“Chris?” Abby says when I’m done talking and we’re just sitting on our stools, facing each other.

“Yeah?”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

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