Over the next three days, he realizes his life is ruled / by numbers. How many times he can drive to the hospital / from home or campus without missing the boy’s / needs or being late to teach, and how many calls / he makes until he hears her quavering voice beg / for the end. He counts how often he unplugs her cords from the wall / and leads her to the bathroom, how many whirs and clicks / per minute from the IV pump pushing ringer’s and Zofran / into her wrist’s small blue tree rooting back to her heart. The math / of when she can next get a Reglan shot or something to sleep / because she does ask, and then again when she dislikes / his answer. How many times she breaks / into tears, how often he relies on You’ve done this before / and survived to reach her, to comfort her, to make her trust / this is only temporary. How many ceiling tiles, how many papers / he still has to grade, the number of days until semester’s end and he is free / to care for her without interruption. He imagines one letter, / then four, five, twenty more explaining his insurance benefits / and then a second stack clarifying the price / of what’s not covered. The times he has to tell the boy / to not jump on her bed or the tubes keeping her / close to whole. He counts how many minutes he’ll sit next to her / as she fights into evening, into sleep, into the next day / and the one after, and he counts how many ways he’s let her / down without meaning to.
When she calls him next, he swipes / the screen for Decline and continues to live / in a space without her. Though he feels guilty, he loves / for a few moments what it means to have nothing / of her sickness touching him. To be free of her / pain and groans, to let silence be the joy / in his life like it was before this, before the boy, before her / love filled him.
Which isn’t true, not entirely, because he never / wanted to spend his days and nights alone. / That loneliness kept him occupied more than this has or could, / the thought of no one to give himself over to the realest ache / that ever grabbed him in the middle of the night, / a train whistle’s low midnight moan as the cars / lurched cross-country to find their way home.
But it’s not false, either. / He needs to have some place, some time, that’s only him / if he’s going to be his best self. Which is why he doesn’t feel / guilty to be in this house alone, his mother-in-law off to take the boy / to lunch, maybe the dollar store after that, too. He lies on their bed / as he waits for the phone’s ting to let him know there’s something / she needs to tell him. He hears it and closes his eyes for a minute, / then a few more, and maybe several after that. But he gives / in eventually, plays his voicemail, listens to her hysterical pleas / for him to call Dr. S. Her nurse does not like her, will not / give her medication when she requests, does not come soon enough / to unplug her, help her to the bathroom. And when she does stop / in, finally, she is rude and dismissive, tells her / she has other patients and no patience for all these demands. /
He sighs and calls her, listens to all this again, tries / to talk her down: That last part, that can’t be, he says, / no nurse would say that. She swears / at him for not believing her, bawls him out because he’s not there, / he doesn’t know what it’s like, he’s not the one / going through this. She knows what’s happening; she’s not / making up any of this. He should believe her, she tells him, / he should trust her word. They don’t know / what they’re doing here. I’m on a post-surgical floor, / not a women’s one where the nurses would understand. / They think I’m crazy for complaining about a little morning / sickness. I can feel it, she says.
He grants this is true / probably and not just because he feels ashamed / for refusing her call. He agrees their familiarity with this is nothing / like watching for burst stitches or fevers, blood clots or fluid build-up / under an incision, the growing redness or deep-colored drainage / of infection. They don’t know to recognize the physical / and mental, the toll taken on the inside worse / than what can be seen and measured, / no set of numbers to tell them when to act / with compassion.
He tells her he’ll call Dr. S who will call / the floor’s head nurse who will have words with the young woman / who has a 98% chance to never know this illness, / to never feel the intense thirst that, if quenched, / comes back up violent and bitter and green, to never experience / this steady decline from health to misery, all for the sake / of bringing her truest wish life.
The man takes his mother-in-law and the boy / to visit her bedside, which seems the appropriate way to say it / because it does feel like his wife’s on the verge / of some small death at least, and they should pay / their respects before anything else might happen, another loss / still a fair possibility this early.
The boy darts ahead / down the bowed hallway, fast enough he disappears / for a moment if the man doesn’t keep up. Eager, yes, but also / too unsure of the room, the boy stops to ask, Where’s Mom? / The man points to the correct door, has the boy open it / so he might be the first face she sees, / he the reminder of what can result from dogged resolve / and a mess of pharmaceuticals.
The room is dark, save the glow / of the IV pump’s monitor and the crack of sun / stealing in where window jamb meets shade’s edge. / This doesn’t bother the boy. He only sees her / struggle out from her fetal position, her sheets, her every / blue thought. He only hears her say, There he is.
Michael Levan has work in recent or forthcoming issues of Iron Horse Literary Review, Hobart, Hunger Mountain, Indiana Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Radar Poetry, Mid-American Review, and American Literary Review. He is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Saint Francis and writes reviews for American Microreviews and Interviews. He lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with his wife, Molly, and children, Atticus and Dahlia.