Tidal Volume

       The man in the bed, the bloated body that used to be your husband, is now a whale, barely alive beneath the roping IV lines, the heart monitor wire, the catheter tubing, the hook of the ventilator. His skin is tight and shiny, and you wonder if every part of him is swollen. If you were to lift his gown, you would see the small holes in his side through which doctors fished out what was left of his appendix one week ago. Even then, he was dying, the bacteria and infection already swimming through his bloodstream. But you did not know this.

       Here it rains. The drops sound like fingers drumming against the glass of the window. Somewhere there must be sun. There must be white, puffy clouds in the shapes of cats and lazy rabbits, clouds that stay where they belong. Somewhere there must be a place with a clear separation between land and sky, where the clouds do not hug the ground, where the world is not water.

       All night you bob in the turquoise recliner and watch the shadows of the ICU nurses float along the walls. The ventilator pumps oxygen in a loud whisper, in and out, in and out like a steady tide. You swirl and spin on the edge of sleep. Water is beginning to puddle around his arms and ears.

       The doctor arrives at 9:00 a.m. She is doing the breaststroke. “He could be here a day, a month, a year. He is not supposed to be here at all,” she says, almost shouting over the constant rush of water. The doctor tells you this: he is drowning in his own juices. His lungs are soaked sponges. Although his beard still grows, thick dark whiskers that push against the tape holding the ventilator in place, septic shock has shut down his organs. The brown coral of his brain is sedated.

       Outside, on the north wing of the hospital, patients and their families sit on the roof and cling to the tall oak trees lining the ambulance entrance. All of you lift your hands toward what is left of sky and pray for less rain, less mud and water. All of you can only wait.

       Time passes strangely underwater. It trickles and blurs. It expands, like the way your breasts and feet always looked enormous when viewed through the water’s lens of the swimming pool down the street. Sound also carries quickly. The room is alive with constant beeping. You mark the time with these machines. His ventilator is difficult to see through the rising flood. Nurses must wear scuba gear to record his respiratory rate, the flow, the tidal volume. Around him everything is floating, but he only moves in the regular waves on computer screens. The EEG. The EKG. He is all rhythm, crests and troughs.

       You mark time with puzzles. You worked the jigsaw in the waiting room three times before the cardboard got too soggy and the photograph collapsed. It was a picture of a lake, impossibly blue and still. There were no ripples. It was not like real water at all. Now you have turned to damp crosswords that float up from the gift store on the third floor. Sea—a three-letter word for sky. Fish—a four-letter word for love. Water—a five-letter word for grief.

       One morning, his urine bag is a jellyfish, his kidneys pumping out the excess fluid, he is slowly beginning to recede. A whole school of doctors and specialists come to visit. The nephrologist trawls the hallways. The internist and neurologist arrive together in a kayak.

       “There is good news this morning, and there is bad,” they say. Recovery will be long, and there is no guarantee that in the end any part of him will be salvageable. His lungs are still soaking. His brain may never dry and catch fire.

       You must go home, get about your life,” says the lanky cardiologist. His swim trunks are beginning to slip down his thin behind. Your own underwear is pasted uncomfortably to your thighs. When you close your eyes you sink and then, somehow, slowly resurface. Your vision is blurred.

       At home, your husband’s face floats down from picture frames now wedged on top of the kitchen cabinets. In the bedroom, his shoes are brown fish. A sofa cushion drifts by, and you drag your heavy body into it and drop into a deep sleep in which you dream of this:

       You and the cardiologist stand next to a pond. There is sky. The smooth, brown water stays within its firm banks. The doctor slowly impales a wriggling worm on a hook. The fat shadows of fish wait beneath the surface: spotted ones, striped ones, slow-moving suckers, and fast silver flashes. You fling your line to heaven where it twists and whips and slices the sky like a prayer. Already you are picturing your hook in the mouth of a plump, whiskered catfish. Already you are deciding whether to keep him or to let him go.

Carla Kirchner

Carla Kirchner is a poet, a fiction writer, and an English professor at Southwest Baptist University, a private, liberal-arts college in southern Missouri. She is currently working on both a collection of Civil War fairy tales and a series of poems about her grandmother’s Kentucky girlhood.