by Peter J. Stevens

Bill folded his fourth magazine and tossed it on the coffee table that was cluttered with a sundry of old magazines. He had been sitting for five hours waiting for word that the three-hour operation had come to a successful conclusion. He mechanically reached down and picked out another one, then let it drop to the table. Frustrated, he got up and walked over to the waiting room receptionist.

"I'm stepping outside for some fresh air," he told the young woman behind the desk. She looked up at him and was about to voice her objection, but decided that it would be better to let him have his way.

Bill walked out the front door of the hospital and found his way to where there was a small crowd of people standing, each enjoying the nicotine high that a quick cigarette gives when one takes a short break from work. "Does anyone have a spare I can steal?" he asked the strangers. One young woman broke away from the conversation long enough to search through her purse and hand Bill two slender white cylinders accompanied by a book of matches. "Don't ask me to smoke them too," she said with a smile, "I've got to get back to the salt mine." With that she dropped her spent butt to the ground and stamped on it, giving it a quick twist as she started to walk off. The rest of the people grudgingly acknowledged his presence and they also extinguished their "smokes" and went back into the building.

Bill lit the first cigarette that he had had in five years. He'd always enjoyed the sensation of smoking but had allowed the warnings of the health profession to convince him to quit. He took a long drag on the cigarette and allowed the warm feeling of the nicotine flow through his body. He could feel the light-headedness that always accompanied his first couple of inhales. He knew this was not the thing to be doing but nicotine was his drug of choice whenever he found himself under stress. And with each passing minute he was feeling more and more stress.

He finished the two just as a couple of other people began to congregate next to him. He thought of trying to bum a couple more but decided that he should get back to the waiting room. If the doctors were to call, he needed to be there.

He entered the room and informed the receptionist he was back. She looked relieved that he'd returned without her having to try to find him. She typed something into the computer and then looked up at him. "The operation has concluded," she said. "It says here that the doctor needs to talk to you. You are to go to the doctor lounge on the 3rd floor."

She proceeded to give him instructions on how to find the room and with each word she became a little more upset. She had been on the job long enough to realize that this was the procedure doctors used when they needed to inform those waiting that things did not go as well as they had hoped.

Bill worked his way through the hallways and corridors of the health center. His mind was racing with all the possible thoughts of what the doctor was going to say to him. He could not allow himself to think about the possible negative outcomes, so he figured that the doctor was just going to give him the blow by blow summary of the past five and a quarter hours. After what seemed like a very long time, but too soon to be here, he realized that he was at the lounge. He stopped before the door and took a deep breath before entering. As he put his hand to the door, he decided to take another deep breath. Suddenly the door opened and a doctor in operating fatigues asked if he was Mister Darwynn. He tried to respond but was only able to nod his head in agreement.

There were two other doctors in the room. The lead surgeon suggested that he sit down and another asked him if he would like some coffee, soda or water. Bill eyed them suspiciously and grunted that water was probably the best option, at least for the moment.

"Mr. Darwynn," the first doctor began, "something unforeseen and unpredictable has happened."

Bill became numb. He was unable to lift his arm to accept the water that was brought to him, and the supporting doctor put it on the table beside where Bill sat. The doctor seemed to speak forever and Bill could hardly understand what was being said. All he could translate were sound-bytes, snapshots of action and carefully concocted phrases that seemed to infer that, although no one was at fault, and everything that could be done, was, the final outcome was not as they had planned.

Bill stared at them as if they were each speaking a foreign language. A doctor stepped before him and began rephrasing what the original doctor had said. Phrases like 'living-will" and "prime objective" were being used as if they were every day common nouns, like "over easy" and "eggs and toast." Bill shook his head in frustration and the gibberish stopped.

"Are you saying that my wife is dead?"

"No, what I am trying ... that your wife is not dead ... she is in a state .. coma ... borderline with her living will ... may live for life beyond her current room ... uncomfortable ... suffer continuously from pain ... she does not fall clearly into the orders of her written instructions ... although she is well within the spirit of her wishes..."

He was about to continue when Bill interrupted, "So, what exactly is this conference for? Are you telling me the state of affairs or is there something that you need from me or what?'

"You ... nearest relative ... better than anyone ... know and understand her thoughts! We need from ... direction she would want us to proceed ... able to interpret her written instructions either way ... that is ... extending her life or terminating it!"

With this said the doctors were more satisfied with the discussion but much more uneasy with the meeting. "We need ... make the decision ... she would make about her life ... for herself ... unable to ... for herself!."

Bill could only stare at them. He was aware at the years of training and practice each had achieved. He was also aware of how inadequate they were in conveying difficult information to someone else and then asking for that person's help. But he did not care about their problems. He was suddenly demanded to make a life and death decision which he was totally unprepared to make.

After a few minutes in which they all stood motionless, the surgeon broke the silence. "We need a decision but we don't need it this moment. Sit down, have some more water and take your time. We'll come back in about an hour. But we will need to know what direction to go." The doctors gingerly retreated and left Bill, confused and alone, in the room.

The seconds seemed as minutes and the minutes passed as if they were hours. The rhyme of a song eventually came to mind. "Does anyone know/where the love of God goes/when the minutes turn into hours?" With that thought he snapped out of the daze. He looked around the room and located the telephone. He called information and asked for his church's telephone number. After a moment a voice came on the line and Bill asked for Father O'Brian. There was a longer pause but the Father finally came on the line.

As best he could, Bill reconstructed the conversation of the last ten minutes. Bill was aware of the tension and pressure the priest felt but rationalized that this was why God calls certain people to fill these positions. Bill heard the Father take a deep breath and then began repeating phrases like "The will of God"..."the gift of life"..."it is not for us to know"..."god works in mysterious ways"...

"Thank you Father," Bill interrupted. The voice on the other end of the phone line tried to continue but trailed off. The Father felt that he had a consistent message to convey and that quantity was more important that quality. The more he could get said the better the chance Bill would make the decision that God would approve of, a decision that Bill would be able to live with. Bill put the mouth piece on the cradle and sat back in the chair trying to relax.

The door opened and in walked a woman. She had on a white lab coat with her name embroidered on the front. Bill didn't pay attention but he did notice that instead of the name being followed by an M.D. or D.O. the initials were Ph.D. Bill moaned.

"Are you William Darwynn? May I speak with you for a moment?" She asked the second question before he could grant his no. "Tell me what your thoughts are, what you are thinking?" she inquired in a soft nurturing tone.

Bill could only stare at her. "What are you - stupid or something? All you can ask is how I feel, what I think? You should be a television journalist!"

He shouted these thoughts at her but all that came out was a bunch of mumbled consonants with no vowels. Instead of yelling at her, he spoke in a slow, controlled voice, "I'm going down to the chapel. Tell the others when they return, I can be found there."

It took him a few minutes to locate the small nondenominational chapel. Bill had to control the force in which he threw the doors open, but was able to keep them from banging against their stoppers. It was dimly lit with back-lighted stained glass windows behind a plain altar. Fresh flowers draped the entrance to the sanctuary. He took a seat in the back and was thankful that he was the only one there. His heart was pounding and he was afraid that he might find himself, before this was all over, in need of some kind of medical attention. He sat still trying to slow his breathing and heart beat. He closed his eyes and tried to just void his mind of all thoughts. His thoughts raced by so fast that they all blended together. Not only did they blend but they crowded so tightly that they could not be recognized as thoughts.

He remembered the times that he had thought about death and tried to make some sense out of it. He thought back thirty years when a high-school buddy had died during a routine operation. He thought back to when his great-grandmother died when he was about five and he had viewed her in her casket. He'd been to other wakes and viewings but had been spared by the death and grief of someone close to him. He tried to remember the last time he had actually looked the face of death in the face.

Slowly a thought came to mind. About three years ago, his fiance's cat had to be put down. She was sixteen years old and ill with cancer. Barb had had her since she was a kitten. Suzie was Barb's constant companion through job changes, unemployment, moves and boyfriends. Barb felt that as long as Suzie was still enjoying life, Barb would keep Sue alive. But the time had come when all Suzie would do was eat and cry for more food. Bill and Barb finally took her to the vet. Barb sat on a chair while Bill held Sue as the vet gave Sue the shot that released her from her turmoil. Bill was amazed at how calm Sue was during the procedure. And as the drug brought her life to an end, Sue seemed - relieved. That evening when Bill returned to his house, his cat Smokey, who visited Suzie when Bill visited Barb, was "wired". He ran around the house and hissed continually. Never before and never again had Smokey acted so strangely. And then, every once in a while, Bill would catch the movement of a shadow out of the comer of his eye. He would turn and look but there was never anything there. He laughed it off stating that Suzie was visiting.

Bill could feel his heart slowing down. He thought he felt a weight on his lap and he even imagined he felt the slight vibration caused by purring. He sat there undisturbed thinking about the good times that he and Barb had shared. He remembered the arguments they had fought. He remembered the names they called each other in the heat of battle. He remembered the names they called each other when they would make up. He remembered...

The doors opened and three M.D.s and the Ph.D. walked in and sat down flanking him. Bill did not move. They inquired if he had come to terms with the choices and which one he had chosen.

Bill knew that he had decided what he would tell them, even though he was not aware of what it was he would say. There was a pause as the four medical professionals awaited his decision. Bill stood up, looked at each of them, then announced the course of action they would take. He was as surprised as they as he listened to the words that came out of his mouth.

The Piper Cub taxied down the runway and gently lifted off terra-firma and into the chilly fall sky. The pilot was still new to flying and had accepted the passenger only because it afforded him the opportunity to get some extra hours logged, and this time someone else would pay the expenses. The plane leveled off and flew south. After fifteen minutes the plane brought the passengers to where the Atlantic Ocean beats on the Rhode Island coast.

Bill took two small Chinese jars out of a duffel bag filled with styrofoam peanuts. He opened the jars and poured the ashes in the smaller container into the larger. Then with a spoon he stirred the two sets of gray powder together. He pushed the window open and, holding tightly, held the larger of the two jars out the window, letting the rushing air passing over the open container suck the contents out of the jar and into the atmosphere. The pilot put the plane in a shallow bank allowing the plane to reverse its course.

Bill put the jars back in the duffel bag, burying them in the styrofoam. He put the bag on the floor at his feet and closed his eyes. He felt a satisfied feeling seep through his body. He wasn't sure when he became aware of the weight, but it felt as if something was on his lap. Maybe it was the gentle vibrations of purring that brought the sensation to his attention. It did not matter. He was just glad for the company and petted the space above his lap as if a large black cat was sitting there, both content with the world.

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