Irene called early the morning of Tim’s 50th birthday, a frantic note in her voice.
“Judy, I don’t know what to do. Tim’s back in the hospital, and we’re supposed to fly out of here this afternoon for Disneyland, for his birthday. I’m ready to cancel the trip, but he says no, we have to go without him.”
She paused to take a breath. “How can we go without him?” Another breath. “We can’t go without him. We wanted to do this for the kids, have a fun time together as a family, with their Dad. He was doing so well…I really should stay…”
“Why is he in the hospital?” I said.
Her voice rose another notch. “I’m not sure, the doctor isn’t sure, wants to observe him for a couple of days…he was doing so well, but now…he can’t keep anything down…it either goes right through or he throws it up…something going on in his stomach.”
“Go, Irene, take the kids, you all need a break. If Tim said to go, then go. That’s what he wants. He wants you all to have a good time, even if he can’t go with you.”
“But he’s in the hospital,” Irene said. Her voice rose to a wail. “On his birth-day. I can’t just leave him…I really should stay.”
“No, Irene, you should go, it’s what Tim wants.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. It’s what will be best for all of you. The kids need it, you need it,” I said. “Jack and I will go over and celebrate his birthday with him. We’ll take him a cake or something. And presents.”
“He won’t be able to eat cake.”
“Okay, I’ll take something easy to digest, pudding or something, with a candle in it.”
Irene gave up and gave in.
“The kids would be so disappointed. They’re only seven and 12, they don’t really understand sometimes why our lives have changed so much. They were really looking forward to this.” She breathed into the phone. “I guess…I guess we’ll just have to go. We have the tickets.”
“Go,” I said. “Let the kids have some fun.”
“You’ll be there?”
“We’ll be there. Me, and Jack.”
I would always be there. I knew it, and she knew it. And Tim knew it.
“Travis Timothy Shultz, please,” I said to the woman at the Information Desk, gray-haired older woman wearing a false-teeth smile and a Volunteer badge, Janice. I didn’t know what name he might have used to check in.
Janice typed the name into her computer, consulted the screen, turned back to me.
“He’s in Pediatrics,” she said. “Room 22B.” She pointed. “Down that corridor, turn right at the sign.”
Jack spoke up. “That can’t be right,” he said. “He’s an adult, not a child.”
Janice smiled. “I know,” she said. “But we’re short on beds right now, and the only bed they had for him was in Peds. He’s not the only one.”
Tim looked as thoroughly miserable as I’d ever seen him, pale with his dark hair plastered in limp strands on his head, wearing a blue hospital gown with teddy bears on it. He was cranked up in a bed too small for him, his feet against the footboard. An IV was connected to the Hickman port in his chest. Yellow and blue wallpaper ducks danced around the top of the sky blue walls. The second bed in the room was a bright yellow crib—thank God, empty. At least he had a private room. A mobile of Disney characters dangled over the crib.
Tim glared at Jack. “Don’t even think about saying it.”
He turned his fierceness on me. “You either.”
“Geez, Tim, you don’t have to tell me,” I said. “I can see this isn’t funny. At all.” I forgave him for turning on me, as sick as he looked in his teddy bear nightgown. He had earned a little crabbiness.
In fact, the room was situation was beyond bleak, made even bleaker by the silly Disney characters. My heart hurt, and my throat. My eyes were dry and scratchy from blinking back tears. Besides looking sick and depleted, Tim was limp, dejected. He had given up.
Jack went around to the side of the bed and sat on the edge of the mattress. “What’s going on, buddy?”
Tim pushed away the bed tray with its hand of solitaire.
“Looks like the finger in the dike didn’t hold.” He looked down and rubbed the empty place where his finger had been. “Musta used the wrong finger,” he said, and tried for a smile, which didn’t quite make it.
Jack looked at me, puzzled.
“It’s a long story,” I said.”Something he said when Dr. Chapman suggested going to Bethesda, like a last-chance treatment.” I lifted the paper grocery bag onto the bed.
“We brought you some birthday pudding and some birthday presents.” I took out three ramekins of chocolate pudding, stuck a birthday candle in one, and got out some matches.
Tim turned away, his face drawn and gray. “Can’t eat it.”
“Okay, then, just make a wish and blow out the candle,” I said. I lit the candle and shook out the match.
“Happy birthday,” I said. “I was going to sing, but I don’t think you’re in the mood. Neither am I.”
Tim’s dark eyebrows pushed together. “Should I make a wish?”
“I wish for this to be over.” He blew out the candle and pushed the ramekin away.
“Wish for what to be over?” I said.
Jack gave me a “don’t go there” look, which I ignored. “Your birthday?”
Tim stared out the window. “All of it. The finger in the dike. The hospital. The ER. MRI’s, PET scans, brain scans, bone scans, surgeries, diarrhea, constipation, leg braces, throwing up, pain, chemo, radiation. Meds.”
He turned back to us. “Sorry,” he said. “I appreciate that you came. Wish I could be better company, but I just can’t.”
I tried to process what I had just heard. Was he ready to die? Had he given up hope? Was this visit the last one? Not that I could blame him for a moment. Who would want to live if all of that was what defined his life?
I looked around at the room. He was a grown man in an infantile gown, an infantile too-small bed, with infantile cartoon characters dancing around. Somehow through all the indignities that he’d been put through, he had always kept his dignity. Not this time. Whatever had kept him erect and sassy, it had all drained away.
What kind of God?…some sense of humor, God, I said. The Disney stuff is a little over the top, don’t You think? But I didn’t say it out loud.
I got plastic spoons out of the bag and handed one to Jack. He shook his head. He didn’t really like pudding himself, even chocolate. Now that I thought about it, I wasn’t in the mood for pudding, either. I put the ramekins back in the bag and took out two packages wrapped in birthday paper and a card.
“Sorry about the wrapping paper,” I said. “I didn’t know you were in the Peds ward.” The paper was bright green, with yellow ducks. University of Oregon colors, supposed to cheer him up.
Tim reached for the packages and picked the ribbons apart, tore the paper. A sketch book and a set of charcoals and colored pencils. He let them drop on his lap and laid back against the bed.
“Drawing stuff, huh.”
It was so hard not to cry. Or shriek. Or throw myself on him, weeping.
Jack opened the box of square charcoal sticks. He gestured at the graceful tree just outside the window. “Maybe you could sketch the tree. You used to be pretty good at drawing.”
“Yeah.” Tim was listless, distracted. He gazed out at the tree, but didn’t move to pick up the charcoal or the drawing pad.
“Yeah. Used to be.”
Jack and I exchanged desperate looks. Neither of us knew what to say, what to do.
Tim picked up the card. He didn’t open it, just dropped it on his lap on top of the box of charcoal sticks.
“Irene called,” Tim said. “From the airport. I guess they made the plane.”
We were all silent. The mobile, Mickey and Minnie and Donald and Goofy, circled each other, a faint tune tinkled. The moment stretched endlessly. Jack turned away and gazed out the window at the tree. I rubbed Tim’s feet through the covers.
“Do any of your friends know you’re here?” I said. “They’d probably like to come and see you, especially since it’s your birthday.”
“No, they don’t know. I made Irene promise.” He turned his head on the pillow to look over at the crib, the circling Disney toys. “Can you just guess what Gary and Dave would have to say about this?”
“Yeah, Tim,” Jack said. “But even inappropriate humor might cheer you up some.”
Tim shook his head. “No. It wouldn’t.”
He pushed the nurse’s call button. In minutes, a plump young woman wearing a Winnie the Pooh smock came into the room. Her voice was way too perky. She stepped on a yellow plastic ducky, and it quacked. Nobody smiled. She picked it up and tossed it in the crib.
“Whatcha need, Tim?”
“More pain meds,” he said. “And maybe something for sleep.”
She checked her watch. “I’ll bring the pain meds, it’s been three hours. But it’s the middle of the afternoon. How about we save the sleep meds for tonight? The morphine will probably make you sleepy anyway right now.”
His listless voice. “Whatever.” She left the room.
I scooped up the playing cards and neatened them up, then shuffled them. “Want to play Hearts?”
“Do you want us to leave?” I said. I couldn’t read what he needed. His aura was dark and weak. He wasn’t making eye contact. He wasn’t initiating any kind of interaction. He was depressed. Probably very depressed. I didn’t blame him. But I’d never seen him give up hope before. It sounded now like he had.
“Suit yourself. I’m okay, I just want to sleep.”
“When does the doctor come in?”
“Probably in the morning.”
“Okay with you if I come back then?”
His aura brightened up just a little.
“Okay with me.”
Winnie the Pooh came back with a syringe and injected something into the Hickman.
“That should act pretty fast.” She moved the card and the drawing materials to the bed table, and pushed the button to let the top of the bed down flat. “Call me if you need anything else.”
She pulled his blankets up and smoothed them over his chest, raised the bed rails, positioned the call button close to his hand. “Are you warm enough?”
“Yeah,” Tim said. “Think I’ll take a nap now.”
Winnie the Pooh glanced at me and Jack.
“We’re leaving,” Jack said. “So he can sleep.”
Tim lifted a hand in a wave. “Thanks. Thanks for the effort.”
Jack squeezed Tim’s thigh. I took his face in both hands and gave him six head kisses, then four more, remembering how he had loved head kisses as a child. He closed his eyes. I felt lost. Leaving the Disney room I reached for Jack’s hand the way I always did, and ended up clinging to his arm.
It was a long, silent walk to the car, on the far end of the parking lot. Jack put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me so close I had to walk funny.