The Case of the Girl with the Broken-Glass Heart
Mercy General Hospital
Seattle, Washington, USA
14th October 2014
Air shouldn’t sound different depending on who’s taking it deep into their lungs. Just a bunch of oxygen molecules spinning through the ether, bumping into each other every day or a pair of nitrogen atoms every other; maybe on some special occasion, a trace noble gas. The rest of the world whirls and spins and in those quieter moments, just turns for a spell but air is just that. Just is.
Shouldn’t sound different depending on who, or what. But it does.
The ventilator takes another long, stuttering breath on her behalf and pauses at the apex. Like some newborn that abruptly stops and holds it just long enough to make your head whip towards the baby monitor and jerk up from the mattress, it waits until I look over and then finally exhales with a rattle of its stretched plastic diaphragm. The stink of metal, antiseptics and rubber blow out from the rear baffle and swirl the other smells all around the cramped room. Things that really stink, and something that I know can’t really get by on a smell, but lights up the brain all the same.
The science behind the machine that labours on behalf of the birdcage-like chest of my wife is simple enough. It does the same job her lungs are too atrophied, pulped and swollen to do and yet in their rush to make it work as well as its biological facsimile could, or should, the boffins that put this ventilator together didn’t pay so much attention to what it sounds like as it worked.
Here was something that perfectly replicated the most essential and natural thing for anything that lived – to breathe – and made it sound as unnatural as (in)humanly possible. Long days spent listening had given me plenty of opportunity to think on what was missing. At first I’d settled on feeling, coming to think that maybe it was the fact the machine didn’t ever change its cyclical draw. Real people pant when they’re angry or upset, or their breath slips away to something gentle and soft when they let their eyes roll closed and forget about that whirling world they’re struggling to keep steady footing on. This thing never gets excited, or worried. Or anxious. Or relaxed. It just keeps going.
But that wasn’t it. Turns out, after those long days became long weeks by her bedside, I’d only been half right. It wasn’t feeling the ventilator couldn’t give me over and above what it was giving Annabelle – it was one in particular.
It didn’t replicate the feeling of fighting for your life.
The ventilator didn’t gasp. It didn’t gurgle or cough or hack or wheeze or gag. It didn’t stop doing its job and leave you wide-eyed and scarlet-red flushed, flailing and lashing in autonomic desperation. That was it. This thing underplayed the agony and the deterioration that made it needed in the first place.
It takes another plastic breath on her behalf and breathes out its own chemical excess. This machine doesn’t care about what led to what was left of the woman in the bed needing a proxy. Her whole struggle was marginalized and ignored in favour of just doing the job it was designed so incompletely to do.
The bitter chuckle rolls out from between my dry lips before I can stop it. Struggle? Sounds like some Made-for-TV metaphor for what’s really going on here.
Her long, drawn-out death.
Thoughts of TV and the silver screen quickly kill my chuckle, in much less time than what I’m being made to watch play out will. The ease at which my mind conjures up these brutal comparisons doesn’t jar my sensibilities in the same way each ventilated rasp needles at my patience.
TV and Film have painted a lot of inaccuracies in their long course of distorting the truth pursuing a good story, or at least one you’ll either pay to watch or sit through the adverts between. Most egregious of which is their home-brewed idea of what was going to happen in the bed next to me.
Folk with terminal illness don’t become oracles in their last few weeks. No veil of peace descends over their worldy concerns, rendering their counsel sage and all things to all people. Like some key making a cosmic lock open with a god-given, angel-heralded click and suddenly the meaning of life is something they can just reach in, pull out and understand. That golden plate or whatever that magic box contains doesn’t explain their place in all of it, doesn’t hold some rationale for why they’ve got to shuffle off the mortal coil a few thousand turns of this rock early.
Their last few weeks are filled with all the same kind of fear, uncertainty and confusion that makes each and every one of us hollow. Only difference is they’re out of time to try to figure it all out – and that just makes the whole sorry thing that much more fearful, uncertain and confusing.
Forget about weeks too. The Doctors are almost always wrong. They stick to conservative estimates, that way you can only ever be grateful for more time, not angry there was less … But the fact is life wants to live, and give it a slither of an opportunity to last one more day with the full array of wonder of medical science, and you better believe it will. Forget weeks; they last for months. Longer sometimes.
And every day that lasts one more than expected makes them wish it hadn’t. Depends on what put them there, but in the end it doesn’t matter. It eats them from the inside-out or makes them too weak to take a single breath. Both, if your luck is flat-out like their limp palms, turned up towards the fluorescent lamps in false ceiling spaces above.
Annabelle’s heart swelled up to the size of some under-inflated basketball; straining at her ribs as it struggled to beat in one cohesive thump until eventually, it could hardly manage that. Drugs that made her bleed from her eyes, implanted electrodes that turned her whole chest angry and blotched – all to convince the thing to struggle on while her lungs dried out and gave up their work to the incessant click-gasp of the ventilator still wheezing away in the background.
They don’t just sit in their beds, waiting to die either. Mind withers along with the body and before you know it, you’re watching your wife ask who you are, or talking about careers they’ve never had or friends they’ve never known. Sometimes she used to just try to get up, even when they intubated her and when that wasn’t enough, strapped her down with black cuffs shackled to the stainless-steel sidings of the gurney. She still tried.
They don’t tell you to get ready for the sight and sound of your terminally ill significant other telling you she wishes you’d just fuck off. Or worse.
Don’t tell you to prepare for for the way it makes you feel to hear them beg for you to reach over and squeeze that tube shut tight until they stop flailing. Until the electronic wail and warble of alarming machines cuts out at the same time their breathing does.
But then, they don’t tell you anything.
So I just wait, listening to the staccato gasp of the ventilator as it breathes for her.
Wait for her body – wait for her – to give up and the truth that makes me sick to my stomach, worse than any amount of lukewarm vending machine-finest instant coffee can manage, is that I wish she would. Put us both out of this miserable half-existence. The worst thing isn’t watching her die …
… It’s wishing she would.