Letter to A Nurse
Your voice filled the cavern of my car as you said my brother’s blood pressure could not be regulated. You didn’t know that my passenger was an old friend. He needed a Covid test. You didn’t see me grip his hand or stare through the windshield to the underbelly of a bridge my brother might have scaled in spidery fashion when he was young. You didn’t know twenty-two hundred miles separated you and me. My heart flew to California sunshine from Ohio to be near him with your call.
Two months of silence from him as he journeyed from a hospital to an acute care center to another hospital to a respiratory therapy unit to finally enter your care. Anthony, your tired breath belied the struggle of yet another family member who couldn’t look into a loved one’s eyes.
In watershed tones of fear, I asked, “What’s the kindest thing to do?”
Did you dismiss the tick and exchange of the breathing machine? Could you see beyond thinned, ashen-colored hair that once was a shock of blond curls? Crystal blue eyes, were they open? You didn’t mention the cell phone and charger, nor the No.2 pencil, his only possessions there in the ICU, as your eyes surveyed his six-foot, two-inch frame.
The car filled with guilt. I squeezed my friend’s hand tighter. I wanted to squeeze my brother’s hand as tight. Your soft tones of ending his pain filled my psyche with thoughts of its okay, just let go.
I vacillated. Dismissed hope to see my brother once more. Cars sped passed my idling vehicle, people on their way somewhere else.
“Okay,” I said.
In my ear came a sluicing sound like a raging torrent snaking along a canyon wall carving a new thought. I alone must carry on our family legacy. My father gone long ago. My mother, an older brother gone too. With your help, I resolved to release him from lungs so damaged they couldn’t sustain him.
I didn’t tell you that my fully vaccinated brother called me the day he tested positive. “The worst thing,” he said. “A Thai restaurant,” he said, “No one masked.”
Thirty years of chemo for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, three eggs and a half pound of sausage every day, a team member on the space shuttle transport plane, and endless cycling the Mojave Desert in an effort to escape death; this was my brother. He did a great Donald Duck imitation, but that tube prevented him from a purse of his lips, a puff of his cheeks, and a squeeze like forcing air from a balloon to push his chiseled face to imitate a cartoon character for you.
If he could speak, he might have told you stories of his extended family. He definitely would have attempted to figure out how the two of you were related. My brother loved to trace family lines like he loved American history. He would commandeer my television on visits home, volume turned up, war battles raging, not unlike what raged within him.
Thank you for being a lifeline between him and me.
I imagined you to be a lithe figure of a man, olive skinned and beautiful behind an N95 mask, under a silver shower cap into which you tucked black shocks of shiny hair, deep pools of brown eyes behind goggles and a clear shield. You heard in my voice the familiar tragedy that plays out daily in your unit.
How many times have you extended a phone to an ear to listen to a last message? My brother’s body likely died the night before, perhaps kept alive for that moment when all of the years of our lives crashed into desperate pleas of love and last words.
Your voice returned, soft, sensitive enough not to use words such as extubate and respiratory distress, organs failing, mottled skin, the kiss of death. My friend’s fingers turned white with my grip, my belly erupted in a moan and I wanted to wail like a banshee. You reassured me that he would not suffer.
Thank you for not judging me, for not telling me how angry this virus has made you.
I let go my friend’s hand. Let the call drop. Let go the image of my brother’s once strong body now ravaged. Stunned silence overtook the car. I put the car in drive and pressed down on the gas pedal.
My friend stared into the windshield. After a moment, the black beanie on his head shook with a rattled cough from deep inside him. He nodded and with tenderness said, “What a compassionate man.”
Tina Neyer is a writer, book coach, and last surviving member of her family of origin. She writes historical fiction, creative non-fiction and has been published in magazines and online. Tina recently retired from her position as a professional tutor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. She lives and works from home in a small river town in Kentucky. Her dogs, Molly and Nutmeg, are an endless source of entertainment.