It’s harder at night. Harder to hold back the pain, harder to distract myself. It’s harder to sleep, too, what with the hourly bedchecks in the ICU. The other patients groan and shift around, the monitors beep, the nurses try not to disturb you but you can hear them anyway, even in those creepy-quiet nurse shoes. You can’t get comfortable in these hospital beds, with the hard mattress and too-squashy pillow. I defy anyone to feel completely comfortable with an IV in their arm and an oxygen cannula up their nose.
At night, it’s also harder to ignore the little girls.
I’ve been in this hospital, shifting to increasingly higher levels of care, for nearly three weeks now. I know full well it may be my time. I’ve lived a full life and most of my friends and family are gone. But I wonder why the girls are here. They sleep at the foot of my bed, perfect twins, and they have golden hair and white dresses. They remind me a little of the “Tea Party Friends” I had when I was five. Sometimes I can see through them, sometimes they look as solid as my daughter did when she was born. I couldn’t believe how real she was, how pink, how living. It was hard to believe she came out of my body and there she was, a whole new person, mewling on my breast as she learned how to breathe. That little beautiful thing grew up and is sixty years old now, thinking about her own retirement, and probably crying over how she’ll miss me.
My nose itches, it chafes where the cannula is, and I can’t quite muster up the strength to scratch it.
The girls seem like they are always sleeping, but they are harder to see in the daytime. At night, they have weight and I can almost feel them breathe. They curl around my legs on occasion, as if I’m a body pillow. Sometimes they comfort me and sometimes I’m terrified, and I don’t know why that is.
They aren’t the only odd things I’ve seen in this hospital. I’ve seen the shadows come for other patients who have died. My last roommate gasped her last breaths, whimpering and pleading for the Dark Man to leave her alone. I never saw a solid soul, but I couldn’t ignore the creeping blackness that came under the door.
I don’t want to die like that, though I know my end is coming. I want my father to take me. He’s been gone thirty years now. He lived a full life, just as I have, but I still miss his strong arms around me. I miss that sawdust, oil and leather smell that told me everything would be all right. Even now, old as I am, I remember how happy he was when I first learned how to ride a bike, then how he kissed my scraped knees when I fell for the first time. I want to see him again, want him to be the one waiting for me in the Light.
I shift in my bed, trying to take the pressure off a wrinkle under me. That damnable wrinkle. The aides do a good job making my bed, but it’s hard to get rid of the wrinkles. Were I still young, it would be nothing to just rise up, flick the wrinkle out, then lie down again. But I can’t even do that. I have to wait till the next bed check. Funny how the littlest things take on such great importance.
The girls are stil there. Of course they are. I think of them as “my” girls now. My thoughts are long in these dark hours of the night. Are they remnants of something that was here before – a paved over orphanage, a children’s hospital, a graveyard, or the last twitches of a mind too tired to stay in reality all the time? I’ve tried to speak to them but they’ve never said a word.
I hear footsteps coming. It’s Nurse Becky. She’s moving quickly but carefully, trying not to wake me. I stir a little, shift in bed. I call out to her, meaning to shout, but my voice is too weak now to manage more than a whisper.
She doesn’t hear me at first.
She turns, comes to my bedside. Her hand is cool and gentle on my shoulder.
“What is it, Martha?”
“There’s a wrinkle under me. Could you please straighten it out?”
She turns her ear to hear me better. I try to speak more loudly but the fluid in my lungs seems to rise, it chokes me, and I cough. Becky shifts her hand to my forehead, checking temperature then smoothing my hair. Her smile is gentle and sad. I want to ask her about my girls and don’t.
“I can hear you now. I’ll fix it. ”
The steady beep of the heart monitor tells me I am still alive. It’s bliss to have a smooth sheet under my back.
Three more days have passed and I’m starting to feel better. My lungs don’t hurt as much and my aches seem far away. Maybe I’m on the mend. I’ve seen my daughter today, she showed me pictures of a kitten she just got. It’s a cute little thing, a calico, with a pretty black patch over one eye and a bright orange and black tail. She’ll make a good companion for my daughter.
It’s night again and this time I’m actually tired enough to sleep. I lie back and the mattress feels soft and downy. I notice something else.
One blonde haired girl has finally woken up. She’s looking at me with this strangely serious, adult look on her face. Her little coral pink lips move and I hear a faint voice.
“Sister, are you ready to go home?”
Sister? What are they talking about? I do want to go home though. I want to go home more than I can believe. I want to walk among my apple trees and see the little fountain I built once again. I want to sit on the back porch with a good book and a glass of lemonade. I want to feel the sun on my skin and not the cold lighting of this house of death.
Her sister is awake now, looking at me with blue eyes full of merriment. “It’s time. It’s time! Come on, Sister, we can be together once again.”
I get up out of bed and one of the little girls takes my hand. The other jumps off the bed and takes my other hand. They are so full of life. I shuffle into my silly little hospital slippers and walk out of the ICU.
Nurse Becky is walking down the hallway and I smile, call out to her. “Hey Beck, I feel much better now!”
She stops dead in her tracks, drops the tray she’s carrying. She’s white as a ghost and she’s trembling with fright. Very distantly, I hear the tone of a heart monitor that has lost its signal.
Then I remember – my mother once told me about a sad event that had happened before I was born. She’d lost two twin girls a year before she had me. When I came along, she almost died, and so she never tried again. But I had two invisible friends when I was little that I always used to play with.
Now they are here to take me home.