Like Laura, the unicorn couldn't fly. Broken and lifeless, it is shards of delicate glass.
|A branch from a dogwood tree relentlessly attacks a window outside the Medical ICU at Grady Memorial Hospital. Atlanta, in the late 1980's, a city that General Sherman burned then become a rising Phoenix, seems to be at war with dramatic thunder and close lightening strikes.
Angela Collins, R.N. opens the waiting room door. Angela is Laura's favorite nurse, thanks to quick wit, skills and empathy.
She looks at me now, warm brown eyes surrounded by wrinkles, as her sweet smile betrays no secrets.
"You can go in, Candy. I just gave her a booster of Morphine".
In the glass enclosed cubicle cluttered with high tech machinery, my best friend, Laura, looks like a child lost in white sheets. Between the machines and tubes, I have to navigate carefully to approach her. Eyelids flutter as she reaches out a painfully thin arm so we touch. I have gloves on, hating the loss of feeling skin on skin. Unfortunately, her skin is so bruised from needle sticks. I follow protocol shown on the wall's chart. Beside the gloves, a paper gown and mask are required protection. At home I never bother but the units are different. There is flesh eating bacteria, like MRSA, which doesn't always respond to an antibiotic, that makes its home right here in the hospital. Patients like Laura, who have compromised immune systems, are perfect victims for nasty monsters you can't see with the naked eye.
Laura looks gray with a dusky blue tinge around her mouth. Her skin is pulled tightly over fragile bones. She has a Kaposi's Sarcoma ( a skin cancer) that looks like a butterfly over her cheek. Only Laura could get something deadly that looks like a spring time tatoo. We laughed over the irony of it. She even wrote a poem about it.
A place for a gentle kiss,
purple for courage, red for love.
Wings to fly and send
a prayer above.
Laura always wants to look gorgeous. She handles changes of her body with a combination of courage and fury. More than one mirror has been broken in our apartment. I just stand back, then clean up.
She screams, "I look like a fu*king survivor of Dachua!"
This disease is terrifying; a Halloween without candy and very scary real zombies. I want to run and hide, ashamed of myself for such thoughts.
Now she loves to time travel to the past. She smiles like a child, craving a treat.
"Tell me about the fun we used to have."
Talking causes a violent spasm of coughing. I notice clotted blood in the tissue I throw away.
I indulge her with a trip back in time. "Johnny's Hideaway? You wore a short black leather skirt and low-cut white silk blouse... first time you met Vick?"
“He walked up to me, I swear.... time stopped, it was a Brontes' love story.”
Even now, as frail as she is, the vixen look returns.
I laugh, "Dude that was lust, sexual healing, some Marvin Gaye... not meeting your soul mate".
“No matter, man. We looked into each other's eyes. He opened his arms, I walked in “.
I could still see them, their bodies moved as one on the dance floor. I still remember the song that was so popular, "Lady in Red". Their body moves reminded me of warm honey sliding down the side of a jar. It was breathtaking to watch. How Laura loved teasing men.
It was a special art and she was a master, like a Japanese Geisha. Watching Laura in action was like an experienced fisherman reel in a prize catch.
Vick was a dockworker, ten years younger, built like a finely tuned machine. They had a short hot romance that never was serious but a lot of fun. Laura should have been a lot more careful. She played with fire by not using protection and it flamed fast, furious, and finally, fatal.
Players like Vick were the reason I was losing my best friend to AIDS (acquired Immune deficiency syndrome). It had taken about six months before she went to her gynecologist with a strange combination of complaints. The KS lesion was the 1st thing he picked up on. We had all been reading about HIV and thought it was a gay disease, mostly in California, New York and Florida along the Miami Beach area.
Laura closed her eyes, a mischievous smile tugged at her lips. When she opened them, tears glistened, making them a smoky shade of brown.
"I looked so foxy that night."
"Yes, you did, honey."
We are old friends without secrets, a friendship hard to find.
Another spasm of coughing hit, this time, more clotted blood. "Pneumocystis pneumonia, the people's choice, right?" tears fill her eyes.
I kiss her moist forehead, "I'm going to let you get some sleep now."
She looks vulnerable and scared,"Don't go too far, okay?" I nod.
God, I need a cigarette. I had quit a year ago. It is funny how the human mind works. Laura's lungs failing, I am craving a cigarette.
I look around the waiting room outside the ICU. The walls are institutional gray, the color of a corpse. There is one dirty window with a plant on life support. The furniture is green vinyl with cigarette burns, a coffee table littered with a variety of used Styrofoam coffee cups. I straighten magazines and throw out litter. It is impossible to sit still, I struggle with taking deep breaths to calm down.
It is two thirty in the morning. I need a shower but hate to go home to an empty apartment.
It has been a long year with Laura's latest illness. I have lived it all with her. We traveled, from oncologist to various specialists, trying experimental treatments and medications with horrible side effects. Days of tears, fears, and unbearable physical pain. Then the bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and maintaining three different tubes. They were for meds, direct stomach feedings and a bladder catheter. Each new symptom meant something bad. There was seldom good news.
Once in a while, we would go for a ride in the car, and pretend we were off on a great vacation. A trip to a beauty salon, where a gentle hairstylist would do a fast makeup and hair change to boost morale. I would watch my girl shine for awhile. Of course, it was exhausting but worth it.
Now we are nearing the end of the road. Selfishly, I want to curl up somewhere and forget this whole mess. I want to take a vacation, nothing to do with illness, just me and an awesome beach. Throw in a condo with maid service, a wet bar, and hot tub.
Laura has family. Her son, Greg, is thirty. He physically lives just two hours away but is in total denial of her approaching death. I called Greg two days ago, said the end was near. He said he couldn't deal with it. I hung up on him. The phone was now silent. It didn't matter. Laura and I have been each other's family for the last ten years.
Down in the bowels of the parking garage, I get in my red Mustang GT. I push a disc into the CD player and Springsteen's "Born to Run" blasts forth. It is a drug rush for me.
The pure ecstasy of freedom from adult responsibility is so sweet. I'm running as fast as I can. Somewhere life is easy and nothing is ugly. For the next twenty minutes I disappear into fantasy land. My car knows it's way home.
I open the door to our apartment. It's so empty without Laura. She is the one that lights fragrant candles, simmers pot-potpourri, cross-stitches, cooks and keeps house. She brings laughter into my life. How will I manage without her? I allow myself a cascade of selfish tears.
I run a bubble bath, light a mango melon candle, and sink down into warm water. I shut my eyes and feel the weariness drain away.
Suddenly, there is a loud ringing noise. The water is ice cold. I must have fallen asleep. Damn, I should have taken a shower. I pull my robe on.
I hear Angela's soft voice as my heart quivers.
"Candy, I'm sorry but Laura has taken a turn for the worse. Dr. Cochran wants to put her on a ventilator."
I am furious!
"Her living will is on the chart. She doesn't want a vent!! Tell her I'm coming. We'll make sure it goes her way, okay?"
"He's opening an intubation tray at this moment. Honey, she is struggling.... this will make her more comfortable. It's not going to change anything now. I'll tell her you're on your way. Drive carefully."
I slam the phone down.
I am so angry! As I pull on my jeans, I accidently knock over a few of Laura's precious glass figurines.
Her favorite golden horned unicorn shatters.
How did I do that? Now it can't fly.
Laura can't fly! She needs to fly.
Too little sleep. Too much happening. Slow down!
I must take her unicorn; she might want it. I gather the pieces, put them in Laura's red scarf and slip it in my purse.
I burst through the staff doors into the ICU. "Where is he? Where is the Cockroach?" I shout.
Dr. Cochran stops right in front of me. Both of my hands are fists. One stupid remark and that man will have a black eye.
"Calm down now, Laura tolerated the procedure just fine. There's nothing to be upset about."
Now she is hooked up to a machine to breath for her. I am devastated. Laura and I had talked about this, how it would get harder for her to breathe at the end. Between narcotic pain medication, supplemental oxygen, and relaxation techniques: she could stay fairly alert, be able to talk and die her way.
"What happens now? Will she get better?" I ask him this impossible question. I am being sarcastic and cruel. Let him answer it.
He actually looks empathetic. "I am so sorry, I just want her to be comfortable".
Of course, she was on drugs now to keep her from fighting the machine. Now she won't be able to talk and I don't know if she will hear me.
I had to let go, it was done.
Laura sleeps peacefully; looking like a child having pleasant dreams. As her brain and heart activity slow down, we finally all agree to take the machines away. Angela offers to stay in the room after she removes the endotracheal tube. Laura coughs instinctively, Angela suctions her, and cleans her all up. With her own nightgown on, hair combed and she appears to be at peace. Some IV morphine and her respirations become slower and slower.
I quote Gibran's The Prophet:
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountaintop, then you shall begin to climb.
And then the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you surely dance.
Her gentle presence lingers in the air even after her last breath. I believe she found joy and love on her magnificent glass unicorn. She is strong and beautiful again; dancing and traveling to delightful places. Imagine feeling at home in magical castles where only angels, fairies and princesses on unicorns can go.
By Kathie Stehr