Death pays a visit to a very sick young woman - but is it her time?
"Because I could not stop for Death --
He kindly stopped for me --
The carriage held but just ourselves
-Emily Dickinson, Because I Could Not Stop For Death
A CONVERSATION WITH DEATH
“Clear!” The hum of the defibrillator escalated, and a sharp crack caused the patient’s body to jerk once. The flat green line running across the screen on the monitor beside her bed flickered for an instant, before turning into a regular series of sharp green waves. The monotonous, yet reassuring “beep” indicated that the patient had been resuscitated.
The doctor handed the paddles back to one of the nurses, and took his patient’s hand. Careful to avoid the pipes and drains in her wrist he felt for her pulse.
“Feeble, but it’s there,” he said, and glanced at the monitor while reading her pulse. “Okay, heart’s started again, blood pressure coming back to normal.” He glanced down at his patient, and lowered his voice: “Hang in there, Abby my girl. You can make it.”
He gently laid her hand on the bed, brushed her damp hair back from her forehead, and turned back to the head nurse.
“There’s nothing else we can do for her, Sister,” he said, making a note on Abby’s clipboard. “She’s really so weak now any more medication will probably kill her. Really, it’s up to her – and God - now. If she’s got the willpower, she’ll pull through. She’s proved herself to be a tough character during the last couple of weeks. One way or another, by morning she’ll have made a decision.”
The nurses moved the huge defibrillator to the wall opposite her bed, and they pulled the curtains beside Abby’s bed closed. As their footsteps faded away she slowly opened her eyes. Although the dry air burned them, she kept them open as she focused on her surroundings. The curtains were more for privacy than anything else. The fluorescent lights that lit the area below the beds made it impossible to distinguish between day and night. Beside her bed the drip stands stood guard, tireless, silent objects feeding her body through intravenous needles. Not that she needed to see them; she could feel them all, including the drains and catheters in her lower body. The drips delivered nourishment and medication to her battered and broken body. The catheters took away the toxins and poisons produced by her body. She looked at the cannula in her wrist, and carefully tried to flex her fingers. Her wrist was swollen, and she winced at the sharp pain that shot up her arm.
The green fluorescent numbers on the grey digital clock on the wall opposite her bed read 3.25 AM. At least that was a piece of scenery that changed, she thought sadly. It also told her whether it was morning or night in the ward.
“Most of my friends and family are fast asleep. In their own homes and in their own beds,” she thought watching time advance another minute. In about three hours they’ll probably be woken by their alarm clocks or their kids. Then they’ll have a bath or shower, get ready for work, get the kids ready for school, eat their breakfasts…”
Her thoughts trailed away, thinking of the things she would usually be doing in the morning. Making herself and Ian coffee and toast, getting dressed for work, feeding the dogs, loading the washing machine, locking the house - mundane, everyday tasks performed everyday by people all over the world. She smiled sadly as a tear ran down her cheek. Now she had no idea if or when she’d ever be able to get back to her daily routine. She’d been here for nearly three weeks, and what routine there was now in her life was ruled by doctors and nurses, syringes and dressings, tablets and thermometers.
At some point during the last three weeks Abby had been told of the car accident. The last thing she could remember was saying goodbye to Ian as he left for work that morning. She couldn’t remember locking the door to the house or driving out of her gate. She remembered nothing of the drive into town, of the delivery van that had run a red light and hit her car in the middle of the intersection. There was no memory of being lifted out of the car, put into an ambulance, the drive to the hospital or her arrival in the casualty department.
For three weeks Abby had been in the Intensive care Unit, her injuries so serious that she was kept sedated most of the time. She’d been spared the distressing sight of the anguished faces of Ian and the rest of her family, who were desperate for some sign that Abby was alive, and not brain damaged, paralyzed or in a coma. The painkillers meant she slipped in and out of consciousness, with little memory of her lucid moments.
At that moment a shadow moved towards the bottom of her bed, its face lowered so she could only distinguish a white coat below a head of jet black hair. The shadow appeared to be reading the clipboard containing her charts at the bottom of her bed. Her mouth was very dry, so Abby called out to him.
“Excuse me; please may I have a glass of water?”
Her voice, very weak, was a hoarse whisper. The shadow slowly raised his head to look at her, features illuminated in the overhead light. She saw dark black eyes under thick, but neat black eyebrows. His face was expressionless, the pale skin stark against jet black hair. A cold chill ran through her as her heart sank. She knew that face. She’d seen him several times since she’d been in the ward.
“It’s you,” she murmured. He put down the chart and moved to her bedside.
“Abby? You can see me?” he asked. She looked up at him, and tried to nod, but the tube in her neck protested with a sharp stab of protest. She closed her eyes at the pain, swallowed and answered: “Yes.”
His eyes remained expressionless as he carefully took her hand. A slight shock shivered up her arm at his touch, which was ice cold.
“I’ve seen you before,” she murmured. “With some of the other patients. You’re not a doctor, are you?”
He shook his head. “No, I’m not. Do you know who I am?” he asked. His voice was low and soothing, with a slight echo. Almost like there’s too much bass, thought Abby.
“I think so,” she replied. “You’re Death.”
He smiled, even white teeth shining at her in the dull glow of the monitor. Still holding her hand, he inclined his head in confirmation. The smile didn’t reach his eyes, and he stood there in silence, watching her with those unreadable black eyes.
When she was growing up Abby had often wondered what Death looked like. Books and films depicted him as a tall, fearsome creature with a skeletal face glowing from within a black shroud. He usually carried a scythe, and appeared to frequent dark places like cemeteries, tombs or vaults. His usual companions were ghosts, witches and ghouls. This man was a contradiction. He looked almost normal, apart from the pale skin and the eyes. His “shroud” was a doctor’s white coat, and the only thing he carried was a clipboard. He was also alone.
“I used to be very scared of you,” Abby told him, breaking the gaze as she closed her eyes. “You’re not at all what I expected.”
As he chuckled she quickly opened her eyes, and looked back at him in surprise. Death was laughing at her! Was that right?
“Nobody knows what to expect when they see me,” he told Abby. “There are so many preconceived notions about me I’ve lost count! People like to speculate about who I am and what I should look like. And the names! Is there anyone else with so many words to describe him?”
“Grim reaper,” replied Abby. “That’s probably the most popular name.”
Death grimaced, and Abby thought she saw a flash of dark humor in those dark eyes. “I really don’t like that name,” he said. “It’s a complete misnomer. I’m not ‘grim’ and I’m not a harvester. I’m – well, I’m Death. I believe that my name says everything there is to say about me.”
“It sure does,” agreed Abby. “So now I know what you look like.”
“I don’t always dress like this,” Death said. “It just makes it easier for the people I meet here tonight to accept me this way. You’d expect to see a doctor in a hospital, wouldn’t you? Well, this coat means I won’t frighten anyone. I usually dress to suit the occasion…” his voice trailed off.
Abby was silent for a moment, trying to clear her mind. Perhaps one of the drugs she was taking for pain was making her hallucinate. She still couldn’t believe Death was here, talking to her. She closed her eyes, and opened then again slowly. Her companion was still standing at her bedside, and he’d released her hand from that icy grip. He was now reading his clipboard. As she peered over at him, he smiled, and put the clipboard down on her side table.
“Sorry, still here,” he said. “You thought I was just an illusion, didn’t you?"
“Yes,” Abby admitted. “My whole life I’ve been scared of you. Terrified, in fact. So why am I not frightened now?”
“Now that’s how most of mankind views me, Abby,” he replied. Lifting his hands in the air he drew imaginary quotation marks, and continued ominously: “Fear of Death.” Dropping his hands, he sighed.
Abby noticed his long fingers were thin and pale, almost translucent. She imagined she could see his bones through the skin. Looking up at his face, she thought she might see the archetypical skull-like face, but there was nothing. The same pale, unblemished skin covered high cheekbones, a firm chin and a broad forehead. He opened his thin lips and a wistful tone came into his voice.
“Everybody is afraid of me, and there’s actually no reason to be. You see, my work causes so many sad, negative feelings because I am the end of life. The people who are left behind when I’ve taken away a loved one are the ones left with those sad feelings. And their feelings are what everybody knows and understands. Nobody gets to find out how those I’ve taken away feel, because they’re no longer in your world.”
Abby stared at him. She’d never thought about Death that way. Before she could answer he lifted his head suddenly, as though listening. He moved to the bottom of her bed, and apologized:
“Abby, please excuse me for a moment. I’ll be back shortly.” And he walked away from her bed.
She tried to call him back, but at that moment a nurse walked up to her bed. Seeing Abby stirring, she gently put her hand on Abby’s shoulder, as if to comfort her. Abby tried to talk to her, but no words would come out of her mouth. The nurse rubbed Abby’s shoulder very gently, and her warm hand was very soothing.
“Come on, Abby. You need to rest. Don’t try to get up – just relax, and try to get your strength back. You’re doing so well, and we’re all praying for you.” Checking the monitors, she adjusted the drip slightly, and made some notes on Abby’s chart. As she walked away, Abby wondered if the nurse would be so encouraging if she knew Death was hovering around the ward, and was waiting for Abby.
At that moment she heard one of the short electronic beeps monitoring one of the other patients begin to beat faster. She heard the sound of the nursing staff’s sneakers brisk on the floor as they rushed over to the afflicted patient. The beeps increased, and two of the nurses began pushing the defibrillator away from Abby’s bed. Death returned as they moved out of Abby’s sight. He looked over at the machine.
“Effective, but quite brutal,” he observed. “Do you know that people often suffer broken ribs after that machine’s been used?”
“No,” Abby carefully shook her head. He walked back to her bedside.
“Can’t stay long, Abby. Time’s nearly up, and I’ve got another appointment here,” he told her. She didn’t want to think about the next, very obvious question so she forced herself to ask something else. Anything to delay the inevitable, she thought.
“I guess you come here often, because lots of people die in this ward. That’s why I’ve seen you here before.”
“Yes, but I’m everywhere really,” Death told her. “People say you never know when Death is going to strike – well, think about it. It’s true. Airplane crashes, heart attacks, fires, murders are just some of the reasons for my existence. And while it’s true that some people do die in intensive care units there are plenty of people who spend time in here that will live to see another day.”
The black eyes seem to burn into Abby’s soul, but she found she was no longer frightened of him. Again, he read her mind.
“I’m glad, Abby. You have no reason to fear me,” he said. The long fingers lightly brushed her forehead.
“There are two things in life of which you can be sure: that you will be born, and that you will die. I am one of those certainties. Your fear - indeed the fear of most of mankind - is not really of me, of Death. If you think about it you’ll find most people are afraid of the way in which they will meet me. Which is silly, really. Logic tells us that if you die you’re not going to remember exactly how it happened.”
“I understand,” said Abby, slowly, as she realized she did. She thought sadly of Ian, and how she wished she could have told him one more time how much she loved him. She thought of the children they’d planned together, of all their dreams and hopes. She remembered their wedding, four months earlier, and how happy that day had been. She thought of her parents, and hoped they were proud of her. A tear slid down her cheek as she thought of how little she’d achieved in her life, and how she’d wasted so much time. Now she’d never get the chance to -
“Abby, look at me,” the deep voice gently interrupted her thoughts. A sob escaped Abby’s lips as she opened her eyes. She saw Death watching her, his face still unreadable.
“I think I’m ready,” she said, her voice trembling with sadness. “I know I must be strong now.”
For the first time the smile touched his eyes. “I haven’t come for you, Abby,” Death answered. “There’s another soul who’ll be leaving with me tonight. Your time is not now.”
Abby’s sobs caught in her throat. She stared at him, incredulous.
“What do you mean? If it’s not my time why can I see you?” Her distress was beginning to register on the monitor, and the electronic beeps were increasing with her heart beat. Death leaned over and whispered in her ear.
“You almost died tonight, Abby. There are many people who see me before their time is up, particularly when they’ve been close to Death, as you were tonight. You almost died, but you had the choice, and you’ve made the right one. Your life is ahead of you, and you are over the worst of your ordeal. We shall meet again. I cannot say where or when, but you know now I am inevitable. You won’t remember me after tonight, but you’ll be ready for me when next we meet. You will not fear me after tonight.”
Death moved away from her bedside as one of the nurses rushed over to respond to Abby’s monitor. By the time she reached the patient, her heart rate had steadied. Death walked over to the bed of one of the other patients. The doctor, aided by two nurses, was desperately working on the patient. Patiently Death waited, until the doctor realized his patient was not going to respond. Death reached out his hand towards the patient as the doctor slowly laid the paddles back on the defibrillator, and glanced at his watch.
“She’s gone,” said the doctor. “ETD 04.00 am.” After closing the patient’s eyes he pulled the curtains around her bed. He didn’t see the two figures walking out of the ward in front of him; a tall, pale man dressed in a white doctor’s coat holding the hand of the gentle elderly woman whose heart had finally stopped minutes earlier.
Death opened the door to the Intensive Care Unit, and indicated for his companion to walk through first. She looked at him, giving him a happy smile.
“I never thought you’d be such a gentleman,” she told him. “It’s a marvellous surprise.”
“Thank you, my dear,” Death answered, closing the door behind him. “Most people don’t know what to expect when they meet me.”
* * *
At the handover meeting two hours later the morning shift was not surprised to learn that Mrs. Summers had passed away that night. They told each other it was probably a relief, her brain was so badly damaged after her stroke it was better for herself and her family that she’d gone.
The surprise was the sight of Abby Hamilton, awake and conscious after three weeks in a coma, smiling and shyly asking the staff where she was and why she was there. It looked like she’d pulled through after a terrible night, during which her heart had stopped twice. In fact they’d had to use the defibrillator to start it the second time.
Later, when they went to change Abby’s dressings, one of the day nurses told Abby she had no idea how close to Death she’d been that night. Abby merely smiled, and asked the nurse what time visiting hours began.