Jim had always heard that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. A part of him hoped that wasn’t true. Jim Harding, was celebrating his sixty-fifth birthday in a hospital bed. A few people thought he was crazy scheduling his hip replacement surgery on his birthday, but Jim couldn’t think of a better gift.
The nurse came in with an update. “You’re still a couple of hours out,” she said. “The operation before you is running long, so feel free to close your eyes and relax.”
“Are they having complications?” Jim asked
“Nothing to worry about.”
“But if the patient before me dies, the doctor is not going to be in a good mood when It’s my turn.”
“No one is going to die, Mr. Harding.”
“How do you know?”
“Mr. Harding, sometimes these procedures get off to a late start. I really wish you would relax. Everything is going to be just fine.”
Jim asked if it was okay to use his cell phone. The nurse nodded and gave him the Wi-fi password. He jumped on his Facebook account and looked at his birthday wishes and greetings. Texting was so impersonal, he thought, but it was the way of the world.
Jim clicked a few “Likes” and sent a couple of replies. Only a few people knew that he was scheduled for surgery today. He used his Facebook account to see what others were up to, but seldom posted anything of his own. He didn’t want everyone to know what he was eating, or what his face looked like from one week to the next. And the last thing he needed was for everyone to know that he was having surgery today. As he scanned the page his phone rang.
“Happy birthday.” The voice on the other end said enthusiastically.
“Who is this?”
“It’s Harold. Harold Connely.”
“Oh, my goodness. Harold, how long has it been? Twenty, thirty years?”
“It’s closer to forty, Jim. I saw on Facebook that it was your birthday and something moved me to call you. So, tell me, what do you have planned for your big birthday?”
“You won’t believe this, Harold, but I’m in a hospital bed waiting for surgery.”
“Are you okay? What’s wrong?” Jim could hear the angst in Harold’s voice.
“I’m fine,” he said. “After sixty-five years, I finally decided to get my hip replaced.”
“Good for you. I never asked, but how did you hurt your hip?”
“I didn’t hurt it. I was born this way. My wife finally convinced me to get it fixed.”
“How is Sharon?”
“She’s great. Hard to believe we’re married thirty-one years.”
“Listen,” Harold said, “I don’t mean to sound morbid, but since you’re going in for surgery there’s something, I need to tell you. I’ve wanted to tell you this for three decades, but I never had the courage to say it, so I figure I better do it now.”
“Why, because I might die?” Jim said.
“Liar. Did you have a premonition or something?”
“Not really. But since no one is guaranteed a tomorrow, I think this would be a good time to tell you.”
“Well, that’s just what I wanted to hear. I’m already worried about croaking on the table.”
“It was Christmas Eve, 1977.”
“So, you’re what, the ghost of Christmas past? Are you going to show me something horrible I did?”
“Jim, don’t interrupt, please. This is hard enough.” Jim felt his blood pressure rise, and he knew it wasn’t in his best interest especially before surgery. “We were both working the late shift at the radio station,” Harold said. “Everyone else had gone home, but since we were the newest kids in town, we got stuck working the Christmas Eve shift. Do you remember that?” Jim had to be honest, and tell Harold that he didn’t remember. Harold chuckled. “It’s just like you not to remember.”
What kind of a crack was that? Jim had obviously done something offensive, and then Harold had the nerve to tell him he was the kind of guy who wouldn’t remember? This birthday call wasn’t going the way he thought it would. Jim was anxious to end the call so he could get his blood pressure back down. “Harold, just tell me what I did wrong, please.”
“You had just worked an eight-hour shift, and I could see you wanted to go home. My shift started right after yours at 9:00 pm. I was scheduled to work all night.”
“You looked at me and said, ‘you have a little girl, don’t you?’ I told you I did and you said,’ go home to her. I’ll cover your shift tonight.’ Do you remember that? You pulled a 16-hour shift on Christmas Eve. And to top things off, you punched my time card, illegally I might add, so that I would get paid for the day.”
“Harold, my family celebrates on Christmas Day not Christmas Eve, so it wasn’t a big deal.”
“Don’t downplay this, Jim. I went home to my wife and daughter, and I wish you could have seen the smiles on their faces. That was the best Christmas gift ever. What you don’t know, Jim–” Harold, paused for a long moment.
“Harold, are you still there? Did I lose you?”
“What you don’t know,” he continued, “is that my daughter never saw another Christmas.”
Jim lay in bed, unable to speak. Despite the warm blanket a chill came over him. Silence filled the air for a full fifteen seconds. “Harold, I’m so sorry. I, I never knew”
“I have never forgotten what you did for me that day. I have to go now, buddy. I love you. Godspeed.”
Harold abruptly ended the call. Jim marveled at how an act so insignificant to him, could have meant so much to Harold and his family. The nurse must have noticed something on Jim’s face because she walked over and took a look at his blood pressure. “Everything okay?”
“It’s fine,” he said.
“I know surgeries can be a little stressful,” she said. “The procedure before you is back on track, and everything is going well, so try and relax.”
Jim’s wife, Sharon, had stepped out to grab a cup of coffee but had returned. “How are you doing?” she asked.
Jim told her about the phone call from Harold, and the strange twist it had taken. Sharon asked what had happened to Harold’s daughter, but Jim explained that he had lost touch with Harold and he didn’t know. “I can’t imagine losing a child,” he said, “I’m glad Harold got to spend Christmas Eve with his little girl.”
“He got to spend Christmas Eve with his daughter because of your unselfish act,” Sharon said.
“Honestly, it was no big deal. I didn’t even remember doing it. I thought he was going to tell me off or something.” Jim handed the phone to his wife when it rang again. Sharon looked at the caller ID on the screen.
“Who is it?” he asked.
“It’s your cousin, Cheryl.”
“Happy birthday,” Cheryl said.
“Cheryl, long time, no hear.”
“Sixty-five is a big birthday. I couldn’t let it go by without at least a phone call.”
“How are things in Montana?” he asked.
“Forget Montana,” she said, “What are you up to?”
“Believe it or not, I’m in the hospital getting ready for hip replacement surgery.” The phone went quiet on the other end. Jim wasn’t sure if Cheryl was still on the line. “Cheryl?”
“Something has been nagging at me to call you. Thank, God, I got you before they put you under. What are your chances of survival? Ten, twenty percent?”
“It’s a hip replacement, Cheryl. The chances of surviving are like ninety-nine-point-nine percent.”
“Oh, thank, God. I am so happy I called you this morning, and I am so happy you’re having this done after all these years.” Tears choked her words. “You have always been such an inspiration to me. I’m seventy, so that makes me five years older than you, but I remember when you were five, and you had to wear those braces to try and straighten out your legs. Do you remember that?”
“Yeah,” Jim said, “it was actually a bar between my legs, and I waddled everywhere I went. I remember how tough it was getting through doors.”
“Jim, I have never once heard you complain about what you went through. Your entire life, you must have been in so much pain, but the only thing you showed the world was your smile and your laughter. When I find myself whining and complaining, I stop and think of you. I can’t ever remember you without a smile. How do you do it?”
“I never gave that much thought. And as far as the pain goes, well, when you’re always in pain, it just becomes a part of your life. The brain dismisses it to some degree. It wasn’t a big deal.”
“Your smile and positive attitude are a big deal, Jim. They bring me comfort in times of stress. You have brought me solace over the years, and you have made me a better person. I’m so glad I called. I would have hated myself if something happened to you and I hadn’t told you how much you mean to me.”
“You know something you’re not telling me Cheryl. You had a dream about me dying, didn’t you.”
“Honestly, Jim, I didn’t.”
“Well then, I don’t know what to say, Cheryl…Thank you.”
“I love you, Jim.” She hung up.
Even though he didn’t have the phone on speaker, Sharon heard everything. She was overcome with emotion.
“Oh, come on, not you too.”
Sharon wiped away the tears and took the phone from his hand. Jim mentioned that he was getting a bit concerned. He asked, Sharon if it was possible his life was passing before his eyes in real time. Jim worried that the operation might not go as planned. After all, the morning surgery was running late and now here he was getting these bizarre calls in his hospital bed?
Sharon assured him that everything was going to be okay and that he shouldn’t take the phone calls as bad omens, but as special birthday gifts. Then she reminded him that omens come in threes like the three ghosts that visited Scrooge.
The anesthesiologist stopped by and asked if Jim had ever had a reaction to anesthesia and if he had any questions. Jim assured him that he had never had any problems, and then asked if people ever died during hip surgery. The doctor smiled and told him it was natural to be nervous, but not to worry even though there was always a chance something could go wrong it was a pretty simple procedure. “You do have an advance directive on file with us…don’t you?”
Jim turned to his wife. “Sharon, I should have never scheduled the surgery on my birthday. I can see the inscription on the tombstone. He was born with a bad hip on June 3rd, and died with a new hip on June 3rd.”
“Mr. Harding,” the anesthesiologist said, “a lot of people have surgeries on their birthdays. I think it’s good luck. You’re going to be fine.”
“See,” his wife said, “nothing is going to happen to you on your birthday.” She kissed him and told him to close his eyes.
“Before I go Mr. Harding. I do have a few things I need to go over with you. We are going to give you a nerve block. That way you won’t feel anything from the waist down. Then we’re going to put you under twilight sleep with propofol.”
“Propofol? Isn’t that what killed Michael Jackson? You’re going to give me the drug that killed Michael Jackson. Where am I, The Stephen King Hospital for the mentally insane?”
“No need to get your blood pressure up. Propofol gets a bad rep,” the anesthesiologist said, “It will do what we need it to do, and you’ll have an easy time coming out of it. You’ll be able to talk with your wife minutes after surgery. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You’re not having the operation.”
The doctor smiled and walked away.
“Jim, you need to relax,” Sharon said. “This is a simple procedure, and you’re going to be fine.” The phone rang again. Sharon pulled it from her purse and handed it to him.
“It’s the third call,” he said, “it’s the angel of death calling me.”
“It’s David,” she said. “You and David see each other all the time, so this isn’t going to be one of those ‘life passing before your eyes calls.’ He’s just calling to wish you a happy birthday.”
Jim took the phone, “Hey, what’s up?”
“Happy birthday,” David said. “Do you want to get together this weekend and celebrate?”
“I can’t this weekend. I’m having my surgery today.”
“On your birthday,” David said, “I thought it wasn’t for another week or so.”
“The date opened up, so I jumped on it. The sooner, the better right?”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I would have gone to the hospital to be with you.”
“That’s why I didn’t tell you. I didn’t want to disrupt your day.”
“What time are you going in?”
“I’m hoping within the hour.”
“Look,” David said, “there’s something I need to tell you before you go under the knife.”
Sharon overheard the conversation, and Jim could see the concern on her face. She grabbed the phone from his hand and took over the call. “Hi, David, it’s Sharon. The nurse just walked in.” she fibbed. “And she needs to give, Jim some medication. Is it okay if he calls you after the surgery?”
“Sharon, this can’t wait until after the surgery. I need to tell him something now. I’ll wait until the nurse leaves. So, tell me, how have you been?”
“I’m good. Thanks for asking. Listen, David, why don’t you tell me what you want to say, and I’ll relay it to Jim.”
“I have to tell him myself, Sharon. It’s personal. Has the nurse gone?”
Sharon handed Jim the phone.
He vigorously shook his head and held his arms like he was in the middle of a holdup. Sharon pressed the phone into his hand.
He gave her a dirty look. “Humph, What’s up, David?”
“Do you remember when I got laid off from work a few years ago, and my family was struggling?”
“Yeah, listen, can we talk about this later?”
“No, it can’t wait. You gave me a job as a copywriter even though I didn’t have any experience. Heck, Jim, without that income Marcie and I would have lost the house.”
“You wouldn’t have lost the house. You’re exaggerating. Besides, you were such a good copywriter that you’re a respected freelancer today.”
“I sucked at copy writing,” David said. “You spent two or three nights a week, helping me polish my work. I learned everything I know from you.”
“That’s nice,” he said, “Well, listen I really should get some rest. I have to go. I’ll talk to you later.”
“I’m not done,” David said.
“Of course, you’re not.” Jim looked at Sharon who could hear the conversation. She stood and paced around the tiny room. He hit mute and said, “What should I do? Should I just hang up?” Sharon didn’t answer.
“Jim. Jim, are you still there?”
“Uh, Yeah, I’m still here.”
“What I never told you is that I contemplated suicide back then. I realize how crazy that is now, but I thought Marcie and the kids would be better off with the life insurance money.”
“I never knew that,” Jim said.
“I’ve never told anyone, not even Marcie. I tried to find work back then. I really did. I went on interview after interview, but nothing hit. I lost my faith in God, Jim. But then one day, I got the courage to ask him to send me back my guardian angel. Jim, I actually thought God had taken away my guardian angel. Can you believe that?”
“God sent me you.”
“Jim, you are my guardian angel.”
Jim waved his hand across his face like an out of control windshield wiper in a hurricane. It was his way of telling Sharon that his life was passing before his eyes. He handed the phone back to her. “David, this is Sharon. I overheard what you said and that is so sweet, but I’m afraid Jim is overcome with emotion. And can’t talk right now.”
“Sharon, tell him legions of angels will be in that operating room with him. Tell him he has nothing to worry about. Angels always look after their own.”
Sharon’s throat tightened “I have to go.” She hung up and sobbed for a full minute. When she finally gained her composure, she spoke to Jim. “Nothing bad is going to happen to you today. Do you understand me? This is not your life flashing before your eyes.”
“But it was the third call. You said omens come in groups of three. I’m going to die. This is my last day on earth. Did you bring clean underwear for them to bury me in?”
“Stop,” she said, “You are not going to die. Honey, these phone calls were a miracle. You just learned the secret of the ages. You learned your purpose. You were put here to make a difference in people’s lives, and the crazy thing is you don’t even know you’re doing it. You are going to live a long and gratifying life. Dear, Husband, it would appear that you hang out with legions of angels. That’s some pretty good company.” She kissed him on the forehead as two members of the surgical team pulled back the curtain.
“It’s your turn, Mr. Harding? We’ll be taking you to the operating room. Are we ready to do this?”
“What are your names?” Jim asked.
“I’m Michael, and this is Gabriel.”
“Well, it looks like the gang’s all here," Jim said. "Let’s do this.”