I stumbled into the coffee shop, peeling crunchy leaves from the soles of my shoes. Twinkling lights surrounded me. People filled chairs like the last bit of milk in the carton that fills your glass perfectly. The warm blast of air and bittersweet scent of coffee mid-brew greeted me like an old friend. Like the type of old friend you could fail to see for twenty years, but when you finally reunited, could continue the conversation you last shared with the same childish wonder. Same glimmer of familiarity in your eyes.
Then, I woke up. Beep. Beep. Beep. The heart rate monitor next to me was the constant blinking reminder that there would be no coffee shop visits. No old friends. Because you sure as hell couldn't have any old friends without new ones. Or a one. The monitor was my alarm clock. Shaking me out of my fantasy of a life with a working kidney. They kept saying, soon. But that word had lost its meaning. Soon, I would die. Soon, this whole world will end. Soon, the idea of humanity will cease to exist.
My family visited me once and awhile. I suggested to my mom that she just record herself talking to me once so that I could play the conversation instead of her visiting. It wouldn't be that much different, I explained. Every year they came and every year I experienced the same strained smiles and false hope. It was like watching my least favorite movie over and over again starring my overweight, balding dad and my mom who was a little too excited about being in a hospital. America’s heroes, I know. I would’ve taken a visit from the angel of death himself over mom. She meant well but god did that woman hover.
There were many people that stayed in the cot next to me over the years. At first, I tried to talk to them, but eventually, I realized it was pointless. They would either leave or die. Either way, I wasn't going to be stuck with them long so what was the point. The only thing I had was the hospital. Nothing was constant, unless you count my vanilla pudding that I got every night. I had no routine. My life had barely started but it was already over. Hope was a foreign concept to me, like the answer to a question that you say is on the tip of your tongue, but that you know you’ll never think of.
Sheila Grace was her name. We were a match. She had passed in a car accident and her parents had offered me her kidney. We had to act quickly. I asked the nurse when the surgery would happen. She said, soon. For the first time in a very long time, I actually believed her.
That day was January 24, 2016. I didn't remember much, other than the screeching of the wheels beneath me as I was taken to the OR and the glowing red EXIT sign I saw on top of one of the doors. The hospital was cheering me on. Showing me a glimpse of my future. I woke up in intensive care. My kidney hadn't "woken up yet" whatever that meant, but they said it was normal and that it could take a few days. They said if it worked, I would be leaving the hospital in the next five to ten days. I could taste the coffee that would soon touch my chapped lips. Feel the warmth of caffeine filled bodies around me.
Mom and dad visited me. Mom was still pissed about my genius idea from the last time she came over. I didn’t care. My kidney had woken up, and I was being released in five days.
The next few years were spent in and out of the hospital. I had more check ups than I would like, but everything was going well. No infection. Nothing. I smiled up at the glowing red EXIT sign whenever I left the building. But part of me was sad to pass it by. I knew going through that door meant saying goodbye. For years, that was all I ever wanted to do. Something was different.
Ten years. Ten years 203 days 3 hours 54 minutes of normal life. Ten years of smiling at the baristas making my warm brew and cleaning my muddy, crunchy, leaf filled boots when I got home from an exhausting daywork. Ten years of waking up to an alarm clock that didn’t tell me if I was alive or not. That wasn’t a beeping torture device counting the beats until my very last one. Then one morning, I went in for my annual checkup. They said something was wrong. That I might have to stay for a few days. I asked one of the nurses when I could leave. Soon, she said. I deflated.
My new kidney was infected. They said I might be able to get a new one. And that would give me another few years. Another few walks into the coffee shop. Another few leaves stuck to my shoe. I was losing hope. I will never look up at that exit sign again, I said to myself. I will never wake up to an alarm again.
My condition got worse, but for some reason I wasn’t mad. The heart monitor didn’t bother me as much. The girl in the chair next to me may not have been my best friend, but at least I had someone to talk to. I was no longer begging to escape. Maybe I’m slipping, I thought to myself. Or maybe this place isn’t that bad. Mom’s visits weren’t welcome, but my hope to see the angel of death over her had decreased significantly. I no longer wanted to leave my home. The one constant in my life was the place filled with people that would decide my fate. My own personal angels of death.
I realized that maybe I did have a friend. Or maybe frenemy was a better term. That hospital was always with me. Holding my hand, shoving me toward the finish line. Cheering me on. We would always be intertwined, and in some ways, that wasn't a bad thing. I would rather be connected with that place than nothing at all. I feared for the day that I would say my final goodbye to this old friend, because I knew it would be the end.