There was fighting from the other side of the door about what kind of funeral the family would have. I listened for a few minutes as a woman's voice swung from raging fury to a sort of logical masochism. She moved from chaos to militant order, from weeping to the casket to the flowers and food for mourners.
Then I heard a man's voice say, “He's not going to be dead. We don't need a funeral.”
The woman on the other side started crying again. They cannot choose. The choice is impossible.
The room I had been summoned to was at the far end of the ICU, where a different kind of quiet madness took over. All the life saving equipment and machines were a long way in the distance. It was winter, and the hospital was frigid at the dead end of the unit, with tile walls endlessly wiped clean yet still yellow with age.
Normal rooms in the ICU had sliding doors of clear glass. It was early in the plague, maybe ten thousand gone by that point. Schools were beginning to close, but there was still plenty of food. Most people still felt we could eventually get back to normal in six months, maybe a year. How little we knew of our own limits.
Near the end of life, some patients were moved to private rooms like this, with wooden opaque doors, when the vital signs didn't change and the breathing tubes refused to be removed.
Some families would still choose a natural death. But sometimes I was called.
I could not hear the rioters outside, though I could see them from a large hallway window. The barricades and flags were being kept back by an army of police.
A TV monitor in a lounge was broadcasting the protests, but it was on mute, a series of wordless angry faces. The mob lurched toward the hospital like a tide, pushed back by black clad police, again and again. The outside world was on the edge of a razor.
Cryopreservation was an extension of an old idea. We had used ice for stroke and trauma victims for years. Why not stop the virus until
there was a cure? So we froze the terminally sick, holding out hope for the future.
Everyone thought a cure was coming.
But there were those who felt we were playing God. Julia, one of my favorite nurses, is watching the scene outside through the window, her eyes darting back and forth to the silent TV, trying to put it all in context, while I gather my thoughts before entering. She's my assistant in the cryo unit.
“What do they mean by that awful name?” she asks, shaking her head in reference to one of the giant signs.
“The original Free Soilers opposed slavery in the 19th century,” I say.
“They think we're for slavery?” she says, shaking her head.
“They think cryonics distorts the will of God,” I say. I know that's unhelpful for her. She's clearly upset.
“I hear they have people everywhere,” Julia says. “Hiding, like spies. Like anybody could be one of them. Here we are trying to help people. And they just want to kill us.”
One sign shows a picture of our hospital, where I am now, with a skull and crossbones marking it out. Blood is dripping from the skull which is also covered in blue ice crystals. The bottom half of the sign on the TV says, “CRYO IS AGAINST GOD'S WILL”.
All the members of the Free Soil Army have a tattoo. It's a teardrop, representing the lives they feel have been taken. A giant bearded man is screaming on screen and brandishing his tattoo to the camera.
“Don’t these people have families?” Julia says. I see the doubts in her eyes. I wonder what she believes.
My own family is a mystery to me. I know I was born in rural India. My family died of typhoid fever shortly after I was born. I was adopted by a New York Jewish family and brought to the United States as an infant. The records show I had a brother, mother and father, but I've no memory of them. I have a prosthetic left arm, the only remnant of the infection I apparently faced long ago.
Sometimes I dream of them.
I've aged and grown, raised American, raised Jewish, but they remain fixed in time. Frozen, like the bodies I care for.
My prosthetic arm opens the door. Quickly I realize there is a room full of people here, not just a mother and father, but they were letting the man and woman argue and so none of them were speaking.
There is an older gentleman with a plaid button-down shirt who seems to have claimed the one recliner. His cane is propped next to it, and his eyes are closed. I’m not sure how aware he is. Grandmother is beside him, hands folded. But unlike him she’s savagely aware. Her eyes are fixed on me from the moment I walk in.
She is wearing a perfume like that of my adopted mother. Unmistakably strong.
I married young. My first husband had pancreatic cancer, but refused to die. He was on a ventilator for months. The doctors kept insisting that he had options, that there was hope. I watched him choke to death on his own mucous for months. My heart was so naive.
After he died, I applied to medical school. I decided I would never let that happen to anyone, ever again.
There are two small children in the corner shepherded by a large woman who I presume is their mother. An exhausted looking man and woman who I assume are the parents of the dying child, the ones whose voices I heard, are there.
At the center of all of this is a crib surrounded by wires and tubes, and an infant with a still beating heart, eyes closed, but pale and ghostly. A tiny ventilator tube emerges from its mouth. The child is surrounded by plastic paneling, marking off his inaccessible universe from ours. No access to the mother. They are protected from each other.
The monitors and the labs and the tests and the x rays are clear. This baby is clearly halfway between this world and whatever's to come. The yellow vesicles that mean plague are all over the tiny body, crusting the mouth, eroding the genitalia.
It's my job to help this family decide how they want to navigate the pending disappearance of their child. No matter what, this baby will not remain in this room for long.
“I’m here because you expressed interest in the cryopreservation program,” I say. It was another way of acknowledging separation, death, in a different word.
I give them time, in silence.
Dad finally spoke up. He had the look of numb agony. “Yes - we’ve decided -“ he said. He reminded me of my late husband. He's ruddy, fit, but defeated by this, trying to muscle his way through something he barely comprehends. No young person ever thinks this is where having a family will take them.
“Let me explain the process,” I said. “It isn't that different from traditional embalming. But the goal is permanent preservation of the body. And someday the possibility of a life.”
I can tell the mother hates the word “embalming”. It's too soon. She looks nauseous.
“What are the odds,” the father said, “that he can be unfrozen if there's a cure?”
“We think that rethawing carries a 1% risk of permament disability,” I say. “There's risk of cracking the structure of the brain. There's a risk of paralysis, even death in the process. And we won't know what risks are associated with a cure for plague until we have one.”
“There's no way we are -” the mother says under red, thick eyes full of tears. Grandmother reaches out, steadies her on the shoulder, and I don't get to find out how that thought ends.
They ask, as all families do, if I would have my husband, my child preserved in this way. I tell them that I would. I tell them my husband died of cancer before this was a possibility. I tell them the story of my unknown family and how I wish I could have saved them all. We talk about support groups.
As I leave, Grandmother speaks. “How many,” she says.
“I'm sorry?” I say back to her.
“How many? How many times have you done this, to people?”
I look her over. I don't get to leave without answering. No one in this room will take me seriously. “One thousand, two hundred twenty,” I say.
“How many children?” she says.
“Two hundred twenty eight,” I say.
She doesn't reply. Her eyes search me. She's looking for something.
Later that afternoon I get word that the family has agreed to the preservation.
A counselor is dispatched to the room for a few hours as well as a priest. There is no time for goodbyes. The faster the child is frozen, the less damage that is done.
Two hours later the tiny body arrives in my operating theater where wires and tubes are tunneled into the brain, spinal column and cardiac system. I watch the temperature of the body drop to below freezing. I wear a giant red suit of plastic and mylar to shield myself against the infant.
We transfer the body to a new womb of jelly.
A private, industrial elevator that long ago was used for the bodies of tuberculosis victims is the only access to the hospital basement. It slowly creaks to the facility deep below.
The room is stark and enormous, dimly lit, several football fields wide. It has a deep moisture to it, a humidity, like a swamp. In another context it might resemble a facility storing anything else, an endless floor filled with tall chemical drums. Endless liquids cycle through each tank. The floor below is metal grating, and as I walk my feet clang against the iron. The tanks are white, hard plastic, one the same as another.
With the nurse, I wheel the unit to its resting place. The unit is tagged, tracked and the identifying data logged. A hatch is locked into place, protected by a ceiling of steel and concrete against fire, flooding, and the chaos that is slowly ravaging the outside world.
Everyone is equal, temporarily, in the purgatory of our creation. You can walk for hours, among our tanks. There is no sound except the noise of footsteps and the soft humming of the generators keeping each unit alive. There are no faces, nothing to know who or what is within each. I am the gatekeeper, the only one who knows.
The Jews believe in a land called Sheol, after death, which is different than the afterlife of Christians. It is a place of darkness, weakness, fatigue. It is a place of ruins. They say the dead await resurrection there.
But what if no resurrection comes?
In the mornings I go to the tanks alone. It's the first thing I do each day. Before the day begins it is my silent garden, my quiet space of peace. Today my garden has a new resident.
Everyone expected a cure, but they were naive. There is no cure. We have climbed over the mountain to a different country.
I am the gatekeeper. I am the gardener. The garden needs care today.
The tanks obscure death. The infant who had no chance to make a decision for himself will be granted peace, now, by me. The cancer patient whose doctor cannot bring himself to admit defeat has hope, through me. It's a simple matter to power down the tank, the heating unit, and allow the body to decompose internally.
The families cannot make the choice. But I can.
I have now taken one thousand, two hundred, and one bodies out of their private Sheol and given them peace. They say nothing as they unfreeze, no sounds. But I feel their peace, their spirits, rising up from the basement of the hospital. They thank me, each time, for not letting them linger in this world.
But this morning Julia is there. She has made a costly mistake. And she's in the control room, where she ought not be.
I've removed my prosthesis for comfort. She sees the Free Soil tattoo on my stump, where my prosthetic arm usually serves as a cover, and a look of terror crosses her eyes. She recognizes the teardrop from the news. The connection is instantaneous.
“You can't-” she says. “You can't.” And she sees my hand on the power controls that will reheat the frozen bodies. She lunges for me viciously.
It's a shame, what has to happen. I cared for Julia. But there's no choice. She can't be allowed to continue on knowing this. My work is too important.
I'm able to reach behind her and catch her by the hair. Her head slams against the control panel as she dives for me. Her skull hits the panel, hard. She's bleeding, but alive as she crumples to the floor.
I carry Julia's body over my shoulders to the freezer tank with the baby. Her limp, moaning frame is easy for me to seal inside. She has a difficult past history with an abusive husband. No one at the hospital questions her disappearance.
It's a shame. She was coming over to our side. With time she could have been an ally. I know she didn't accept the lies. But she will die of the plague soon, as we all will. I am sparing her suffering, false hope, a life in a world of weakness.
Word comes to me two weeks later that the grandmother of the little boy has comitted suicide. It's a tragedy that everyone discusses at the hospital.
Soon after I receive a letter in the mail. There's no return address. But I know who's written it to me. The script is elaborate and the scent of the perfume is unmistakable.
I know what you did, it says. Her letter has the seal of the Free Soil, the same as the one on my arm.
She knew. Is it a letter of thanks, or of condemnation? She hated cryotherapy, as I do, but she was a mother. And she let her daughter do something she hated. Did she know I would send her grandson to a natural death?
Or did she realize, like me, that the world we knew was coming to an end?
I think on these things and continue my work, waiting for the right moment. But I don't have to wait long. It is less than a month until the hospital is attacked.