For her last day on earth, she wished it was warmer. Martha hated being cold, and now that it was turning to winter the chill would not leave her bones. She rubbed the small metal pillbox in her hand, a talisman to allow escape from her misery. She twisted the dial on the small electric heater again, but it was turned up all the way. She pulled her thick sweater closer, tucked in the blankets wrapped around her legs even tighter, though it did nothing against the cold deep inside her. Today was her birthday. “Today is the day, Dan.” Martha whispered to herself. “We will be together again, soon.”
Martha picked up the crossword puzzle, and then put it down again. She picked up her tea cup off of the TV table, brought it to her mouth, but put it back down when she felt the cold tea against her lips. She looked at the pillbox. She saw her release from the cold reflected back in the silver box.
Her whole world consisted of this tiny room, the small single bed, made up perfectly, a bedside table with a lamp and a phone, and the narrow armchair. An electric kettle was on a ledge next to the small sink just outside of the bathroom, serving as her small kitchen. Two small plates, a set of silverware and two water glasses were put away on a shelf waiting patiently, never to be used. She had no need for them as no one has, nor ever will share a meal with her in this well-intentioned and comfortable cell. Her reverie was interrupted by a soft knock at the door and then a nurse entered, quickly, efficiently, without waiting for an answer. Martha’s interests were not a priority over the smooth operation of the Sunrise Retirement community. The nurses never waited for an answer to their knock.
“How are you Ms. Martha.” The small dark-haired woman said flatly, without emotion. She is thin, wearing tight-fitting pale blue scrubs with sharp elbows and hard, cold hands . Martha doesn’t like Nurse Abellar, she is all business, never stopping to chat like Nurse Perez does, sharing updates about her children and grandchildren. Martha’s eyes followed her quick steps, a bird flitting here and there around the room, touching things, looking in the bathroom, then at the sink.
“Your room is clean, good. We need to keep everything in order. Let’s take your meds, Ms. Martha.” The nurse put several pills on a plastic tray, looked around and then moved the teacup closer to her on the tv tray in front of her.
Martha blinked slowly. “What am I taking today?”
The nurse looked at the labels on one of the bottles, “midodrine, for your heart.” She put it down and picked up another bottle. “Um, amio-darone for your blood pressure.”
Without thinking Martha spoke, “Isn't it the other way around-”
“-Come on, I don’t have all day.” Nurse Abellar gave a firm pat to Martha’s hand. “Take your meds. I have other rooms to visit.”
Martha took her pills and sipped her cold tea. She did not want Nurse Abellar to leave, to abandon her again to this cold room alone with the silver pillbox. She closed her eyes and tried to think of something to ask her, to delay, even for a moment, her visit. She wanted to ask Nurse Abellar why she was still alive, what purpose did it serve to give her pills when all she does is sit her in this room useless, but could not think of how to begin. She opened her eyes to ask the nurse something, anything, but the room was empty, she was alone again. Her mind had wandered too far, and the nurse had left. She was so cold.
Martha placed the pillbox next to her teacup. Small and silver, flowers and leaves were engraved on the lid. Mary had originally collected the pills for Dan. He was in so much pain with his osteosarcoma, the bone cancer, he had begged for the final, eternal relief. Martha could not give him the pills though, it was against all she believed in. Her fingers opened the latch. The small pills looked innocent, small and white, just like all the pills she takes every day for her failing body. She wished her mind would fail too. She breathed out. “Ok, Dan, it is time. She reached over and-
The phone rang, sharp and shrill, the sound shattered the quiet of the room. Her heart leapt out of her chest, beating fast at the sudden sound. She can’t remember the last time it rang. Maybe it was a nurse, can they know what she was thinking, what she was about to do? But the nurses do not call, they knock and then walk in. Was it even the phone? Mary was having more and more hallucinations. In this tiny immutable room, one moment is like the next, so it was difficult to differentiate waking reality from dreams. She remembered once having a purpose to her life, but now only meal times and visits from the nurse break up the days. When every day was the same, every sight and smell and feel was the same, what was real?
The second ring proved that it was not a hallucination. The sound reverberated off the walls, surrounding her, confusing its source. Martha remembered when she first came to Sunrise five years ago, after her heart attack and could not take care of herself, could not live alone. She had assumed her life would continue, friends would call, old colleagues would reach out. She gave out her number, but the phone did not ring. And the retirement community was supposed to offer social events, and a community to build connections with. But her health took along time to improve, and by then it was easier to stay in her room, to be taken care of instead of meeting new people. Now she sits in her room, day after day, waiting for her heart to give out. She is tired of waiting.
At the third ring she decided she should answer the phone. But who would be calling? Dan, her husband has been dead for nine, no ten years. She has not heard from her daughter Gina since Dan’s funeral. It was a disagreement, she doesn’t remember over what, but Martha blamed Gina and Gina walked out, cursing her. Over time it became easier to keep it going than to apologize. Martha wrote a letter years ago, but received no response. Gina chose her path and it was away from her family, away from her. Martha is tired of waiting for Gina too.
Martha had looked forward to this day for so long, a birthday present to herself. A completion, an end to the emptiness. “Dan, let me just answer the phone, and then....”
At the fourth ring she began to move. She slowly unwrapped the blanket from her legs and pushed up out of the arm chair. She paused to get her balance and then took the two steps toward the phone. She put one hand on the bedside table to steady herself.
The phone was ringing for the fifth time when she picked up the receiver.
“H-ello?” Martha’s whispered voice cracked.
She heard sounds come from the headset, soft and breathy.
“Hello?” She repeated, focused on using her diaphragm to strengthen her voice.
“Is this Doctor Page?”
Martha paused, she had not heard that name in many years. It had a ring to it she had always liked.
“Yes, this is Doctor Page, how can I help you?”
“My name is Doctor Ocampo. I am calling from Sutter Hospital. I have to say we had a hard time tracking you down. I am sorry to bother you, but we have a patient that has extraordinary symptoms. According to our records, the only time this exact set of symptoms was seen was a patient under your care, a Mr. Kev Orkian, about 10 years ago. Do you happen to remember this case?”
Martha gripped the phone tighter, pushed hard on the table with her hand. All these objects are solid. She suddenly has to go to the bathroom. This must be reality, not another hallucination.
“Yes, Doctor. I do remember Mr. Orkian, he had a stubborn respiratory condition which turned out to be related to a unique strain of flu.” Martha’s mind was racing. The names that used to be so present in her mind were hard to find, under layers of dust, on the back of unused shelves and hidden in the closets of her memory.
“Did you try…” Martha squeezed her eyes tight to get the words out. “ I am sorry I cannot remember the name. But it is an anti-monoclonal antibody.”
"Yes, Remdesivir, but there are complications. Your report on Mr. Orkian was incredibly helpful. We wondered, if you were not too busy, could you come in to discuss it with our staff? This strain of flu has reappeared and we fear it could create an epidemic. We need your expertise.”
Martha opened her eyes, and her gaze rested on the water glasses in the cupboard.
“Yes, of course, Doctor. Though, I do not have a car, at the moment-”
“We can send a car. Are you available today by any chance? I understand if not…”
“-No, I can be ready.” Her voice strengthened. She released her hand from the table and stood up straighter, both feet firmly on the floor.
“Oh thank you Doctor Page. Say in one hour? Your experience is unmatched in our current staff. This is going to allow us to get ahead of this new variant I am sure. You are a valuable asset. Let me tell you a little more…” Doctor Ocampo continued, discussing the patient’s symptoms.
After the call, Doctor Page hung up the phone, and looked at it, her head to one side.
She moved to her closet. “Oh Dan, I have all the wrong clothes.” She took off her baggy sweater and sweatpants and put them on the bed. She picked out slacks, a blouse and a thin sweater from the bottom of a drawer and changed quickly. Her bulky sneakers did not match, but gave her comfortable stability. She looked in the mirror and did what she could with her hair, her face.
On the way out her hand swiped across her small tv tray. The silver pillbox flew a short distance, tumbling in the air, then rattling when it hit the inside wall of the plastic garbage can.
Doctor Page put her hand on the large sweater which she has worn every day since she could remember, and then dropped it back.
“It is not that cold, I will be fine.”
And she pushed open the door, striding out into the hallway and back into the world.
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Damn it Marty, if you wrote a book of just first sentences, I would buy it :) Another attention grabber. Great twist here. We struggle with meaning, and for many (most?) of us, we get meaning from work. What then happens if we no longer work? A slow wasting away, like Martha at the beginning - and then, what a recovery. She's no longer cold because a fire has been lit in her. I like the subtle change in referring to her too. Initially she's Martha, but by the end she's Dr. Page.
I m glad you got the change -internal, temperature, and external, her purpose. Now I have at least one customer for a future book ;)
What a great story, Marty. The heaviness morphs into lightness. Man, I felt her pain and suffering, and the way we just forget and diminish older people is the real tragedy. Many should read your story and learn a lesson from it. Great work!
Thanks! How the US treats seniors is despicable. Everyone has something to offer, even in retirement. Appreciate your good words!
The loneliness and despair was so well-written in this; I'm glad it ended on a more positive note regarding her usefulness! Great read!
Thank you! I believe in positive endings!