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I'll Fly Away

by Elizabeth Bussey Sowdal
Elizabeth Bussey Sowdal
Here's a story. It's a true one, every bit of it, and I think a nice one despite the details, which are not entirely nice. Once there was a beautiful young lady who had a terrible disease. I don't remember what disease she had, only that it was too much for her slender bones, her young self to bear, and it had got the best of her.

I mentioned that she was young and I mentioned that she was beautiful. She was tall and thin and graceful. Even asleep with her hands curled on the rough hospital blanket she was graceful. She looked like art when she slept. When she was awake she was smart and interesting. She was kind and thoughtful and spiritual. And practical. And never a fool. She knew what was going on and she knew that while ostensibly she was in the hospital for treatment, to give it a go, hit her disease with both guns, beat the odds, be pulled clean and free and well from her predicament, she knew that essentially she was there to die. She was not afraid of her own death, but neither was she afraid to endure treatment on the off chance that it would cure her.

This young woman had two good reasons to tolerate a very unpleasant course of therapy. One reason was six years old with beautiful heavy dark hair, fine dark eyebrows, a fighting spirit and a very quick mind. The second reason was four years old and had the sweetest face, the rosiest cheeks, the softest baby curls. Both these reasons had their mother's wide blue eyes. Both these little reasons to hope, these reasons to fight, were a little frightened and a little bewildered. And they were both, like their mother, very, very brave.

And so, the treatment began and things went along about like the doctors and the beautiful young woman had known that they would. The dark headed little boy and the fair headed little girl were there in the hospital for several hours every day with their father or their grandmother. Whichever nurse was free for a few minutes would take them into our lunchroom, find something for them to work on or play with, turn on cartoons or put a movie into the VCR. Every day the nurses stopped in when they could and kept the children company, entertained them for a minute, told them a little story or explained to them about the IV pumps or the way their mommy was looking or feeling. After a time we were explaining to them about the ventilator and dialysis. Hard things to talk about with anybody, but almost impossibly painful to talk about when you had two sweet faces looking into your face and trusting you.

One morning I went into the lunchroom to check on the children. I sat down and picked up a crayon. "May I color with you for a minute?" "Yes," answered the silky haired little girl, "You can color this princess." So, we sat and colored. We nurses had got used to the children asking us intelligent questions and as far as I know none of us had lied to them. "You doing okay?" I asked the little boy. I didn't know what to say to him, how to make things better for him and I hated that. He scowled and nodded. "Are you doing okay?" I asked the little girl. "Mmm-hmmm." she murmured and tucked her foot up under her so that she would sit up a little higher. "Here, color her dress this color," and then supervised me a little to make sure that I was coloring nicely. "Is my mama," she asked as she colored, "going to be an angel?"

I colored very carefully. I did not press too hard with my orchid crayon nor too softly. I colored in the same direction and was careful of the lines. "Yes. I think she is." My eyes burned and felt hard and hot as I willed myself not to cry. I colored and colored and wanted to run and wished I had never been to nursing school at all. "You should color the bows dark purple," she instructed. "Okay," I said.

"Will my mama be an angel soon?" she asked as she colored the princess' shoes seafoam green. "Yes, I think it will be soon." I answered and waited. Was I hurting her, wounding her, should I get somebody who knew what they were doing with little children? But I only sat and colored, I couldn't bear to leave. "What color should her hair be?" I asked while my eyes burned and my throat ached. "This color. Like Mama."

That afternoon the doctors stood in the room with the beautiful young woman. She lay there looking as slight and delicate as ashes, her chest rising and falling, rising and falling. Her husband sobbed, her mother blinked and reached out to touch what was left of her daughter, there in the bed. I moved past them to the monitor and turned the alarm volume off. I began to turn off the pumps which delivered the medicines which were all that kept her lagging heart pumping, her ebbing blood flowing. I stood behind her husband as he pressed her cool, curled fingers to his lips and sucked in great shuddering breaths and I tried to move minimally, tried to be invisible as I pushed the off buttons on the pumps one at a time and slid the clamp closed on each line of tubing. I glanced at the young lady on my way out of the room and her blankets were smooth over her and her face was smooth and clean.

I watched the main monitor in the nurses station. The other nurses moved past me back and forth and sometimes touched my shoulder and sometimes lifted an edge of a smile or winked as they moved back and forth to the medicine room or the linen closet or the fax machine, working while I waited.

It wasn't a very long wait. Without the medicine the lady's heart just slowed and slowed, gently and quietly, slower and slower with no chaos, no drama, no last flurry of activity. Just slowed and stopped. I said the doctor's name and he raised his head from the chart to look at the monitor. We went into the room and the husband looked at us and then at the monitor. He sank down into a chair and pressed his head onto the bedrail and shuddered. The doctor did his examination while I stood beside the ventilator. Her mother, standing at the foot of the bed sighed, "Oh," and it sounded like both a plea and a question and I became suddenly aware of my own heart beating in my chest, steady and stout. I looked past the mother and out the window. The afternoon sun was hitting the brick outside and I saw a shadow there on the bricks. The large afternoon shadow of some bird passing just then, wings spread wide and neck stretched. I looked back at the doctor. He nodded at me and I raised the safety cover and pushed the power button on the ventilator off. And the room was very quiet then, for just a second, while the sun shone on the bricks and the bird flew past.
Elizabeth Bussey Sowdal
"The Girl Detective's Theory of Everything" - April1, 2006 Column

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