The chair next to me may look empty to everyone else, but I see Death calmly waiting. He wears a white coat and shoes that squeak when he shifts. He holds my hand sometimes and tells me that the living never want to go, but the dying aren’t scared. He tells me funny stories and keeps my palm from sweating by linking his cold fingers against my fleshy ones. The hours tick by but he doesn’t leave. We both watch the machines hum and beep, we watch my mother struggle to take in air, and we count the hours by the aging of the uneaten food on the tray next to her bed.
Time seems to pass quicker here, and when I mention it Death lets me in on a secret. The hospital is only second to Vegas when it comes to the passage of time. For some reason that makes me cry and I tell him it’s not fair. I want my mom for longer than it takes to pull a lever or shuffle a deck. I am her only daughter, the product of angry sex who has never stopped being angry since. I am her crusader, her advocate, her face and her heart. She is my world.
I have nothing to say after that, my tears dry. Death tells me about his dog and his apartment, which is rent controlled. His dog often begs Death to pretend to be blind so he can go everywhere with Death. Sheepishly, Death admits that he’s done just that once or twice when he goes to the movies. They are usually romantic comedies and his dog ended up being a terrible wingman. I can’t help but smile and squeeze his hand, hoping he understands it as a thank you.
He asks politely why I’m alone and I explain it is too hard to for the others to see her so pale, her hair cut off, her eyes glazed over. But I prefer the memories of her, the parks she took me to, the roses we planted, and the willow trees she loved so much. It makes it so much easier to sit in the sterile room and hear her breathe.
They don’t tell you how hard it will be to listen to someone’s breathing. How the hollow sucking sounds will drive you slowly mad, will make you wish you could cup your hands to your ears and be somewhere else. The I.C.U. is a place God doesn’t tread and wouldn’t dare dream of making promises. But worse is the smell. In the first week I would come home at the end of the night and scrub at my skin, trying to get the smell of death and antiseptic off me, out of my nose. It clung desperately to me, but I would rather have raw red skin than carry the hospitals sorrows in my senses.
Now I can live in this smell, can let it permeate my clothes until I am sleepy with it. I tell Death this and he pats me gently, telling me to sleep, that he will keep watch until I wake up and I believe him.
Never believe him.
Victoria Barycz is a twenty-two year old college student who prefers scribbling poems on bathroom walls, the forearms of friends, and scrap paper. Between three devious cats and more homework than is humanly possible Victoria finds inspiration in the sad eyes of strangers and corner musicians. This will be her first published piece and that makes her want to have a dance party.