If it had been only the first or second time Burt had rung for the nurse, he wouldn’t have been as upset. Five unanswered rings was too much. He had tried every angle of his tongue, the corners of a sugar packet, and a chewed-off fingernail, yet nothing dislodged the shred of meat stuck in his stained teeth. On the wall facing him was a whiteboard with his most recent vital signs and other details. He didn’t need his blood pressure to be taken again to know it was likely 20 points higher than the last reading. He was nearing the end of his 79-year old rope when someone dashed into the room.
“It’s about damn time!” She pulled the curtain around his bed on the window side of the room. “What the hell took – hey!”
His words were pushed aside as three more people in hospital garb surrounded the other bed. He listened as machines rolled in, numbers were repeated, and “doctor” was barked often enough to convince him that none of these people would care about the floss he needed. He brought his hands to his face and rubbed his eyes, causing the IV tube to tap his arm. He yanked the tube out, tearing his skin and letting the clear painkiller drip to the floor instead of his bloodstream.
Burt edged his legs to the side of the bed where they dangled like those of a child in a grown-up’s chair. He inched forward, leaned to get one foot on the floor, and winced at the cold linoleum. After a deep breath, he leaned forward until all of his rickety weight was upright on its own for the first time in a week. Slowly he trusted his own balance, ignored the walker that had been prescribed, and shuffled around the bed.
Two men in blue scrubs were between Burt and the door. He kept beneath the mounted overhead televisions and side-stepped his way past the medical personnel as they tended to the man who had tried to talk to him a few times but whose name Burt didn’t care to remember. A few more steps got him to the hall and on his way somewhere, only to face with going right or left. The cradle of a crescent moon through a window at the end of the hall to his left summoned him.
Two minutes later he reached that window, and he paused to catch his breath. A glance outside surprised him. Roughly six inches of snow covered every rooftop. Great, he thought. Some schmuck will have a heart attack while shoveling this crap.
Noises and footsteps reminded him that his roommate in 1138 was in trouble. He turned the corner and walked until he again reached another window at the end of another hallway. Again he stopped to watch the snow. He looked at the street where a bus came to a stop, hissed, and opened its doors. Two women hustled from the shelter into the vehicle. A moment later the bus continued, its wipers clearing the falling snow from the windshield.
Burt’s shoulders dropped and his head listed as he remembered days long gone. Learning local bus routes to visit his first girlfriend. The green stripes on the sides of the old New Jersey Transit buses. The names of the towns scrolling through the destination sign above the windshield. Those thoughts might have connected to other memories, but something to his left distracted him. Someone was choking. Gasping for air.
Burt checked back down the hall to the nurses’ station, but a combination of midnight shift change and cardiac arrest in 1138 had left them short staffed. He peeked into the room from which he had hear coughing. A curtain covered most of the bed by the window. The fluorescent glow from behind the curtain cast a silhouette of someone sitting up in bed, arms waving.
Burt entered the room but not quickly. An elderly woman about his age, eyes nearly escaping her head, waved at him. He moved around the bed curiously, as if waiting for her to explain what she wanted. She pointed at her throat as saliva ran from her lower lip, but it didn’t seem enough for him to react. She leaned forward enough to punch at the mattress as her face reached a red, then purple, that he had never seen before.
She balled her right hand, gripped it with her left, and attempted to punch herself in the gut. Burt reached and slapped her on the back. Again, she punched at her gut, and again Burt slapped until a deformed chunk of something shiny and beige dropped from her throat to her lap. She slumped against the bed as her throat unleashed a grave squeak as tears streamed down her cheeks. After enough wheezing, she smiled.
“You,” she coughed, “are my angel.”
“Sorry, lady,” he laughed. “I ain’t no angel. I just heard you choking and came in.” He focused briefly on her matted, short, gray hair until her eyes regained his attention.
“Sorry,” coughing again, “but I don’t think so. I was sleeping. I heard nurses down the hall. I tried to get back to sleep but couldn’t. I sat up, took a bite of a granola bar. My throat was too dry to swallow. I started choking. Then you came in. A minute later, and I might’ve been gone.” She reached for her round, frameless glasses and looked back at Burt
“Yeah, whatever.” He waved as if shooing away a fly.
“What’s your name?”
“Me?” He paused, then stepped towards the door. “Burt.” He took another step.
“Come here, Burt.” She opened her arms. “I want to give you a hug.”
“That’s okay. I only hug nurses.” He smiled but didn’t want to.
“I don’t know what that means, but give me a hug. I insist.”
“I think you have something else to worry about,” he said while pointing at her lap where her hospital gown showed a large wet spot. As quickly as she noticed it, she immediately pulled a blanket over herself.
“Relax, lady,” he chuckled. “Everybody pees. Probably happened when you were choking. Completely understandable. No big deal.”
“Decency is a very big deal,” she demanded. “Please go.” She put a hand over her mouth. “But please come back tomorrow. I want to talk more to the angel that God sent to help me.”
He stepped again, stopped, then turned.
“Faith,” she said.
“No shit. Anyway, God didn’t send me. I had a piece of meat in my teeth. I rang the nurse.” Burt slowly raised a finger in her direction. “They finally showed up, but not for me. Guy in the bed next to me was dying. You think God killed him in order for me to come and save you?”
He folded his weak arms across his chest.
“God works in – ”
“Don’t curse at me.”
“You religious nuts answer questions with the same bullshit answer. God works in mysterious ways.” Burt raised his hands to the ceiling. “Ain’t that fucking convenient. Either that or it’s all part of God’s plan.”
“You just don’t understand what – ”
“No,” he interrupted, “You don’t understand how brainwashed you are. You go along with that religious crap because you’re afraid you won’t get into heaven.”
“That’s not fair,” she said, folding her thin arms across her thinner frame. “It’s not about heaven. It’s about believing.”
“Believing in what?”
“In God being there for me because I am there for him.”
“How the hell are YOU there for him?” Burt asked.
“By trusting him, even when things are difficult.”
“So when things are difficult for you, that’s when YOU are there for HIM?”
“Yes,” slapping her hands on the bed, “because I trust he’s doing what’s right for me. My trust is how I’m there for him. No matter what.”
Burt inched from the window back towards her bed.
“So you’re in the hospital because God wants you here?”
“Exactly,” she said.
“Why would God want you here?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s time he wants me with him.”
Burt eased himself into a chair at the foot of her bed, the same chair that was in his and nearly every other room.
“You think we die when God wants us to die?”
“Of course,” she nodded.
“So, when a kid falls in a lake and drowns, it’s because God wanted him up in heaven?”
“Why?” Burt leaned forward. “And don’t tell me God’s mysterious plan bullshit. Speculate. Give me a reason. What do you think might be God’s reason? And if you got nothing, then shut up.”
She pulled her legs up against her chest. “Maybe that child was in an abusive situation, and God took him to protect him.”
“And,” Burt leaned on his right elbow on his right knee, “how does God know that’s going to happen?”
She placed her chin on her knees and pulled her legs tighter to her chest.
“He – he just knows. It’s all part of his plan for us.”
“So then God planned for the kid to have abusive parents?” Burt leaned his left elbow on his left knee.
“I don’t know.”
“Guess,” Burt ordered. “What’s the best reason you can think of for God to give a kid abusive parents who eventually kill him?” His eyes shifted slightly when he heard a sniffle.
“To teach other parents not to abuse their kids,” she whispered. “For kids to learn they don’t have to take being abused.”
“So God expects other parents and kids to see it on the news and learn from it?”
“And what about years ago when there was no television? No news?” Burt challenged, voice rising but measured. “How did people learn back then when God chose to kill someone just to teach others a lesson? Were they supposed to read it in the newspapers? What if they couldn’t afford the paper? What if it scares a kid so bad he runs away from home?”
“Maybe that kid was meant to run away from home.”
“Meant to?” Burt stood. “So why doesn’t God make the kid runs away to a safe place? An aunt’s or a grandparent house? Why can’t kids learn from THAT?” Burt stood. “Why do they have to die?”
He focused a little closer on her short hair and the veins pulsing in her neck. He noticed the IV bag hanging next to her, then turned to glance out her window into the night.
“We’re on the eleventh floor. If God told you to jump, would you jump?”
“That’s absurd,” she groaned.
“That’s not an answer.”
Burt peered lower.
“Down there is a big-ass flat roof covered with snow. What if God’s plan was for you to dance naked in that snow?”
“I’ll answer that after you answer my question,” she sniffled, eyes closed, forehead on her knees. “Why would God ask that?”
“I don’t know” Burt turned back her way. “He’s your god, not mine.”
She released her arms from her knees and eased backwards for the support of the inclined bed. Her arms fell to her sides as her eyes closed.
“Then I would do it.”
“You would just trust he had a good reason for you to dance naked on a snowy roof?”
“Why does it bother you that I say yes?”
Burt sat again. “It bothers me that people just sign their lives over to someone or something they don’t really know exists. That people take orders from a book written thousands of years ago without knowing for sure if it’s right or even where it came from.”
“That’s not what bothers you.” Her eyes opened. She angled her neck to find his eyes. “What bothers you is that I’m at peace with where I’m going. And you are freaked out because you have no clue where you are going.”
“In the ground,” he said. “We are both going in the ground. Worm food. That’s where we all go.”
“That’s where you hope we go,” she answered. “Because the way you probably lived your life, with such disregard for God, you hope it’s just worm food. Otherwise, you will have a tough time explaining yourself.”
Burt stood, struggled, but didn’t get far out of the chair. “I lived my life my way, nobody else’s way.” He pointed. “I enjoyed my free will and the comfort of my free choices without letting any crappy religious rules tell me what to do.” He scratched at his nose. “I made my own choices. I make no apologies. And I carry no guilt.”
“Not guilt,” she said. “Fear. You lived your life with your comfort of free will. You loved the unknown of doing what you wanted, when you wanted, how you wanted. But now that you’re facing death, the unknown scares the shit out of you.” It was Faith’s turn to point at him.
“You didn’t live your life at all,” he growled. “You lived a scripted life spelled out for you in the Bible. You were just a robot following an imaginary God’s orders. You barely had a life at all. Was it worth it?”
“You bet it was worth it.” She smiled through tears. “And it is even more worth it because I have no fear where I’m going. I know who has loved me all my life. I know who is waiting for me so He can love me through all eternity.” She sat up further, leaning slightly towards Burt, who flinched slightly away from her. “God can take me right now because I’m at peace with myself. Believe me, I wish I could say the word and have Him take me right now. Not just to be with Him but to get away from you.” She pulled up the blanket to dry her eyes.
“But as much as your words are hurting me right now, I would gladly hold your hand and take you with me to see Him. I’d show you what you can’t see and fill a place in your heart that’s probably been empty for many years.”
“You don’t know shit about my heart,” he stood, “and you have no right to make any assumptions.” He pointed again with a shaky hand and a few of his own tears. “You keep your blind faith. Smile on your way out. Not me, because I’ll be kicking and screaming. I’m not giving up that easily. I want to stay right here, the only place where life is anything. Not some imaginary floating clouds and golden gates.”
“Pearly gates!” she laughed. “Pearly gates, you fool. And I’ll be standing there waiting for you. For your sake, I hope they let you in.” She clapped and smiled. “I’ll even ask them to let you in. Right now, as soon as you leave, I’ll pray they let you in, and I’ll be the first one to greet you.”
“If I had let you choke, I wouldn’t have had to listen to any of this crap.” Burt’s legs shook slightly as he turned one last time towards the door and got himself moving. “Oh,” he laughed, “I forgot. This was God’s plan, so I didn’t really have a choice but to save you. Lucky me.” He continued to the door. “Room 1105. Better write that down to make sure I never come back here again.” He turned down the hall and did not stop until he was back at his room.
He peeked in at the bed closer to the door where the nurses had been trying to save a man’s life roughly an hour ago. All lights were off. The bed was made. Almost every trace of anyone else having stayed there had been erased except a young woman in the same visitor’s chair at the foot of every bed in every room.
He tried to avoid eye contact with the woman as he shuffled hesitantly into the room. He was old enough to be her grandfather, not that he had any clue what it actually felt like to be a grandfather. Making eye contact caused him to slow his already slow steps, as if he might say something. His mouth even moved, but only drool came out. It landed on his hospital gown and would never matter to anyone for anything.
He thought about Faith’s comment about the emptiness he had, and he realized she was more right than he would admit. He continued past the woman in the chair, stepped around his bed, and fell into it more easily than he had climbed out of it. He fidgeted with the blankets, thought about using the bathroom, but decided to wait until the woman left the room.
But she didn’t leave. Instead, she approached Burt’s bed.
“Excuse me, Sir,” she strained. “My name is Ellen. My husband was in the other bed.” She wiped at her nose with a ball of tissues. “You probably know he died just a little while ago. I had gone to get myself some dinner and then come right back.” Tears and sniffles. “But before I got back, he was gone.” The words barely escaped her sad lips. “So I was just wondering if maybe you were here when it happened. Maybe he said something, some last words that you might have heard. I wanted to ask, just in case.”
“Sorry, Miss.” Burt played with his pillow and blankets, pretending she was not there, and gained a sleeping position. “I wasn’t here. I left the room, so I don’t know anything.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to bother you. I guess I was just hoping I would be here. He was probably so scared, being all alone. Nobody here to hold his hand or anything.”
“Nurses were here,” Burt said. “They were probably holding his hand.”
“One of those things, once in a lifetime things, when you wish you had a chance to say one more thing to someone before they are gone. And if you don’t say that one more thing, you’re going to regret it the rest of your life. An apology, or a thank you. Or an I love you. You just wish for one more moment to say something nice, because it feels like maybe they will take that with them to wherever they are going. You know?”
“A little bit,” he said.
“Thanks,” she nodded. “Thanks, and I hope you feel better soon.” She stepped back to the other side of the room, leaving him facing the window, and then she was gone.
Burt’s breakfast had gone cold on the table by his bed by the time he had awakened the next morning. He was still facing the window and could see the snow had stopped. In the reflection off the glass, he could also see the privacy curtain was pulled between the beds.
That’s how fast they work around here, he thought. As soon as you die, they sell that bed to someone else who might be gone before the day is over.
That spurred him to remember the woman, the widow, from the night before, and what she had said about one last chance to say something before someone was gone. He sat up with an internal groan and slid off the bed. He shuffled out of the room with purpose in his old steps, turned the corner, and another, and approached room 1105.
He ignored the sleeping patient now in the doorside bed, empty the previous night, and reached the window side of the room. The bed was empty. Not just empty, but the sheets had been stripped from the bed. He turned to find Faith’s name and other information, but the board was wiped clean. It was just another generic room waiting for the next temporary occupant.
Burt’s knees wobbled, and he would have hit the floor had he not reached for and landed in the same chair from the night before. He worked to catch his breath, mouth open, and saliva again trailing from his lip to his gown. He closed his mouth, stood, and left the room.
A small crowd had gathered by a window not far down the hall. He moved slowly past the hospital staff as they shielded their eyes against the incoming glare from the new-fallen snow on surrounding rooftops.
“Miss,” Burt said, “can you tell me where the woman is from room 1105? Faith, I think that’s her name.”
“Room 1105? She held her pen steady for a moment before looking up at him. “I’m not supposed to share this, but I’m filling out her paperwork now. She didn’t make it through the night.”
“Oh. Sorry to hear that.”
His shoulders dropped as his eyes drifted towards the floor. He continued back towards his room, moving past the nurses near the window. As he moved from the desk, the woman behind it called out to the others.
“Hey,” she barked, “we’re short-staffed because of the snow. I don’t know what you’re all looking at, but let’s get away from the window and get to work, please. We have rounds to make.”
The gathering dispersed, but one nurse stopped when she saw Burt.
“Sir,” she said. “Do you mind having a seat, sir?”
“You look a little pale.” She guided him to a cushioned chair near the window. “Here. Have a seat. Please.”
“I’m fine,” Burt said, but he didn’t resist. He followed her lead and seemed short of breath and exhaled in relief as he sat and leaned back.
“I want to take your vitals,” she said stepping away quickly. “Don’t go anywhere.”
Snow, thought Burt. Snow.
His mouth hung open again. He leaned to his right despite his pupils being bashed by the whiteness reflecting off the snow-covered roofs outside and through the window next to him. One last nurse still gazed outside with a smirk. Burt followed his eyes to a roof far below the eleventh floor, but he was unable to focus well without his glasses.
“What’s everybody looking at?” he asked.
“The roof down there,” said the nurse.
“What about it?”
“Someone must’ve gone out in the snow last night and walked around.”
“So?” Burt sat back again and closed his eyes.
“So we were trying to figure it out.”
“Figure what out?”
Burt sat up.
The nurse pulled his smartphone outside, snapped a picture, and held his phone for Burt to see.
“I don’t get it,” said Burt.
“Someone walked around on the roof and spelled out the word ‘Faith.’ See?”
“Peter,” called the nurse from behind the desk. “Let’s go.”
The nurse walked away, but Burt’s eyes were fixed where the man’s phone had been. After sitting still at least a minute, he blinked several times as if waking up from a trance. He leaned on the arms of the chair and pushed himself to his feet. Then he carefully stepped back to room 1105.
He entered and again ignored the patient in the first bed as he made his way to the window-side bed, now neatly made with sheets, a pillow, and a blanket. He turned, got his butt up on the side, and swung his legs up to the mattress. Then he adjusted the blankets until he was covered and comfortable.
It would be nearly an hour before the nurse who wanted to check his blood pressure would finally find him. She began to wrap the cuff around his right arm, then abruptly stopped. She slid her fingers down to his wrist in search of a pulse, but she had already known what to expect. Her shoulders relaxed as a deep breath came and went. Peter, the nurse who had shown Burt the picture of the snowy roof, silently entered and stood next to her.
“Look at that smile,” he said. “At least he went out happy.”