First Snow

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A vague smile crosses my face as the first snow falls.

I turn away from the lies reflected in the window pane. The snow in the field behind the hospital is unmarred, I won’t be the one to take that away. I slowly walk to the chair beside my wife’s bed. The white linoleum looks gray in the dim light. Dirty. The cards at the foot of her bed are years old now. There is only one bouquet of flowers on the tray which I replace every week. No one else sends them anymore. My phone sits next to the flowers, dead for days now. I drape a mottled afghan over her feet.

April’s eyes are closed, peaceful. I take her left hand, the right is full of tubes and needles. There are bruises under her eyes. She hasn’t had enough sleep. Three years isn’t enough.

“Jack?” The doctor stands in the doorway. “We need to talk,” He says while the door closes behind him.

I don’t take my eyes off of April and the oxygen tube covering half of her beautiful face. I cling to the constant beep of the heart monitor, grounding myself in the unreality of my life. I start to pick on a thread in the blanket and then lay my hand on her leg. The IV drip marks the silent passage of time.

Thirty drops in every minute. One thousand and eight hundred in an hour. Forty-three thousand and two hundred a day. Forty-eight million, eight hundred and eighty thousand, eight hundred drops since the day she arrived.

I see her chest moving up and down with the ventilator. I don’t dare hope that her eyes will open. How long has it been since I last saw her violet eyes?

The doctor places his hand on my shoulder. I don’t bother to shrug it off.

“Jack, it’s been three years.” He hesitates and I hope he won’t say it. “Her brain activity – for weeks now – it’s minimal, barely keeping her body going. She’s not suffering, but she’s not living.”

I hold April’s hand a little bit tighter. “No.”

“Jack-”

I shake my head furiously and jerk away. “She has to wake up.” I press her hand to my lips and wonder if she can feel the hot tears that fall down my cheeks.

“Life support is all that’s keeping her here. Haven’t you mourned long enough?”

This isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation. I get to my feet, gently placing April’s hand by her side again. At the window, I stare at the unmarred snow, remembering a different time, a different place.

I’m a kid again, forcing my feet into boots a year too small, not bothering to change out of my pajamas. The sun isn’t out yet. I snatch a pair of mismatched gloves from the box by the door. Scooby-Doo peeks out of my unzipped coat.

I slam to a halt on the edge of the old wooden porch, my toes less than an inch from the untouched snow. Apple trees line one edge of the yard. The leaves fell weeks ago, the apples used to make all sorts of sweet things. Our antique mailbox stands out at the end of our driveway, illuminated by a single street lamp. Snow is piled on top of it at least six inches high. Starlight reveals the untouched snow where the morning commuters have yet to mar its innocence.

I glance back through the door into the dark interior of our house. Mom will kill me for this. I turn back to the yard. The porch lamp lights a wide swath of the pristine snow, not quite reaching the circle of light.

The snow calls me forward, begging me to come and play.

“I need to go for a walk.” I don’t grab my coat, but I leave the hospital anyway. As I walk I let my mind wander. How many times had I thought she wouldn’t make it, only to beg God for just one more day, one more smile, one last glimpse of her eyes? I laugh. “Once more will never be enough,” I mutter to myself.

My puffy coat and snow pants make it hard to climb the hill. I have on so many layers I can barely put my arms down at my sides. My hands grasp my blue plastic sled as tight as they can through thick mittens. “Just one more time!” I call to my mother.

I can almost hear her eyes rolling. “Fine, but only one!”

Now, walking these city streets I stare at the still dark sky. The wind hits me like a slap in the face. How long has it been since I was last outside? Two or three days at least. They let me shower in my wife’s bathroom; she doesn’t use it. I’m a writer; I do my work by her bedside.

Three days ago it was sunny, warm, an Indian Summer. My shirt and jeans are just a bit too thin for this new weather. I don’t stop to admire the unmarred snow; there is no ceremony to which I take my first steps onto each new swath.

I look up and among the high rises and see a small building, only three stories, thin and narrow between the larger buildings. Phoenix, I read. It has an old tavern style sign displaying a logo of a cup of coffee with what I guess is supposed to be the mythical bird itself rising from the steam. It’s a strange name for a coffee shop, I think. I pause for a moment to consider. The cold gets the better of me and I step inside.

The fresh smell of espresso wafts into my lungs. More than that, I can smell eggs and bacon cooking. It’s warm and cozy in here. The tables are everywhere, close together, but still far enough apart that I can isolate myself. This is the kind of shop I used to do my writing in. Now I do all of my writing in the hospital, waiting for my wife to wake up.

There is a small window flanked by an espresso machine on one side and a pastry case on the other. There is a second counter behind the main one with all the barista’s supplies.

As I venture in I note down little things about the place, perhaps I will use it in a story. Black counter tops. Tables with cast iron legs. It feels like Mom’s kitchen back home. The barista has violet eyes. I pause, staring at the girl behind the counter. She smiles. “What can I get for you?”

Her voice sounds like a high school cheerleader, bubbly, full of optimism and life. I blink as I realize that her eyes are brown, not violet. April’s eyes are violet. “Uhm… can you do coffee? Black? Preferably a dark roast?”

“No problem! What size?” She smiles wider and doesn’t look at me like I’m crazy for wanting real coffee. I appreciate that.

“Do you have real sizes or should I find a Latin dictionary?”

She laughs. “Small, medium, or large?”

“Large,” I say. I hand over my debit card.

She swipes the card and then hands me a cup of coffee. She smiles at me. “Have a nice day.”

I walk over to a table and sit, slowly sipping the hot liquid. The barista is cleaning her workspace. The only other person here is an old man, eating a plate of scrambled eggs and toast. He catches me looking in his direction and waves me over. I just stare at him for a moment. He is maybe my father’s age with graying hair and sun-tanned skin. He would be about my height if he was standing. He waves again.

I stand and walk over to him, sitting opposite in the indicated chair.

“Bit nippy to be without a coat,” He says.

His eyes are the color of hot chocolate.

“What’s your name, son?”

“Jack.”

“Tony.” He looks me up and down. “I don’t mean to be rude. You look like hell, kid.”

“Long night,” I say quietly, taking a sip of my coffee.

“Wife got you sleeping on the couch?” He looks pointedly at my wedding ring and then at my wrinkled clothes.

“A chair actually.” I’m surprised by the bitterness in my own voice.

Tony ignores it. “Breakfast? How do you like your eggs?”

“Scrambled,” I say before I can stop myself.

The old man smiles widely. “A man after my own heart.” He waves his hand at the barista. “Mae! Get me another plate of eggs and toast for my friend please.”

“No, I couldn’t,” I try to protest but he waves me off.

“On the house. It’s rare that we see anyone in here before the sun comes up.”

I stare at him for a minute, trying to decide if I should take up his offer. Before I can make up my mind the barista, Mae, sets a plate of scrambled eggs and toast in front of me. “Thank you,” I say out of reflex. She smiles at me again.

“Been married long?” Tony asks, continuing his breakfast.

“Five years, last month.” I take a bite of my own eggs, appraising the old man, trying to understand his questioning.

“Any kids?”

I hesitate for a split second. “No,” I answer a little too sharply.

“Why not?”

“Never the right time.” I glance at my right hand, what’s left of it. I lost my thumb and first two fingers in the accident three years ago.

“Do you want kids?”

I shovel another fork full of eggs into my mouth, stalling. “I thought I did,” I answer carefully.

“What changed your mind.”

I do not answer. Instead, I get up to leave. “I don’t have to answer your questions.”

“Stop. Sit.” He says with authority.

I sit back down, feeling a bit like a dog.

“Eat.” He says this last word kindly. “You look like you need it.”

I pick up the fork with my left hand. I don’t take my eyes off of Tony. Mechanically I shovel eggs into my mouth. He motions for Mae to refill my coffee.

I stare at Tony for what feels like an eternity, “What happened?”

I sit back, my heart sinking at the memory. “There was snow…”

I can barely see past the hood of the car. My right hand is behind me, holding April’s as she screams with the pain of labor. “It’ll be alright. We’re almost there,” I say over and over again. I’m no longer certain if I’m speaking to her or to myself. I can just barely see the green of the light.

I meet her wide violet eyes in the rearview mirror. “It’ll be okay,” I whisper.

“Let’s try an easier question,” Tony says and I realize that I haven’t said a word. “How did you meet your wife?”

I don’t know why I’m telling him these things, but I answer anyway. “It was when we were kids, the last run of the day. My mom wouldn’t let me stay out any longer. I was going downhill so fast. Out of nowhere, this girl appeared. She was hauling a pink sled up the hill behind her.”

I slam into her, knocking her off her feet. I hear something crack and our mothers screaming. We’re already sitting up when they arrive. They look us over frantically and the girl’s mom yells at mine. “Teach him to watch where he’s going!”

Mom carries me to our car, still clutching my blue sled. As Mom is about to snap the buckle on my seat I shout. “No! Wait!” I jump from the car, sled in tow and run to the little girl getting into her mom’s car. “Here!” I thrust out my sled with one hand. I hold it at arm’s length, afraid she won’t take it.

I feel the sled leave my fingers. When I look at her she smiles at me. Her eyes were purple; I’ve never seen purple eyes before.

“My name’s April.”

“Jack,” I say stupidly.

“April! Get in the car!” her mother shouts.

Tony’s voice brings me back to reality and I realize that I’ve trailed off again. “Sounds like you were meant to be.”

“There was an accident a few years ago.” The memory floods into view.

“I remember looking from the rearview mirror and my wife’s eyes to the road. But it was too late. The semi was going too fast and his brakes didn’t work. I hit mine, but the ABS didn’t kick in. We sped forward and when the semi hit us we went backward. I heard April scream. I don’t know if it was pain from the labor, the accident, or both. She tried to brace herself against the back of the passenger seat. When I woke up…” I whisper this to Tony, afraid that if I speak too loudly something inside me might break. “She’s still sleeping.”

“The baby?” Tony asks.

Mae replaces my paper cup with a mug. She smiles at me and I know that she’s been listening. Her brown eyes turn violet for a moment in my mind. The baby is so small. He opens his eyes, violet like his mother’s. But that’s all that I really see of him. His bones are broken and his organs bruised and ruptured. He’s alive and that’s a miracle in and of itself. That he can open his eyes this once is an act of divine power. He smiles at me, just a little, holds my little finger in his hand. The tubes covering his face mask him from me. That first and last time he will ever open his eyes.

“He died from complications thirty-seven days after the accident,” I say quietly, deciding it best to keep that memory to myself.

Tony raises an eyebrow at my specificity. “Your wife is still in a coma?”

“I work at the hospital so I can stay with her.”

“What do you do?” Tony asks politely. I think he senses my pain.

“I’m a writer, but I do some editing on the side.” I shrug as I take a gulp of coffee, then cough and nearly spit it out. It’s hotter than I anticipate.

“Must be good at it, no side job.” He ignores my miscalculation with the coffee.

“It’s enough.” I decide to ask my own question. “What about you? Not many men your age own coffee shops.”

He laughs and his eyes twinkle like Santa Clause in the old movies. “It wasn’t always a coffee shop. Place used to be a bar. My dad owned it. He drank too much when I was a kid. It was the whiskey and women that killed him.” He paused, thoughtfully. “Killed my mother too. I decided I wouldn’t let this place be the cause of any more families falling apart. So I remade it, instead of making people forget, it’s here to wake them up. From the ashes, they shall rise.” He chuckles. “I thought it was clever.”

I nod, not sure what to say for a moment. But there is a question burning in the back of my mind, one that I need to ask. “How did you do it?”

“Do what?” He sits back in his seat, finished with his food.

“Move on.” I bite my lip.

“I didn’t, not really. At first, I wanted to get rid of this place, but that wasn’t going to work. Sometimes we don’t move on. Sometimes the only thing we can do is change.”

“There’s nothing for me to change.” I look down and the sight of my disfigured right hand sickens me, a constant reminder of the accident. I can’t get away from it.

“We’re sorry, Mr. Borden. But your hand was badly crushed. The fingers were unable to be reattached We had no choice but to remove what was left of them. You might regain some use of the remaining fingers, but the outlook isn’t all that bright.”

I stare blankly at my hand and then at the doctor. “My wife? I was holding her hand.”

“She’s in a coma. There’s still brain activity for now.” He pauses. “We were able to deliver the baby. If you wish to see him, now is the best time.”

“I have a son?”

“There’s always something in life that needs a little change.” Tony smiles thinly.

I stare at my empty plate. I think about the doctor and what he’d told me only a little while ago. I stand to leave. “Thank you,” I don’t know if I’m thanking him for breakfast or something else.

“Somewhere to be?” The old man watches as I walk to the door.

I turn back. “Something I should have done a long time ago.”

I leave the coffee shop, but I don’t turn back to the hospital. Instead, I wander the city streets, occasionally walking into a small shop or a department store to look at the shelves. At every store, I leave intending to turn back and go to the hospital, but I don’t. I just keep wandering. I pay for a bus fare and ride for a few hours, watching the people get on and off. The children seem excited about the snow, the parents frustrated and distracted. People rush about, tapping their feet impatiently as though it will make the bus move faster. Their lives and jobs are so important that they don’t spare even a moment to look up from their phones. I skip lunch and dinner. As the sun starts to fade I return to the hospital, a long and winding route.

As I cross the street the world looks new somehow, despite the end of the day. I pause, there are children playing in the field. There are several half-made snowmen and countless angels. They’re currently engaged in a snowball war with forts and everything. I smile a little. I had forgotten the magic of a first snow. I’d forgotten the magic of life itself.

I set one foot in the snow and smile at the crunch it makes. There is still so much that remains untouched, so much of the world left. I turn back to the hospital, going no farther than that first step.

I walk up the stairs to my wife’s room. Six floors. The doctor is taking notes from the machines. He looks up at me. I take April’s hand in mine and kiss her forehead. My words come out in a whisper. “I have to let her go, don’t I?”

“I can only give you the options.”

“I can’t keep her like this.”

“Are you sure?” The doctor places his hand on my shoulder again. “We have people you can talk to.” But he knows that I’ve already been through all the counseling I can stand.

I hold April’s hand to my cheek, letting my tears moisten her palm. “I’m sure.”

He squeezes my shoulder. “I’ll get the paperwork.”

I nod. He leaves me to sit beside April. I sweep her hair back from her face and continue to hold her hand. “I love you.” I bow my head in acceptance, letting the tears fall. “I’m ready.”

The doctor returns. Before he can hand me the paperwork April’s heart monitor stops beeping, becoming one droning note. I stare up at the single green line. They push me away as nurses come in. “Let her go,” I say quietly. But I know they have to try.

I don’t keep track of how long they work.

A nurse calls it. “Time of death:  8:37 pm. December 18th.”

But she’s already been dead for three years and thirty-seven days.

I close my eyes and a violet eyed girl smiles at me behind my eyelids, holding a beat up blue plastic sled in one hand. Holding her other hand is a little boy, three years old. His eyes are the same color as hers. He smiles at me too. There is a vast expanse of new snow before us. I look at the hill as she turns to it and see three sets of footprints that brought the sled up. Two large and one small. April holds the sled out at arm’s length, smiling. I take it. One more run. I look to her again, hoping she’ll come with me.

She shakes her head and I understand.

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