From Vegetative States
I stand at my Auntie Jenny's hospital bed and watch her breathe. That's all she has to do—makes living look easy. Whenever Auntie Jenny forgets to breathe, a gray machine wheezes and feeds some mix of oxygen into her lungs. The air pushes her chest up and then her lungs slowly deflate. The machine breaths look the same to me as when Auntie Jenny breathes on her own. She looks like she's sleeping. According to my mother, sleep is something Jenny could never get enough of.
My mother and my Auntie Sal are sitting on green plastic chairs in the corner of the room playing five-card schmere. My mother has wound her rosary loosely around her wrist, so when she plays a card the black wooden beads tick against the table. Auntie Sal keeps her rosary wrapped in Kleenex in her coat pocket. In between the fifth and sixth games she wet a Kleenex and scrubbed the corners of the windowsill and the crevices of the radiator. Though it's only October and the room is overheated, both women huddle in their coats as if they are freezing.
Five days ago, in the middle of the afternoon, while driving from New Munich to Freeport on County Road 52, Jenny lost control of the wheel and smashed her 1976 Chevy convertible into an electrical pole. She flew twenty feet through the air and then her head hit a patch of concrete leftover from when 52 was a highway. Since the accident, my mother and Sal, Jenny's older sisters by ten and twelve years respectively, have been staying with Jenny during the day and sleeping at the Holiday Inn a block from Abbott Northwestern hospital. I told my mother they could stay in the apartment with me and Selsa, but they are afraid of driving back and forth through the city at night. Last year my mother decided to visit, and drove up and down University Avenue for three hours looking for our street. Finally she stopped and called us from an Amoco station. Her voice on the phone sounded terrified.
Sometimes I picture her and Sal in their single economy room with royal blue carpet and matching drapes, huddled in front of the TV, sleeping in their coats, scrubbing sills and eating packets of beef jerky and Planters peanuts from the vending machines. They are country women -- neither has slept in a motel before.
This morning, while Auntie Sal and I sorted through Jenny's mail, my mother bought two posters on sale at the gift center. She borrowed a roll of Scotch tape and a step ladder from the intake nurse and hung a dazzling poster of a burnt orange sunrise on the ceiling over Jenny's bed. She taped the other poster -- a rainbow -- on the side of the respirator facing Jenny's pillow. Under the rainbow, white calligraphic words read, Lord, help me hang in there.
I pick at the tape on the corners of the poster. I am thinking that the rainbow may annoy the nurses when they check Jenny's blood pressure gauge and oxygen levels, though they haven't complained. The bright colors and delusional cheeriness irritate me.
“Mom, are you sure the rainbow is necessary?” I ask. “We're not in Oz, you know.”
Sal sets down a queen of spades. I notice how worn the card is, as if she'd been kneading the edges. “I told her it was a waste of money.”
My mother picks up the queen. “Do you hear that, Jenny?” she says. “Our college girl says you're not in Oz.” She sets down a run of three.
The next morning Selsa is banging around our bedroom. She opens and closes drawers. It's Monday and I should be studying anatomy, but I lie in bed, my face buried in the futon. I hear Selsa say “Shit” under her breath. We've lived together seven years, since my first semester as an undergrad, and this banging and cursing are new for her, like this lying in bed is new for me. She sits on the side of the bed and rests her hand on the back of my neck. “You are the slug of my heart,” she says. “But have you been wearing my underwear?”
I don't answer. She sighs and gets up.
The clothes on the floor of our room are piling up, weeks of Haines underwear, cotton socks, slacks, button-down shirts. All mine. Along the wall near the bed and in the corners, piles of books gather dust: Physical Chemistry, Gray's Anatomy, The Physiology of Ten Major Diseases, Your Skeletal System.
On August first I started my second year of medical school at the University of Minnesota. Last year I recorded all the lectures and listened to them twice. I spent weekends in the library, ran five miles every morning, cooked supper three times a week, slept four hours a night. During winter holiday and summer, I slogged baskets of French fries to high school students every day from noon to two a.m. at Embers on Hennepin Avenue. When school started six weeks ago, I was so tired I took out a bread-and-butter loan and quit my job. I quit running, cooking, picking up clothes.
Through the futon I hear Selsa's silk skirt swish down the hall. The front door opens. “Deborah, you've got twenty minutes to get ready for classes.” She pauses. I hear the door close.
I am thinking about my death; I am wondering if death hurts, what it feels like. I imagine the moment of death itself, and then, of course, after. I know this is pointless, unreasonable. I roll over in the sunlight, put the pillow over my face and hold my breath. My heart thumps dimly against my upper ribs. The carbon dioxide waiting for exhale presses against my cranium, my diaphragm, the roof of my mouth. My hands tingle. My ears buzz. But I hear no loud protests, no wild clamoring from my inner soul. It's all very quiet.
Death feels familiar somehow. As though I've already been there. Death is a mindless, reassuring drone. A dark luminous hum. A buzz.
I have seen dead bodies. I have sliced open abdomens, identified the bluish crest of the ilium, dissected the rectum. I have divided the reptilian R-complex of the brain from the mammalian limbic system from the primatial neocortex. The day before my mother called from the hospital to tell me Jenny had crashed, I stood in my blue gown in the dissection room and held lungs in my hands.
In my top dresser drawer next to our bed there is a bottle of sleeping pills I got last year when I had insomnia. Now I sit up in the sunlight, take out the bottle and read the label. I drag the phone from the hallway to the bed and call the medical library. The librarian is very sweet; she is sipping coffee and chewing on something. I ask her about the physiology of barbiturate intake and tell her I am studying to be a doctor. She tells me good luck. She finds a book on pharmacodynamics and explains in a factual voice that barbiturates selectively depress an area in the medulla oblongata which regulates respiration and heart rate. The excitable cells in your brain relax.
“The body falls into a sleeping state,” she says. “Not a normal sleep, but a sleep uninterrupted by dreams.”
“What happens with overdose?” I ask.
She hesitates. “The lungs give out; the esophagus closes in.”
I close my eyes and imagine the afterlife as a clean room -- my eyelids are a white wall. I imagine walking across this room and crawling into a wide bed between freshly washed sheets. I pull the top sheet up to my chin, lay my head back on the white pillow. I rest my hands at my sides. The shades in the room are drawn but the windows are open. A slight breeze touches my shoulders and face. I close my eyes and think of nothing. I breathe in and out.