Death scares me. Dead bodies scare me, a scare I’ve been living with ever since I saw my grandpa in a coffin. I was twelve at the time and still remember his stench, his body still, and decay distorting his face in ways for years I kept dreaming of.
The other day as I drank a cup of burnt coffee in the waiting room outside my nephew’s hospital room, a family walked in. From the conversation they had I understood that the older, limping woman just lost her husband. Her daughter and son held on both sides as she sat across the room, diagonally from me. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but being just them and myself in the room, crumbs of the conversation reached my hearing.
“You need to take better care of yourself, Mom,” the daughter sniffled.
“I will.” The woman sighed, looking down at her bony hands resting on her lap.
“You need to get out of the house, do something,” the son added.
The woman didn’t respond right away, staring at her fingernails as if she saw them for the first time. After a long exhale she said, “All these years, I’ve taken care of your father. I’ve stood by his side . . . Now he’s gone and I can live again. Maybe I’ll get that garden going. Maybe the library takes me back for volunteering. I have so many books I want to read. Or maybe I’ll travel. There are so many places I want to see . . . Or maybe I’ll have my hip replaced . . .”
“The pastor is here,” a hospital employee announced and the family followed her.
I remained in the waiting room, thinking about the widow, about the family left behind and how they coped with their loss. To the worries about my nephew’s life, somehow sadness snuck inside me. Hospitals—unless when a baby is born—aren’t happy places, and if I never step inside one, I won’t miss it.
I got up and stretched, walking down the hallway, my mind all over the place and nowhere in particular. I stopped at my nephew’s door to listen if he was awake, but he wasn’t, and so I continued my walk.
Patient’s rooms marked one side of the long hallway. Above some doors a red light signaled the occupant needed help. Nurses in colorful scrubs walked in an out, with either trays with meds or syringes peaking from their breast pockets. The other side of the hallway was reserved for offices some closed some open. Further down double glass doors lead to the ICU.
I turned to look at the ICU doors opening with a clicking sound. A nurse pushed a bed, a green blanket stretching over the entire bed. Underneath the blanket laid an obvious form of a body.
I froze in place, the memory of my dead grandpa flashing before me eyes. Walking right by me the nurse pushed the dead body, an emotionless smile plastered on her lips. She was doing nothing but her job, a job like any other job.
For a moment the urge to run strangled me, but fear crippled me, rooting me in that very spot. My own eyes refused to look elsewhere but at the motionless form beneath the green blanket. Feet, legs, protruding belly, shoulders, head, nose . . .
Life has never seemed so fleeting and fragile. One minute you’re here, the next gone. One minute you make plans, build memories, a family, love and work, and just as quick you become nothing more than an empty vessel covered with a green blanket.
I’m still here. Breathing, blinking, walking. And I’m still scared of death. I know it’s natural, irrevocable and part of the circle of life.
No one knows when we are sentenced to go, me included. But what I do know is that I want to live, feel every breath I take, every heartbeat, every tear and smile. Build a different kind of garden; read books, travel, work out, spend time with my parents. Go to happy hour with my girlfriends. Go on dates with my husband. Fall asleep resting on his shoulder. Watch Smallville with my son. See him become the man I raised him to be.
Because after all, life is fleeting and fragile.