The Lesson – A Short Story

The following is a short story I wrote for a timed-writing contest this past February (2022). The required character, setting, and object were a hypochondriac, the future, and a stained baby blanket. Although Polly learns her lesson in the afterlife, we all know that our lessons are learned prior to the afterlife. There is a time when it is too late to learn.

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I stood impatiently in the wall-less room with my feet perfectly centered on the designated dot, staring at a woman’s back. She wasn’t standing on her dot. Why didn’t someone say something to her?

I watched droplets of water make their way down her bleach blond tresses, linger for a bit at the end, and then fall to join the small pool forming at her heels. Just as another droplet began taking form, the hoary-haired man yelled, “Next!”

It was the wet-haired woman’s turn.

“Cause of death?”

“Well, I think I drowned. You see, we were taking turns jumping from the cliff . . .”

“Drowning. Step to the right and follow Michael. Next!”

A bit startled at the man’s abruptness, I stood watching the dripping hair disappear around the corner with Michael.

“NEXT!”

The man accentuated his order with the slamming of a gavel, and I nearly jumped out of my dry, itchy skin caused by some rare condition. I can’t remember which condition, but I had Googled it and it had a long name.

I moved up to the last dot.

“Cause of death?”

“Uh, well, you see, it could have been a number of things. I’ve been having sharp pains in my chest which I’m thinking could have been my heart or a hiatal hernia. Just the other day, I wondered if it could be a tumor pressing on my lungs; I have been trying to Google that. I could be coming down with Covid, or Delta, or Omicron because I did have a slight fever, and my blood pressure was quite erotic.”

“Erratic. . . Ma’am! I need a cause of death.”

“I don’t know what to tell you. I suffer from several diseases and a few which have not yet even been discovered. How can I choose just one?”

“We can’t admit you until we have a cause of death.”

“Do you have an iPad I can use? If I could just Google . . .”

“Gabe! Mike! Problem here!”

Two unremarkable men walked in and stood on each side of me.

“She has no idea why she died.” As he spoke, he made circles with his index finger while he rolled his eyes.

“Now just wait a minute! I’m not crazy! I am simply very self-aware.” Suddenly, the stress culminated, and I doubled over in pain.

“What now, lady?”

“I’m sure it’s a kidney stone or maybe a gall stone. I need Google, I tell you! Do you have an ER here? Please help me or I’ll die!”

“You already have, ma’am.” Taking a deep breath in and slowly exhaling, he said, “Room 113,” then bellowed, “NEXT!”

Nothing about room 113 calmed my anxiety. We all know there’s nothing good about the number 13; I’m here to say it’s true! If my pain, nausea, anxiety, and a few other maladies hadn’t subsided, I would have had to find a doctor!

The room was small yet had no walls or ceiling that I could see. Just as I started hyperventilating, a light began to shine from a wall that wasn’t there. My former next-door neighbor appeared as if on a television screen, and she was talking on her phone, totally unaware of my presence.

“Can you believe she has conjured up another illness? . . . Yes, ANOTHER! Let me tell you, I do my best to avoid that woman. All she does is talk about herself and her newest infirmity. She has exhausted four doctors and is starting her fifth. . .. No, no, I don’t think I could convince her to help with the food drive. Every time there’s a bit of work to be done, she isn’t feeling well.”

As the screen faded, I stomped over and began yelling obscenities.

Before I could continue railing at my neighbor, my son’s teacher appeared on the screen followed by various friends and relatives.

I couldn’t believe my ears, which were slightly congested from either an ear infection or possibly a tumor on my eardrum. I needed to Google my symptoms.

Anyway, all those people had the same things to say about me: “always thinks she’s sick,” “crazy,” “self-centered,” “enjoys being sick more than anyone I know!”

What is this place? How do I get out of here? I paced around the room, aching to pound on a wall or a door, but there was nothing! Exhausted, I fell to the floor and stared at the ceiling that was felt more than seen.

I have no idea how much time passed, but without warning, I found myself standing at a nurse’s station. A woman on a rotating stool was giving orders. Without looking up, she pointed at me and said, “Room 24. Pediatric patient Alex. Check his vitals and then get him and his bed cleaned up.”

A stack of bedding and wash basin with washcloth, towel, and soap landed in my hands.

“Go! What are you waiting for?”

Diane, per her name tag, was very intimidating in her animal print scrubs and purple support socks, so I turned to find room 24.

“Well, grab a Dinamap! How else do you think you’re going to get his vitals?”

A Dinamap? What in the world? My eyes followed the invisible line from the end of her finger to the rolling stands with blood pressure cuffs attached. Hmmm. So that’s what those are called.

I should have had a million questions about why I was on the pediatric oncology floor or why I was expected to bathe a smelly little boy and check his vitals, but for some odd reason, I simply did what I was told.

I stopped in the doorway of room 24 and took in the scene. Alex was obviously extremely ill and in pain. His mother sat beside him, her head on his bed, her hand enveloping his.

“Good morning, Alex!” I said as cheerfully as I could.

Alex turned his face toward me and mustered a slight smile.

“Good morning,” he said in a very tiny voice.

The woman in the chair sat up, wiping her face. Her tissue drank up her tears, but they somehow found their way to my eyes. I quickly blinked them away as I walked to the bedside and gingerly placed my hand on the mom’s shoulder.

“Why don’t you go to the cafeteria and grab something to eat. I hear there’s either a seven-course-French-chef-style coq au vin or a rubbery chicken sandwich on the menu today. Can’t remember which.”

Since when did I smile so much or touch people on the shoulder as though I cared?

“Thanks. I think I’ll just hope for a processed chicken sandwich.” As she leaned over to give Alex a kiss on the forehead, she added, “I’ll be back in 20 or 30 minutes, sweetie.” Turning her face toward me, she tired her best to smile as she said, “I’m Janie, by the way.”

“I’m Polly. Bon appetit!”

Everything I did after that initial greeting came automatically even though I had never done any of those tasks before. The next half hour was amazing as I found myself chatting and coaxing smiles from Alex. There was even a slight giggle as I talked about my puppy’s antics. We were just getting started on the worst of the worst knock-knock jokes when Polly walked back into the room.

“Was that Alex I heard telling a knock-knock joke?”

“Yes, ma’am, it was. Just between me and you, I think he has a future in stand-up comedy.”

As soon as the words left my lips and began floating around the room, I realized my error. I tried to avoid Alex’s mom’s eyes, but somehow, our eyes met, and the unspoken Alex doesn’t have a future screamed within my heart and hers.

As though my faux pas had never occurred, Alex began recounting the funny stories I had told him about my puppy, giggling as he talked. I turned to leave but was halted at the door by Janie’s voice.

“Polly! Thank you!”

Somehow, I managed to control my shaky voice as I turned and said, “My pleasure. Thanks for the new repertoire of knock-knock jokes, Alex.”

Alex raised his right hand and gave me a thumbs up.

The next thing I knew, I was snaking my way down the grocery store aisles, depositing packaged snacks and carefully chosen fruit into my basket. After picking up a couple cases of water and several drink mix flavor packets, I checked out and made my way to an apartment that felt familiar, even though I knew I had never been there before. My evening was consumed with artfully assembling care packages.

It wasn’t until I crawled into bed at midnight that I realized I only felt fatigue: no headache, no joint pain, no chest pain, and my stomach was just fine. Why, I hadn’t Googled any illness the entire day. And with that thought, I fell into a sound sleep.

The next morning, I arrived back at my job I had never had.

“What are you doing here? You’re not scheduled to work.”

“Oh, well, uh. I don’t know.”

“I’m not paying you any overtime, so just go on home.”

“Well, I don’t want paid. I would just like to visit with the families and volunteer to help them with whatever they need. I made some care packages.” What are you saying? You’re going to help families and hang around a hospital when you could binge on Netflix and TikTok all day?

Diane, decked out in polka dot scrubs today, waved her hand. “Whatever.”

I started with room 24. Armed with brand new knock-knock jokes, I popped through the door and said, “I’m baaa . . ..” There was no sign of Alex or his mom, only a woman from housekeeping washing down an empty bed.

“Where’s Alex and his mom?”

The young woman stopped her routine and looked at me. No words were spoken, but the message careened across the room and stabbed me in the heart. Anger, grief, and disbelief took their turns fighting for first place until I felt my head would explode.

Standing in the hallway with one of my carefully assembled gift bags, I packed away all the emotions that were crushing me into little pieces, and I dared the tears to crawl down my cheeks. In trying to find something else to focus on, anything not related to Alex, my eyes landed on the empty name plaque and my heart finally burst. How could I feel such grief over a little boy I had only known for 30 minutes? The floodgates were open, so I closed my eyes and fought to regain my composure.

When I reluctantly opened my eyes again, I was back in room 113 and man was I angry! My pacing only served to exacerbate my frustration. How could I be in a room without walls, but with boundaries? Why was I here? What was the meaning of those 30 minutes with Alex?

Light began emerging from my left, so I turned to look. Then, I realized I didn’t need to hear my family and fake friends criticize me again, so I turned away from the light and covered my ears. After a few seconds, I looked back at the light and heard the question, “What did you learn, Polly?”

“WHAT DID I LEARN? WHAT KIND OF A QUESTION IS THAT?”

Nothing but silence.

Angrily, I continued yelling, “I learned that if I do something nice for someone, I get nothing in return except pain. No one even asked how I was during my entire time on that disgusting floor of the hospital. I’m sorry I agreed to bathe that kid. Nobody did anything for me that whole time! No one ever asked how I was. It was hard work and for what reason? I could have used that time to make another TikTok video!”

No answer. I was exhausted, but there wasn’t a bed, so I curled up in the corner. My head was pounding, and my stomach hurt, but there was no access to Google, so I had nothing to do but fall asleep. My brain assured me that I most likely had a fast-moving cancer and would die in my sleep. Wait! I am dead . . . maybe.

I’m not sure if I even slept, but when I opened my eyes, I was in someone’s home, and I was sitting beside a young woman.

“Please give me something for the pain,” she uttered between clenched teeth.

I pulled the paperwork from the bedside table and read the directions. “I’m sorry, but I can’t give you any more morphine until 10:30. It’s only 10:00.”

“Call someone. Please! I’m begging.”

“Ok. Let me see.” I scoured the papers for a phone number and talked with a woman named Linda while writing down her instructions.

“I’m going to increase your morphine amount and rate. You should feel better soon.”

“Thank you so much, Polly. You’re such a good friend. I’m sorry I complain so much.”

“Oh honey. Don’t apologize. You’re doing great.”

Hours upon hours passed as I watched the young woman glide into a restful sleep from which she would never awake. My heart moved to my throat and pushed my tears over the brim of my eyes as I watched her husband and two small children come in a couple of hours later and kiss her good-bye. I found myself holding her hand and wiping her brow while I sang a beautiful song about the hope of heaven. When her breathing stopped, I bowed my head and sobbed with her family. I had never felt such pain.

When I lifted my head, I found myself back in that awful room 113. The same question was posed: What did I learn?

“I learned that death isn’t fair. Pain isn’t fair. I felt love and compassion for that young mother, but it did no good. She still died.”

I don’t know if my head or stomach hurt; all I know is that my heart ached, and my mind was flooded with the faces of Alex and Janie, that husband, and those two little children as I drifted into a restless sleep.

When I awoke, I was back at the hospital, walking towards the exit. Suddenly, my feet stopped in the threshold of room 22, one door down from Alex’s room. As I peered into the room, a mother and father stood by the impersonal hospital crib. Their heads were bowed, and the father’s mouth was moving, but I couldn’t make out the words. I was then pulled into the room until I was close enough to realize that the father was pleading with God to make their baby well. His prayer melted into sobs that shook my soul.

“Amen.” Why did I say that?

The young couple opened their eyes while trading their tears for smiles as they reached out their hands.

“Hi. I’m Jonathon and this is my wife, Melanie. And this tough little lady is Isabella. She’s recovering from brain surgery. The doctor says . . .” The sobs returned and Jonathon dropped to his chair, covering his face with his hands.

“I’m so sorry. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through. Here, it’s not much, but I made some gift bags. I don’t know you, but I just want you to know you’re not alone. I care. I really care about you and little Isabella.

Melanie made her way over to me and hugged me tight. “I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to know a total stranger cares about our situation. There are so many families here going through horrible circumstances. Thank you for this token of love.”

“You’re very welcome. Is there anything I can do? Anything I can get for you?”

“Oh, no thanks. . . Well, would you mind sitting with her while we grab something to eat? We haven’t eaten all day; we didn’t want her to wake up alone. She should sleep for a while longer. If she awakens, the doctor said we should hold her as much as possible.”

“Sure! I’ll be glad to do that. Take your time.”

As I watched Jonathon and Melanie walk hand in hand through the door, my heart raced. I was terrified to hold a baby who had just had brain surgery. I stood perfectly still so as not to make any noise that would wake the sleeping bundle in the crib. No matter how much I prayed for Jonathon and Melanie to come back before Isabella awoke, it wasn’t meant to be. Desperate, heart-wrenching cries floated up to me from the crib.

Taking a deep breath, I gently lifted tiny Isabella from her crib and held her against me. I walked to the rocking chair and took my seat. The rhythm of the rocker on the floor and my hand softly patting her back summoned a lullaby I hadn’t sung for years. As the minutes passed, she quieted, and I gained enough courage to shift her into a cradled position so I could see her tiny features. It was at that moment I felt my entire being flood with love and compassion. Isabella opened her eyes and I fell into the dark beauty of those two pools of innocence.

I continued rocking and soundlessly conversing with my new little friend. How unfair for you to suffer so much. It’s just not right for someone so beautiful and innocent to endure any type of pain, let alone brain surgery! If only I could take your place!

I began running my fingers over the small stain on the pink blanket that enveloped Isabella and began considering why it couldn’t have been me to have a brain tumor instead of this beloved child. I had Googled brain tumors enough that I knew all about them. Why on earth had I ever wished for a brain tumor just to garner sympathy?

I closed my eyes to pray, and when I opened them, I was back in room 113 holding the pink stained baby blanket. I felt completely different. Before the question came, I said, “I learned that pain and suffering are never fair, and there’s no glory in manipulating sympathy from others. I realize that I wasted a lot of time and energy creating my own illnesses instead of helping others through theirs. I learned empathy.”

Michael appeared in my room just then and ushered me back to the man behind the desk.

“Cause of death?”

“It will be a brain tumor.”

The hoary-haired man looked at me and smiled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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