The Conscious Cure
I am dying. My pin cushioned arms and the erratic beeping of the monitors are enough to confirm that. Wires and tubes traverse in a complex web injecting various antibiotics and steroids into a non-receptive body. Hell, I don’t even know if I am breathing on my own anymore. Days have blended seamlessly together as I lay motionless in this unadorned bed. The stale air of the hospital, thick with the pungent smell of the sick and dying, no longer affects me. It would be hypocritical of me to complain now anyway. My own stench is probably contributing to the haze. This disease, infection, or whatever it is clearly winning and I no longer have the strength or will to fight.
I hate this. More than anything I have ever endured or experienced. I hate being confined to this bed. I hate swimming around in this dark abyss with no one but myself to comfort me. And most of all I hate this searing, white hot pain that has claimed my body as its own. Yes, at this point death is my only salvation. At least death will succeed where the doctors have failed.
As I stand before the threshold of Death’s gilded door, I am comforted by its inviting presence. My hands, slick with sweat, reach towards the golden knocker and abruptly halt as a familiar voice echoes through the darkness.
Jonathan? Jonathan! Please come back! You can’t leave me, you just can’t!
That voice, saturated with agony and loss, forces me to step away from my only means of escape and stumble once again into life.
My eyes remain tightly shut as if some practical joker has found humor in gluing my eyelids together. Though I cannot see, my ears soon discern the familiar voice of my mother as she argues with a man in hushed tones.
“What do you mean there’s nothing more you can do for him?” she questions, her voice suffocating as she holds back the dammed river behind her eyes. “You’re a doctor, for God’s sake. It’s your job to save lives!”
“Ma’am I assure you that we are doing everything humanly possible to save your son,” he said in a deep, husky, voice. “The problem is our treatments are failing to yield any results that indicate any improvement in Jonathan’s condition. We still don’t have a verifiable diagnosis that explains your son’s case. His body is rejecting every form of treatment we’ve subjected him to and quite frankly we are running out of options.”
Hah. Throughout my childhood, my mother’s compliment of choice was to praise and emphasize how special I was. I wonder if she is aware of the brutal irony. Oh. I am special alright… special enough to contract an unknown illness with no foreseeable cure.
Lucky me, lucky me.
“What do you suggest I do then?” she asked. “There must be something you can do. Some test you haven’t run yet. Please, tell me he is going to be alright!”
“Ma’am maybe it’s time–”
“Well, if you decide to change your mind—“
“Well Ms. Avington, I cannot pretend to understand how upsetting this must be for you, but I promise we are doing our very best. As for further tests,” he sniffed uncomfortably before continuing, “They are rather expensive and please forgive me for sounding callous, but it seems irrational to perform any additional tests. Your son’s care has accumulated a hefty bill and it would pain me greatly, to witness a single mother overcome with debts she cannot pay especially when there is no guarantee that they will reveal anything new.”
“You’re pathetic” my mother replies, her voice icy with razor sharp condemnation. “The only thing you care about– “her voice chokes off as she bursts in to tears. “He—he isn’t even dead yet!”
I strain to hear the doctor’s muttered attempts to console my mother, but the feeble “thuds” of my mother’s porcelain fists pounding against the swooshing material of his white coat creates a steady rhythmic lullaby that tugs at my semi-consciousness. One, two, Three. One, two, Three. One, two, Three. The pulse latches around my neck like a leash and drags me once again into the lightless void of unconsciousness.
As I fall deeper into myself, I look all around me for that golden door. Surely it would appear as it did last time. That selfish part of me wanted—No, needed it to reappear.
But my escape hatch never reveals itself.
Instead, I find myself standing in the midst of a freshly mowed lawn enclosed by a quaint picket fence with chipped white paint that reveals the weathered signs of age. An oak tree grows in the far corner casting its cool shade over the tin roof of a small blue shuttered house.
We moved here when I was five years old and have been living here ever since. The house’s diminutive size and Victorian trim reminds me of a fairy tale cottage that has been tucked away deep in a secluded forest. With only two bedrooms, one bathroom, kitchen, and a small living room, the house is cramped but for me and my mother it’s perfect. It keeps us cool during the blazing summers and warm throughout the frigid winters. The walls, constructed with cedar panels, give each room a rich warm glow whenever the sunlight pores through the windows. Upon first moving into the house, my mother instantly fell in love with the minimalistic splendor it exhibited. With the exception of a few photographs and several of my mother’s original paintings, the interior beauty of the house has never been compromised.
Standing outside, I spy the large bay window that looks into our kitchen and think of my worrying mother who would stare out that very window whenever I played in the backyard as a child. She was vigilant and would always keep a careful eye on me to ensure no harm would ever befall her only child. The neighborhood’s reputation as one of the safest communities in the whole county had been an influential perk in persuading my mother to move here.
I take a deep labored breath reveling in the scent of cut grass that still lingers in the balmy breeze. My mother’s pruned zinnias grow in neat rows along one side of the picket fence releasing their own sickly sweet perfume into the air. My mother has never possessed what farmers call “a green thumb,” but her fascination with growing things has never deterred her from trying. Those bouquets of red, orange, and yellow, are the only plants she ever managed to keep alive. Every year she trims and waters her flowers and graciously accepts the compliments from our neighbors as they pass by.
I must be dreaming, but the wind in my face and the intoxicating aromas seem so real. Maybe–just maybe, I have a little luck left in me after all. If this is to be my last dream I should feel lucky. At least it’s a peaceful dream. At least I am home.
I take a step towards the familiar mahogany door when suddenly a mass of brightly colored spheres of all shapes and sizes materialize before my eyes, obscuring the picturesque view of my home. Orbs of blue, red, green, and yellow rub and bounce around playfully, causing the hair on top of my head to stand at attention as I sweep them away with the back of my hand. The dangling strings, almost invisible in the shimmering air, reveal that the multi-colored balls are hundreds of balloons. My arms orbit my head swatting defensively as I wade through the sea of balloons. I emerge once again into the confines of my back yard and discover that the scene has changed.
Only moments before my backyard had been a tranquil mirage in an otherwise parched desert. The beauty is still here but the soothing atmosphere has evaporated into anarchy and thinly veiled confusion.
A long table complete with folding chairs has now been erected under the protective boughs of the oak tree. The table is deeply bowed in the middle as it struggles to support the mountainous piles of junk food on top of its plastic surface: hamburgers and hot dogs, chips by the bowlful, cookies of all brands and flavors, and cups overflowing with various sodas are lined up leaving no space unclaimed on the sagging table. Surrounding the table is an unruly mob of young children pushing and pulling each other playfully as they vie for the snacks.
As I observe the chaotic scene, details that I had initially overlooked swim into focus. Adorning the heads of the twenty or so children are brightly colored conical shaped hats held in place by thin elastic strings tucked neatly under their pudgy chins. I see a young boy with hair so blonde it looks silver in the golden sunlight strap his hat around his nose and begin chasing a trio of giggling girls around the picketed lawn screaming “I’m a Rhino, RAWRRR!” A genuine smile stretches unbridled across my face. I cannot help but find some joy in the antics of the silver haired boy. I envy him.
Plastic whistles, kazoos, and party blowers, hang from the lips of many. The shrill symphony echoes across the yard as they serenade the neighborhood with their new noise makers. Far off in the distance I hear a dog howling pitifully; I suppose there is always at least one negative critic. My eyes scan upwards and discover the decorative banners hanging from the awning of my house with messages painted in large, red letters that read: “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” and “HE’S A JOLLY GOOD FELLOW!” A broken piñata still swings from a gnarled limb of the old oak tree. Remnants of its sugary entrails still litter the ground around the tree’s bulging base.
Everything looks eerily familiar to me. Like a feathery hand brushed lightly across the back of my mind; it’s there and then it’s gone.
My eyes are involuntarily drawn to the opposite corner of the house. I am unsurprised to see a bored looking clown slumped against the cool brick wall. I don’t know how but some part of me knew that clown would be standing in that exact location. The clown, dressed in a red and yellow pinstriped overcoat with fuzzy orange pom-pom buttons, wiry orange hair sticking out at odd angles, white facial paint, and trademark bright red nose, cuts an imposing figure in the midst of the children.
God. Why did this dream have to include a clown?
A young girl approaches the colorful character. The clown visibly sighs and reaches into one of his many pockets and pulls out a long balloon. With a single breath of air, he inflates the balloon and begins to twist and mold the latex sculpture into the recognizable shape of a purple giraffe. He tosses the balloon animal to the young girl, who runs off laughing.
My eyes follow the girl’s return to the crowd of children. She shoves her way through the throng and confronts a young boy wearing a cardboard crown situated on his head. The girl shuffles her feet and with her eyes boring into the ground hands the boy the balloon giraffe. The boy, his face burning, reluctantly purses his lips and cranes his neck forward to deliver a delicate peck on the girl’s rosy cheek. The girl’s face burns with the intensity of a thousand suns as she turns on her heels and melts back into the crowd.
I hear the tumblers of locks as they are forced open and suddenly the familiar scene makes such complete sense that I wonder if I was aware of its meaning this entire time. This is not just a dream; it’s a memory- a memory of my sixth birthday party to be exact. The crowned boy, with his dark swirling hair, blue Pokémon shirt, and unusually sharp facial features for a child so young, is me as a six year old kid. My breathing is slow and deliberate but my heart gallops as I observe my younger self. The feeling is surreal. Like looking through a mirror and seeing the past rather than my own reflection.
Surprisingly, I haven’t changed much in the last ten years. I’ve grown taller obviously, but my hair is still a tangled nest of curls, and my sharp features have not dulled any with age. I haven’t viewed myself in an actual mirror since being admitted into the hospital, but the palpable glow of health and happiness radiating from the face of my six year old self must no longer be apparent on a face that has surely become haggard and lifeless.
I tear my eyes away from my younger self and find a seat on the lush grass and continue to observe the party—my party. I remember my sixth birthday as one of the most fun and extravagant parties I have ever experienced which is saying something considering my mother has always been the one to organize my parties. “Go big or go home” was her personal motto when it came to celebrating birthdays. I remember how she would allocate money from her meager pay checks, often months in advance, to ensure that nothing would interfere with my big day. Everything had to be perfect.
I always presumed that my mother’s ostentatious parties and gifts were her way of apologizing for a lack of a father figure in my life. Not that it was her fault my father decided to up and leave before I was born. I suppose she still feels obligated to make it up to me somehow. She certainly doesn’t seem to mind. She would gladly give me anything I could ever want just to make me happy. To this day I’ve never seen my mom shed a tear over my father. A few years ago I remember asking her if she missed my father. Did she ever think about him? Did she ever wonder where he was? She turned to me and replied with a warm smile on her face, “What is there to miss when I have you?”
It dawns on me that I have yet to see my mother. If this indeed a memory, and I am almost positive it is, she should definitely be here. I shield my eyes and look up into the azure sky. My eyes begin to water as I stare up at the sun which has already fallen from its pinnacle in the sky. Judging from its location I estimate the time to be roughly one o’clock. I guess Boy Scouts paid off after all. I try to remember what my mother had on the party agenda for one o’clock.
As if I could possibly remember something as specific as that. It’s not like I am blessed with an eidetic memory.
Regardless, my eyes are drawn towards the back door by the same compulsion I had experienced upon first seeing the clown. I stare at the door and before I even realize what I’m doing I begin counting down as numbers flash before my eyes.
3…2…1… and the back door opens and out walks my mother. Her spindly arms support a stunning three tiered birthday cake. My mother glides down the stairs and approaches the banquet table.
She looks a lot like me. Her black hair falls in dense ringlets around her shoulders creating a stark contrast with her milky white skin. Although her body is slim and delicate, she carries herself in such a way that exudes power and confidence. Even in her customary denim over-alls, faded and stained with a collage of vibrant paint splatters, her presence is not diminished. For years I’ve been tortured by my friends’ annoying declarations of how attractive my mom is. “Hot but scary” they say. Whenever these confessions of love start, I usually tune them out. No one wants to hear other people talk about how hot their parents are especially not from teenage friends. It never ceases to amaze me how anyone could perceive my mom as terrifying though. My mom, the woman who cries every winter for the trees who are helplessly robbed of their multi-hued leaves, is the sweetest person I know.
As my mom approaches the groaning table, my young doppelganger rushes forward and removes an empty bowl of chips to make room for the birthday cake. The cake itself is a work of art. Delicately painted with my favorite dark chocolate icing and elaborately edged with swirls of alternating red and blue, traces of my mother’s simple-yet-elegant artistic style are easy to distinguish. The arrival of the cake grasps the children’s attention and beckons them to the table as my mom stabs the top tier with six candles. She then gently grabs the shoulders of my younger self and positions him in front of the cake. She reaches into her overall pockets and draws out a lighter and lights the candles. As if on cue, my backyard erupts with a chorus of children’s voices as they sing me a happy birthday.
The sound of their cheerful singing falls on deaf ears as I stare at the woman who made this party possible. Standing behind the crowned birthday boy, her blue eyes gaze at him with a sweet, tender expression that cause feelings of intense longing to flare up within my feeble chest. Her eyes glisten with the love and pride that can only be measured by the irrevocable bond existing between a mother and her child. When she looks at me with those soft eyes, she looks truly happy.
Am I capable of giving up and abandoning someone who adores me so completely? Whose adoration is etched so clearly on her face? I am not so sure anymore. Death would be such an effortless escape from this bodily pain but can I in good consciousness inflict this same pain sevenfold on my mom?
I have always associated the deep crevices surrounding her soft eyes and shallow dimples with laugh lines. She was always laughing and smiling when she was with me but looking at her now I realize those trenches are a testament to the hard life she has endured. Rejected by her family.
Abandoned by a dead beat husband.
Forced to raise an only child on nothing more than a paltry artist’s salary.
I had never considered these things in my youth. How has my mother coped all these years? Is it possible that my existence has alleviated her otherwise ruinous life?
The children’s voices climb in cadence as my six-year-old self blows out the flickering torches adorning the top of our cake. As the flames extinguish, a new flame erupts inside me. A fire of intense shame that ravages my heart and soul leaving behind a cankerous sore that throbs with each ragged breath. How could I be so selfish and cowardly? My mother never succumbed to the harshness of her life. What relief could I find in death knowing that I had willingly added my name to the long list of individuals who have forsaken my mom?
With hurried steps I retreat from the memory and begin searching for the door–any door; a door that will lead me back to life and free me from the intensity of my shame. I have to keep fighting. I now realize that my mother has been relying on me just as I have been relying on her all these years. I must be strong like her. I owe her that at least.
My fumbling hands discover the door and fling it open. A flood of iridescent light pores forth bathing me in its warmth. I leap forward without hesitation and cross the threshold…
The harsh fluorescent lights of the hospital penetrate my closed eyelids causing explosions of distorted shapes and colors to hang suspended at the front of my exhausted mind.
“I’m not sure how, but he’s back. For now at least,” I hear the doctor say. His breathless voice betrays a sense of astonishment.
“Whathappened?Whydidyoumakemeleave?Whydidhisheartbeatdropthatlow? Ishegoingtobeokay?” The barrage of questions fly out of mom’s mouth in a single high pitched drone. Whatever has just happened in the present has clearly traumatized her. I want to reach out and grab her arm and tell her everything is alright now. I want to thank her for everything, but the use of my muscles and voice are still beyond me.
“I–I have never seen anything quite like this. He was gone. His stats are still dangerously low, but there is a marginal chance that he may pull through this after all. Clearly your son has a little fight left in him Ms. Avington,” said the doctor as the icy diaphragm of his stethoscope explores my naked heart and stressed lungs. I want to laugh at his stuttering disbelief. I guess his twelve years of medical school couldn’t prepare him for everything.
I am back but it is a mystery as to how long I can stay. The motivation to fight still courses through my veins, but who am I to predict what tomorrow will bring? I lay motionless in bed recalling the vivid memory of that happier time in my life. As long as I focus on that peaceful scene I am confident that I will be able to resist giving up hope again. There are too many people counting on me. My mom is counting on me. Whatever happens shall happen, but I will never willingly seek out that gilded door again.
A gentle, cool, feather caresses my forehead sweeping away the tussled hair plastered to my feverish face.
For now, I choose life.
My name is Andrew Greene, and I was born and raised in North Carolina. I am currently a senior completing my final semester at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. I will be graduating in May with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative writing. I have been writing, creatively and academically, for ten years. It is my aspiration to attend UNC-Chapel Hill to pursue my Master’s Degree in Library Science with a focus in Rare Book Preservation and Literary Archiving, but writing forever be a prevalent passion of mine!