Updated: Dec 31, 2020
Hospitals smelled like bleach. At least this one did.
Her room, though, smelled of citrus, a kind of overripe scent that hung all syrupy sweet in the dampened air. The geranium plant by her bedside that strained toward the light had been a get-well-soon gift from her granddaughter.
Hospitals were white, at least this one was: every wall and ceiling and floor—
The door too was a faded dirty white, and easily it—like the color itself, which wasn’t really a color—didn’t exist at all. If you didn’t look closely—and her eyes weren’t nearly as sharp as they used to be—you would think there was no way out.
Hospitals were empty—not of people, but of laughter and life and soul. Here, screams didn’t end, but instead echoed back and forth into infinity. They seeped into cracks and tangled in webs and melded together until you couldn’t be sure where one ended and another began.
She coughed, and a terrible ragged sound escaped her lips. It didn’t echo or shatter the silence or anything of the sort but instead shriveled up and died. The air was sticky like overcooked molasses, everywhere and nowhere and hard to breathe, and her words rattled as if they had been hollowed out. It didn’t matter—no one was listening anyway.
There was nothing left to do and nothing left to see, so she stirred in her thoughts and she counted the tiles on the ceiling and the folds of her wrinkled, sandpapery skin. She recalled past memories in black and white, occasions when her joints were agile and untouched by the afflictions of arthritis and age, and she was reckless and free and life was beautiful and yet—the fondness she felt for those times had died long ago.
There was nothing left to do, so she listened—first to the monitor going beep beep beep like a heartbeat, almost; then through paper-thin walls to frantic shouts layering one on top of another. She listened to sorries and thank you’s and we did everything we could’s, empty consolations delivered through gritted teeth as if they hadn’t been said a thousand times before. Families fought losing battles for limited provisions, and when they cried, doctors did too. When yet another life passed, unfulfilled, she listened no more for once these sounds had made a home in your mind they were quite difficult, if not impossible, to get rid of.
The geranium drooped in its wooden pot.
The door opened, and thus began a gamble as to who walked inside. It was merely the flip of a coin—it could have been Death, who stood cloaked and waiting in the shadows behind every door; yet she felt no weight had been lifted when it appeared the doctor had come in instead. It seemed a stroke of fortune what he had brought in with him—a machine three feet high and towering, its sole purpose to collect the air that very nearly escaped her. It was not Death, but Opportunity that had come knocking and she should have been relieved, yes, but there were people outside these doors waiting for this same luck—and it was then that she wondered if luck did have its limits, too.
So then, it wasn’t a single moment of clarity—a sudden firework, some brilliant display, sent to its sky-bound destiny and taking with it the burden of living. It was more of the aftermath and the sparks of light drifting behind; it crept in slowly and settled, a million little moments and sounds through which she subsequently understood a plain truth.
She had had a good life, and she told the doctor so.
And she said, give it to the younger ones. And she folded her hands across her chest in a gesture of peaceful resolution. Give it to those who still have a life to live.
There was a brief moment during which time seemed to rewind and cave in on itself, and the delicate weight of her sacrifice settled slowly—for it was too heavy to stay afloat—among muted sounds and washed-out colors. But then it passed and time sped forward again; time flew, for the world had not stopped and there were thousands more patients to tend to and thousands more lives to save.
So she smiled. There was no reason, she figured, to deny the inevitable. Yet as she succumbed to the current of sleep, she worried, for there would be no one to care for her geranium plant and it had—inevitably—already begun to wither.