The same dream. Two or three nights a week, the same dream. I stand on the shoreline of the Mediterranean in the blackness of night, ankle deep in the lightly churning water. The sea looms in front of me, dark and terrible and bottomless, as if it will swallow me whole. Above, the black sky, dimensionless. An invisible, indistinguishable horizon. I take a step back, seeking the dry shore, for escape from the depthless maw.
My feet move through the icy water, searching for the soft, sandy bottom. Instead, they scrape against a coral floor. The coral's sharp, uneven edges slice into my exposed feet. Knees buckle from the pain. I struggle to stay upright, above the surface of the water, but the jagged floor digs deeper into my flesh. The water smells of blood and salt. I drop to my knees, now submerged within the ocean's abyss. My arms, thrashing above the surface, grasping at air. My legs, skewered and numb.
With all my effort, I try to stand again, but my feet slip down, the torn bottoms unable to withstand the pressure. Bleeding, drowning, I give in. Unable to breathe. Unable to escape.
Sometimes, I would awaken, gasping for breath. Other times, I would calmly arouse, familiar with this sensation. Accustomed to this nightly practice.
My parents were concerned about these frequent dreams. Said they weren't normal. Forced me to talk to an old counselor from my high school. I did it just to satisfy them, but the sessions didn't help. The truth was that I already was well aware of the dreams' source.
The dreams, I surmised, were the direct consequence of something that could only be described as a preoccupation, an obsession, with death. Death and dying. Every night before I went to bed, thoughts of the end of my life consumed my thoughts. I imagined myself dying, imagined the fear I would feel during these last moments. I lay in bed, and conjured up the most real and vivid image of my death, a feeling of numbing cold spreading throughout my chest. Each night, the lucid illustration of the end of my life, followed by the trailing darkness.
As Dave and I drove through Flagstaff, AZ under the smattering rain, I finally admitted to myself that this was the real reason I joined Hospice. The reason for my volunteer work, my "charity," and my car drive with Dave, did not stem from my goodwill or sincere intentions, regardless of how much I tried to fool myself otherwise. The reason, I knew, were rooted in some ill-placed desire to better understand death. People fear what they don't understand, and in some way, I thought surrounding myself with the dying would be the best way to achieve some grasp. By confronting death in places where it so frequently dwelled, I hoped that I could come to terms with its inevitability. And maybe, when I understood it, I could get past it. Maybe then, I thought, the dreams would stop.
"Well, I just hope it doesn't keep up this way," said Dave, finishing a conversation about the weather that I had long since tuned out. He turned up the windshield wiper, squinting through the sheet of water forming over glass. As he squinted, his small eyes created creases along his face, running underneath his small patch of hair that the receding line had not yet conquered. His small features and soft, whispery voice gave him a feminine quality, countered only by the musty smell of his old cologne.
"Alice," Dave said as we pulled into a residential establishment. After a moment, I realized that he was informing me about the woman we were helping today. "Her husband has a terminal illness, and has been given about three more months to live. The family decided that they want to be together, so we are moving the bed out of their room to fit the hospital bed and equipment." His speech was very drawn out, full of unnecessary pauses. I found this irritating, but supposed that it was a useful quality to have when dealing with the vulnerable clients of Hospice.
He looked over at me, gently smiling. "Today, you're helping a couple spend their last moments together in their home. It's a sad thing, but you should be proud for wanting to help." I nodded in reply, but felt a twinge of sadness pinch my throat. He thought my intentions came from a sincere place.
We pulled up to the driveway of an older, Victorian style home. Dark wooden walls outlined the large windows on the front of the house. Water poured off the pointed roof, which was missing a handful of shingles. We approached the front door underneath an archway, although the holes riddled in its surface did little to provide refuge from the rain.
Dave walked up to the heavy steel door, banging it loudly with the ornate brass doorknocker. The doorknocker hung slightly off kilter, and shifted as he used it. A moment later, the door creaked open. On the other side stood an older woman, withered and frail. Her white hair hung down on both sides of her face, accenting her cloudy blue eyes and sallow, sunken skin. She wore a pink woven sweater, frayed and faded.
"Hi, hi, come in," she said, her voice as weak and delicate as her appearance. "Get you two out of that rain." She let out a small laugh before coughing dryly into her hand. As she turned and led us into the house, I noticed her bowed back and short legs trembling with every step.
Dave and I entered the house. I felt the wave of warm air come around me, but it did nothing to eliminate the chill under my skin. It was not the kind of cold that warmth could cure. I patted my shoes dry on the rug while observing the interior, the smell of cinnamon and brown sugar floating in the air.
I noticed how Alice had kept the home in very nice condition. Pristine, even. The wooden walls and furniture, both comprised of dark oak, were immaculate. The fireplace cast heat over the room, and the firelight created shadows that danced along the beige carpet. Above the frame of the fireplace were multiple photos, displaying images of Alice and her husband in another life. I never would have thought such an inviting place could be host to such deeply rooted sadness.
"This is a very nice place you have here," Dave said, thoughtfully observing the room.
"Thanks, I do my best," replied Alice. "It's not much, but I try to keep it up." She hacked into her hand again, more hoarse than the first time. "Thank you so much for coming out here. I just want you to know I really appreciate this. You two don't have to do this, and I want you to know it means a lot."
Again, the pinch. Stronger this time.
"It is our pleasure, Alice," Dave replied, so automatic that it sounded rehearsed. "We know this time can be very hard, and we just want to make things as easy as possible for you and your husband." Dave walked over and put his hand gently on her back, and she gently nodded her head.
"Let me take you to the room, then," she said, seemingly attempting to perk up. For her credit, she did admirably, but her strain to emanate an upbeat attitude was apparent. She smiled, but her weary eyes revealed her grief. Her sadness did not reside on the surface; rather, it simmered underneath. On the cusp of overflowing, but for the moment contained.
Alice led us down the photo-laden hall to the master bedroom. The large room contrasted the small feeling of the rest of the house, but was much less inviting. The coziness of the living room gone, and in its place was a single queen-sized bed, sitting in a bulky wooden bed frame. The elaborate design etched into the wood frame was the only unique aspect of the empty and lonely room. Alice did not spend much of her time here.
"Here it is," she told us. I heard her voice waver slightly. Dave smiled, again placing his hand gently on her back.
"Shaun and I will go ahead and clear the bed and the frame, and give you and your husband the space you need here."
We began plotting the best method to transport the large frame down the hall. I could hear Alice in the kitchen, along with the tinkering of glasses. Dave and I took either end of the mattress, hoisting it up and turning it on its side. The flimsy mattress folded in on itself, but Dave and I easily transported it to the truck.
We returned to the bedroom and prepared to move the heavy wooden frame. The frame was built as one piece, and needed to be moved as such to keep its stability intact. I took hold of one end, and together, we tried to lean the bed on its side. The muscles in my back and arms burned, and beads of sweat formed on my brow. After tilting the structure, we proceeded to lift it. The sharp edges dug into my fingers, cutting into the joints. Together, we stumbled out of the room, rotating the frame so that the ends could squeeze through the narrow doorway.
As we progressed down the hall, moving the bed took its toll. My arms seared. My hands went numb. I could feel the burn welling in my lower back. Sweat rolled down my forehead, running into my eyes. Pain seemed to spread throughout my body...and I relished in it. I welcomed the discomfort, the sweat, the strain.
After we finished securing the frame on the truck, Dave and I returned to the bedroom. We took a seat on the bench in the back of the room, exhausted. Moments later, Alice returned, holding a silver tray carrying two glasses of hot chocolate. Steam rose from underneath the layer of floating marshmallows, which bobbed gently on the surface.
Dave and I took the hot glasses. Thanked Alice for her courtesy. We then all took a seat on the bench, sipping our beverages in silence.
Dave's phone rang, cutting through the quiet. He excused himself and took the call in the hallway. His absence left Alice and me alone, staring at the vacant space on the floor where the bed once resided. Only a foot separated us from each other, but it felt like I might as well have been in another building.
"It's going to be strange," Alice said, staring blankly at the window. I looked at her, no doubt appearing more surprised than I meant to at her comment. "I mean, having him here. Walking in the room and seeing the hospital gurney where...the bed used to be. I guess it just makes it all so real."
"Are you scared?" I asked. When I heard the words escape my mouth, I cringed. With all my heart, I regretted asking the question, wishing I could take it back. Frustrated by the lack of answers I had sought for so long, I had tried to go directly to the source. I was selfish.
However, Alice just looked at me, and gave me the warmest and most sincere look I had seen from her that day.
"Yes," she said, her upturned lips creating creases along her cheeks. "I'm terrified."
"How do you do it? How did you come to accept it?"
Alice paused momentarily, looking again at the window as if the words she was searching for danced along the other side. "I didn't accept it. I don't accept anything. To be honest, I'm no more comfortable now with this than I was when I was a young girl. It hasn't gotten any easier."
"So what do you do? How...how?"
"I put it out of my mind." She returned her gaze from the window to my eyes. Locked them there. "There is really nothing else I can do. I choose not to think about it." Her head dropped. "If I concentrated on his sickness, it would be impossible to enjoy the time that we had together, and all of this...," she gestured with her hands, "...would be for nothing. If I thought about his death, there would be no room left for anything else." She swallowed. "We moved the bed to make room for his gurney, but the truth is that I had to move it out. For me. It was only a reminder of our lives before this."
Dave reentered the room, apologizing for his absence. Something about a leak at the thrift store. Something about thanking Alice. I wasn't paying attention. Instead, I continued to sit on the bench, replaying my conversation with Alice over and over again in my mind. Contemplating what she told me. Mulling over her answer.
Moments passed. I suddenly found myself back outside, with no recollection of my journey from the bedroom to the front door. I looked around. The gray clouds still littered the late afternoon sky. The bitterly cold air still made me shudder. I don't know why I expected otherwise, but the shining revelation that made the world a little brighter, a little more colorful, wasn't there. Just a small insight, subtle as a lowering tide on the shore. Perhaps, I thought, this was the nature of the acceptance of death. No great epiphany that grants me full understanding. No comprehension that eliminates and replaces the fear. Just a series of small insights, so subtle and delicate they seem invisible, until one day I realize that the fear and apprehension I held for so long have disappeared. No mass exodus. Just a fading shadow that slips quietly into the night.
"Please let us know if there is anything else we can do for you," Dave told Alice. They stood at the doorway of her home, more like close friends than strangers that met for the first time two hours ago. He put his hand on her shoulder. Patted it. She smiled, a sort of grin, as if recalling an old joke. She then closed the door, and my relationship with Alice vanished, a wisp of smoke evaporating so quickly it could be said to never have existed at all.
Dave and I climbed into the truck and rode in silence back to Hospice. We said our goodbyes, and I left. Told him I'd see him later, although I had no intention to return. Guilt still lumped in my throat, but I had nothing left to gain from this place.
As I went to bed that night, the familiar images of death arose again, emerging from all corners of my mind, infiltrating each and every thought. I tried to put them out of my head. They returned. I attempted to focus on distant, joyful memories. They lingered. Maybe it would get easier with time. Maybe, someday, I would forget the fixation ever existed at all. I cleared my mind again, and hoped for dreamless night's sleep.
About the author:
Shaun El-Ters is currently attending Northern Arizona University, where he is an editor and columnist for the university's newspaper, The Lumberjack. After graduating NAU, he plans to defy better judgment and attend Western State University to pursue a law degree.
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