i was working as a palliative care nurse that year, licensed and loaned for communion with the dying. those hospital beds became homes, you know, sterile islands for survivors shipwrecked by their own bodies. by degenerative neurological, by autoimmune, by AIDS, by cancer.
and he had a photo, yellowed with age, propped up against a cheap vase filled with crumbling flowers. he was young in this picture, all mirrored shades and dirty hair, his arm slung around a pretty slip of a girl with pale curls and straight teeth.
"kelly," he said once, his eyes glazing over. "is she coming back soon?"
and i told him yes, then dosed him with morphine.
i listened to grandparents calling out for their children's children, heard the aged and weary talk to invisible monsters in the clutches of dementia. they told me about past lives, old friends, favorite haunts, estranged families. i changed catheter bags and took confessions. so i waited for him to tell me about kelly, but he never did. and she never came.
non-hodgkins lymphoma took him like a bullet to the chest, pressing against his lungs with fluid malignancy, slowing down his breathing. i watched his legs purple with bruises that blossomed overnight like vivid, terrible flowers.
and while he slipped in and out of comas, i waited for someone to come for him. maybe even kelly, her hair silvering with age and lines of grief etched around a mouth that once beamed so brightly for the polaroid camera.
but his bedside always stayed empty, an unread invitation returned to sender.
and the last night i heard his labored breathing drag to a ragged, painful crawl, i asked him,"what do you need?"
he said, "give me a year and the pacific. i will find her again."