A Short Story by David Thomas Peacock
been through a lot in the last seven years, but at 61, he felt like his life
was finally in a good place. Shortly after he turned 54, seemingly out of
nowhere, he was diagnosed with cancer. At the time he felt great and took pride
when people would tell him that he looked ten years younger than his age. He
had been exercising regularly since he was 27, when his girlfriend at the time
(who would later become his wife) got him his first gym membership. Over the
decades, the constant exercise had developed his skinny frame into a still
thin, but solidly built man. He didn’t smoke cigarettes and ate a good diet, so
the whole thing was quite a shock. He had never really been sick before.
started when a routine blood test set out a red flag, which in turn led to a
whole series of tests over the course of the next few months. It turned out it
was all just a prelude to the opening act of the real show – the biopsy.
day would be forever burned into his brain. His oncologist had never palpated
any tumors before on exam, but as soon as he got there he started pressing and
said, hmm – yes, there’s definitely something here. Scoop remembered it
was a beautiful, sunny spring day outside, and the exam room was cold with
harsh, bright lights – the kind that were meant to illuminate everything down
to an almost cellular level in order to facilitate viewing with surgical
said take all of your clothes off and put the gown on so it’s open in the
back, then lay down on the table on your right side with your knees to your
chest. Scoop looked around and there wasn’t a changing room – the doc was
busy setting out his equipment, and there were two young, attractive female
assistants with Slavic accents getting supplies for him. Neither had
acknowledged he was even there, so he just took his clothes off and then stood
there naked, fumbling with his gown.
He seemed to
be invisible, which only heightened the feeling of cold sterility in the room.
It was weird to be standing there naked in front of two attractive women – he
wanted to joke around to acknowledge the awkward humanity of it all, but no one
would make eye contact. So he just did what the doc said, and got on with the
grim task ahead.
biopsies were obtained with a device that seemed to operate like a nail gun, or
at least that’s what it sounded like as it cored out the tissue of the
misbehaving organ in question. He was so freaked out about what the procedure
meant, what it was looking for, that he didn’t really feel any pain. When it
was over he was left lying in this most vulnerable position feeling somehow
violated and not at all like a human connected to the other people in the room.
The attractive assistants were now cleaning up, having never acknowledged him
as a person, only as some kind of specimen upon which to perform this
He looked up
at the doctor who was standing over him and said sheepishly I never saw this
looked down at him with an expressionless face and replied No one ever does.
But that was
seven years and three surgeries ago – the original operation to remove the
cancerous organ had been a success, at least for its primary intention. There
had never been any sign of metastatic disease since its removal seven years
ago. Whatever deficits Scoop had been left with, he was always grateful that
his oncologist and surgeon had been successful. When he got a copy of the final
pathology report, he was stunned to read the results:
tumor invades into, but not through the capsule of the left posterior lobe and
shows multifocal perineural invasion. No tumor identified in the surgical
saved this report and read it many times, and even though he wasn’t a doctor,
it’s underlying message was clear. Time and luck had been on his side – the
tumor had begun working its way through the capsule surrounding the organ,
traveling along the nerves, and once it did the cancerous cells would quickly
be swept away in the bloodstream. There they would travel to different parts of
his body, setting up shop wherever the climate seemed pleasant. This would be
the beginning of metastatic disease, and it would be the end of Scoop. A long
and painful end, he thought.
not what happened – instead he was given a second chance at life, and after a
few rocky years of recovery he began living with a very simple and sincere
principle guiding every waking moment: gratitude. Not abstract gratitude
– no, the kind of gratitude that only happens when you dodge a real bullet that
had your name on it.
certainly been traumatized by the whole experience, but he got through it. The
way he saw it, there were two reasons for his ability to cope with what had
happened: his resilience and the love and support of his wife Dahl. If he had
to give weight to which one was more important, it would be the latter.
They had met
27 years ago, and their connection was immediately electric – it was as if two
uniquely complex organisms came together, each primed with receptors specifically
designed to link with each other, magnetically joining together to form
something new. At the time Scoop didn’t really know what love was, but when
they met he started to get a good inkling. How do you even begin to describe a
relationship this long and deep? Let’s just say that when two people love each
other this much, their lives begin to intertwine with such a degree of
complexity that they cease to exist as two completely separate entities. Even
though they of course remain individuals, there is also this other thing, this
third entity that somehow represents the sum total of both their existence.
entity isn’t separate from them – it is them, as if two sentient beings
have merged to create something else, something greater than the sum of its
parts. It’s a weirdly human thing that’s difficult to quantify, but it’s
people become this close, they each enhance the others ability to function and
enjoy life. Their sense of worth and motivation becomes inextricably tied to
In the seven
years since his bout with cancer, Scoop had to have an additional surgery to
repair damage caused by the first treatment. It was done about five years ago,
and had been as successful as could be hoped for. That is to say: whenever you
are trying to repair or reconstruct damage to the human body caused by disease
or trauma, it’s never going to be as good as what you originally had. But Scoop
didn’t really care – he was alive and life was good. Dahl had stood by him throughout
the whole ordeal, never once complaining, even when he was struggling with the
aftermath of his disease. After a few years of readjustment, their life
together resumed its familiar rituals.
there was a problem – the repairs done by the first reconstructive surgery had
suddenly failed. It really sucked, but he felt it was just a minor nuisance
when he looked at the big picture. I mean, let’s be clear: as long as there was
no return of the cancer, he was good.
He would use
the same surgeon that had done the first repair, it wasn’t his fault the device
failed. Besides, Scoop really liked him. When he was researching doctors, he
discovered that one of the premier surgeons in the world for this particular
procedure had offices in New York City, which was where he lived. He was the
master of his craft, had performed this surgery over 3000 times, and had the
lowest published infection rates. On top of all that, he genuinely seemed to be
a nice guy, giving out his personal cellphone number to all his patients with
the instructions to call if there was ever a problem.
what Scoop did, and in short order he had scheduled a date for surgery, and now
that date was here. In two days it would be done and he could get on with his
life again. He knew he’d have to go through a period of recovery, but honestly,
that wasn’t such a big deal – after all, he’d already gone through the whole
process once. And besides, his doc told him that it was actually easier the
tried not to be nervous, or at least tried not to show it. Dahl always got
upset when he had to have surgery, so it was important to appear as casual as
possible. He wanted to try and make it as easy as possible for her, but he knew
no matter what she would become more and more anxious as the day approached. He
loved her so much and wished he didn’t have to put her through this shit, but
here’s an unfortunate lesson Scoop had learned: Life doesn’t really give a fuck
what you want – it deals you a hand, and you just have to play it as best you
can. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose – you just hope is that the
stakes aren’t too high.
sometimes they are.
been born in London in 1956 and spent the first 17 years of her life there. Her
father had immigrated from Sri Lanka in 1950 to work as a physician in the
newly formed National Health Service. Her mother was a Scottish nurse,
unsurprisingly they met while both were working at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.
By the time she was born her family had settled in the Forest Gate district in
the borough of Newham where they lived simply but comfortably. The area was a
veritable melting pot of cultures, so her mixed heritage presented only minor
problems growing up. Her birth name was Dahlia but as long as she could
remember everyone called her Dahl.
She had an
older brother and a younger sister, but no extended family – she vaguely
remembered her father taking them to Sri Lanka when she was five, but by that
time he no longer had any family there. They had somehow become lost in time –
he never mentioned them when she was growing up, and by the time she was old
enough to care, her father had passed away. Her mother’s parents and relatives
lived in Edinburgh; she did remember several family trips there as a child, but
the maternal side of her family was remote, having never got over the fact that
her mother had married someone with dark skin. So she grew up surrounded by her
immediate family, and all in all, her childhood was good. She loved her parents
and they supported her – although they were remote and quite conservative, they
encouraged her to develop her own interests.
childhood it was clear that she was both beautiful and smart. You know how some
people have so much life in them, their eyes just seem to shine? As if their
inner spirit was so powerful it made their eyes luminescent? People like that
draw others to them as if by sheer magnetic energy – you just want to be as
close to them as possible, to somehow bask in their glow, hoping you might absorb
some of their magic by osmosis. People like that are by definition smart, when
you combine it with physical beauty it can almost be overwhelming. Any boy who
could get up the nerve wanted to be with her; this was how she grew up.
was, she never let any of this go to her head, which of course only made her
even more attractive. She was kind with a well-developed sense of personal
ethics, and although she wasn’t what you would call street smart, she wasn’t
naive either. Small in stature, she seemed to exude a powerful aura of personal
power and authority that made people take note. When she said no, she meant no,
and no amount of coercion or attempts at intimidation would change her mind.
At 17 she
left London to go to Boston University Medical School – she had known medicine
would be her career path for as long as she could remember and had been at the
top of all her classes in London, completing her secondary education a year
early. Moving to Boston had not been as difficult as one might imagine – she
was smart and disciplined enough to be able to excel in her studies, and strong
willed enough to be able to stand up for herself whenever confronted with
discrimination – and in Boston, there was always discrimination. She was just
the whole package, and ultimately was more than up to handling whatever life
threw at her. Or at least that’s what she thought.
By the time
she met Scoop, she was in her second year of residency at Boston City Hospital
and was 27 years old. Her whole life she had been pursued by men, and truth be
told, she enjoyed the attention. But by her mid-twenties it had begun to get
old – she would see someone for a period of time, they would inevitably want to
get married, and she would show them the door. It wasn’t that she had anything
against marriage, she just wasn’t going to do it because it was expected. No,
she wasn’t going down that road until she found someone she felt could meet her
on her own terms. She wanted a relationship where both partners were equal. It
turns out that’s easier said than done.
When she met
Scoop, she almost immediately knew he was the one. On the face of it, he seemed
to be anything but the right person for her. But even at her young age, she had
already learned that life often shows you what your next move should be. You
just have to listen.
For most of
his life Scoop had felt like a failure. Meeting Dahl was the turning point, but
it still took a long time. She never gave up on him though, and eventually his
life and inner assessment of himself began to change.
met both were 27 – Dahl was in her residency, and Scoop was a struggling
artist. She had never known anyone like him; he was completely obsessed with
creating and studying art, had no money or real education, and gave zero fucks
about anything else. He once told her “Everything is art” and she was both
fascinated and somewhat bewildered.
apartment was in a poor neighborhood in Boston that looked like a bunker in a
war zone inhabited by some kind of crazy revolutionary survivor, which wasn’t
far from the truth. He had spray-painted the walls with graffiti spelling out
messages like “Adversity creates power for change,” and they were further
covered in pictures of art clipped from magazines, interspersed with bizarre
headlines he found and xeroxed. One read: “Clown Gets Max for Slaying Wife” and
had been blown up and mounted on foam core. Flyers for guerilla exhibitions he
put together were everywhere, and the walls were covered with lots of large,
intricate collages made up of pictures of naked women mixed with ads for home
ceiling had fallen in because of a small neglected leak from an upper floor
years ago – instead of repairing it he had installed an umbrella next to the
toilet you would have to open up whenever you wanted to use the bathroom. There
were actually mushrooms growing out of the cracked plaster. To an outsider, the
whole situation seemed dangerous and borderline insane; to Scoop it seemed like
a good place to live.
immediately apparent to anyone he came in contact with that this was a very
smart and sometimes charismatic person, albeit one who might be slightly
unhinged, possibly in a good way. He was very thin and tall, but not at all
physically imposing – yet his weirdly unconventional intelligence and intensity
could at times be intimidating. He seemed very confident, like the kind of
person where you weren’t sure what he might do next, and because he appeared so
smart and more than a little odd, this could be a little unnerving. Depending
on who you were, it could either be an attractive quality, or a frightening
one. Dahl was immediately fascinated with him, he seemed completely and
refreshingly different from anyone she had ever met.
Scoop WAS a
good person, but he had grown up neglected and abused, so his sense of
boundaries were more than a little shaky. When he had first discovered art in
his late teens, he was a troubled young man on a fast track to nowhere good.
Art changed all that – it gave him a purpose and meaning to his life. He
completely immersed himself in studying its history and went about creating his
own objects, but he did it on his own, without the guidance or support of
teachers and school.
He and Dahl quickly became inseparable, and within two years they were married. Unfortunately for Dahl, it soon became apparent that, although he sincerely tried to be a good person, Scoop had unsuccessfully attempted to create a healthy functioning human being out of thin air. He had grown up in violence and neglect, and no one had ever shown him how to live in the real world. He taught himself social skills by watching late night talk shows – it sounds ridiculous, but what do you expect from a child? As a result, things were rough the first few years. He loved Dahl completely and was never violent or threatening to her, but he seemed to have no control over his moods at all. He would careen wildly from feeling like he could achieve anything one minute to complete and utter hopelessness and despair the next – it was exhausting.
told him she couldn’t live like this anymore, and that was the wakeup call he
needed. She immediately got him an appointment with a psychiatrist, and this
turned out to be the beginning of his healing. He had hated himself for the
fact that he couldn’t seem to control his mind, but over time that that changed
his life just got better and better, and he knew who he had to thank for that.
question, it was Dahl.
having surgery, but he knew the deal and really had no other choice. One of the
things cancer taught him was to grimly get on with whatever vile fucking task
life throws at you. If nothing else, the last few years had shown him just how
resilient he was. After all he had been through, his life was finally in a good
place and after the operation he was eager to get back to his art.
day had come – the surgery was tomorrow and there was the usual flurry of last
minute checklists that he had been instructed to follow. Prophylactic
antibiotics? Check; Bowel prep? Check; Presurgical Hibilclens scrub? Check;
Semi-liquid meals with nothing after midnight? Check; Packing comfortable
post-surgery clothing? Check. When the surgeon’s office had called around 4:00
PM to tell him where to report the next morning, Scoop sighed when the nurse
said “Be there at 5:00 a.m.” He hated getting up early – in order to make that
he would have to get up around 3:00 a.m., a time when he would normally be
going to bed.
He was a
little nervous, but not too much. Dahl, on the other hand, became palpably more
anxious with every passing moment. This wasn’t unusual – she tried to remain
calm for him, but of course she couldn’t really hide it. As a physician, she
always got nervous about his surgeries, particularly anesthesia. He understood
her concern, but there was just no way around it – he had to have the
procedure, and he sure couldn’t be awake while it was happening. So he just
resigned himself to get on with it – after all, it would be over soon and then
he could focus on healing.
never had surgery, the concept of post-surgical pain is somewhat abstract.
Because this was Scoop’s fourth operation in seven years (one of them was to
remove his ruptured appendix, conveniently, the surgeon used the same umbilical
hernia that had been created to remove his cancer), he knew exactly what he was
in for. The best way to describe to someone who has never been through it is
this: Imagine you have been hit by a car. You have suffered a major physical
trauma so you can easily imagine that there will be significant pain
afterwards, after all, your body has literally been broken. Surgery is
essentially the same thing – only this time the trauma is inflicted on purpose
in order to either fix something or to prevent the spread of disease. Put
simply: your body doesn’t like to be cut open and messed with. It rebels, and
one of the ways it rebels is by hurting. A lot. You can try and control the
pain with narcotics, and they work, but only to an extent. Unfortunately, they
have their own nasty side effects. Then there is the whole process of physical
rehabilitation after the event, a critical component for healing. Key to this
phase is the act of stretching and moving the area that was operated on. If you
don’t do this, your body will form rigid scar tissue that will require even
more surgery to fix, so you absolutely must adhere to your instructions in the
immediate post-op recovery period. Oh, there will be pain – lots and lots of
pain. Pain you will have to deliberately inflict on yourself in order to heal.
It was exhausting to think about – best to take things one step at a time.
All of this
was going through Scoop’s head as the day went on, building in intensity the
later it got. He had a few tricks up his sleeve for dealing with stress,
however. He had long ago been trained in both meditation and self-hypnosis. So
as the deadline approached, he tried to put himself into an almost trance-like
state. It wasn’t a panacea, but it helped.
he told Dahl he was going to bed. It took him at least 30 minutes to fall
asleep, all the while both imagining the best possible outcome, and repeating
his mantra over and over, relentlessly. After two and a half hours of fitful,
light sleep, the alarm went off and he got up. Dahl had stayed up when he went
to bed, and now she was awake and up before him. He wondered if she had been
asleep at all.
There was no
time to dwell on it though – after a quick shower it was time to go. He felt
surprisingly awake and clear headed on the way to the hospital. The city was,
for the most part, still sleeping. Their car leisurely made its way through
what appeared to be an almost abandoned metropolis, the streetlights glowing in
the early morning darkness. What a great way to really see the city, Scoop
thought – everything was so achingly beautiful this early in the morning. It
was eerie how little traffic there was, it seemed magical and almost dreamlike
compared to what it would look like in a few hours. Scoop tried to talk about a
movie he recently saw, but Dahl was too tense to pay much attention. She
was very protective of him and was completely focused on what was about to
happen. She hated that she got so nervous in these situations.
if you are a doctor, you know too much.
traffic had been light, they got to the hospital at 4:30 a.m. He went in while
Dahl parked – he was surprised that the waiting area was fairly busy. Once he
had signed in, he took a seat and waited.
him a few minutes later – the hospital had valet parking so she didn’t have to
drive around looking for a space. Anything happening? She asked. No,
I just checked in… as soon as he got the words out he heard his name
being paged overhead. Wait here – I’ll be right back, he said grinning.
He was surprised how fast things were moving.
small talk with the woman who registered him, feeling pretty relaxed, or at
least he thought he was doing a good job pretending. She was a single mom who
was going to nursing school while working full time. He encouraged her and told
her one day her daughter would be so proud that her mother went back to college
as an adult while working full time. She continued asking the usual questions –
medical history, allergies, etc. After telling her he had been successfully
treated for cancer, he smiled and said Make sure you take time to enjoy life
– you never know what’s right around the corner.
were done she smiled back and said You take care now, then directed him
to take a seat. When he went back out he saw Dahl with a magazine and thought
she looked worried. He felt bad for putting her through this, but he had no
choice. They had been through worse.
There was a
large flat screen monitor on the wall in front of them that looked like those
displays in airports that tell you if your plane is on time. The woman in
registration had given him a pamphlet and on the front page, in large print, it
had his name and “flight number.” Sure enough, the number was on the screen,
without his name. In the column next to it were the words “On time.”
– look, I have a flight number! he said all goofy-like, trying to make her laugh. She gazed
at the pamphlet and then at the screen. Unsmiling, she got her phone out and
put the number in her “Notes” app – 81026101323. She tried to double
check to make sure she wrote it down correctly, but knowing she was distracted,
she held her phone up and took a picture so she would have a backup. Scoop
tried to engage her in a conversation about some local news story, but she
wasn’t buying it. Within five minutes a nurse called his name and sure enough,
on the screen it now said “Loading area” after his number. It’s showtime!
he said, trying to get her to smile. It didn’t work.
nurse took them to a cubicle that must have been somewhere close to the
operating room. It couldn’t even have been 6:00 a.m. yet and things seemed to
be moving very efficiently. They’ve got this down to a science, he said,
looking at Dahl. She mumbled something he couldn’t quite hear, but before he
could say What? the nurse handed him a package of pre-wrapped cleanser,
a towel, a plastic bag, and a gown with a pair of those hospital socks with the
rubber treads on the bottom. She instructed him to take off all of his clothes
and put them in the plastic bag, then wash his whole body with the prepackaged
wipes and put the gown on with the opening in the front. The towel was to wrap
himself in if he was cold. She then left, saying I’ll be back in a few
minutes to put in an IV.
saying anything, Scoop sighed and started taking off his clothes, rolling them
up and putting them in the plastic bag. Getting undressed in these situations
is always a little weird, mainly because any sense of privacy is pretty much
completely removed from the equation. In this case, he wasn’t even in a room,
it was kind of a cubicle with a curtain that could more or less be closed for
privacy. The thing was, the curtain didn’t really close all the way, and there
was a steady stream of people walking by. He wasn’t exactly uncomfortable, no,
it just felt kind of dehumanizing. This must be how the Jews felt when the
Nazis told them to disrobe before going to the gas chambers he thought to
himself. Scoop always had a very dark sense of humor – seeing how tense Dahl
was he decided it was better to keep his mouth shut. She wouldn’t find it funny
anyway – probably because, truth be told, it wasn’t.
Once he was
naked, he stood there trying to open the pre-packaged wipes. Scoop always found
opening packages to be clumsy and unnecessarily difficult, as if instead of
being someone who was very bright, he was instead some kind of dimwit who
couldn’t figure out how to open packaging. He finally managed to get the first
one open and started wiping his head, figuring he’d go from top to bottom. It
was at this point he realized the room was fucking freezing. Let’s just get
on with this he thought to himself, not wanting to complain to Dahl. She
looked at him and asked Are you cold? and he replied Just a little,
it’s no big deal. She helped him with his back, then when he finished he
stood there letting the cold air dry the soapy cleanser off before he put the
flimsy gown on. Finally he was done, and he wrapped the towel around himself in
an attempt to get warm. It didn’t work.
sat there, not saying much, when suddenly the anesthesiologist came in smiling.
He introduced himself and asked if they had any questions. Once again, Scoop
had to go over the medications he took, and any allergies he had, for what
seemed like the umpteenth time. When they were done he smiled and shook their
hands again, saying I’ll see you inside in a few minutes and left. As
soon as he was gone Dahl looked at him, kind of irritated, and said Why
didn’t you tell him about all of the meds you take? Scoop had taken meds
for his Bipolar disorder for 15 years, but didn’t like to tell anyone about
them, mainly because he knew that they would immediately, perhaps consciously
or subconsciously, put him in a box in their mind as being “one of them.”
You know, the ones who can’t be trusted because they’re crazy. He felt
sensitive and vulnerable, because he knew there wasn’t anything wrong with him,
or at least nothing that the meds and therapy couldn’t fix. Besides, he had
gone over the contraindications and interactions for his meds with anesthesia
drugs and was confident there were no dangerous interactions. Dahl, being a
doctor, hated it when he did this, but she also loved him and respected his
wishes; she had also checked was satisfied that everything was safe.
reappeared, all cheerful and smiling, and put in an IV for the operation. She
was from Serbia, and Scoop felt relaxed as he chatted her up, trying to include
Dahl, who was having none of it. Just as the nurse finished, his surgeon popped
in looking relaxed and smiling, like he was truly happy to see him. Scoop
always liked this man – he trusted him and felt he did an excellent job in the
first surgery. It wasn’t his fault the device failed so soon, but when it did
there was no question in his mind who would do the revision. After a few
minutes of chatting, he shook their hands and looked at Scoop and said, I’ll
see you in the OR and left. As he went both Scoop and Dahl breathed a sigh
of relief. This was a surgeon who seemed to naturally instill confidence,
making both of them feel comfortable. He was one of those people whose eyes
literally seemed to twinkle with intelligence and goodwill.
Just as they
were both about to comment on this, the nurse and an OR tech came in the room
and said Would you like to walk into the OR or be taken on a stretcher?
Scoop smiled and said I’m good to walk. Dahl had a really worried look
on her face and kissed him gently on the lips, hugging him tight. I love you
she said. Scoop hugged her back even more tightly and said I love you too
baby and then began walking to the operating suite. Just before going out
of sight, he turned around, smiled at her and said I’ll see you when it’s
Then he was
was scheduled for 7:00 a.m. and indeed this was when Scoop had been taken to
the OR. The doc had told them it would take between two and three hours
depending on how complex the repair would be – there was no way to really know
until he opened him up to see what exactly he was dealing with. Around eight
Dahl had gotten a cup of coffee and was spending her time either mindlessly
surfing her iPhone or trying to watch the news channel on the waiting room TV,
both without much success. Periodically she would glance at the monitor
displaying the flight numbers of various patients having surgery that day.
Assigning a number to each patient was a convenient way to display their status
on the waiting room monitor for their loved ones while maintaining their
Dahl got more worried the longer it took – it was now almost 11:00 a.m. and the
board still said “OR” after Scoop’s flight number. She’d been glancing over at
the main desk every few minutes for the last half hour or so but everyone
seemed busy going through the motions of performing their jobs with the blank
looks of people who do the same thing every day. She turned to look again and
now there was a nurse talking with a very serious expression to what appeared
to be an administrator who was looking at the floor, expressionless.
immediately turned to look at Dahl, and then started to walk towards her. At
this point time both seemed to slow down and speed up at once – Dahl felt like
she couldn’t breathe, her mind seemed to be short-circuiting, leaving her
feeling dopey and confused. They seemed to be asking her to go with them but
she was having trouble hearing what they were saying. Later she remembered they
took her to a room where she suddenly felt groggy, but that quickly changed to
panic. Where’s Scoop? she said, Is he alright? but they didn’t
answer. Suddenly she was sitting on a couch – she looked up and there was the
surgeon, but he wasn’t smiling. His eyes looked red and moist, like he’d been
crying. He quickly sat down next to her and took both her hands in his –
looking straight into her eyes, he said Scoop’s dead.
There was no
moment of silent disbelief, instead she emitted an otherworldly, low, soft
guttural sound that quickly rose in pitch to a scream that was like no sound
anyone had ever heard – it was an eruption of grief that sounded like her soul
was being torn apart, a pure explosion of her psychic and physical pain,
overwhelming and obliterating everything in its path. She collapsed first on
the doctor and then on the floor, her body seeming to be torn apart by the
sudden loss of what had essentially been a part of her. She wailed in uncontrollable
agony as if the grief possessed her like a demon, her eyes blinded by poisonous
tears. She couldn’t see it, but everyone was crying at this point, the doctor
now looking like a broken man, as if he had aged thirty years in a moment.
male nurse came and administered a sedative he injected into her deltoid – she
pathetically fought everyone who tried to console her but was now too exhausted
to put up much resistance. The nurse who gave her the injection hated this part
of his job; all doctors and nurses absorb and carry some of their patients pain
with them forever, over time it builds up and scars their souls. It’s the price
you pay for caring for others. Slowly, she began to collapse, like she was
folding in on herself. To anyone who knew her it was obvious what was
A part of
her was dying.
had no immediate family to come and get her the night Scoop died, the doc
didn’t feel it was safe to send her home alone, even after the initial sedative
wore off. Besides, all professionals adhere to the same informal code: in
medicine docs and nurses tend to look after each other. A diagnosis will be
found to warrant an overnight admission if needed, and if there are no rooms
available, one will miraculously be found – usually a single. In Dahl’s case,
the overnight resident and nurse in charge of her care monitored her
particularly closely. The surgeon who had operated on Scoop was both well-known
and well loved; no one could ever remember seeing him so distraught. In a long
and lauded career, there was something about this particular loss that hit him
hard, so the staff was doubly protective of both he and Dahl.
could remember about that night were fits of uncontrollable crying interspersed
with a fitful sleep induced by the sedatives. Every time she woke up she
expected to see him before remembering what had happened – it was all so
unreal, just hours before he was smiling and telling her he loved her, and
would see her after it was over. She kept replaying that scene over and over in
her mind, but no matter how many times she did, she just couldn’t process it.
It was like the difference between intellectually understanding something and
then really experiencing it. Everyone over the age of seven intellectually
understands the idea of death, but it isn’t until some living being dies that
you loved unconditionally, loved more than anything, loved so much that they
literally become part of you – only then do you really begin to understand.
It’s a psychic anguish worse than any somatic pain – a profound existential
suffering, and you will never, ever be the same again after you’ve experienced
morning the surgeon came to see her and asked if she wished to view the body.
To the lay person this may sound insensitive, but decades of clinical research
has shown that actually viewing the dead body helps the grieving process; it
allows the living to have visual and tactile proof that their loved one has
departed – the experience cements itself in their mind forever. Being a doctor
herself, Dahl understood all this, so together they walked down to the morgue
(it always seems to be in the basement, she thought). He held her hand and put
his arm around her and they both silently wept as they looked at the cold, grey
corpse. The morgue tech had unzipped the body bag and arranged a sheet around
the exposed face, placing a clean pillow under the head, trying to make it look
as though he was resting in a shroud. The illusion didn’t really work, but
everyone appreciated the effort.
After a few
minutes they sat on the two folding chairs that were set out for them next to
Scoops body. As he held both of her hands between the two of his, the doc
slowly began to explain what had happened. He described how the surgery was a
little more complicated than expected, but there had been nothing unusual
during the procedure. While he was placing the final sutures, Scoop had
developed an arrhythmia, more specifically ventricular tachycardia. He
explained that they had initially given Adenosine but were unable to break the
rhythm. Defibrillator pads had been applied as the rhythm became more unstable
and they shocked him twice, both times without success. A code team was paged
and responded. Now with no discernable pulse, chest compressions were started
with the usual rounds of resuscitation drugs, all to no avail. From the time he
lost his pulse, the team had worked on him for almost 30 minutes before calling
a time of death: 10:16 a.m.
looked at Dahl with eyes red and moist with tears, they appeared to be looking
up from a well of infinite sadness. He was slightly trembling as he said softly
but clearly, I am so sorry. We did everything we could. She looked at
him directly, thinking he suddenly seemed very, very old – he had never appeared
that way to her before. She continued looking into his eyes for what seemed
like moments, with both softly weeping, never breaking their gaze. Finally, she
took her hands from between his, and now reversed their position – his hands
were now sandwiched between the two of hers. She gently squeezed them once,
took a deep breath, and looking directly into his pleading soul said three
never liked to face the prospect of his own death, but he also never made a
secret of his desire to be cremated and have his ashes spread over New York
City, so at least that was one decision she didn’t have to make. She didn’t
like it, but she sure as hell was going to honor his wishes. The hospital made
the arrangements for his cremation after Dahl declined an autopsy – the funeral
home would contact her in a few days to let her know when she could pick up the
ashes. After a brief examination of the death certificate and the wishes of the
next-of-kin, the medical examiner determined there was no evidence that
warranted further investigation, so that was another required formality that
she didn’t have to deal with. On one of the rare occasions when they had
discussed death in the past, Scoop had acknowledged that he would want do
donate his organs, if possible, after he died – so she consented to have
anything useful harvested before cremation. As painful as all these
arrangements were, they each provided yet another definitive acknowledgement
that Scoop was, indeed, dead.
sister made arrangements to fly over from London the next day to stay with her.
After spending the first night in the hospital for observation, she went home
the following day. As soon as she arrived at their apartment, she called the
medical director of the hospital she worked at, who instructed her to contact
human resources and arrange for a leave of absence. This was a powerful,
formidable woman who rarely smiled, but talking to Dahl now she seemed like an
entirely different person, kind and warm, as if she were an old friend. Her
instructions were clear – You take as much time as you need and let me know
if I can do anything. Your job will be waiting whenever you are ready to come
back. Dahl thanked her and hung up.
and feeling unmoored in space and time, she laid down on her bed and once again
began sobbing. Two days ago they were preparing for this seemingly routine
surgery, living their life as they had done together for over 34 years. For
more than 12,000 days they had shared everything together, for better or worse
– but as Dahl remembered it, even the bad times were better than most people
would get to experience. They had never had children and their last pet, a cat,
had died two years ago.
Now she was
alone, in this space they had shared together for almost three decades. It was
filled with his stuff – virtually everywhere she looked was a reminder of their
life together. It wasn’t just that she missed him and was sad he was gone, it
was as if part of her was suddenly and violently excised, hacked off by some
cruel cosmic executioner. She was bewildered and couldn’t seem to think
clearly, confused by her sudden and overwhelming grief. She couldn’t imagine
moving forward in her life without him. Now she just wanted to sleep, so that’s
what she did. It wasn’t restful sleep, though – instead, her sleep felt like
she was falling in space, always seeing Scoop off in the distance, just out of
later she woke up to her phone ringing. Groggy, she glanced over and saw it was
her sister. Fumbling for it without her glasses, she picked up and said Hello?
in a voice that seemed disembodied. Her sister explained that her son had
developed tonsillitis and he needed to have them immediately removed. It was
nothing serious, but he had to be hospitalized for a couple of days and would
need her while he recovered at home. She had divorced five years ago and was
awarded sole custody of their son, so there was nothing she could do but
postpone her trip.
okay, Dahl said. I’ll
be fine, you take care of him and come whenever you can. They had been
close as children, but, like many siblings, had gradually grown apart over the
years. As she hung up she almost felt a sigh of relief, thinking I just need
some time by myself to process this.
lying in bed, she looked at the time – it was almost 9:00 o’clock in the
morning. She wasn’t the least bit hungry, so she got up to pee and laid back
down, hoping she could fall back asleep.
Dahl woke up
to sound of her doorbell ringing around 2:00 in the afternoon. She sat up
slowly, feeling thick-headed and numb. She had been dreaming of Scoop, but in
the dream, although she already knew he was dead, she felt panicked because he
was trying to tell her something and she couldn’t find him. It was really
weird, but not in a good way, and she briefly thought nothing will ever be
By the time
she looked through the peephole on her door, there was no one there. Opening
it, on the floor was a floral arrangement from her colleagues at work. Her eyes
teared up as she picked it up and put it on the kitchen table. Standing there
looking at it, she realized how silent the apartment was. It was the kind of
silence that says “There’s no life here, you’re all alone now,”
the paradoxical kind of silence that actually seems to be loud. It was a
what to do and feeling utterly exhausted, even after sleeping 16 hours, she sat
down at the table. Looking at her phone, there was a text message from one of
her friends at work asking if she could bring over some food she had made. Dahl
stared at it for a few minutes like she was drugged, then responded Sure,
thank you. Almost immediately she received a response, See you around 6.
hungry, Dahl made a piece of toast and poured a glass of wine. Her mouth was
dry and she had that kind of lump in her throat where you’re not exactly
crying, but might any minute. It was almost too much effort to chew and swallow
the toast, clumping in her throat like dry, crispy doughballs.
The next few
hours she just sat or laid down in different places, not doing anything – just
blankly staring into space. Even though she hadn’t bathed in three days, it was
just too much work, and besides, what was the point? She still had on the same
clothes she was wearing when she was discharged from the hospital yesterday,
her eyes were open but she wasn’t really looking at or thinking about anything.
Any thoughts she did have seemed to originate from somewhere else, like she was
looking down on herself, as if she was having an out-of-body experience. The
only coherent thought was one that would repeat itself over and over: I
don’t want to live without Scoop. She would try to brush it away, but it
kept coming back.
around 6:15, her doorbell rang and there was Muni, her friend from work. She
had two large plastic bags filled with glass containers containing food made by
various people at the hospital. As soon as Dahl opened the door, Muni set them
down and hugged her tightly, both of them starting to cry – Dahl tried to
return the embrace but it felt awkward and she pulled away quickly. After
putting the bags on the kitchen table next to the flowers, Muni stepped back
and gazed at her, trying to appraise the situation to help guide her as to what
to do next.
looked at Dahl now, her heart sank. It was like all the lights had gone out.
Whoever she was, or had ever been, had left her body the moment the surgeon
walked into the waiting room. She wanted to help, wanted to do something to
help alleviate her pain, but she knew it was futile. After a period of
uncomfortable silence, she said Text me if there is anything I can do,
soon as she was gone, Dahl went to the freezer, took out a bottle of vodka, and
poured herself a shot. Scoop loved to have a drink each night before bed, he
called it his “heart-healthy cocktail.” His preference was vodka on the rocks
with a splash of lime juice and he liked to keep the vodka in the freezer. She
usually joined him, although if she did her drinks were half the size of his.
It was now a little after seven and the vodka whetted her appetite. As she took
the containers out of the bag and began putting them in the refrigerator, she
saw one was Lumpia, a Filipino spring roll made by one of the nurses she worked
with. She took a couple out and ate them cold.
When she was
done she sat motionless, alive but not really present. If she thought anything,
it was How can I go on? but she knew this was a rhetorical question, one
that had no answer.
off for a few hours still sitting in the kitchen chair, slumped over with her
head on her hands, which were forming a kind of uncomfortable, hard and sweaty
pillow. Sitting up she noticed she had drooled on the table. Lightly shaking
her head, her mouth was parched as she looked at the clock. It was now almost
midnight and she thought Fuck, now I’ll be up all night. Getting up she
splashed some water on her face and immediately poured herself another shot.
She remembered Scoop’s pot – she hadn’t smoked in years but suddenly it seemed
like a good idea.
She took a
small, sticky bud out of his bag and crumbled it in his pipe. It felt awkward,
but like riding a bike, it came back to her quickly. She took a big drag and
tried to hold it in, but immediately started coughing. Finishing her shot, she
tried again – this time holding the fragrant smoke a little longer. There it
was! The old familiar buzz, flooding her starved cannabinoid receptors,
both slowing everything down and bringing things into focus at the same time.
Scoop used to refer to it as an “attitude adjustment,” and in her case
now, at this critical moment, it seemed to help. For the first time since he
died, her mind actually seemed to be working.
at her phone on the night stand and saw there were multiple texts from
colleagues saying they were sorry and offering help. She didn’t answer any of
them, instead switching apps to look at her email and immediately wondering why
she even bothered – there was nothing important there, just the usual bullshit
that only required attention to delete.
phone in her hands, her mind went back to the day Scoop died. This time, maybe
because she was buzzed, she didn’t cry. Instead, for some reason, she thought
about his flight number. She opened the “Notes” app and there it was, the entry
where she had written it down in case she lost the paper copy when he was
having surgery. The note was titled “Flight Number” and the body text simply
contained the 11 digit number: 81026101323. As she stared at it her mind
wandered and she was struck by two things. The first was that the number was
highlighted, like a hyperlink. But there was something else about it that
caught her interest. Dahl loved word puzzles and anagrams – she stared at it
intently for a moment, rearranging the numbers in her mind, thinking this
pot is good…
sat up – the hairs on the back of her neck stood up and she got that warm
feeling in your stomach when you can’t believe you just discovered some weird,
unbelievable synchronicity. She realized that if you reversed the numbers they
were 32310162018 – March 23, 10:16 a.m., 2018 – the day and time Scoop died.
WTF?! She felt breathless and reflexively blinked her eyes, confused and giddy.
Her first thought was “Am I hallucinating?” She almost jumped up and
walked around the apartment, catching her breath, smiling now. Going to the
bathroom, she washed her face with cold water, then went back to her phone. It
was still there, underlined and highlighted in orange, like it was waiting for
her – beckoning her to click on it.
She sat on
the edge of their bed, staring at it, her heart racing, knowing what she had to
do. She didn’t understand what was happening, only that it was very strange,
feeling both compelling and forbidden at the same time. She couldn’t imagine
what any of this meant, all she knew was that it seemed to be something very
important – something unknowable and unexplainable.
right thumb she gently touched the number and it started ringing. Her body was
covered in goosebumps when someone picked up the call.
Scoop’s voice! Dahl began laughing and crying at the same time – she could
barely blurt out – Baby, I miss you so much.
laughed and said I told you I’d see you after it was over!
you died – I’m confused, are you still alive?
yeah, but not the way you’re thinking. Alive-ish I guess (this was a reference to one of the
thousand or so private jokes people who live together a life time develop).
laughed, wiping the tears with the sleeve of her shirt that were now flowing
freely down her cheeks. Her mind seemed to be short-circuiting, trying to
process multiple threads at the same time: “This can’t be real” – “But it’s
Scoop!” – “No, wait, Scoop died” – “Am I dreaming?” – “Or am I going mad?”
I’m dreaming, I don’t want to wake up – but you died in surgery two days ago.
This can’t be real, I feel like I’m going crazy.
hang up honey, I’m still figuring this out too – I know I died, but it turns
out death isn’t what I expected. They don’t give you a manual for this shit.
pull herself together but not quite succeeding, Dahl sobbed But I don’t
listen, I’ll try to tell you what I know, or at least what I think I know, but
you’re probably not going to believe me. First of all, I’m still here, I just
don’t have a body. It’s great! Scoop always tried to cheer her up when she was down.
that time when I made a comment about how it would be nice to not have a body –
about how much time we spend feeding it, cleaning it, maintaining it? Well
that’s how it feels – it’s just me, without having to do all that time
consuming bullshit to keep it running. I can just let my mind take me wherever
it wants to go, without ever having to worry or deal with disease. It’s great!
I didn’t really lose something, I gained something instead.
happened when you died?
Alright, Scoop said – don’t laugh, but when
I died, it was like I knew what was happening, but I wasn’t scared. It was like
an acid trip – but a good one! The closer I came to my heart stopping, the more
at peace I became. Everything was so unbelievably beautiful, it all looked the
same but different, almost like it was pulsating and glowing with life and I
somehow had this feeling that I was part of all of it, if that makes any sense.
After my heart stopped, I felt like I was floating above everyone in the OR,
looking down and watching them working on my body. I saw how much pain everyone
was in and I wanted to tell them it was alright, that they didn’t do anything
wrong, but there wasn’t anything I could do.
and Dahlia, now no longer crying, said Where are you now?
take a deep breath, he went on. Sometimes when we die, if the connection
between two people is strong enough, a kind of portal will remain open for a
period of time, but it’s not permanent, eventually it closes. When it happens
though, it can manifest in different ways – in our case, it’s this flight
number. But for others, it could be anything – physical apparitions like
“ghosts,” communications through television, radio waves, podcasts,
photographs, visions in the environment and sky, even just the powerful
sensation that they are somehow “there,” feeling their touch on your skin.
Hearing their voice talking to you, without form or maybe even through an
animal. In dreams – anything really.
miss you so much
Dahl repeated, again starting to cry.
right here – I’ll always be here. Whenever you need me, just close your eyes
and there I am.
It was all
too much, Dahl couldn’t tell if this was really happening or if she was going
crazy and it was all a hallucination.
on the phone all night, Dahl was pretty sure it was at least six hours. When
they finally stopped talking, she looked at her phone and it was dead. WTF? Did
that just happen or have I been talking to Scoop on a dead phone? The really
weird thing was, when she later checked her call history, there was no record
of the call.
day, as soon as she woke up, Dahl looked at her phone that had been charging on
the night stand next to the bed. It all came rushing back, everything that had
happened the night before – her heart was pounding but she was smiling.
There was a
text message from the flight number:
typed in 143 2
where are you?
There was a
pause before the response appeared, one character at a time:
as a chill ran down her body and she quietly began laughing and crying at the
same time. She wasn’t quite sure how it was all going to work, but she knew one
thing with complete certainty.
all going to be ok.