Coma

By Tiffany Nelson

It was a silly accident, really. They were idling at a four-way stop. Mark was preoccupied, his brain grappling for the fastest route to Auntie Donna’s house. They were already late. It had been three years since their last visit, and all the once-familiar streets were now littered with subdivisions full of crescents and cul-de-sacs.

Mark glanced right, then left. Yes, left — that was the way.

He heard squealing as he pulled into the intersection, his mind connecting the sound with skidding tires a second too late. A garbage truck struck the passenger side of the car. Mark felt his seat shift from under him, despite the seat belt, felt his head strike the window and the throbbing headache that came soon after.

"Vortex 2", a photograph by Steven Erra

“Vortex 2,” photograph by Steven Erra

When he looked over at Lauren, the first thing he noticed was her window, a splintered roadmap of broken glass, all the fractured routes feeding into a hollow center. A spider web, frozen in time to mark the place where Lauren’s head had struck. Mark called her name but she didn’t answer, just sat there with her eyes closed like she’d just nodded off. Mark felt confused, and then everything started happening very quickly.

A man yanked Mark’s door open and dragged him free of the car. The damp cold of the curb quickly seeped through Mark’s jeans as he sat watching a horrible movie where people tried to free Lauren from a twisted mess of a car — first a garbage man in dirty coveralls, then another man, and another. A soundless parade of strangers in slow motion. Sirens and flashing lights. Mark couldn’t tell the police cars from the fire trucks because the lights had come too close. In fact, a man was flashing them right in his eyes.

“What’s your name, buddy? Can you tell me your name?” The man with the light was wearing a dark blue uniform. “I need some blankets over here,” he called to another man, dressed the same. Mark felt like he was seeing double. His head throbbed, making him squint away from the awful little pen light.

The men helped him up and bundled him in blankets, cinching them tight around him. It felt like the last time he ever went to summer camp, when he was fifteen and discovered that he’d outgrown his sleeping bag.

Flat on his back now, Mark’s head kept throbbing, and he’d grown dizzy, too. His stomach turned as the men slid him into an ambulance.

The next thing Mark remembered was waking up in the hospital. More of those awful little pen lights, more men asking questions, these ones in green shirts and matching pants. The black stethoscopes that hung from their necks flapped like cartoon bow-ties as they walked.

Mark was fine — some scrapes and bruises, a minor concussion. But when he awoke in the hospital that evening, his life stopped. He would spend every day in that same hospital for the next eight years.

Mark’s life became a subway that made only two stops: Mark’s work, and the Whitebrooke General Hospital. Mark rode that subway every day. Weekends, holidays — they were all the same. He wasn’t allowed to get off. Back and forth, back and forth he went, tireless and exhausted.

Mark learned to sleep sitting up, in green vinyl chairs.  He learned that a man can eat the same egg sandwich for dinner each day for three years straight and survive (he switched to ham and cheese for years four through six, then turkey wraps after that). Mark learned to shave in a cramped, beige washroom with a harsh light that flickered in protest each time he switched it on. He learned to wash his socks in the same tiny sink he shaved over, and then drape them across the back of a green vinyl chair to dry. He learned to make do.

Lauren was not fine. Lauren did not wake up to the awful pen lights or the men in green shirts. In fact, Lauren did not wake up at all.

Mark learned a whole new language. Words like cerebral contusion and subdural hemorrhage. VAMP and PICC.

Mark became as much a fixture of Lauren’s room in Intensive Care as the relentless machine that hissed and sighed in the corner, forcing air into her lungs. Nurses came and went, friendly faces that knew better than to offer reassurance.

Lauren’s Auntie Donna came often, as did her mother, Maggie, and her “baby brother,” Ross, a hulking man over six feet tall who’d played football in college. They would come and sit with Mark for two or three hours in the evening, asking him if he needed anything, if there was anything they could do. After the first few years they came less frequently. Mark continued riding his subway. He lost weight.  Most days he no longer bothered to shave.

Mark grew familiar with the parade of specialists: the Neurologists, a whole department of Respiratory Therapists. Infection Control Nurses. Mark spent more time in the ICU than any of them.

Lauren remained unresponsive. Time passed.

Lauren’s family doctor came by to “open a dialogue on End-of-Life wishes,” a poorly rehearsed speech. It sounded like a checklist, a spreadsheet installed in his computer of a brain. Mark would hear none of it. There was discussion of “pulling the plug,” seeing how Lauren would fare breathing on her own.  Mark knew what they all really meant: If she can’t even breathe on her own, maybe it’s time to let her go, buddy. Mark had no interest in these conversations.

He couldn’t explain why, or how, but a part of him knew that a part of her was still alive in there. However small that part of Lauren might be, Mark refused to let it down. If he was simply locked in the Denial phase of grieving, so be it, he thought. He would sign no papers. He would only wait.

Mark’s waiting ended eight years in. Eight years, two months, and six days, to be precise.

The evening was like any other. Lauren’s mother was there. “I kept the seat warm for you,” she said, rising as he walked in. Mark’s favorite nurse, Irene, had just started her night shift. Things were calm in the ICU, all the machines beeping softly, reassuring everyone that all was well.

Lauren’s eyelids fluttered, just for a moment. Mark didn’t see this; he was balancing a cardboard coffee cup between his knees while trying to free his turkey wrap from the heavy plastic wrap the cafeteria favored.

Then he heard a sound that didn’t fit. It was different from the breathing machine, different from the pumps doling out a dozen different medications, different from the sound of urine slowly pooling in the bag that hung from the foot of Lauren’s bed. Mark found a word for the sound before his brain digested what it meant.

“Lauren’s coughing,” he said aloud, looking towards Irene. She looked up from the chart she’d been writing in; confusion walked slowly across her face. “She’s coughing!” Mark said again, louder this time. Irene hurried over, with two other nurses following close behind.

And indeed, Lauren is choking. Her body has declared war against the tube in her throat. “Lauren, just try to stay calm, honey, try to breathe with it,” Irene says, her own heart racing. But Lauren keeps on choking and gagging, her eyes wide with panic. Then a doctor is standing beside the bed, also trying to calm Lauren, with no effect.

Lauren starts to vomit, and again, Mark feels the sensation of everything happening very quickly. Irene paging someone “STAT.” Nurses fumbling to peel off the tape that’s keeping the breathing tube in Lauren’s mouth, forcing it to remain a part of her.  The doctor sliding his hands into a pair of blue gloves and finally easing the awful plastic tube from deep within Lauren’s chest.

As the tube comes free, Mark sees that everyone around them is holding their breath. Lauren clears her throat. She gasps for a few minutes, not like she’s struggling to breathe so much as just catching her breath. Like she used to after her morning run.

Many of the nurses in the ICU are tearing up — they’ve looked after Lauren for eight years, washed her face and swabbed out her mouth and cared for her skin and even cleared her bowels, all the while never expecting to see her eyes open.

“Mark?  Where’s Maggie?” Lauren’s first words come out hoarse and weak. Mark feels his throat tighten and his eyes begin to sting. “You remember me,” he says, his voice as faint as hers.

“Of course I remember you, it’s only been since breakfast,” Lauren says, frowning. Or maybe she was just squinting against the brightness of the room; eight years is a long time to have your eyes closed.

“Where’s Maggie?” she asks again, sounding panicked. Memories start to float back to her, become part of her again.

Mark looks confused. “Your Mom’s right here, Lauren,” he says, still in shock, amazed at how much can change in under five minutes. “No, not Mum,” Lauren says, exasperated. “Maggie! She was in the back seat, right behind me. That black truck came at us on her side!”

“You remember the accident?” Mark asks, more stunned still. Everyone sets aside the issue of Maggie, for a moment. And the fact that the garbage truck had been green.

“Of course I remember the accident,” Lauren splutters. Now it’s her turn to look confused. “What is this, Monday?” she asks. “Tuesday,” Mark says, a thick fog settling around him. He feels like he’s been dropped into a pool of gelatin and he’s trying to swim, trying to get back to the edge, but it’s too thick. He keeps pushing at the stuff, but it just keeps settling back around him, trapping him.

“Wow, I didn’t think I’d been out that long!” Lauren says, shaking her head slightly, trying to clear it. “So Maggie’s okay, then?” It’s a question, attached to the only logical conclusion available — if Mark isn’t panicked than Maggie must be okay. And Chris, and Emily, too.

Lauren looks back at Mark, her eyes narrowing. “When did you shave off your goatee? When you mentioned it at breakfast I didn’t think you’d actually do it.”

“I shaved before lunch,” Mark says, his voice barely a whisper. He has gone pale. One of the ICU nurses brings a chair to Mark’s side; when he doesn’t respond, she takes him by the shoulders and seats him.

“Never mind,” Lauren says. “Where’s Maggie?”

Everyone is quiet for a moment — Mark, Irene, Lauren’s-mother-Maggie, who is clearly not the Maggie Lauren is asking for. Lauren sees the confusion on everyone’s face and panic finds her, again.

“Where is she?” Lauren demands, irritation edging her voice. It seems like everyone around her is pretending they have no idea what she’s talking about.

“If this is some kind of joke, it’s not funny, now tell me where my baby is!” she says. Her voice is rising, her face starting to crumple. Everyone watching her looks all the more confused. Lauren can’t decide what this might mean, and the possibilities are terrifying.

“Oh my God, is she okay?” Lauren asks, her voice breaking. “Did she get hurt? Did she get hurt in the accident?!” She searches Mark’s face for answers but comes up empty. Everyone’s silence only serves to drive her further into her fear. “Oh my God, oh my God!” she says, tears breaking and streaming down both pale cheeks.

Lauren begins to shudder with the force of a grief only she understands. Mark tries to take her hand but she pulls away, pulls her hands to her face and sobs.

Irene tries to console her, tells her that it’s normal to feel confused and scared when you’ve been out so long, but Lauren pushes her away as well, starts to thrash like she’s trying to shake off the awful thoughts that are steadily seeping into her mind.

Afraid that Lauren will pull out one of her many lines with all the commotion, the doctor suggests sedation. A nurse has just begun to inject a sedative when Irene calls, “Stop! Look!” Everyone turns to see what Irene has seen. The change in tone startles Lauren calm, if only for a moment.

Irene is pointing to the front of Lauren’s hospital gown; Lauren looks down at herself. Her breasts have begun to leak, soaking dark, milky circles in the blue fabric.

Lauren’s sobs return as jagged, shuddering breaths as the sedative starts to take effect.

“Where’s Maggie?” she whimpers, begging. “I have to feed her! Please, I just have to feed her!” And then Lauren is asleep.

They waited so long for her to emerge from that place of sleep, and then they sent her back there, so soon. Mark is livid.

When Lauren awakens the second time, she feels like her head has been packed with cotton. The sedative is still wearing off, and everything is in slow-motion. There are a lot of questions.

“Lauren, do you know where you are?”

“In the hospital,” she says, waiting for the punch-line. Such a stupid question must surely be a joke.

“Do you know why you’re here?”

“Of course I know why I’m here,” Lauren replies, irritated. “I had a car accident.” She hears her words slur, just a little. She is embarrassed by this.

“Do you know what year it is, Lauren?” Oh for Pete’s sake, this guy can’t be for real.

“It is the twenty-ninth of April, 2009. Or maybe the thirtieth, now,” she replies, careful to enunciate each syllable. “You keep drugging me up, how am I supposed to know how long I’ve been out?” she snaps. Now she’s sounding like a petulant teenager.

Either the man with the questions realizes she’s had enough, or he’s taken offense at her tone; either way, he stops hounding her, and Lauren slips back into a light sleep.

It is six weeks later, six weeks after Lauren first awoke. She is re-learning how to walk, how to feed herself using a fork and spoon. How to use the toilet. Her milk has dried up, for the most part.

She cries less now, for Maggie, and for Chris and Emily.

Lauren is still in the Intensive Care Unit. Her room is very full this morning. The nurses have brought in extra vinyl chairs and made a great green horseshoe out of them, surrounding the foot of her bed. Mark sits in one chair, holding Lauren’s hand, while her mother sits to his left. The other chairs are full of Professionals — Dr. Cunningham, her neurologist. Dr. Spencer, a neuro-imaging specialist. Irene is there, along with two psychiatrists and a handful of nurses.

“I feel like a museum exhibit,” Lauren says, laughing nervously. Mark squeezes her hand.

Dr. Cunningham begins, oblivious to the attempted levity. “So Lauren, I understand you’ve had some confusion, some interesting conversations since you came out of your coma. I’m wondering if you could tell us what you remember, as completely as you can,” he prompts, pen poised over a pad of yellow paper.

And so Lauren walks them through the last eight years of her life. She remembers the car accident, the garbage truck coming at them, the sick feeling of knowing that Mark hadn’t seen it.  She and Mark had just gotten engaged a few weeks prior and Auntie Donna was hosting a big dinner to celebrate. Mark got off work late so they were in a rush.

She remembers the paramedics and the firefighters who helped her from the car. She remembers feeling very sleepy, and the doctor — no, not Dr. Cunningham, a different doctor — telling her that she’d taken a nasty bump to the head and they would be keeping her overnight for observation.

She remembers how her window had broken with the impact of the accident, and the little piece of glass that had lodged just above her ankle. She remembers the nice young intern who so carefully removed it and stitched her up, “four little stitches, tidy as something done on my sewing machine,” she says.

Dr. Cunningham is watching her carefully. Unsure if it is skepticism or confusion furrowing his brow, Lauren pushes back the blankets, exposing her right leg. She turns her toes inward so everyone can see the spot on her ankle where the stitches were. Sure enough, there is a small scar, just over an inch long, exactly where she’d said it was.

She remembers Mark leaving the hospital with her the following day. He had been fine, but the doctor had been kind and let him stay the night, too, so they could be together.

She remembers her mother coming to pick them up, the way she parked her old gray Volvo right in the ambulance loading bay, like she owned the place. “Well I’m not makin’ ya walk a half-mile through that crazy parking lot after all this!” she’d said. Lauren’s ankle was still bandaged.

She remembers the aches and pains the first few days she was home, feeling stiff, like her spine had grown crowded. When she returned to work the following week, her coworkers were all very understanding, encouraging her to take it easy until she felt one-hundred-percent again.

She remembers getting married. “On the twenty-ninth of July, just like we’d planned,” she says, flashing him a sentimental smile. “The day was perfect, just enough cloud to keep it cool, but still nice and bright for the photos.”

“Emily came soon after, our little surprise,” Lauren says, beaming.

“Emily?” Dr. Cunningham asks, “Is she a friend? A relative?”

“Emily is our daughter,” Lauren says, speaking as though she is explaining something to a kindergartener. “She was born two days before our first anniversary. Mark brought me a picnic dinner in the maternity ward, the most delicious steak and baked potato I’ve ever had! The nurses were all so admiring, kept saying what a ‘catch’ he was.”

Listening to Lauren recount her life, their life, all Mark can think of is how beautiful she is when she smiles. The way her eyes crinkle at the sides, the way she always looks like she’s wearing just a hint of blusher on her pale cheeks. And the dimple that puckers her right cheek — he thought he’d never see that dimple again.

Lauren describes Emily as being an “easy baby.” Lauren sounds like any other proud mother, still enamoured with her first-born.

“She was such a little angel, never made a peep, slept through the night at three months! You remember, Mark,” she says, chuckling. “You said to me one day that if it wasn’t for all the laundry we wouldn’t even know we had her!” Lauren looks over at Mark and her smile fades. These memories are hers alone. Her eyes begin to water.

“It’s okay, Lauren,” Dr. Cunningham says, “Just keep going. Tell us what happened after Emily was born.”

“The usual stuff,” Lauren says, swallowing hard. “She went to nursery school and learned to ride a tricycle. It seemed like Mark had a camcorder permanently attached to his face the first few years.”

“Then Christopher came — another surprise. We never wanted just one child, but we’d had the good sense to plan on putting three or four years between them. The universe had other plans, and it’s been steadily funneling those into our lives since Chris came!” Lauren chuckles, enjoying a joke only she understands.

“He was due on April Fool’s Day — I should have known that was a sign — but Chris had other ideas. When I was ten days late, the midwife had me drink this vile concoction of castor oil and something, all hidden in mango juice. ‘To get things going,’ she’d said. Well, I was all for it, but Chris would have no part of it. He flipped himself the wrong way ’round, right in the middle of things! ‘He’s being purposefully difficult,’ the midwife said. She looked quite perplexed, like she’d never seen anything quite like it!”

Lauren smiles as she replays this scene in her mind, watching herself and the midwife and a half-dozen nurses, all trying to coax her stubborn baby boy into the world.

“Chris has his own way of doing things, he’s been like that right from the start. It was a difficult labor, but really nothing compared to the years that’ve followed.” Lauren’s voice trails off; she is lost in the past.

“So he was a difficult child?” Dr. Cunningham prompts.

“No…he doesn’t really have tantrums or anything like that, it’s just that he gets into everything. I can’t turn my back on him for a minute. I came out of the shower one day and he’d got into my make-up and face-painted the dog. Another time we had this tin of cookies in the top cupboard; Chris got it in his head that he wanted them so he dragged over one of the kitchen chairs and I caught him scaling the side of the fridge — this was right after his birthday so he was just two. It’s a wonder I didn’t give up on showering altogether after that!”

“He climbed over the safety gate and tumbled down the basement stairs that same year. He needed seven stitches in his forehead,” she says, her eyes wide with the memory of that day. Lauren had been utterly terrified — terrified that Chris might be badly hurt, terrified of trying to explain to the doctors and nurses in Emergency that she wasn’t a negligent parent. Terrified that they wouldn’t believe her. As it turned out, most of them had children of their own, and many little boys had come before Chris, all with various wounds that needed stitching.

“For Emily’s fifth birthday, Mark’s parents gave us a swing set — the kind you set up in the backyard. It has a little blue plastic slide off one side. Both the kids love it. They spent half the afternoon on it that first day.”

“The house seemed really quiet the next morning; I thought Chris had slept in after all the excitement the day before. I was just filling the kettle for tea, thinking what a luxury it was to have a few quiet moments to myself, when something caught my eye out the kitchen window. There was Chris, still in his Batman pajamas, standing at the top of the slide, his arms wide like he had a mind to take flight! Then I see that he’s dragged the trampoline over from the other side of the yard — just one of those little ones, three, four feet across — and my mind starts to get this picture of what he’s planned. I raced to the back door and screeched at him, ‘What are you doing?!'”

“He looked back at me, a smile on his round little face, and said ‘I’m scaring the daylights out of you, Mummy!’ He sounded so proud. I guess I hadn’t realized how often I used that expression.”

Lauren looks wistful as she speaks these memories aloud. So do each of the Professionals seated around her bed. What started as a formal interview, with monogrammed pens and thick pads of legal paper, has morphed into Story Time. Lauren’s audience is listening with rapt attention. She is walking them through a life in her shoes, and doing an exceptional job of it.

“Then what happened?” Irene asks, curious.

“Well, he jumped before I could get to him, landed on the trampoline, bounced, and landed a few feet away, perfectly fine, and quite pleased with his first flight as Batman.” Mark chuckles. Irene is watching Lauren, expectantly.

“I did what anyone would have done!” Lauren shrugs, smiling back at Irene. “I laughed so hard I nearly cried, then I scooped him up into a hug and just held him close for as long as he’d let me.” The room is quiet. Lauren’s smile has grown contagious; even the Professionals are not immune.

“That same summer, Chris coaxed a squirrel into his hand in the backyard — I finally figured out where all the peanut butter had been going — and the silly thing bit him! Three more stitches and a round of shots later — most of the nurses in Emergency know us by name now!”

Irene is chuckling despite herself, pressing her lips together, holding back the sound. Her heaving shoulders give her away. In fact, she isn’t the only one chuckling; most of the people sitting around Lauren’s bed are parents themselves. Some identify themselves as Professionals first and parents second; some the other way around. Regardless, all of them are veterans of the antics of boisterous little boys who are magnets for trouble. As Lauren tells them of Chris and his epic misadventures, they make eye contact with each other, sharing knowing smiles. Story Time is in full swing. Encouraged, Lauren carries on.

“Just last September, Mark drove Emily to her first day of school. Chris was so upset he couldn’t go, too — he hopped on his trike and took off after them, down the road at full speed. We live on a quiet street, so he was okay for a bit, but he was heading straight for the main road — I just about had a heart attack! So here I am, big as a house with Maggie by that time, eight months along, and I’m in my pink housecoat and slippers, waddling down the street as fast as I can, frantic to catch up to Chris before he makes it to the stop-sign!” Irene is now wiping her eyes with the back of her hands; others are laughing aloud. From the commotion, a nurse peeks her head around the sliding glass door to check if everything is okay.

“So you get the picture,” Lauren says, when the room has calmed some. “Chris gives everyone around him a run for their money. Our life has been chock-full of excitement of one sort or another since the day he was born.”

A strange feeling creeps over Mark. He starts to toy with the possibility that it is his memory that has failed, that all this really must have happened.

Lauren pauses, mulling something over. “Except for our sitter, Monica. Chris is always a perfect little angel for her; I don’t know how she does it. She started watching Chris and Emily shortly after Auntie Donna was diagnosed; I drove her to chemo twice a week, and Monica would come take the kids for a few hours. She was great with them, took them to the pool and out for picnics at the park.”

“How is Donna doing?” Irene asks, already knowing the answer.

“She passed away,” Lauren says, pressing her lips thin, a short silence to honour the memory of a very special woman.

“Two years ago.”  Lauren and Mark speak these words together, at the very same time. Their eyes meet, a mixed expression of astonishment and something deeper than longing. A hunger for connection.

“Ductal carcinoma,” Mark says. “Breast cancer,” Lauren replies, nodding at Mark.

The conversation continues after a time. Lauren describes the birth of their third child, Maggie, now nearly eight months old. This interests Dr. Cunningham, as does Lauren’s recollection of a second car accident — a more serious one, the reason Lauren believes she has now come to be in the hospital.

To Mark, the words in the room have detached from their anchor of meaning, slowly floating free in the air, hovering around him. He hears only echoes that blur and dissolve. Everything became hollow after those three words he and Lauren spoke together. About Auntie Donna, no less. The bitter-sweet floods at Mark until he can taste it in his mouth.

For months, years now, Mark has felt the pain of distance forced between him and Lauren. They had been two magnets attached, then someone had flipped one of them the wrong way around. A cold pry-bar that left its heaviness in the center of his chest. Lauren locked in her life of beeping machines and tubes and endless tests; Mark locked in his life of work, hospital, and sleep. Sometimes the balance between the three varied, but collectively they remained his life, while Lauren remained in stasis.

And then, just moments ago, someone turned one of the magnets back around. They spoke, he and she, together. A shared idea. A common thread from that time apart.

Dr. Cunningham’s office became a busy place. Specialists from an assortment of different disciplines, some from three states away, attended for weekly case-study meetings. One particularly memorable Tuesday included a pharmacologist and a hypnotherapist.

Lauren was fascinating. Her brain was intriguing, like a living piece of art, a certain beauty to it. Her memories were even more perplexing — she was genuine and consistent in her reports. The results were the same on verbal interview as when she completed written journal entries. Lauren had undergone all the scans neuroscience had available, and they all agreed — Lauren’s memory accessed the appropriate sites in her brain as she recounted her life during the eight years her body had spent in Whitebrooke General Hospital. Not only did Lauren believe she had experienced the events she recalled, her brain believed it, too.

Lauren’s mind and body were in perfect agreement on a certain version of reality; it was others who were having trouble.

These case-study meetings were rarely productive. Those present pored over the same charts, the same reports as the week prior. They usually reached the same conclusion, more or less. “Remarkable,” they’d say. Lauren defied explanation. She was simply extraordinary.

The week before Lauren was discharged, Irene decided to do a bit of detective work. She was just starting a block of night shifts and knew that the hours between eleven and five could move painfully slowly.

Each night, Irene pored over Lauren’s chart — not a small feat, with eight years’ worth of specialists’ reports, clinical notes, medication records, and reams of test requisitions. She wasn’t entirely sure what she was looking for, just anything out of the ordinary, really.

The facts, as Irene understood them, had changed. Events that had before seemed ordinary might now stand out as anomalies.

Irene’s perseverance paid off. Sure enough, on the dates Lauren gave as the birthdays of each of her children, something out of the ordinary had happened.

The day Emily was born, Lauren experienced her first seizures in the ICU. Three of them, before dinner time that day.

Dr. Cunningham was paged and Lauren was rushed off for a scan to see if a brain bleed was to blame. When the scans revealed nothing new, the hospital pharmacist was called to investigate any possible drug interactions. While he was busy turning up nothing, blood work was ordered to see if some bacteria had snuck in when no one was looking. One test after another revealed nothing out of the ordinary. That night passed uneventfully, and the next day too, and pretty soon, Dr. Cunningham abandoned what appeared to be a wild goose chase.

Lauren never again experienced a seizure.

The day Christopher was born, Lauren developed diarrhea. Nothing had been changed — not her medications, not the fluids running in her IV. Not a thing. Not even the humidity of the air forced into her lungs. Two days of diarrhea, then nothing. Lauren was back to her normal, unresponsive self. A difficult labor, she’d said. Lauren had described Christopher’s birth as difficult.

Maggie was born just before midnight. Irene remembers that day. Mark had been sitting with Lauren, as usual, when he noticed her face grow flushed. It happened so slowly, he wasn’t sure of what he was seeing. When Lauren’s forehead began to glisten with delicate beads of sweat, he had called out to Irene. “I think something’s wrong,” he’d said.

Indeed, something must have been off, because Lauren had spiked a fever. It began just before five p.m., just as Mark was contemplating his need for a turkey wrap. Thirty-eight degrees. Thirty-nine. Up and up her temperature went, ignoring the medications that were poured into her veins in an effort to bring the fever down. Irene paged the on-call specialist, and then draped Lauren’s entire body in cool, wet towels. Lauren began to shiver, but the fever wouldn’t budge.

The specialist arrived quickly, with Dr. Cunningham close behind. Thirty-nine-and-a-half degrees. Another scan and more blood tests. Broad-spectrum antibiotics. More drugs than Mark could count.  Lauren’s IV pole looked like a comical Christmas tree, decorated in layers of tiny vinyl bags hanging all over it.

Then, just as the night custodian arrived, precisely at midnight, Lauren’s fever began to break. Within twenty minutes, she was back to normal. It was the first, and last, fever Lauren had during her time in the ICU.

The charts jogged Irene’s memory to a span of nearly three years when they suspected Lauren of having developed some kind of heart problem. Her heart would start to race, just out of the blue. The calm, steady beeping of her monitors would be replaced with the warning drone of alarms — heart rate, blood pressure, all spiked off into a danger zone with no provocation whatsoever.

Protocol was followed perfectly. The doctors wanted to know what Lauren’s heart was doing as it galloped along like an animal pursued, or pursuing. But like clockwork, before anyone showed up — before the technicians arrived, before the girl from the lab came, well before the cardiologist arrived — Lauren’s heart rate would return to normal. All of her vitals would settle right back down, leaving no evidence of the near-critical levels she’d been at only minutes before.

“It’s like when I bring my car to the mechanic and it instantly stops making the funny noise I’ve been hearing all week!” one of the ICU nurses had remarked mirthfully.

Christopher’s antics could explain these anomalies perfectly — the timing was right. The pudgy toddler Lauren had found teetering on a chair-back as he reached for the top of the fridge. The little boy on the tricycle, pedaling as fast as he could, straight towards rush-hour traffic.

All those things would make a mother’s heart race.

A troubling idea has been intruding on Mark’s thoughts, burrowing into his mind. Popping up everywhere, like a weed with an endless network of roots.

He can’t seem to shake the sense that perhaps he’s had it all wrong. Maybe he was the one who had been living in stasis, riding his damn subway all these years, while Lauren had been living what every evidence suggested to be a full and fulfilling life. While she had been feeling joy and elation and contentment and fear and everything in between, what had Mark been feeling? Endless oscillations between despair and a hollow hope that grew thinner each month. Alternating between fatigue and outright exhaustion. He can’t even remember the last time he enjoyed a good hot meal, or a glass of red wine. Was that living?

It is discharge day. Lauren gets to go home. Taking her hand, Mark guides her through the halls he has paced a thousand times, past the landscape that has become his home — the tiny gift shop with its pastel rainbow of hand-crocheted baby booties, each pair hung by a wooden clothespin. The coffee kiosk in the middle of the lobby, an oasis of pleasing smells surrounded by a hundred rooms’ worth of foul ones.

Lauren smells the fresh coffee, still brewing. French roast, she thinks, surprised by the catalog of scents and rhythms that remains intact in her mind. Mark squeezes her hand as they approach the main entrance.

The wide glass doors slide open and Lauren takes her first breath of fresh air, so crisp it nearly stings against her cheeks. She clings to that one first breath as long as she can, pulling the cool, moist air deep into her lungs, sucking at it greedily until her whole chest aches, then holding it until it burns.

There is so much in that one breath. A rainstorm early that morning has washed the paved walkway, scrubbing it clean of footsteps and chasing away a collection of fallen leaves.

The maple trees lining the street smell of chopped firewood and wet bark, their leaves golden and fiery and blistered in red, echoing the summer that was.

The raw, green scent of a freshly mowed lawn tugs at Lauren. The field that borders the main parking lot is littered with thick, decaying mats of cut grass, brown and soggy with rain and dew. Lauren can also see the pale tips of new shoots, struggling to push through. The emerging and the dying, mingling like old friends.

A gray Volvo idles in the tow-away zone; the gluey-sweet scent of exhaust slowly displaces the other smells.

As they approach the car, Lauren turns to Mark. “I really wish you’d got to meet Chris,” she says.  “He was a real little character.”

 

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About Tiffany Nelson

Tiffany Nelson works in healthcare to support her writing habit. She credits her patients with providing a lifetime supply of ideas ripe to be explored in fiction. Tiffany has a strong interest in maternal-child health. She has written articles on parenting and natural childbirth (Synergy Magazine), and volunteered her time teaching prenatal classes. When she isn't writing, Tiffany can be found with her string bass in the company of fellow musicians. While a half-dozen short story ideas clamor for attention, Tiffany is focused on completing her first novel. "Coma" is her first published work of fiction.

9 Comments

  1. peter j
    Posted December 2015 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    Loved it. What great writing. Must have hit a chord with people who actually experienced “Coma”. Well done Tiffany.
    Peter J. Victoria BC

  2. Posted December 2015 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    A powerful story. It hooked me at the start and kept getting stronger. Congratulations Tiffany. Wonderful writing.

  3. Kare Jacoba
    Posted January 2016 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Great story! Loved the plot… so interesting!

  4. Joseph
    Posted January 2016 at 1:29 am | Permalink

    What ah excellent read! Job well done Tiffany!

  5. Merisa Donoghue
    Posted January 2016 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    A dark little “slice of life” story with a hint of mystery and other-wordliness.”There are more things…Horatio”.

    Good, solid plot and character development despite the brevity of the story, and a great “cliff-hanger” ending.

    Congratulations, Ms. Nelson – keep on writing!

  6. Posted January 2016 at 1:15 am | Permalink

    Gripping! The story engaged me from the first paragraph – a creative, mysterious tale. Wonderful metaphors… well written… well done.

  7. Angela Meneghetti
    Posted January 2016 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Tiffany! Love this story! Very gripping and the description is fantastic. My senses were stimulated, it was like I was in the story! Well done!!!!

  8. Jocelyn Pettit
    Posted January 2016 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful story, Tiffany! You are a fabulous writer! Looking forward to reading more of your stories in the future!

  9. Posted March 2016 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Great story!

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