Finding Fidelity – Knocking on Heaven’s Door
We both sat silently leafing through our respective magazines for what seemed like a half dozen eternities. The whole scene struck me as absurd. At least half of the people in the vast waiting zone were terrified about the forthcoming tests and test results. Even in their own tiny support groups, everyone was isolated inside of their racing minds.
I began to wonder if I should ask Leo if he was scared. But I was secretly afraid of his answer. I felt completely inadequate and superfluous. I felt like I did at the funeral when he reached out for support and Mercedes held us back. I sorta hated myself at that moment.
“Leo Holst,” A heftier middle-aged woman heralded from the opposite end of the waiting room. She was standing in the threshold of a heavy maple door with a large aluminum handle. In the typical medical costume of powder blue hospital scrubs, I could make out nearly every curve and bulge of her squishy frame.
Leo folded his magazine and discarded it on the table in front of us, “That’s us!”
I folded mine and tossed atop his. I leapt from my seat with more gusto than was necessary, “Yup.”
“Leo Holst” the squat Smurfette bellowed again.
“Yea!” Leo bellowed as he hobbled unsteadily toward her.
I looked in her general direction, “We’re on our way,” I assured, as I patted him on the back a couple of times for encouragement.
She looked down at the clipboard cradled in her left arm, and looked back up with an expressionless expression. Clearly, she was having…a day. And as we slowly made our way toward her, we were in its crosshairs.
“I’m Carol, I’ll be your nurse,” a resigned smile threatened cracked her rigid face wide open. We both nodded as we sauntered past her into the hallway.
“Just step over here,” she gestured toward a contraption that measured both weight and height.”
Leo walked toward the contraption and looked at his swollen feet.
“You can remove your shoes,” she assured.
Leo stepped on the back of his left shoe with his right. As he tried to step out, he became a bit unsteady, and both of us grabbed an elbow. He stepped out of it. He and we repeated this maneuver on the opposite foot. He stepped on the scale. Carol noted his weight on her clipboard.
I was shocked that the gray digital numbers on the LCD screen read 183. I couldn’t even remember that last time he was that svelte. It was not in my lifetime. I recalled a number of Mercedes’ rants about how slender he used to be, but I was used to the 220-lb version of him that had occupied the vast majority of my lifetime. It was surreal to see those numbers. For the first time in my life, I felt like I could scoop him up and cradle him in my arms, if only for a few seconds. The truth of this hit me like a meteor strike.
Carol extended the long steel ruler that protruded from the rear of the scale and instructed Leo to, “Stand up straight.”
When the perpendicular portion came to rest atop Leo’s head, he was 5’9”.
“How tall am I now-a-days?” he asked.”
“5-9,” Carol responded coldly as she recorded the measurement on her clipboard.
He made a half smile and looked at me, “Huh, still shrinking,”
I gave my head a single shake, “I guess that’s what happens, right?”
“Apparently.” he agreed.
Not only was Leo exactly my height at my age, he was my shoe size, waist size, and lord knows what else. Other than my looks—I resembled Mercedes, while Brandon resembled Leo—we were fraternal twins of a sort. All of the vintage suits he’d managed to hang onto fit me perfectly. His swanky vintage shoes fit me as well.
I was not until he hit 50 that he began to expand horizontally and contract vertically. I was not looking forward to suffering a similar fate.
“This way,” Carol directed us down the long hallway.
We were ushered into a typical exam room. It gave me the shivers. All exam rooms gave me the shivers. There was something so terminal about exam rooms. No one was ever in an exam room in hopes of receiving excellent news. Other than finding out you are not dying of some horrible imagined malady, which was a sort of excellent news, nothing good ever happened in this foreboding setting.
Carol proceeded to take the rest of Leo’s vitals. For the most part, the numbers were as good as could’ve been expected under his current circumstance. Before her exit, she assured us, “The doctor should be with you shortly.”
This was spectacular bullshit, and we both knew it. But the inevitable delay forced us to endure the rare occasion of being alone together in a small room.
Accordingly, I small-talked him, “So, do you know what tests they plan to do?”
Leo rolled his eyes, “Probably the same ones that were already done back at home: x-ray, MRI, EKG ECG, stress test, we’ll be here all day.”
“Sounds exciting!” I said with a healthy dose of sarcasm.
“For me, yes. You get to sit in this room all day,” Leo swept his right arm from side to said, “All this is yours, all day.”
I smirked and chuckled a bit, ”So, you already had all of these tests done?”
“Isn’t the infinite redundancy of the medical industrial complex exhausting?”
“It’s infuriating,” he corrected.
“You know this is how your grandfather died,” Leo said soberly.
“Waiting all day in an exam room?”
Leo chuckled briefly, “No, from congestive heart failure.”
“No, I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah, it was pretty dreadful watching him struggle.”
“I remember that part, but not a lot.”
“Yeah, I kept thinking, please don’t let this be my fate,” Leo fanned his hands outward, “And here I am.”
I exhaled deeply in an effort to ground myself before asking the question to which I really didn’t want an answer, “Yeah, but how bad is it really?”
“Really? No one knows.”
I nodded with a look of resignation.
“One doctor tells me I could live another ten years. The next one says five. Today I might find out I have a couple of weeks to live.”
Again, I wanted to make some sort of move toward him and provide physical comfort. But that vision of him at my grandmother’s funeral, and the force of Mercedes’ arms held me back, even now.
“That has to be maddening,” I offered.
Leo shook his head, “It was at first. But now, frankly, I don’t give a fuck. These doctors have proven one thing to me, and it’s that they have no idea what the fuck they are doing.”
I nodded in solidarity.
“They have all of this training, and equipment, and technology, but they can’t tell me, give or take a decade, how much time I have left. And frankly, they are slowly torturing me during the time I do have left with all of these trips, and tests, and ominous meetings about the results.”
All I could do was continue to nod.
“I barely care anymore. I just want to go home and sort postcards. If I have a bit of difficulty breathing, or my heartbeat goes screwy, or I get light-headed, I’ll just pass out in my chair for a bit. Then, I’ll go back to sorting postcards.”
“That makes sense to me,” I agreed.
He continued, “This bullshit—tests, tests, and more tests, with different doctors every month,” resting his head in his hands, Leo paused for a long moment. When he finally looked up, he seemed on the verge of tears.
There is something about someone about to cry that is universally reflexive. As the result of some deep empathy that runs through all living things, you want to join them. It’s akin to the infectiousness of laughter. And seeing him with that pained expression on his face twisted my insides abruptly. It triggered an instant reaction which I battled fiercely, despite the fact that I wanted to sob.
“I feel like it’s all killing me faster,” he continued with a crack in his voice that I had recalled from that fateful day.
I nearly lost it.
I wanted Brandon’s huge paw on my shoulder like at the picnic table when Leo originally announced his diagnosis. But this one was all me. I had to be the strong one.
“Hey, listen, you’re right—you don’t have to see another set of specialists. You’re entitled to just sit in your house and sort postcards until you keel over at the dining room table.”
I paused for effect, and a little humor, “We’ll find you eventually, right?”
He chuckled a bit.
“Why are we here?”
“You know, it’s the Mayo Clinic, there could be some experimental treatment that could extend my life by six months while it cuts the quality in half.”
“Ha, there surely is. But is that what you want?”
“Honestly, no. I thought I did at first. I thought I wanted to be around to see Josie get married, or Drew graduate from college, but who am I kidding. I’m never going to live that long—not this time around.”
“Then let’s go home.”
Leo looked shocked, “Now?!”
“Yeah now—we ain’t at the intake facility for Stillwater State Prison for Christ’s sake!”
Leo contemplated this for a moment, “Yeah, let’s get the fuck outta here before they toss me an assless gown to put on for my first test.”
“Great, and let’s hope we don’t get farted on in the elevator to the parking ramp.”
Leo guffawed at this.
We stood up in unison. Leo swayed a bit and I grabbed his arm with all of the stern force I couldn’t muster when he was about to cry. I lead him proudly out the door of the exam room.
We retraced our steps toward the waiting room and past the height/weight station.
Carol was there weighting the next victim and pointed at us hollering, “Where are you going?”
“To sort some postcards,” Leo fired back.
We reached my car without incident and hit the road toward home.
Before dropping Leo to sort postcards, we stopped at Sunffy’s Malt Shop for cheeseburgers, home fries, and chocolate malts.
I walked him into the hovel he called home. He hobbled toward his trusty recliner, fell into it, and popped the leg rest.
“Ahhh, so good,” he moaned.
“I’m gonna head home, but I’m glad we sorted that all out,” I chuckled.
He laughed, and then said, “Thanks honey.”
This statement stuck me sideways. “Honey” is what he used to call Brandon and I when we were kids. It was the only term of endearment he’d ever used. And I hadn’t heard it since I was in high school. I wasn’t sure if it was a lapse or done intentionally. Either way, it was nice to hear anything endearing coming from my old man.
Excerpt from Finding Fidelity, a forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley