Jacob was having a great day. One of those days that you look back on for years and remember as a perfect moment of happiness. After months of thinking and planning about how to ask Katy to marry him he’d just blurted it out as he drove her to work. To his great surprise, the answer had been an easy ‘of course’ and a smile that lit her face up so bright he was sure astronauts could see the glow from space. Jacob was thrilled. He felt like a kid on christmas morning who’d asked for something incredible, never expecting to actually get it, and found it waiting for him under the tree. As he pulled away from the parking lot and into the intersection he could practically hear his heart beating he was so happy.
He never even saw the other car coming.
The light was dull and gray, resentfully sliding in through the windows out of some misplaced cosmic sense of duty but clearly not enjoying itself. What was the point anyway? There wasn’t much in the room worth illuminating. A pile of medical equipment beeping and humming to itself, an unused chair, and a hospital bed containing a man who for all intents and purposes might have been a corpse except for the IV in his arm and the way his lungs expanded and contracted in a slow tired rhythm. That morning a nurse cracked the window slightly to get some fresh air, technically a violation of hospice rules but the room had been stuffy when she came in to change the sheets. Besides, she thought, what’s the harm in a little fresh air? She’d had every intention of closing the window when it was time to move to the next patient but there had been a red light for the room down the hall and she never got around to coming back.
Time passed. The sun sauntered towards the horizon and the moon rose over the hills. A mosquito, smelling a meal, flew in the open window and landed on that cold gray cheek for a quick snack. It was almost as surprised as Jacob when a hand slapped it.
He woke with a start, face stinging, and did his best to sit straight up but his atrophied muscles could barely lift him up out of the bed. His eyes struggled to take the small gray room in as his fumbling hands grasped at the IV in his arm and found a button dangling from a cord attached to his wrist. He pressed it. Somewhere down the hall a light came on and the orderly who was in charge of noticing such things gave it a quick doubletake in surprise before paging the nurse on duty.
He could barely speak, muscles unused to movement had trouble making the right shapes. He managed to wheeze out “Where’s Katy?” The nurse ignored him and checked his vitals, noticed the open window with disapproval, and closed it. In a few hours time he had been transferred to the recovery ward. The nurse there told him a caseworker would be in in the morning to answer his questions and in the meantime to get some sleep. As though sleep was what he needed!
They didn’t have any books on hand, but the nurse offered to turn on the television and set it to the news. He nodded his consent and she flipped the switch and got on with her rounds. As the usual assortment of soundbites and meaningless factoids drifted past him (an election, a triple homicide, a politician whose name he didn’t recognize caught in a sex scandal) he found himself settling into a trance – until the broadcast ended and the announcer said todays date. That set him bolt upright in his bed, muscles willing or no. It had been nine years, almost to the day. He looked at the door where he’d been expecting, hoping, praying for her to walk in and his heart sank.
Katy wasn’t coming. He didn’t know how, but he knew it with a sharp certainty that hit him upside the head and left him spinning.
He wished someone had pulled the plug on him years ago, it would have been an act of mercy. He collapsed back against the mattress, eyes lined with tears.
It was a long night but he couldn’t sleep, he’d already had enough sleep to last a lifetime. By the time the first ray of sunlight streamed in through the window he was ready to meet it, and when the case worker arrived at the crack of noon he had convinced himself he was ready for anything.
“Good afternoon Mr. Campbell! How does it feel to be awake?”
The voice was friendly but clipped, he had a long list of people to see today and couldn’t afford to waste time, but it’s not everyday you get to welcome somebody back to the world after 9 years in a coma and from what he’d read of the file there was a lot to cover.
“I feel….. well not tired exactly, more like tired out. Weak. But I figure I’ve got a lot to catch up on…”.
“Indeed. I expect you’re wondering where your boys are?”
Jacob looked at him blankly. “Are you sure you’ve got the right file there? I don’t have any children, I…. I had a fiance but we never got a chance to….“
“Does it say anything about Katy in there?”
“Katy MacMillan, the mother…. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this Mr. Campbell, She died last year, cancer as I understand it. And I do have the correct file, though I should have read it a bit more carefully. I had assumed you knew your finance was pregnant but it says here they weren’t born until 8 months after you went under so she probably didn’t know yet. They were fraternal twins. Apparently they’re in foster care, I can arrange a meeting for next week if you like.”
Jacob sat silent for a moment, overwhelmed. Part of him wished he had stayed a vegetable. A world without her in it wasn’t a world waking up for. But if he had two sons waiting for him… well, maybe it was worth sticking around a bit longer after all.
“Can I have a copy of that file?”
The man handed him a stack of photocopies, held together with a clip at the top. A photo slid out into his lap and he picked it up. It was Katy, that same glowing smile on her face and holding her children – their children close. His heart felt like exploding in his chest as a tear dropped onto the copies in his lap.
“I think.. I think I’d like to be alone.”
“You know, I’m not surprised.” The caseworker shook his hand, firmly. “I’m told the nurses will start you on physical therapy this afternoon. How about we meet again next monday. I’ll see if I can get your boys out of foster care and bring them with me.”
Jacob nodded wordless agreement, already lost in the stack of photocopies. The man gathered his papers and left.
His whole life – the life he should have had – captured in a few forms. Two birth certificates, one death certificate, the records of his long hospitalization. Katy had gone almost bankrupt keeping him alive after his insurance had dropped him, hoping he’d come back to her and neglecting her own health in the process. Her cancer had been swift, she was dead within 3 months of the diagnosis and their boys were left as orphans. He found the form committing the boys – his boys – to foster care after their mother died. Neither he nor Katy had family that could be contacted, they had both been only children. His parents had died years ago, she had lost hers as a child and been raised by an aunt who had passed the spring before his accident.
Thinking about the crash and his long abscence his heart was seized with the certainty that this was his fault. Waves of guilt and sorrow crashed over him. A police report disagreeing with that assessment did little to comfort him – the other driver had run a red light. Not drunk or high, just in a hurry and careless. He read and reread the papers a dozen times, and then a dozen more, pausing every few minutes to come back to that photo.
The boys had been fraternal twins. She named the first after him, Jacob Campbell Jr. The younger she named Casey. He’d always liked the name and remembered suggesting it one night when they’d jokingly talked about names for the children they might someday have. She had given him that smile that lit up the whole room and said “how do you know I’d even want to have your children?” before making love to him again for the third time. He could still feel the weight of her pressed against him and the soft curve of her breasts brushing against his lips as her hair fell down around them; a cascade of red curls like the curtain falling at the end of a broadway play.
Let the world outside go to hell, they were in love.
He sat back against the hospital bed, lost in the memory, fist clenched tight and sobbing. Men aren’t supposed to cry and he wouldn’t have done it if she’d been there to see him. But in the cold emptiness of his hospital room with no one there to bear witness or remember, he sobbed into his pillow until he had no more tears left; cursing god and the fate that had taken him from her and then taken her before he could come back.
It was a long week, but when the case worker returned with his boys in tow he was strong enough to stand on his own feet again.