The alarm clock’s ringing woke me up with a start. Flailing my arms in the general direction of the clock, I was looking to somehow plead it for five more minutes of sleep. It definitely wasn’t on the table next to me, where it had always been. Maybe it wasn’t the alarm clock at all, I told myself. It’s the telephone or the doorbell; I wondered with my eyes still closed. No, definitely the alarm clock – it had to be – the thought continued.
It wasn’t until the doors slid open with a loud screech and the sounds of multiple people running towards me hit my ears that I realized what was happening. My eyes, now wide open and looking for an explanation, moved to my wife’s bed, at the hospital, with various machines and wires around it. One of these machines was responsible for this ringing noise, and it didn’t matter which, they all meant only one thing: something was wrong with Jenny. As reality started to sink in, I could feel an uneasiness at the bottom of my stomach, which only started to get worse and worse every passing beep of the machine; I thought I would puke if it didn’t stop soon. One of the nurses started tugging on my right arm, the arm that had been Jenny’s to cling onto all our life. I noticed it was the same nurse who asked the two of us about our relationship the first time we had come to the hospital. Back then, we didn’t know we would be here six more times in the next four years; we had told her every piece of our story, and she had loved all of it. I resisted but eventually left the room after her constant insistence. With the doors shut and the curtains drawn, I couldn’t see the woman I had called my wife for nearly five decades, anymore. The receptionist, a young 20-something who had taken a liking for the two of us during our previous visits, offered me a chair and some water.
“She can’t do this to me. She can’t leave me here alone”.
I was in tears, even as more and more of the familiar hospital staff gathered around me. I remembered the way Jenny had interacted with each and every one of these people, asking them about their lives and sharing stories from ours. She was like that – there was a warmth about her that drew people close to her, even having never met before; that’s how she drew me in. They all consoled me and told me it would be alright, but I wouldn’t believe it until I saw my wife talking and smiling again. During our last six visits to the hospital, Jenny had insisted I stay next to her, hardly ever letting go of my hand. This time, she didn’t let me stay the night even once. “These people in the hospital know how to take care of me. You go home and you sleep. I’ll still be here tomorrow morning”, she said every evening, after I had finished reading her some of her favourite passages from various novels. Part of me wanted to leave the hospital right then and come back in the morning, hoping that Jenny would still be here when I returned.
I looked up towards the receptionist, Dana, who had been trying to comfort me, but who herself was in need of comforting. Dana had earlier claimed that our story had been better than any she had read in a romance novel. The three of us had even spent last Christmas together, where this young girl was still trying to find her feet in the world. She took my hand and guided me back to Jenny’s room as the doctors left, whose expressions were incomprehensible to me. The nurses still surrounded her bed but made way as they saw Dana and me approaching. Jenny coughed, on hearing that noise, albeit of discomfort, I smiled; she was awake. I held her hand, as I had countless times in the past, waiting for her to intertwine her fingers in mine as she always did – but she didn’t.
I was never the social one of the two of us, and as the entire room stared back at me, I was hoping Jenny would open her eyes, tell them everything was fine and rescue me from this situation, like she had the first time we had met. We were both riding the subway, young teens doing odd jobs. When a spot freed up beside her, I fought with a man twice my age to grab that seat. She still asks me to this day why I struck up a conversation with her on the subway and I still didn’t have an answer to it. I continued to play our subway conversation, our first meeting, in my head frame-by-frame. The white sweater she wore on the cold day, and how she turned towards me, flicking her hair away from her face as I greeted her with ‘hello’. Being awkward and socially challenged, I proceeded to describe to her the workings of a Fortune-500 company, the very little knowledge I had about it, to an Arts students who wanted to be a teacher and knew nothing about business. I would realize that much later, as she told me about her life and dreams, after gladly having listened to everything I had to say with a smile on her face. As she continued telling me about her music choices and movies she wanted to see, I had this uncontrollable urge to say to her —
My wife’s hospital monitor started beeping again, as it had fifteen minutes ago. This time, however, she was awake, her eyes open but distant. She used all her strength to take off the oxygen mask and called me close. She whispered the words ‘I love you’ into my ears and just as quickly, the monitor had three flat lines on it.
My cycle of thoughts had continued even as the machines were loudly beeping and Jenny had pulled me close. As the girl in the subway, whose name I didn’t even know yet, talked about her likes and dislikes, the words ‘I love you’ spilled out from my mouth without thought. I had not been thinking it and I wasn’t sure what provoked those words, but they just came out. The crowded subway stared in disbelief as I diverted my eyes. Some laughed, some turned away feeling embarrassed for me, but this girl next to me casually held my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Jenny. I love you too”.
And in this hospital, on hearing those words from my dying wife, I held her hand and placed them in mine, like I had for the last fifty years, and I said to her, “Hi, I’m Michael. I love you too”, as she closed her eyes one last time.