“Who woulda thought that shit could kill ya? It’s been thirty years and…what the hell?” Newt’s face revealed the disgust he felt as the bright orange liquid dripped from the clear bag, snaked down the tube, then squeezed through the wire sticking out of his chest. “It’s like a bag full of the flu! God, I hate this! I figured the cigarettes and booze woulda killed me, not some god damned spray Uncle Sam decided wouldn’t hurt us. Oh sure, it’ll kill trees but not people. Pisses me off!” Newt’s voice bellowed down the hospital corridor and then weakened as he began to wretch, holding his fist to his lips. Tears found their way down his wrinkled, pale cheeks.
Newt shook his nearly bald head in disbelief as the whole story seemed like a sick joke. He remembered getting his draft notice and trying not to look scared. “Let’s just move to Canada” was the suggestion of his best friend from high school. Some of the guys got so wigged out that they never did act right again. Not him, he sucked it up and got over it. And now, when he should be enjoying retirement, some stinking thing in his blood screwed it all up! Luck wasn’t something he’d had much of.
Newt knew he didn’t fit the “favored patient” list in the cancer unit. The nurses tried to avoid his room when they could. He complained about everything! A pain in the ass is what he was; the doctors weren’t even too keen on stopping at his room during their rounds. It was no mistake that they did the mandatory visit to Newt’s room in the middle of the night. Yeah, Newt could definitely wreck your day! The Do Not Resuscitate sign outside his room caught the eye of all that slinked by the dreaded place.
Occasionally the ornery old veteran grabbed his IV pole, unplugged it and headed for the door. Before entering the hallway he looked carefully both ways to avoid meeting anyone on his way out. Exchanging pleasantries wasn’t his bag and he didn’t want to make small talk. Newt would stare out the window at the end of the hall until his legs got wobbly; with a cuss under his breath he’d shuffle back to his room.
Newt watched the clock and sighed out loud as the minutes ticked by. He stared at his bruised arms as if they belonged to someone else. The skin sagged and he tried to remember when they had gotten that way. When did I turn from a regular guy that did normal stuff to some friggin’ invalid? I can’t even mow my own lawn. I used to bitch about it. I used to bitch about a lot of things.
Delores, the staff dietician dutifully walked into Newt’s room with a plastered-on smile. He knew she’d lost the bet with the other kitchen staff, and now it was she that had to come down here. A slight smirk spread over Newt’s face. “You haven’t filled out your meal card, Newt, what would you like for dinner tonight? I’ll read the choices to you. Well, let’s see here…we have chicken and mashed…Newt, I have to ask you! It’s my job!” Newt was staring defiantly, his middle finger raised like a weapon in the air. With a crimson face Delores left the room as she muttered under her breath. “Ass hole.”
Encounters like these seemed to make the days go by a little nicer. After all, someone had to keep them on their toes around here. Being pissed was a helluva lot better than giving them all what they seemed to want. I ain’t no panty waste or cry baby! His jaw tensed with the idea.
Newt sat back in his reclined bed and looked at the wallet-sized picture in the tiny frame. He kept it to himself and turned it down when anyone was in the room. If any of them would see it it’d make him look soft and he didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him. Sons a bitches! None of their damned business! The photo was like looking into a mirror except for the smile looked like Deb’s. He stared at the picture, hoping it would change; maybe his youngest boy wouldn’t really be overseas doing what his old man had done. Damn, I tried convincing the little shit not to join; the hard-headed kid wouldn’t listen to a thing I said! Just like dear old Dad.
It seemed like a long time ago when he and Deb found out why he’d been so damned tired all the time. Nothing looked or felt the same anymore and the treatments knocked him on his butt. The night that Deb had finally told Brian about the cancer made Newt cringe just remembering her words. “There are so many new treatments for cancer these days. People get better all the time. Don’t you worry, Honey. They’re taking real good care of your Dad!” Her overly-optimistic voice was high and strained as she talked fast and held her breath.
Leave it up to me to let her do all of the hard stuff. What’s new? He’d wanted to get on the phone to reassure Brian but didn’t trust himself to keep the emotion out of his voice. God, I’m a coward!
The last couple of years had been “less than smooth” when it came to the whole Father and Son thing. They sent messages to each other by way of Deb. Most conversations ended in a hassle when they actually talked. Secretly, Newt was relieved when the kid finally finished high school and signed up for the Army. Damn kid could use some discipline! Brian had a light-hearted personality like his Mom and it irritated him. Deb and Brian would sit and talk for hours. Newt would hear them laugh as he sat watching T.V. Wonder what’s so damned funny…
Newt closed his thin, veined eyelids hoping for sleep. He wished for this misery to just be done already. Well, after I see Brian one more time. He dozed fitfully, jerking often as the nausea tried to take over. The pills they handed him every few hours made him groggy but comfort wasn’t a feeling that he knew anymore. Can’t even have a few beers to take the edge off without puking.
Newt watched the door and knew Deb would be breezing in any minute now as she got out of work. He grimaced when he thought of how tired she looked lately. Deb tried so hard to hide the fatigue that was clouding her still pretty face. I could’ve been a little nicer. She put up with a lot of my shit! When did she start looking so worn out? I wonder if she were the sick one if I’d take care of her? Yeah, right.
Deb sailed into the dreaded room as if she were happy to be there and kissed Newt carefully on the cheek. The beautiful head of hair she’d always been so proud of was gray at the roots and in desperate need of a trim. “How are you feeling, Honey? I missed you. Did the Doctor tell you when you could come home? How were your blood counts today?” It seemed like Newt hadn’t heard her questions.
Quietly, without looking up, he asked,, ”Did he call?” The words ended in a choke. He didn’t want to worry his obviously frazzled wife with what he’d seen on CNN this afternoon. Chopper down/ Afghanistan/ Six assumed dead/ is all the words said across the bottom of the screen. As much as Newt tried to avoid the news he seemed drawn to it. He didn’t think his gut could hurt worse than it already did. He was wrong.
Deb whispered, "no”. She busied herself arranging get-well cards and gathering up dirty clothes. It was all closing in on her and she wasn’t sure what to do or say next. Maybe it’s time I take a leave from work; I’m so tired….just tired. No one seems to fake happy for me like I do for all of them. “I need to sit down for a minute.” Deb collapsed into the vinyl padded chair next to the bed exhaling the stale air from her lungs. Her heavy head slumped down onto her chest.
They sat in silence. There was nothing to say. It had all been said and it didn’t change the facts. Grating hospital sounds echoed through the hallways. Both faces registered exhaustion and agitation. Was this it after all of these years of raising kids, working and staying married? Some reward!
Newt’s bruised fist relaxed just a little as he reached over to touch her hand. He traced the blue veins gently and hooked his index finger around hers. She squeezed lightly with a familiarity only they could possibly know. Deb looked into Newt’s eyes and forced a tiny, yet tired, smile. Her eyes told him that it was going to be okay…she’d be here. She’d always been there. Still pretty too.
Shrill ringing brought them both back to consciousness as they looked at the phone. Newt’s trembling hand lifted the phone from its cradle and raised it to his ear. A gravelly “hello” came out. His eyes widened as the rigid face relaxed just a little. “Hey son, I’m doin' okay; how ‘bout you? Here, I’ll get your Mother.” Even though the light-hearted yakking his son was so good at seemed foreign he actually chuckled in his hoarse deep voice. “Yeah, we did that too! Damn, I guess some things never do change, huh? Okay, I’ll tell Mom you said hi…yeah, me too Buddy. Be careful.”
Newt hung up the phone and took a sip of water. He cleared his throat as he avoided Deb’s gaze. Finally, he gave up and let her see the tears pooled in his eyes. Swiping at the moisture gathering on his cheeks, Newt looked directly at his wife. “What? Quit staring at me.”
“What’d he say? Does he seem alright? Come on Newt, tell me! Did he get my package in the mail?” Deb’s voice rose louder as she waited for an answer. God, he could be irritating! “Newt!”
“He’s okay… just wanted to talk to his old man.” Newt set the tiny picture upright.