Stranger On The Bus*

Sunday, May 22, 2011 (*From the song, “One of us,” by Eric Bazilian, originally released by Joan Osborne in March of 1995.)

“You’re late.” Shirley looked up from the charts she was reviewing, pretending to be the mean supervisor, watching her friend adjust the scrubs nurses wore in their section, and then use a scrunchy to wrap her shoulder length hair into a sloppy bun.

“Walter needed a quickie,” Denise giggled back, her arms up and hands still working on the back of her head, “which, thank goodness, turned out to take a little longer than he expected and I missed the early bus.”

“Go, Walter,” Shirley commented approvingly, her usual enthusiasm lost in what she was reading about the critically ill woman waiting for a room in the temporary patient area behind the glass walls across from their nurses’ station.

“What’s going on in there?”

“The patient is Emma Gold, 86. Medics brought her in an hour ago. It’s congestive heart failure she’s had for years. That’s her husband sitting in the chair next to her. I called her daughter. She and a brother are on their way over, but they’re an hour away.”

“She’s not going to make it, is she?” Denise could tell from the description of Mrs. Gold’s condition, but more by the way the flesh on the sides of her friend’s mouth lay heavy, without the slightest hint of optimism.

“Who knows, but I don’t think so. She’s very weak. Irregular heart beat Dr. Bobby doesn’t think they can stabilize. Bob called her doctor who said she was surprised Emma’s held on this long. She’s out of town, or she’d be here.”

Denise paused, realizing that there was something more going on here than the usual old person passing away. “So why do I feel so sad?”

“It’s the old man. The way he’s sitting there, on the edge of his chair, holding and kissing her hand, knowing this is their last conversation.”

The two nurses stared silently at the couple, Emma on her side, her hand touching her husband’s face while they talked in the soft light of the fixture over her bed. It was dark out, earlier than usual because of storm clouds drifting in over the city. Santos, the only male nurse on their shift, had turned off the overheads. The other two beds in the holding room were empty. On his way out, he stopped to initial a form on the counter where Denise and Shirley were standing.

“Hey, Santos.”

“Hey, ladies.”

“Jeez, Santos. Are you crying?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he sniffed to stop a runny nose, his eyes watering, but then turned to look at the couple through the glass. “You can’t hear them from out here. …She’s dying and, when she does, he’ll be alone but, in their voices, in the way they look at each other when they talk, there is a strength, the way they’re reassuring each other. …I wanted to listen, but I couldn’t stay there any longer. ..I’ll see you guys later.” The two women looked at Santos, at each other, and back at the old couple.

“Are we getting her a room?”

“We won’t have one until the morning, but I’m not sure she’ll hang on that long.”

In the holding room, the husband brought his wife’s hand to his lips.

“How long have you known?” he asked her, his voice uneven with grief.

“Pretty much since our twelfth anniversary. We were getting ready to go out for the evening,” she said softly. “You were brushing your teeth. I was plucking a few gray hairs and commenting on the lines under my eyes and how you didn’t look a day older than when we met. Almost the next day, you had a few white hairs and matching lines of your own. And I got to thinking… You’ve never been sick. Never so much as twisted an ankle, never cut yourself shaving. Do you know that you never sneeze? …You’ve never really gotten older, have you? This face, the slowness of your walk, they’re just an effect, aren’t they, a favor you’ve done for me all these years?” She was weak, but sure of herself, and not the least bit angry at what he had done for love.

No answer, just a wry smile.

“It’s okay. Whatever you are, I love you. ..I’ll always love you.”

They were quiet for a moment.

“So, what exactly are you honey? ..Don’t let me die without knowing,” she asked, stroking the soft, lightly bristled skin of her husband’s unshaven face.

“Shouldn’t I be the one comforting you?” he smiled ever so slightly before answering her question. “…I really don’t know. I can’t remember,” he spoke slowly, unable to look away from her eyes, “ever being a child. It just seems like I was there, here and there. I don’t know for how long exactly. There are long, long periods I can’t remember.”

“The history you teach…” Her husband had been a professor and, since he retired, wrote articles about specific events. “You were there weren’t you?”

No response.

“…Jeez,” they both laughed when she said it. “Com’on. …I’m dying, honey. Let me know already. Who’m I going to tell? ..Besides, I love you,” she told him. “You know that. Always have,” she reassured him, “always will.”

“I love you too, honey.”

“You were there, weren’t you? ‘By the rude bridge that arched the flood, their flag to April’s breeze unfurled, here once the embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard round the world.’”

“You always loved that old hymn.”

“Was that you, Jack?”

“One of my finest moments,” his face turned happy even while a tear spilled out the corner of an eye. “Their spirit, the collective emotion of those farmers, their vision so clear, so pure. ..I can feel it even now.”

They were quiet again, his hands rubbing hers.

“You’ve had other wives haven’t you? Children? How many children have you had?”

“Yes, I’ve been married, but I… but you we’re the prettiest,” he added hurriedly, “hands down, the prettiest.”

Emma was almost too weak to laugh, but managed to anyway. “I know you’ve loved me. It’s okay.”

“And yes, I’ve had other children. Not many, other than ours.”

“Are any of them still…”

“No. They’re long gone, although they had children, and their children, children.”

“Are they…”

“Normal?” he laughed and cracked a smile that made her happy. “I don’t know. As far as know.”

“Jackson?”

“Wow. ..You don’t often call me by my full name. Am I in trouble?”

“He was your son, wasn’t he?”

Her husband shook his head, left to right, smiling at her with his eyes. “After all this time, you wait until the last second to ask the big questions?”

“I don’t think I really wanted to know until now.”

“Yeah. He was my son.”

“You were ‘Joseph’ then?”

“No, not exactly. The stories aren’t even close to what happened. ..I had a son, a gifted speaker, a social worker for his time who cared more about others than himself. He just offended the wrong people who viewed his popularity as a threat to their authority.”

“Jack,” she paused, realizing the importance of what she was about to say, “you’re the father of the Son of God.”

“You make it sound way more than it was. ..I was young. Mary was beautiful, like you. Stuff happens. …You know, Emma, we’ve had our share of ‘stuff,” haven’t we?” But she wouldn’t be distracted.

“So why didn’t you save him? He was your son, Jack. Your son.”

“I.. I couldn’t, honey. I don’t have powers, just relationships. I empathize well. I can influence, but can’t control. I encouraged him and them, the movement whose time had come, without understanding that it would cost him his life. ..Don’t you think I’d save you if I could?”

“Maybe you just don’t think it’s the right thing to do, saving me. I would understand.”

“No, no. No. If only I could. At best, all I can do is what any other loving husband would, savor the incredible strength you have always had, that was always yours and yours alone. All these years, it is you upon whom I have relied. It is the force of your life, not mine, that will sustain me when you’re gone.”

“That’s nice, Jack,” she said, wanting to, but not really believing him.

“It’s not nice. It’s true.”

“What about all the stories, all the lore and legend?”

“Emma… Emma, don’t waste these..”

She silenced him, her fingers bushing across his mouth, her strength slipping away. “It’s okay,” she reassured him, seeing his eyes glistening with the onset of tears. “I need to know.”

“ …The simple secret is that I am nothing of what so many believe. It is I.. I am the one who exists by virtue of their will and character, and yours in particular,” he smiled again. “I am nothing without them, nothing without you.”

Stroking his face, she wondered out loud,” I suppose it’s a good thing you’re a nice guy.” She smiled back. “Are there others like you?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe. I suspect there are others, not so nice. Others I’ve never met, as far as I know, but whose work is all too familiar. …If I knew how I came to be,” Jack thought out loud and then did his best to answer. “Sometimes I feel a foreboding, a sense that there are other influences at work as strong, maybe stronger and farther reaching. ..I don’t know, honey. After all this time, I still don’t understand.”

“Can you die, Jack? …Can you die like me?”

“Emma,” he begged her, “please,” but had always respected her determination. “..I don’t know, honey. There are times when I’ve felt weak, like now, as if life itself was spilling from me, and other times, angry, vengeful times when I feel a power welling up inside me, but to what end, I’m never sure. When I have hurt myself, twisted an ankle running, cut myself working in the shop, I heal very quickly, almost instantaneously. Maybe I’m just a freak with a very long life span. I don’t know, Emma. I just don’t know.”

Her voice too faint, it was her eyes that asked him to go on.

“I’m not sure I’m anything more than a figment of your, of everyone’s collective imagination. I’m not sure I exist except,” he stopped and swallowed, “..except for the goodness that is in you, like a mirror, not more, but no less than the reflection of what others see in themselves. Look away, and I’m gone.”

Emma seemed to be fading.

“So,” he said, trying to make conversation. “The kids are on their way,” he reminded her, giving her reason to hold on. “So.. You caught on to the fact that I never sneeze? ..Hmm.”

“That,” Emma managed to whisper, “and the fact that you still make love like the 20 year old when we first met.”

“Can I help it if I’m still crazy about you?”

She laughed. “If only we could make love one more..” And she squeezed his hands and closed her eyes for the last…

“..time.” He finished the sentence for her, paused and then leaned forward to kiss her softly while she was still warm to his lips. “If I were only what you believed in, would I ever let you leave me? ..I will always love you. I only hope I told you often enough.” Standing, he pulled up the hospital sheet and blanket to her shoulders, tucking her in as if she were only sleeping.

Looking down at the back of his left hand, he stared for a moment at the simple gold wedding band he had never taken off, and then down to see his wife’s face. With his right hand, he rolled and pulled the ring off, putting it into his left hand, his fist closing around it. One last look at Emma, and he turned and walked away. Out in the corridor, in front of the nurses’ station, he barely noticed the two women standing behind the counter watching him heading for the automatic doors and the street outside.

His head down, his posture weak, an exhausted Jack Gold let his left arm go limp, the ring it was holding bouncing off the tile floor and rolling away behind him, spinning to a stop under a piece of portable equipment someone had left against the wall.

As the outside doors opened, Denise ran to get it for him. “Mr. Gold!” she shouted while she pushed the cart out of the way, “you dropped your…” but the doors had already closed behind him.

Out front, at the curb that ran along the edge of the small plaza in front of that side entrance to the hospital, a man and woman, she in her late fifties, him a little younger, rushed out of their car that had come to a sudden stop, almost trotting toward the doors ahead of them, worried they’d be too late. On their way, they passed a young man apparently in his 30’s. Hands in his pockets, the collar of his jacket folded up, his face glistening in the lamp light as the fine mist from a light rain began to fill the air.

A few feet past him, the woman stopped and turned around. Feeling her look, the young man turned for a moment. There was something about him she thought was familiar, but then he kept walking, stepping off the curb on his way to the bus stop across the street.

“Merle,” her brother, now at the open hospital doors, called back to her. “Com’on. We’ve got to see Mom.” Two steps backward, her eyes watching as the young man disappeared behind the front of an arriving bus, seeing him walk down the aisle as the bus wasted no time pulling away, until she gave up and hustled to catch up with her brother.

“Hi,” the woman, short of breath,” blurted out to the Shirley, the station nurse still at her post. “I’m Merle Conners. This is my brother. We’re here to see my mother, Emma Gold. Someone called to say…”

“I’m sorry,” Shirley interrupted. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Conners. I was the one who called you. Your mother,” she gestured to the holding room where Denise had turned on the overhead lights. “She passed away just a few minutes ago. Your father was with her. ..I’m surprised you didn’t pass him on your way in.”

Merle and her brother were stunned and speechless, spinning their heads to look at their mother lying peacefully in her bed, and back at the nurse while Denise walked hurriedly toward them.

“Ms. Conners, do you understand…”

“I understand that there must be some mistake,” she said assertively. “I…”

“Excuse me,” Denise spoke up, holding out her hand. Your father dropped this on his way out. I tried to call to him, but..”

Danny Gold took the ring out of Denise’s hand, raised it close to his face to look for the inscription, the tiny print engraving around its interior. “I love you, Jack,” he read it out loud.

“Did you get this from my mother?” Merle asked, her face contorted with confusion.

“No. It’s, uh, like I said, your father dropped it on his way out. I guess… I guess he was too upset to wait for you.”

“Nurse,” Danny responded with certainly, “our father died a few years ago. They were crazy in love,” he added. “To tell you the truth,” he said turning to look toward his mother, reluctant to go over to her just yet, “as sick as she was, I’m surprised she lasted this long after he passed away.”

-wf

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