We went to the prom together. We ended up in the hospital. In the decade between, we somehow managed to form a family without ever making much of a life. We were normal people, pretending everything was okay.
Maria blames the doctors. I blame God. Secretly we both blame Hailey for dying on us. When we feel like hurting each other, Maria and I blame each other for not giving our baby girl something more to live for. When we feel like being honest, we don’t blame Hailey at all. We envy her.
We’re in Room 419; Maria is sleeping now despite the machines and tubes and nurses. When I’m sure she can’t hear me, I apologize for things. I practice telling her goodbye. No matter how hard I try, the sad tears won’t come. All I can manage are tears of frustration for not feeling sufficiently sad about my dying wife. And that makes me cry harder. But it’s not the cleansing kind.
Maria was looking right at me when she died. I think she tried to tell me she didn’t blame me any more. I didn’t mean to resent her but I did. I envied her too. Not her death, but her belief.
In her version, all she had to do was quit breathing and wait for Jesus to take her up in the clouds to push Hailey on some heavenly swing set. Hailey loved to swing.
Tony says he wants to cheer me up so I let him try. It turns out I’m Tony’s excuse to drink. He already knows I’m beyond salvage. The gin just makes him feel better about having to spend time with me. So I sit and watch my kid brother fail to cheer either one of us up. Later, I drive him home.
They tell me I fainted at the funeral. The more generous mourners gave me the benefit of the doubt, blamed it on exhaustion and grief. Those who knew better blamed it on the sleeping pills that, at least until the graveside service, hadn’t done a thing for me. My personal opinion is that I was still frustrated about not crying. Not since Hailey was born. I wept the first time I saw her, but not the last. That’s not an easy thing to admit.
I finally slept last night. But not because of the sleeping pills.
I took every picture out of every frame and out of every photo album in the house and spread them on the bed. I cinched Maria’s bathrobe around me, then draped Hailey’s baby blanket on my face like a robber’s bandana. It smelled like formula and warm baby skin. Eventually I fell into bed with the lights on.
I think maybe I prayed some too.
When I woke, the blanket smelled more like my breath than Hailey’s.
I’m not Catholic so I don’t know the rules. But the priest is young and willing to play along. The booth smells like Grandma’s closet, which I used to pretend was Narnia.
I kneel and confess everything I can think of until my knees ache. The priest assures me I did a fine job, but I get the feeling he wants to be rid of me. Or maybe it’s me that wants to be rid of me.
When I can’t sleep I get up and call the hospital. I asked to be connected to Room 419. The groggy switchboard nurse tells me she’s sorry, that there’s no one in Room 419. I wonder briefly if she’s really sorry, and why?
Packing a duffel makes me feel a bit like Oswald or Ruby, making final preparations and wondering if I have the nerve.
Just like the sleepy nurse said, the room is empty, the bed made. I pull the privacy curtain, careful not to make noise, then climb into bed. Maria’s scent is gone, but I still have Hailey’s blanket.
There’s no cop there when I wake, just a different groggy nurse. She says, “You can’t stay here.”
“I know,” I say.
She thinks I’m talking about the room.
I can’t live. And I can’t die. So I sit and wait for whatever is supposed to happen next. I do this every day until I run out of coffee.
There’s no money any more because there’s no job any more. I tell myself that I’m not really stealing, that I’m simply servicing my caffeine addiction. I check my conscience, but my conscience doesn’t seem to care.
Stealing is easy, easier still to justify. I’m poor now, hungry and confused. I’ve been wronged and abandoned. It’s not my fault. A man’s got to eat.
The cop disagrees.
I walk now. I talk a lot too. Out loud. Mostly to myself, sometimes to God. All the good smells are gone. There are no more kind eyes either, no more Tony’s or groggy nurses. I do have my photographs though. And Hailey’s blanket. I bartered away Maria’s bathrobe for a pair of Pumas that don’t fit. When I get good and desperate, the priest will feed me or give me a coat. He tells me to keep talking to God, to say it out loud if I have to, no matter how the normal people look at me or move to the other side of the road. He says my decrease is Jesus’s increase, which sounds like total crap to me. Still, I continue to testify about the things I have seen and heard and smelled and done.