by Heather Lynn Horvat
You can’t move your neck because of the damn plastic brace. If you strain your eyes to the left, you see the blinds are closed. There’s no way to tell if it’s daylight or midnight. To the right is a limp arm next to your torso. You flex your fingers against the scratchy sallow sheets—how long have you been sleeping?—but all you feel is a heated prickle of sensation jet up your forearm. In front of you is a wall-mounted TV. To the right of the flat screen is a whiteboard with Matthew Clements—your name—written in bold black; vitals below that. Neurology, Urology, Cardiology, Psychology written in a serpentine column. There’s writing below that, but the words don’t make sense.
Your heart rate monitor beeps faster. You remember why you’re in the hospital.
Your divorce is far from final, but she’s already gone. Moved halfway across the country to make a home for herself and your two girls. You try not to think about that, though, because today you have your daughters. For one more week you can pretend the break is not real. Maddie left you a note earlier today on heart-shaped paper: I’m outside with Max. Love you, Daddy.
Your chuckle bounces off the exposed, high ceiling. The house feels alive with seven-year-old Maddie playing dress up with the Labrador puppy, Max. You had rescued Max from the kill shelter hoping he would be the glue strong enough to hold your family tight.
You get a text from Dara, the brooding teenager, that reads: At mall. Be home late.
You grind your teeth. You rub your temples, a migraine brewing. Then you breathe, remembering she needs time with her friends before the move. But don’t you need time with her, too?
The divorce has been building for years with back and forth threats, police reports—you never laid a hand on your wife, but she calls anyway—shuffling the kids to Grandma’s house so you and she can work it out. Again.
Tomorrow, you promise yourself, you’ll take the girls for ice cream and ear piercings.
“Daddy!” Maddie bounds into the house with a tail-wagging, slobbering Max behind her.
“Sweet girl,” you say, lifting her up and smelling her still damp golden hair. Her legs dangle and you know she’ll fight in another second, but you squeeze her tight.
“My dress is dirty,” she says when you put her down. Grass stains and mud polka dot her canary dress.
“Let’s get you a new one from the store.” You grab your keys and wallet from the counter.
“Mom will be mad.”
“It will be our secret.” You mimic zipping your lips, then lock them and toss an imaginary key over your shoulder.
Her giggles steady your pulsing veins. You’re able to hold the tears in your eyes long enough for her to skip ahead of you so that you can wipe away the salty water with the back of your rough hand. At least with the girls gone for months at a time you’ll be able to take extra shifts at the plant, work additional side jobs with your friend’s construction company. When the girls visit on holidays you’ll be able to spoil them and give them whatever they ask for. You’ll be the cool parent.
The nurse comes to pump you full of morphine even though you tell her not to. You want to feel the pain. You deserve to. The neck brace has been removed, but you’re cautioned to let the vertebrae heal. No quick motions to upset the unstable balance of your broken body.
Before, but seconds after
You lay on the gravelly asphalt beside the road. A tree branch stabs your back dead center, but you can’t shift your weight from it. You smell fresh pine from the nearby woods, and a light rain falls from the thick cumulonimbus clouds, shifting the summer afternoon into premature darkness. The car radio still plays “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift, Maddie’s favorite.
You try to yell but your voice comes out as a whisper. She does not respond. Your breath comes in short, quick rasps, your heart races, and you open your eyes as wide as you can. You fight to move, but are helpless even after people arrive. Maddie is shy and you worry she’ll be scared of the good Samaritan strangers. All you want is to hold her and kiss her soft cheek, but you can’t move.
Paramedics ask you to follow the penlight with your eyes. You repeat Maddie’s name until it becomes a chant. You’re strapped to a board and lifted into an ambulance. Maddie isn’t with you as the young paramedic holds your hand, tears in her eyes.
You know Maddie’s dead. The car spun out of control. You hit a tree head on. Her seatbelt was her death sentence. You, the executioner. Your soon-to-be-ex-wife screams at you while you’re doped up on the morphine drip. Security escorts her out.
A nurse smiles at you and pats your hand while saying, “Don’t worry, she won’t be allowed back.”
You don’t deserve the nurse’s kind smile, her soft touch. You try to turn your head from her, but your body doesn’t respond to your brain. You try harder, thinking the morphine is blurring your body’s obedience. Unable to stare anywhere but ahead, the bottom line of the whiteboard finally makes sense: temporary paralysis.
You remember how Maddie’s hair smelled like strawberries and your tears water the fresh earth on her grave. You couldn’t hold her at the end, and you couldn’t bury her when it was time. But somehow you must move forward.
With your left hand—the good hand—you place a lone daisy under the temporary grave marker, and then you say goodbye.
About the painter: Eric Sorensen is a medical student and artist who loves painting, drawing, and photography. After college he studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. Image: Painting, mixed media on panel (2014), part of a series exploring the unexpected textures that arise when contrasting materials come together.