by Carol L. Skolnick
Bobby Braxton liked to watch the visitors passing by his room on the way to see their loved ones. Emaciated and curled in fetal position, always on his right side so that he faced the open door, he’d flash his winning smile, croaking a weak but hearty, “Hiiii,” the tone of the long vowel trailing off into a not-unpleasant neediness, such that one could not help but stop for a moment and engage, wishing they knew what to say other than hello back. “How are you today?” didn’t feel appropriate. Bobby looked to them—depending on their spiritual filters—like Jesus on the Cross, or Ramana Maharshi dying of cancer, or Gus the German Shepherd in his final moments, thumping his ropey tail with love one last time, forgiving them and the vet in advance for the lethal injection that would send him over the rainbow bridge.
To the nurses on duty, Bobby was that nice guy in room 1117 with the bedsores on his right hip. Secretly, they wished he’d let go already. Without a wife or any family, he craved more attention than they could afford or were inclined to give. But Bobby was persistent; he much preferred chatting with fellow humans to watching TV, or even to the first-run movies on VHS that St. George’s Hospice could somehow obtain.
Bobby wished he could visit with Martha de Castro down the hall. Sometimes he mustered up the strength to call out, “How you doin’, Martha?” He hoped she could hear him, but Martha’s mind was on her rosary when she was alone. Her last days were quite the party, with a parade of former co-workers from Manhattan bearing novels and pints of Vanilla Swiss Almond ice cream, her favorite. Sometimes her goddaughter Martha Rose or her best friend Alice had a sleepover in Martha’s room; Bobby could hear their giggles and whispers past lights out.
While Bobby yearned for connection, Martha was ready to go. After mastectomy, reconstruction, radiation and chemo…then the Kalachakra initiation with the Dalai Lama at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine…a trip to Germany for ultra-high heat therapy…three years of ingesting organic carrot juice, swallowing buckets full of supplements enduring daily coffee enemas—What is it with these New Age therapies, her night nurse Mrs. Jones wondered, when eventually, they all end up here?—Martha realized her heart was with the church in which she’d grown up.
While having as good a time as possible confined to a hospital bed, she’d surrendered to leaving the planet a bit earlier than planned. If God was merciful, she reasoned, she’d be with Steven again, and her parents…and if not, she’d had a wonderful life. So, as long as she was able, she’d have her hair styled every week, her makeup done every day, get wheeled in her bed to the art room, listen to her friends read mysteries to her, and watch the latest Academy-award nominated films with them. She had all the morphine and Häagen-Dazs she desired, much better than those nauseating vitamins. At 58 years old, she’d been to India, Tahiti, Europe five times, had affairs with exciting men, enjoyed her career, and had done pretty much everything she’d ever wanted. Not so bad.
Bobby would ogle Martha as they wheeled her to Art Therapy. She was still very attractive to him; they had each gotten their hair back after treatment. His had been jet black— “Black Irish,” his fair-haired mother called him. It was now gray and wispier than before, but it was all his. Back in the day, Bobby and Martha might have made a striking couple. Quite the ballroom dancer, he would have liked to invite Martha to join him at the Rainbow Room. He imagined himself dapper in his jacket and tie, holding her close on the dance floor, she in a sleeveless black number and pearls, with strappy, not-very-high heeled sandals because, he suspected, she was a bit taller than him — only an inch or two above him though, her auburn hair sweeping his shoulder. He was sure Martha wouldn’t have cared about their age difference—10 years give or take—or his height, because everyone always told Bobby he was such a good catch, with his charming manner and the decent living he made as senior manager of Stockman’s Furniture on Arthur Avenue.
Alfred Braxton had died of a bad liver when his son Bobby was 12. Bobby knew what that meant, and never touched a drop of alcohol himself in his life, except for the consecrated communion wine. He’d never smoked a cigarette, or anything else. Bobby knew that when it was your time, there was nothing you could do, and while it had nothing to do with whether you were a good person, it was best to be good.
“Always say hello, be cheerful, say your prayers, and do your best,” Penny Braxton had taught her son. That he had strived all his life to be good now made him happy.
He hadn’t liked living alone all those years in Penny’s Pelham Parkway apartment after her death, and he didn’t like it now, but he was too weak to leave his room. He sure would have liked to get up and stop by Martha’s bed, flirt with her a little, and share some of that ice cream he likely could no longer keep down.
So he called out weakly to the strangers trying to hurry past his room on their way in or out, and he turned on the charm for the staff, getting them to stay just a little longer. Mrs. Jones would come by to massage his shoulders, even though she was not his nurse. Some visitors stopped to chat, bodies turned slightly away from him, waiting for an opportunity to leave. What a nice man, they thought, trying not to look at their watches, apologizing for having to catch a train.