Authors: Sharon Butala
For Sean and Carol
Cecilia had slept well the first part of the night, but later she was dimly aware of a restlessness on Colin’s part that kept pulling her up from the dreamless depths of her heavy sleep to a pale awareness of something being not right. She remembered feeling hot and must have thrown off all her covers, an act unusual for her since she was almost always too cold, and often resorted to a flannel nightgown even in summer. About two-thirty she came fully awake, shivering because she was uncovered, and in her gropings for blankets, found that Colin was hugging all the bedcovers tightly to himself.
She woke him, pushing against his shoulder, then touching his cheek and forehead with her palm, puzzled and then alarmed by the hotness of his skin and by the dry heat radiating from his body.
“I’m sick,” he mumbled, with a mixture of fear and irritation in his voice that woke her further.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“I’m sick,” he repeated, a whisper this time, and gave a little moan, involuntarily it seemed, as though he had been stricken suddenly with pain.
She fumbled for the bedside lamp, its location forgotten from
the evening before when they had checked in, exhausted from their long flight and the delay when they had changed planes in Winnipeg. The lamp on, she blinked, staring down at him, trying to tell if his pallor was real or just the consequence of poor light or her grogginess.
“I’ll need a doctor,” he said, his eyes closed, and he clenched his jaw as if against the chattering of his teeth, or pain.
Cecilia was confused, vague pictures passed through her mind, vanishing before she could catch them. She sat up in bed, put both hands over her face, and tried to make sense of things. They had arrived in Calgary, Colin was sick, he said he needed a doctor. She put her hands down and was disconcerted to find him staring at her with an expression that was—surely not—beseeching. But yes, that’s what it was. He was beseeching her to do something, and his eyes were the eyes of someone in extremity such as she sometimes caught a glimpse of on the news on television, frighteningly dark, holding depths she had never guessed at before.
She wanted to close her eyes again, to sink back into sleep, to wake in the morning to find him well, or gone.
Colin grunted once, softly, and she got out of bed, went to the desk, and opened the phone book.
“It’s my stomach,” he said, and his voice was strained now and pitched too high. She looked back at him, saw he had raised his head off the pillow and that his black hair, always neatly trimmed and short, was pushed by his restlessness into spikes like a punker’s. She wanted to laugh. “Call the desk,” he said, straining to say it loudly enough for her to hear, then his head fell back on the pillow. But the way his head dropped like a stone as if he had fallen that suddenly into unconsciousness made her dial zero.
They drove the short distance to a hospital in an ambulance,
down deserted, icy streets, the siren senselessly screeching. Almost at once Colin was taken from the emergency ward to a bed in a ward three flights up. It was a small room across from the nursing station, and it was equipped with valves, dials and tubes attached to the wall at the head of his bed that the other rooms Cecilia had glanced into as they went down the hall, didn’t have. This, and his proximity to the nursing station, alarmed Cecilia. Or rather, these facts registered, she knew this meant he was seriously ill, and that she should be alarmed. But she found she felt no fear, or at least, she didn’t think she did.
It was four a.m. Cecilia stood by his bed looking down on him while a nurse on the other side, for at least the third time since their arrival, took his blood pressure, counted his pulse, and listened to his chest.
Colin’s eyelids flickered open. Closing them, he said to Cecilia, “You came.” She wondered if he had forgotten that she had come with him to Calgary, that he wasn’t alone on this business trip as he usually was, and if he thought, in his fever-distorted mind, that she had flown in to be with him when he was taken ill. She drew in a breath to explain, but the paper-like sheen of his eyelids, which looked now as though they had been sealed shut and not merely closed, silenced her. She looked to the nurse but the nurse seemed to be avoiding looking at her.
“He’s not likely to be awake much,” she said to Cecilia in a tentative tone, casting a glance at her that Cecilia couldn’t interpret. “The doctor wants to talk to you.” Cecilia went out into the hall where the doctor was leaning on the counter and sleepily making notes in a patient’s chart. When he saw her, he stopped writing. Cecilia approached him slowly, and waited for him to speak.
“He’s a very sick man,” the doctor said to her, solemnly. For a second Cecilia thought she hadn’t heard him correctly. When she
didn’t reply, he said, “I know it’s a surprise, since he’s so healthy and strong looking, but whatever is bothering him has hit him hard. We’ll have to watch him closely.” He said something further about vital signs and some medical jargon that she didn’t listen to. She interrupted him. “But what’s wrong with him?”
“We have to wait till the lab opens in the morning to get the results of the tests and to do more,” he said, “before we can pinpoint the problem, but we’ve got a nurse with him full time for now, and if we need to, we can have him in the O.R. in minutes.” He seemed used to the bewildered silences of relatives, because he filled the pauses when she, her mind crowded with not so much questions as dark, empty spaces that refused to form themselves into words, could only look up at him in silence.
“I think you might as well go back to your hotel and get some sleep,” he said, looking vaguely, with red-rimmed eyes, down the empty, polished corridor. “Mrs. Purdy will call you if he should get worse.” He said good night and left her standing there, holding tightly onto the nursing station counter with one hand.
She looked in on Colin once more, the nurse was taking his blood pressure again, before she took a taxi back to the hotel. It was when she was in bed that she began to wonder if he would die. Her mind shied at the idea, it wasn’t possible. And what could be the matter with him? The doctor had given her no clue, at least she didn’t think he had. She wondered if she had done the right thing by coming back to the hotel, or if she should have stayed at the hospital. Did the nurses think badly of her because she had gone? This worried her for a while, but finally, she fell asleep.
When she woke it was only three hours later. Light was streaming in around the curtains and she could hear traffic in the street below. She was at once fully alert and knew she wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep. Before her eyes had opened she
thought of Colin, remembering what the doctor had said and how Colin seemed to have gone away even from behind his sealed eyelids, and she felt momentarily angry with him for deserting her and then for spoiling their trip.
She phoned the hospital and was told that he was not awake, that his condition was pretty much the same, and that the test results wouldn’t be back from the lab for a while yet.
“I’ll be there in an hour,” she said, feeling the need to assure them of her interest, and then, because it seemed to be important to do the normal thing, she bathed, dressed, and went downstairs to the hotel restaurant to order breakfast even though she was neither hungry nor thirsty.
The restaurant was almost empty. While she waited for her coffee she noticed a tall, thin man who looked a little like Colin, although he was not so dark, sitting at a table near the window eating breakfast. He glanced up and caught her watching him. She lowered her eyes quickly, but when he passed her table on his way out of the room, he smiled briefly, wryly at her, indicating by this the oddness of them finding themselves the only two people in such a big restaurant. She observed that his eyes were blue, not brown like Colin’s. She recalled then that he had checked in just ahead of them the night before.
She drank her coffee and her orange juice and ate a piece of toast politely, carefully, not tasting it, then went back to the hospital.
As she arrived, two white-coated women were wheeling Colin, bed and all, out of his room and down the hall in the direction where the labs were. The empty room, with intravenous and oxygen tubes connected to nothing, and the silent dials on the wall, gave her such a peculiar feeling that she went into the
room to wait for them to bring him back. When he returned he was still drifting in and out of consciousness. Nurses, aides and
lab technicians hurried in and out of the room, speaking in loud voices to Colin and softly to her, as if she were the sick one. They took his pulse, his temperature and blood pressure and poked him with needles, then measured his blood into little glass vials. The doctor came alone and nodded good morning to her, then left. Later he came again, this time with two other doctors. In the hallway they murmured in soft voices to her, speculating about the cause of his illness, enumerating the results of tests, and commenting on what each one might mean.
“But will he be all right?” she asked. The doctors looked at their feet and mumbled some more, while she stood too close to them, lifting her head to hear better, trying to understand what they were saying, or rather, what they were not saying.
In the afternoon Colin spoke to her.
“This will be all right,” he said, in a new, high-pitched voice. Although his eyes were directed to her, she had a feeling that he was actually looking at something beyond or behind her. “I am frightened.” Having failed to show any sign of fear, he closed his eyes. It was such a contradictory, puzzling message that she discounted it entirely, blaming it on the drugs they were giving him for pain and to control his fever.
Not long after that she began to wonder if the doctors had been trying to tell her that Colin might die. But she could not believe that Colin’s death was in the cards for either of them at this moment, and after a pause, she dismissed the thought.
By nine in the evening his illness had still not been identified. Talk had gone from appendicitis or food poisoning to a malfunctioning gall bladder to a kidney ailment or bowel dysfunction to every possible virus from influenza to
. Cecilia went back to the hotel, hesitated for a second in the empty lobby, since she still didn’t feel hungry, then went into the restaurant anyway.
There were a few more people scattered around at the tables
now, talking quietly, drinks on their tables in front of them, or cups of coffee. The hostess seated Cecilia, then left her. As she was picking up the menu, she realized someone was speaking to her.
For the last few hours she had had a steady, quiet hum in her head that put a distance between her and the voices of other people. She tried to make it stop by shaking her head, by concentrating very hard on anyone speaking to her, and then by reciting to herself her own name, Colin’s name, the names of their children and their street address at home. None of these had helped and eventually she had given in and allowed herself to be lulled into the hum.
She turned her head slowly in the direction of the voice, expecting to find that it wasn’t she who was being addressed. But the man she had seen at breakfast was leaning toward her from the next table where he was sitting.
“Pardon?” Cecilia said.
“I said the hostess seems to think we should talk to each other, since she placed us so close together.” Cecilia glanced around. It was true. In a room three-quarters empty, the hostess had placed them at adjacent tables. How had she not noticed him? “I believe I saw you check in with your husband,” he remarked. “I suppose he’s off doing business.”
“Yes,” she said, “I mean, no.” It was hard to talk through the hum. “I’m sorry, I haven’t had much sleep. He was taken ill last night. He’s in the hospital.”
“I thought there was something wrong,” he said, and leaned toward her again. “You looked,” he paused, “sort of in shock. I hope it’s not too serious.” She hesitated, not sure what to say. There was a warm intensity in his blue eyes that calmed her.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s very serious. He’s unconscious most of the time. I left because,” she felt herself frown, “I was too tired to do anything else. I wanted to get away,” then was embarrassed at
what she had said. She had a quick mental picture of Ingrid Bergman being torn away from the bedside of her dying husband by well-meaning friends—No! No, I don’t want to leave! Let me stay!—and managed not to laugh.
He seemed to be absorbing her remark, mulling it over, and now he nodded briskly, a quick acceptance or agreement.
“Yes,” he said. “You need to get a perspective.”
“I guess that’s it,” she said, a little dubiously. He smiled at her quickly, impersonally. They didn’t speak again for a while.
“Please don’t think I’m being too forward,” he said after several minutes had passed, “but I’d enjoy it if you’d have your dinner here, at my table. It’s lonely, all this eating by yourself.” Cecilia found herself standing, then awkwardly sitting in the chair he held out for her. Some part of her perhaps regretted this action she was taking, but she found no will to resist what seemed to be her inclination.
“It is lonely,” she agreed, in a serious tone.
The waitress came and took their orders. If she was surprised to find them sitting together, she gave no sign.
“I don’t want to intrude on your privacy,” he said carefully, not looking at her, “but do you know anyone in Calgary? Are you alone in this?”
Cecilia told him how Colin was thinking of opening a branch of his sporting goods business in the city if it looked like it would be profitable, how they had talked about maybe moving West if things went well, how she had come with him because she’d never been west of Winnipeg before, and now this had happened. And no, she didn’t know a soul in Calgary.
“I’ve told our children he’s sick, but nothing else, and I told his sister not to come … yet.”
“Then let me be your friend,” he said. Cecilia was overcome with embarrassment. She took a sip from her glass of water. “I’m
a representative for a chemical company,” he said. “I make regular rounds through southern Alberta, among other things, selling chemicals to the dealers who sell them to farmers. I have a wife and three kids in Edmonton where our head office is.”