This story is by Xavier Yuvens and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Tell him his mother loves him, she had said.
The cold metal of the gun tucked in his waistband anchored his resolve as he entered St-Luke’s hospital for a final visit to his son on the afternoon of April 26th, 1989. None of the pastel-wearing staff registered anything out of the ordinary as the young father breezed through reception and headed to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. In the past eight months, they had seen him wandering these sterile hallways hundreds of times wearing the same bulky jean jacket and haggard look. They knew him as Mr. Estevez, father of Santos Estevez, the PVS baby in room 103; a few knew him as Ruben; but most knew him as Vanessa’s husband. During the countless hours he and his wife had spent on the flimsy chairs along the walls, gradually forgetting how to fall asleep, subsisting on a diet of vending machine snacks and stale coffee, Vanessa had won over the whole PICU staff with her selflessness and dedication. The months had worn her thin, though, and even she could barely handle the hopeless visits anymore.
It will all be over soon, he told her image in his mind. He opened the door to 103. The humming and beeping of the machines disturbed the stillness of the room.
The nurse smiled, and guilt clenched his throat. Amongst the twenty or so pediatric nurses in the department, Sofia had clocked in the most hours with their little boy. She stepped out of the way and he hoped she would leave, but she busied herself with charts. On the bed, an array of life-sustaining cables converged to a minuscule silhouette under a mound of blankets. Ruben leaned in. Once again, the sight of his sleeping son took his breath away: his frail, pudgy arms; his round, peaceful face— an angel, despite the tubes in his mouth and nostrils.
“The muscular tremors came back this morning,” said Sofia, “but we administered a small dose of anticonvulsant and it resolved pretty quickly.”
He nodded. He couldn’t think of anything to say to send her away.
Even if she leaves, she’ll come running back, he told himself. So be it.
One hand clasped the gun in his waistband, while the other reached behind the bed. He grabbed the alimentation cable and pulled. Immediately, a high tone cut through the room and a signal light started to blink.
“What are you—”
Sofia’s voice caught in her throat. The gun pointed straight at her heart.
“Tell me how to get the tubes out of his nose”, he said.
“Don’t… Ruben, don’t do this.”
“Do I just pull?”
With the index and thumb of his free hand, he grasped the breathing tube.
“Wait,” she said, her eyes watering. “Let… Let me do it.”
The nurse inched toward him.
“Don’t,” he said, and she froze. “If I let you do it, you’re an accessory to murder. This way”— he wiggled the gun—”you have no choice. Tell me. I don’t want to hurt him. Or you.”
She glanced at the signal light on the ventilator. Other nurses would rush in any second. Ruben resumed his one-handed effort on the endotracheal tube, still holding her at gunpoint. Her voice trembled when she said, almost despite herself:
“You can’t do it like this. Let me.”
Sofia steadied her breathing and moved in; she removed the tape around the mouth, deflated the cuff and pulled slowly yet continuously for the ten seconds it took the get the tube out. The baby didn’t flinch, his sleep undisturbed. She took him in her arms one last time and handed him to his father. Ruben brought his liberated son to his chest; the smell of his hairless head reminded him of warm blankets and afternoons walks in the park with Vanessa. Little Santos didn’t feel the kiss on his forehead, like he hadn’t felt the extubation.
“You should leave,” Ruben said. “Tell people not to come in. Or I’ll shoot.”
Blurry eyes transfixed on her dying patient, Sofia hesitated. Months spent tracking his vitals, filling his charts and caring for the baby and the family cemented her in place. She checked the pristine analog clock on the wall; the long hand pointed down, just past the halfway mark along its circuit.
“Ten minutes should do it,” Sofia said. “Fifteen to be sure. He might experience minor muscle spasms, but he won’t suffer. I’ll tell the others not to come in, but Ruben”— she locked eyes with him—” you must promise to lay down your gun and hand yourself over to the police after… it’s done.”
He nodded. Nurses arrived at the door and, while Sofia met them, Ruben cradled his baby, ears focused on his failing lungs.
Rest, he thought hard. Rest now, my son.
* * *
“Mr. Estevez,” one of the security guards said. “The police have been alerted, and they are on their way. You would help your cause greatly if you put down your weapon now and allowed Ms. Parham here to reconnect Santos to the ventilator.”
Ruben blinked; two security guards and a scrawny woman he recognized as the head nurse had moved past Sofia, who stood helpless in the doorframe. The clock indicated less than ten minutes had passed. Ruben lifted his gun.
“Don’t come closer.”
“Mr. Estevez,” said Ms. Parham, the head nurse. “Every minute counts. Let me put Santos back on. And we can do our best to forget about all this.”
“You can forget.”
“Santos needs this machine to breath,” she pressed on. “This is serious, Mr. Estevez. You are killing your son.”
“My son died eight months ago. Today, I’m setting him free.”
Last September, Santos had inhaled a deflated balloon and suffered acute upper airway obstruction. Respiratory failure had led to cardiac arrest. When the paramedics had arrived, they had found a desperate Ruben, perched over his unconscious baby in his living room, performing CPR. The paramedics had freed the infant’s airways, intubated his trachea and instituted manual assisted ventilation. They had performed CPR all the way to the emergency room, where his pulse had returned. His brain, though, had been deprived of oxygen for an estimated 20 minutes and would never recover.
The word had stuck in Ruben’s memory and it had come up multiple times with his wife in the conversations that had led to this decision.
“It’s what the doctors said. A persistent vegetative state, with no reasonable expectation of recovery. Would you wish that to someone you loved more than yourself?”
“Put your hand on his chest, Mr. Estevez,” said the head nurse. “Can’t you feel his little heart hanging on to dear life?”
“This is no life. It’s death on hold.”
In October, the physicians had granted the parents’ request to place a Do-Not-Resuscitate order on Santos. Since the brain retained some cortical activity, the hospital couldn’t legally remove his life support, but no additional measures would be applied to support his life and the staff would withhold any heroic interventions. His condition was expected to deteriorate on its own and lead to death in the coming weeks. Months later, death hadn’t come, and his condition was unchanged. Dr. Lancaster had arranged a transfer to St-Joseph’s long-term care facility to care for Santos for as long as necessary, while this hospital recovered one PICU room. The transfer would have happened next week.
“We’re a hospital,” nurse Parham said. “We’re trying to save lives.”
“I’m a father. My son is stuck in purgatory. He needs me to help him move on.”
Muscle cramps distorted Santos’ hands and legs, and his eyes flickered, animated but unseeing. Ruben’s grip on the gun quivered. Sweat covered his whole face, and tears wet his lips. Hopefully, the scary sight he offered would keep them from pushing their luck. He had aimed the gun at Parham’s heart; he lowered it to her gut, preparing himself to maim, not kill.
“I’ll shoot you before I let you plug him back in. Leave us. Now.”
A security guard put a hand on Ms. Parham’s shoulder, and she broke down.
“You’re unworthy of being a father!”, she cried.
As they guided her to the door, she sobbed and muttered “the baby”. The door clicked, and father and son were alone at last. Ruben brought his head to his baby boy’s.
No machine will prolong your death any further, he promised. Your mom loves you, and your daddy too. We’ll be okay. You can go now, son.
The lullaby came in a whisper, from memories of nights before the incident, when they had held each other in eternity.
“Now it’s time to say good night,
Good night, sleep tight.
Now the sun turns out his light,
Good night, sleep tight.
Dream sweet dreams for me,
Dream sweet dreams for you.
Close your eyes and I’ll close mine,
Good night, sleep tight.”
The long hand of the clock had passed the third quadrant.