This story is by Laura Porter Taylor and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A cold spring rain falls softly as she sits on the damp curb skirting the asphalt drive. She should have grabbed a blanket, not that it matters. She is emotionally anesthetized most of the time and too tired to care. For the umpteenth time, quitting crosses her mind, especially after she loses a patient. Three died this morning.
Meditation sometimes helps her unwind. She reaches into the depths of her heart, seeking a spark of nostalgia to recall the last time she laughed. Pictures and sounds of joyful exuberance with her family at Christmas fill her thoughts. She closes her eyes for a few moments in remembrance.
Everyone is here. Siblings, spouses, in-laws, outlaws, grandparents, even cousins from Seattle, and Sacramento. It’s as if everyone knows this will be their last time together. It’s crowded and stifling in her parents’ small suburban home, but they open a few windows, cram themselves in, sing off-key carols, eat too many cookies, and drink rum punch.
Painful memories intrude upon her reverie and invade her battered heart. Her mother died two weeks ago, close to the doors where she sits. There were a few desperate minutes to say goodbye. Another patient coded from the ravages of an unseen viral enemy, relentless in its quest to survive, taking few prisoners. Her tearful farewell was cut short so she could save someone who might still have a chance.
Grief takes time, and she has none to spare, not even for her inconsolable father. There are others in epic struggles with death who also mean the world to someone. So many are losing the battle. They are armed for a sword fight with only a butter knife.
The distant sound of sirens is unnerving. Their arrival means her precious solitude will end. She takes a calming breath, then another because few of her patients can. The odds she could occupy a gurney in the ICU are high. If fate in its dispassionate randomness chooses her, she hopes a friend is on duty. It’s not dying she fears. Death is a familiar foe. What she dreads is having no one near who loves her should that be her destiny.
Death Be Not Proud. Who wrote that? She can’t even remember the last time she ate. Yesterday? The day before? She never imagined she could be too exhausted to eat.
The sound of footsteps splashing through puddles on the pavement pierces her tangled thoughts. Shift change. She sits up and glances at her phone. Its green digital numbers show five minutes. Three hundred seconds of sanity, a few more moments to relax the knot in her stomach which has been her constant companion for months.
Someone stops next to her, disturbing the random pattern of raindrops in a pool near the cracked concrete curb.
“Are you Sarah?”
Startled, she looks up into the masked face of a woman wearing a hooded raincoat.
“Yes. Can I help you?”
“My mother was here two weeks ago. She’s at home recovering and asked me to find you to convey her thanks. You were so gentle and had compassion in your eyes. You held her hand and promised everything would be okay. It gave her hope.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t remember….” Tears fill her eyes and she can’t speak. Another word and she will fall apart. Losing control is not an option.
“Her name is Hannah. Hannah Dorfman” The woman swathed in rain gear sits near her, maintaining more than the required six feet of social distance. Sarah doesn’t blame her.
She blinks back the tears, fighting for composure. The masked woman pushes a ribbon-trimmed bag toward her.
“Mama sent this. There’s lunch inside too. She is worried you’re not eating properly. It’s curbside carry-out from the deli around the corner, so it should be safe.”
Sarah unties the bright red bow on the handle. It’s the color of blood, like everything else here in the ninth circle of hell. The EMT ambulances, the cross on the sign outside the ER door, the biohazard warning signs on virtually every piece of equipment she touches are crimson.
Inside, next to a box containing a sandwich, cookies, and a bottle of water, something shimmers under white tissue paper. She unwraps it, and forgotten images seep from the innermost recesses of her mind.
It’s a sacred heart pin, sparkling with brilliant stones, like those on Dorothy’s ruby slippers. Her grandmother wore one to mass every Sunday for decades. Alzheimer’s has robbed her of recent recollections, leaving only those of her exuberant youth. Nana now receives holy communion at Arbor House on Saturdays from a priest whose name she can’t recall, nor does she remember why he is there.
How she envies Nana’s sweet oblivion. Her world is a peaceful place, a return to girlhood inside the limitless imagination of her mind, where long-forgotten people and events now reappear unabated. No longer bound by reality, memories are her exclusive province now.
That enchanted realm doesn’t contain the panicked expressions on the faces of critically ill bodies Sarah treats each day or those in her nightmares. Faces with no names that reflect fear when they learn a ventilator is their last chance. Her masked face, veiled in thick plastic armor, will be the last one most of them see before they die. The risk of contagion prohibits visitors. Their desperate pleas for loved ones to remain near are heartrending.
The pin is lovely, no doubt a cherished family heirloom. She can’t accept this. It will mean the world one day to the anonymous woman seated beside her. Sarah carefully re-wraps it and stretches out her hand to return the elegant offering. Her temporary companion is polite but firm.
“Please take it. My mother wants you to have it. Her grandmother wore it to mass every Sunday. When you treated her, the sadness in your eyes hurt her heart. She thought this might help pin your broken one back together. It sounds crazy….”
“Hannah! Bright blue eyes, right? And Revlon Red nail polish.”
Somehow, everything connected to this grim concrete bastion of last resort reverts to the color of blood.
“Yes! Sky-blue eyes and red nail polish! I’m surprised you remember. I know she’s just one of many.”
More like one of hundreds, and they keep coming. Sarah doesn’t know how many infected patients have passed through the nearby portal she must soon re-enter. But she remembers two of them. Hannah. Her beloved mother. One she saved. One she couldn’t.
“I’ll always treasure it.” You’ll thank her for me?”
“Of course. She will never forget you.”
The woman tightens the hood of her jacket to keep out the rain. She rises to leave but stops as Sarah unwraps the sandwich she has only a minute left to eat.
“Thank you, Sarah. When you held her hand, she wasn’t afraid.”
Behind her mask, Hannah’s daughter smiles through glistening eyes and turns to leave. While she eats, Sarah watches her skirt rain-dappled puddles as she slogs across the asphalt driveway.
A sudden flash of sunlight slices through the gloom and a brilliant rainbow appears in the sky. Sarah’s mood brightens. Maybe it’s a sign. Her mother believed rainbows are promises from heaven. Faith indoctrinated from childhood catechism class never surrenders easily. For a moment it surpasses logic. She needs to believe in something… eternal.
Mom? Are you there? I love you.
She silently chides herself for her foolishness.
Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just a phenomenon of prismatic splendor. Nothing more.
Yet it remains, seven verdant colors radiant, beckoning her to look once more. She glances up again. The light intensifies for an instant as if in reply, then dissolves as the sun slips behind the gray mist, hanging like a spectral shroud over everything.
The sound of sirens grows closer.
Sarah finishes her meal as three ambulances enter the all too familiar driveway. Time to go. She rises from the curb, meticulously sanitizing her hands with antiseptic wipes retrieved from her pocket. Another eight hours, maybe more…but something is different now. Her heart is hopeful. The knot in her stomach has disappeared like the rainbow, which dissipated moments before. In its place is a welcome sense of serenity mixed with purpose.
She locates a nearby trash bin and reverently places the brown bag inside. For some inexplicable reason, Sarah is reluctant to release this symbol of simple grace, tied with a ribbon the color of blood. One compassionate act of gratitude has given her the irreplaceable gift of unfettered hope and continued strength. It will allow her to soldier on, saving those she can and easing the suffering of those she can’t. Her mother would expect nothing less.
Her name is Hannah.
Hannah is her mother’s name too. The Hebrew word for grace.
She attaches the pin to a t-shirt under two sets of scrubs next to her heart, then places a protective hand over it. A talisman to gird her for the infinite battles ahead.
And Sarah smiles.