Portraits of a Dying Day by Laura Gilkey

Runner-up, 2018 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction

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sun shining through closed mini-blinds on window

She can’t sleep. The full moon is irrationally bright; it paints strips of silver onto the dark wood floor. It’s chilly outside. She can’t stay warm, even with central heat and double blankets. She reaches for her phone and checks her email for the eleventh time since she went to bed. There’s a new post in her inbox, finally. She holds her breath and follows the link, hoping for a miracle.

He clocks in. He carries his thermos of coffee and the lunch his wife packed him, bless her heart, onto the construction lift. The sunrise is spectacular. For once he’s had a good night’s sleep, with last week’s grueling deadlines finally met. The scaffolding casts soft shadows on the exposed concrete he passes. He’s working on four today. He steps off, puts on his hard hat, and looks up at the windows of the children’s hospital across the street. He supposes he’s a creature of habit.

The bus stops. She thanks God for its timely arrival, and for this glorious new day. Praise be. She climbs aboard. It’s still dark outside. She has read from Second Corinthians this morning and said her prayers. She has pulled her hair back into a tight bun and put on her custodial scrubs. She has prepared breakfast and lunch: leftover chicken curry today, a recipe that followed her here from Jamaica. She watches the sky turn lilac as the sun begins to rise. Praise be. She arrives at the hospital at 6:45 a.m. She goes to the break room and meets with the ladies from night shift. She doesn’t need their report to tell her which room has a shell sticker on the window. Terminal clean, TBD, 757. Oh, she loves that boy so much. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.

He slices cake. His twin daughters are dressed in matching ladybug onesies and perched in identical high chairs, ready for the rite of passage that is frosting with Red Dye #40. It’s their first birthday party. Guests surround them with iPhones at the ready, waiting to capture this moment. They’re growing so fast, he hears a hundred times. He looks at his wife. They tried for years for these two. She is so happy; she has left no detail unturned, right down to the party favors. She is glowing. She is grateful. He checks his phone again, re-reading the text message from his colleague. He wishes he could be in two places at once. He blinks it away, and sinks into his family with pride.

She feels flutters. No one at work knows yet, and she couldn’t be happier. She holds onto her secret like a precious jewel. She walks into her tiny office—it’s a closet, really—and checks the day’s list from the Child Life Department. Sickle cell. Broken arm. Neuroblastoma. Heart transplant. She loads up her cart with her disinfected musical instruments, excited to add two new HAPI drums to the mix today. She warms up her voice. She finds herself singing a David Bowie song, and she checks that list again. This time she notices. The name that has been there for five months is gone. She had been teaching him the chords to Space Oddity, leaving the tablature on his dry erase board each day. She puts her hand on her belly, and closes her eyes. And I’m floating in a most peculiar way. And the stars look very different today.

The numbers reset. Red zeroes flash across the screen. She uses Chlorhexidine Gluconate wipes to clean the equipment after weighing her last patient, a little girl with barely a wisp of blond hair whose room is full of Shopkins. Satisfied, the technician tilts the scale back on its wheels and steers it down the hallway toward the next room. She stops short when she sees the shell sticker on the window. She looks at her notes. No vitals. No weights. All of those things have stopped now. She is studying to become a nurse. She has not yet seen a child die. The blinds are closed, but she swears she sees rainbows moving across the glass.

He’s on call. He has eaten breakfast with his wife and daughters—banana pancakes and bacon—and is reading the Times. Sports first, Local second, the rest of it, maybe. His spaniel sidles up to his crossed legs, hoping for a Saturday scrap. His family is loading up for a birthday party at the park; his colleague’s twin daughters are turning one. He won’t join them. The nurse practitioner says it’s a matter of hours now. He’ll have to go to the hospital to do the pronouncement. It’s only fitting, he thinks. He was the one who diagnosed the boy, two years ago, New Year’s Eve. He remembers. He uncrosses his legs, mindlessly thumbing the scar from his sarcoma surgery all those years ago. He sees his mother’s face as he recites what he will say to the boy’s parents when he gets the call.

She is crying. Again. She’s been here just as long—longer, in fact—than most of the other ARNPs on the floor, yet she cries, every time, and she can’t stop. Are their skins that much tougher than hers? Did they take some class she missed on self-preservation? She feels powerless against the love that wells up in her and wakes her up at night, knowing what she knows. She pushes the send button on her phone, giving the on-call a heads up. HR/O2 dropping. Hours, maybe. She will resign soon. She knows she is good at this job—damned good at it—but she can’t do it much longer. Yasher koach, she tells herself. May you have strength. Her heart is sore. She needs to spend more time with her own children. She marvels at their growing, healthy bodies.

She knew it. She knew it would happen during her shift, and that he would be her patient. She has known it for days now. She knew it when she gave him her sock monkey for Christmas. She knew it when his mother asked her in whispers how long she thought he might live. He could have been assigned to any of the handful of nurses experienced in death, but she knew it would be her, and now it is, and she is so grateful. She may never know what it feels like to be a mother, but she knows what it feels like to love a child. This child. She is not scared. She is here, in this place, on this morning, for a reason. She is ready to help him through this. She stands up straight and opens the door.

He wakes up. He didn’t sleep well; the hospital couch isn’t big enough for him, and his son’s escalating oxygen needs meant frequent visits from the night nurses. He hasn’t slept well in months. He can’t sleep here in the hospital, where he’s been for the last ten days, and where his wife and youngest son have been since September, and he can’t sleep at home. His oldest son has risen to the challenge of their shared bachelorhood, preparing his own breakfasts and lunches, helping him with the chores. But his youngest son is dying, and he can’t do a damned thing about it. His son. His boy. They are made of the same thing. They understand each other. It’s unspoken, but they have something together that neither of them has with anyone else. He didn’t sleep, he can’t sleep. His chest hurts and he can’t think clearly about anything anymore.


She pushes play. She knows her son will die today and she has to make sure the right music is playing. She has to make sure he has enough morphine. She has to make sure her voice is calm and he isn’t afraid. Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. Appalachian waltzes. That seems right. Nothing seems right. Amazing grace. The sun hits the panel on the rainbow maker. Rainbows dance around the room, across his chest. He will die today. She can do this. She has to. It’s her last chance to mother him. She has to wait to release the avalanche in her heart. She holds on. She holds his hand. His hand is still warm. They said his hands would be cold. She wants to hold his hand forever.


He is scared. He loves his little brother. He doesn’t remember what his life was like before his little brother was born; the sound of his laugh has always been there. He doesn’t understand why all of this has to happen. It doesn’t seem real. Or fair. He doesn’t want his brother to be sick. He doesn’t like to think about the pain. He heard about a little girl who got a liver transplant, and now she’s okay. He wonders why his brother couldn’t have gotten one of those. He doesn’t like to think about what it will be like when he goes home alone, and he has to sleep in his bed, when the bed next to his is empty. His parents have told him what is happening. His brother is dying. He wants to do something. He only knows one thing. He knows that he can make him happy. Since his brother was a baby, he has known how to make him laugh without even trying. He can do that. He can make him happy now.

He is dying. He feels the suction of the oxygen mask’s rubber lining against his cheek. He needs more. He can only say thirsty to describe this need, but the root beer his family thinks he wants isn’t enough. He can’t breathe. He feels his mother, his father, his brother, his nurse trying so hard to make him relax. He can’t see them. They can’t hear him. Something heavy is pushing against his chest and he is pushing back, as hard as he can, trying to will it away.

Autopsy Pathology Report. He receives the request on a Saturday afternoon. He recognizes the name; there have been so many draws from this boy recently. Blood. Urine. Marrow. He expected this death—the samples were trending irrevocably—but he is surprised by the autopsy request. Leukemia was the clear culprit here; what else is there to decipher? He reads further. The boy’s parents wish to have his organs, tissue, blood collected for research. They want him to be understood. They want him to teach. They want him to save lives. He sharpens his tools with respect.

He’ll drive down. She’d texted him earlier to let him know that her son had transitioned, and asked if he might be available to help guide them through the next steps, spiritually speaking. Texting would not do. He called her immediately. She was in the passenger seat of her husband’s truck, crossing the Sunshine Skyway Bridge between the children’s hospital and their home, their living son in the backseat, their deceased son’s belongings in her lap. Reception was spotty. That wouldn’t do either. “Why don’t I just come down,” he said. “We’ll have dinner. And breakfast. And talk.” She tried to resist. She didn’t want to inconvenience him; he lives almost three hours north. But they both knew he would come, and that was that. He made arrangements with his church to have another minister take over his duties the following day. She was so relieved.

“Countryside Funeral Home.” She answers the phone when she returns from her lunch break, where she sat outside and watched a pair of bald eagles circle over her family’s land. The woman on the other end is calling for her sister, whose son died this morning. He was nine. A lump rises to her throat as she opens a new file on the computer and gathers the necessary information. The sister tells her that the boy’s family wants him to be buried at the conservation cemetery nearby. They both know the place well. No cremation, she says. No embalming, of course. Just a wicker basket and the quilt his mother made for him when she was pregnant. She hangs up the phone. She’ll need to arrange for transportation to retrieve the body from the medical examiner at the children’s hospital, nearly three hours south. She makes a note in the file. She’ll go get the boy herself.

He walks softly. His gait is a product of both his innately calm pace and his awareness of the many brass markers that dot this rich, living land. Although he knows them all by heart, he is careful and reverent, making sure of his steps. He is a steward of souls. He moves accordingly. His friend called him earlier today to let him know that her nephew would soon be buried here. He takes his evening walk now through the hardwoods, choosing a few places to show the boy’s family when they arrive. He stops and watches the sunlight dapple through the trees. A barred owl calls in the distance. He listens.

A symphony begins. Sandhill cranes trumpet across the meadow as they migrate. Cicadas and crickets strum their stringed legs. Pileated woodpeckers provide percussion on hollowed trunks. The sun is setting over the prairie, shooting fragmented amber into the forest, resting upon lichen and pine straw and partridge berry. The owl shakes her barred feathers. She leaves her daytime roost and swoops silently onto a branch. Her new perch overlooks a patch of earth between two oaks. She is surrounded by brilliant, golden light. She fills her body with song, and releases it into the darkening sky.

Laura-GilkeyLaura Gilkey is the mother of two sons: Banyan, a book-loving, rugby-playing teenager, and Benjamin, his spicy, curious, kind little brother who died from leukemia at nine years old. Laura’s nightly writing through Benjamin’s cancer treatment is archived at BenjamintheBrave.com. Additional work has been published in Modern Loss, the Brevity Blog, Pulse Voices for Medicine, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and Mommy Magazine. Laura co-produced “Maternally Yours,” an award-winning weekly community radio program, for five years; guests included the incomparable Dr. Maya Angelou. Laura lives with her family on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Woodleyworks

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