My patient lies quietly in the bed. His eyes are closed, his cracked lips slightly open, but he is not asleep. Not completely. More likely than not, he is in the far away place he turns to each day.
Tired lungs, ravaged by years of abuse, raise his chest slowly and then collapse with a huff. Beside the bed, an oxygen tank beckons me like it has a secret to share: Not much longer.
I step across the room on carpet so thick it squishes beneath my feet. As I open the curtains to welcome in the morning light, my patient coughs.
“Why are you here?” His voice is whispery.
I look over my shoulder.
“It’s Ignacio Garcia, Mr. Cohen. Your nurse.”
“I’m not blind.” His eyes hold fast on mine. “Why are you here?”
I look back through the window, a flash of anger burning at my face. It is the same question he has asked for the last two weeks.
“Because you pay me.”
A fragile breath wheezes past his lips. “Then close the curtains.”
I take a deep breath and pull the drawstring.
“Is there anything I can get for you?”
His hooded eyes lift up. A dry tongue rolls across chapped lips. “A glass of water, maybe?”
The adjoining bathroom is closer, but I opt to use the kitchen instead. Downstairs, I wonder if he’s always been this way. Surely there must have been a time when he was nice, as a young man. Filling the pitcher, I try to visualize this younger man, a man who opened doors for women, who considered his word just as binding as any contract drafted by an army of lawyers. But then, reality sets in. People like J. Samuel Cohen don’t exist for others. The only door he ever opened for a woman was the one to his bedroom. And words hold no value unless they can be looked upon, pointed at, enforced.
On my way back, I stop at the foot of the stairs and gaze upon a portrait. At his side, Cohen’s now deceased wife, Anna, sits in a velvety red dress, her placid hands in her lap. Behind them, wearing expensive clothes, are four young children—the same ones who now, years later, have left his care to me.
I shake my head and climb the stairs, stiffening my resolve. We are worlds apart, those children and me. Growing up in a mansion, living a life of prosperity, they have never struggled. They’ve never felt the pain of whispered conversations—snide remarks regarding the lightness of skin or the unusual color of eyes. They have never felt the ache of a father’s embarrassed gaze.
Back in the room, blue eyes as bright as a cloudless sky look at me. “Do you have any children?”
“No. I haven’t found the right woman.”
“Do you fear death?”
I shake my head. I’ve seen enough death through this job, and my heart has grown calloused. People get old, they die. “I don’t worry about it much.”
“Someday, you will.”
He closes his eyes. “It’s all I think about these days.”
I fill a glass and place it on his nightstand. Then I turn to the television. “Shall I find something for you to watch?”
“Not today. Something different, maybe.”
“Some poetry.” He coughs and groans and then continues. “Maybe the Greeks. They were famous for the iambic hexameter. Did you know that?”
“I never paid much attention in school.”
“Poetry, Ignacio. Language of the gods.” He points to a bookcase. “You’ll find something over there.”
“You sure you don’t want the television?”
“No, not the Greeks,” he says. “Grab volume four instead.” When I hesitate, he adds, “The blue one.”
“I don’t read very well.”
“And yet you made it through nursing school.”
“Not really. Please, grant an old dead man his wish.”
“You’re not dead yet. You have adinocarcin—”
“Don’t,” he snaps. “Don’t dignify it.”
Turning to the shelf, I find that the book is heavy, its pages worn.
He shakes his head.
I open it up and read.
“‘Where art thou, Muse, that thou forget’st so long…’”
“Ah…” A warm smile tugs at the sides of his mouth. “Shakespeare. How appropriate.”
I read only another line when he closes his eyes and recites the poem word for word, finishing with a triumphant smile. “Very good,” he says.
“I can’t take much credit.”
“Do you know what it’s about?”
“He’s looking for someone.”
“Not someone, but something. You understand that.”
“Of course you do. It’s why you’re a nurse. Why you’re here.”
The flash of anger again burns at my cheeks. “No, I’m here because you pay me.”
His smile fades, replaced by a deep sadness.
I quickly close the book and turn toward the bookshelf.
“Keep it,” he says.
He lays his head back. “In fact, take the whole set.”
“But your children.”
He scoffs. “Where are they? Do you see them?”
I shake my head.
“There is only you now.”
I set the book down on a chair, but intend to replace it later. I’ve worked too hard, and I will not be accused of stealing anything, not even a trifle token.
I look at my watch. “We should probably get you something to eat.”
“Your mother,” he says. “She was a good woman.”
“She was a great woman.”
Mr. Cohen nods and then mutters something else.
“You have done well for yourself. She would be proud.”
“I can only hope.”
He fixes me with a piercing gaze. “You are a good son.”
I stand in silence for a while, uncertain as to what I should say. Then, the oxygen tank beckons me again. Mocking me. I silently curse it.
“I’ve changed my mind. Will you open the curtains?”
“Certainly.” I walk across the room. “That’s what you pay me for.”