Thursday, March 22, 2012

Harbor Grace

Harbor Grace
by Jason Hart
The sequence of sounds hitting Kyle's ears made his stomach drop. He heard denim scraping against shingles, a long high pitched screech, and a sudden sickening THUD. Try as he might, Kyle could concoct only one interpretation of that particular combination of sounds - his 7 year old son, Ryan, had lost his balance, slid off their two story house, and slammed onto the concrete driveway below. Kyle, dressed in an old flannel shirt, well-worn khakis, and sturdy work boots, spun around to look at where his son had been standing moments before.

Before he could scramble down the ladder, Mary, his wife, came crashing like a freight train out of their front door, eyes wide with terror. She immediately saw Ryan crumpled in a heap on their driveway completely motionless. Mary, not a small woman, dove onto the ground and gathered her son up into her lap. Ryan's body was already soaked with sweat, and a substantial amount of blood had pooled on the driveway where he had been lying.

Mary's voice rose in a panic, "Call 911! Kyle! Now! Go!"

 Kyle, who had been standing at the base of the ladder in shock, sprinted into their house and snatched their cordless phone off the kitchen wall. His trembling fingers, filled with furor, violently punched in the three numbers he now prayed would save his son's life. An eternal fifteen minutes later, Kyle, back outside with Mary and Ryan, could hear the wail of a siren signalling the approaching ambulance. The paramedics arrived and gingerly placed Ryan, now unconscious, onto the adult sized stretcher which dwarfed his 70 pound frame. Without debate, Mary joined Ryan in the ambulance. Kyle's sixth sense from watching the paramedics was telling him that maybe Ryan's injuries were more serious than even he had feared. Kyle had been trying hard to keep his emotions in check, but as he pulled out of his driveway and began following the ambulance to the hospital, he lost it. His whole body began to shake. Through sobs and tears, he struggled to keep his car between the lines. As they neared the hospital, the unforgiving reality of it all began to sink in,

"God, please don't take my son." Kyle prayed.


Kyle's meandering thoughts were inconsiderately interrupted by the chirping of his cellphone. He steadied the steering wheel with his left hand as he awkwardly lifted his pelvis into the air and jimmied his right hand into his pocket to fetch his phone. After what felt like several minutes, Kyle was finally able to pry the over-sized smartphone out of his pocket and glance at the caller ID.  He rolled his eyes, and considered not answering. He could already predict the conversation. Finally, he tapped the "Accept" button on his phone's touch screen and pressed the phone up against his ear.

"Kyle, it's June."
"Listen, I can't talk long, but I wanted to call and let you know that I can't come by to see Dad today."
Kyle silently mouthed the words, "big surprise" and shook his head.
"Can you tell him I said, 'Hello.' and that I'm really sorry I couldn't make it?"
Kyle let out a loud sigh he hoped she'd hear.
"Sure, I'll tell him - if he's awake - goodbye."
"Wait, Kyle...."
"Tell Dad I'll try to get there by the end of the week, okay?"
"Fine. Bye."

Kyle tossed his cellphone into the empty passenger seat beside him. He looked up to realize his conversation had brought him to the hospice parking lot. He parked in his usual spot, just around the corner from the main entrance, and shut off the engine.

Kyle thought out loud, "I hope he recognizes me today..." 


Kyle fought hard to focus on what the nurse standing in front of him was saying,
"It appears your son's head impacted the ground first, causing his skull to fracture."
"How bad is that?"
"Well, obviously it's not good, but the real problem is that it's causing your son's brain to swell. As you can imagine, there isn't much room inside of Ryan's skull for his brain to swell - so the swelling of his brain is dramatically increasing the pressure inside his skull."
"What does that do?"
"Well, the pressure in his skull is very dangerous, and if it's high enough, can cause blood to stop flowing to the brain, preventing it the oxygen it needs to function."
"So how can you stop the swelling?"
"Well, we've already started giving him the medicine he needs intravenously to stop the swelling. If his body responds well to the drugs, the swelling will stop, and we'll have a much better idea as far as permanent damage."
"And if his body doesn't respond well?" Kyle asked nervously.
"Well," the nurse hesitated, "If the swelling still won't stop, the doctor may have to perform what's called a ventriculostomy."
"Wait - a what?"
"Basically, the surgeon will need to cut a small hole in Ryan's skull, insert a plastic drain tube, and drain the cerebrospinal fluid to help relieve the pressure inside your son's skull."
"And if that doesn't work?" The nurse paused, hesitant to answer.

Kyle glanced at the name tag clipped to the lanyard draped around her neck and prompted her further, "Judy, please, tell me straight - what happens if the swelling doesn't stop?"
"Mr. Clark, if the swelling in Ryan's brain doesn't stop, he'll die."

Immediately, Kyle regretting trying to brush aside her tact. The truth, though it was what he asked for, wasn't what he wanted to hear. The news had already sent Mary buckling for the nearest chair, and Kyle was just a few seconds behind. Mary buried her head in her hands and began sobbing. Kyle enveloped Mary's trembling body with his arms, clutched her head in his right arm, and pulled her into his chest. He gently stroked her hair, "It's going to be okay.", he said, trying to be brave. But inwardly, he was terrified. 


Kyle, weighed down by emotion, came lumbering out of his car and shoved his hands deep into his pockets as he began the all-too-short trek to the double doors of Harbor Grace Hospice. Kyle's aimless eyes fell on the mission statement of Harbor Grace, beautifully framed and proudly posted to the right of the hospice entrance.

"Harbor Grace provides the highest quality of comprehensive physical, emotional, and spiritual care for patients and their families. Our staff is committed to the philosophy of dignity, patient choice, and quality of living during any life-limiting illness." 

Though he'd read it before, this time something about the combination of the ivory tower "philosophy of dignity" for earth dwelling "patients" from the well-trained, highly-committed "staff" was too much for him - like rubbing dirt in the emotional wounds of his heart. It wasn't like Kyle was offended by it, he had every confidence the statement was from well-meaning people who truly cared for his dad. It was just the irony of trying to apply the makeup of fancy words to the zit covered face of death.

Kyle swung open the front door and tried to ignore the hospice smell. He offered a half-hearted wave to the receptionist, and turned right to head towards room 14 where he expected to find his father sleeping, or worse, staring off into space. Even if he had just seen him the day before, Kyle could never mentally prepare himself for what his dad looked like after his body and soul had been ravaged by, as the mission statement put it, a "life-limiting illness". In his father's case, the illness was Alzheimer's Disease.

Kyle had been told the average person lives around seven years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's. For his dad, this was year nine. Over the years, Kyle had watched as the perverse degenerative disease had gradually stripped his dad of nearly all memories and vocabulary. Kyle's dad had been reduced to a shell, unable to perform even simple tasks without the help of a caregiver. In the early years, the confusion caused by the disease had wreaked havoc on his dad's emotions, causing him to have sudden fits of aggression, or to simply breakdown crying. But, as his Alzheimer's progressed, the effects of the disease had numbed his emotions, leaving his dad exhausted and apathetic.

From the hallway, Kyle could see his dad was sleeping, he stepped into the room and pulled a chair up to the side of his bed. He gently placed his dad's hand into his own. He steadied himself and, if for no other reason than to bring comfort to himself, started talking. He launched into a long monologue about nothing....and everything. He told him about crazy drivers, annoying coworkers, greedy corporations, local gossip, sports scores, politics, and just about anything else happening to pop into his head. Talking to him like this was Kyle's way of loving his dad. The doctors called it sending "emotional signals". According to the doctor, his dad could still receive emotional signals like joy or love. He hoped it worked.  


The tense monotony of the waiting room had maxed out the credit limit of Kyle's patience. He decided he needed a change of scenery. Vaguely remembering seeing a sign for a chapel down the hall, he excused himself, and slipped out of the waiting room into the adjoining hallway. Sure enough, there was a small, candlelit chapel four doors down from the waiting room. A small crucifix hung to the right of a dark wooden door with a large brass handle. The door creaked slightly as Kyle stepped inside. To his surprise, he wasn't alone.

A hushed murmur emanated from a huddled threesome near the back. Occupying the front row was a lone elderly man who sat staring up at a large picture of Jesus centered on the front wall of the chapel. Kyle heard a door click and saw an older, heavyset bearded man dressed in priestly garb entering the chapel from a side door. Kyle, as though under compulsion, started towards the priest. The priest, sensing the urgency in Kyle's steps, met him halfway.

"Hello, Father." Kyle began, awkwardly.
The priest smiled and gestured towards a pew, "Call me John - please, sit."
Kyle sat down quickly. "I'm not really a religious person." he just blurted out, "I guess I'm not really sure why I came here."
The elderly priest folded his hands in his lap and leaned back in the pew smiling warmly, "Yet, here you are."
"My son is dying, and it's my fault."
"Your fault?"
"Yes. He kept begging me to let him come up on the roof with me where I was caulking a leaky vent. I know I should have told him "No."...but I didn't."
"How old is your son?"
"Well, I highly doubt you are the first father to allow their seven year old son onto a roof."
"Maybe so, but not all kids fall off and fracture their skull either."
The priest paused, searching for the right words. "And the doctors?"
Kyle shook his head, "It's not good."

John tried changing subjects, "You mentioned you aren't a religious man...have you tried praying for your son?"
Kyle looked away, "I doubt it would do any good."
"Really? Kyle, what do you do for a living?"
"I'm sorry?"
"Your career - what is it?"
"I'm an insurance agent."
"Well, I'm a priest - and I can promise you, in my business, prayer works."
Kyle smiled, "And I bet you could use a little more insurance."
John laughed. "Maybe so. But just think of prayer kind of like insurance - it can't hurt to have a little extra."
Kyle shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Maybe you're right."
"I know I'm right. Kyle, God is watching you - and believe me, if you are sincere, God can heal your son." John paused and looked Kyle in the eyes, "I promise."
"What about a bargain?"
"Pardon me?"
"Does God do 'deals'?"
"I don't follow you."
"Like, let's say I tell God that if he lets my son live, then I'll, you know, be a better person and all that. Or maybe I could dedicate my son to God, promise to always take him to church or whatever."
"Well, I don't know about 'deals' - but I could think of nothing better than promising to dedicate your son to God, if He lets him live."
"Can you help me, you know, negotiate."
John chuckled again, "I'd be glad to."
"Okay, let's do it."
"Just talk to God like you're talking to me. He can hear you."

Kyle cleared his throat and glanced around to make sure none of the others were listening. He spoke softly, "God, I've never asked you for...well, anything. But today, I'm asking you to let my son live. Please God, don't let him die. If You let him live, I promise you I'll be a better person, and I promise to teach my son to be a better person too. Amen." Kyle opened his eyes and looked up at John for approval, "Was that okay?"
"It was perfect." John replied, nodding his head in approval and patting Kyle on the shoulder.

Suddenly, Kyle heard someone running down the hall towards the chapel. Then he heard Mary's voice calling his name. Kyle jumped up, shook John's hand, thanked him, and ran out into the hallway to meet his wife. "Kyle!" she started, excited and out of breath, "The swelling stopped! It stopped! Ryan's going to be okay! Can you believe it? He's going to be okay!" 


After over an hour of one-way conversation with his still-sleeping father, Kyle decided to step outside for some fresh air. Kyle politely excused himself and stepped through the double doors in his father's room which opened directly onto a long balcony shared by the adjoining room. Kyle took two steps up to the edge of the balcony, leaned his elbows on the railing, and stared off at the bright red sun about to be swallowed by the slowly rising horizon. He was startled by the sound of a woman clearing her throat.

"Oh, I'm sorry..." Kyle explained, "...I didn't mean to intrude." His balcony companion was a slim woman, maybe mid 50's, with black hair ending below her shoulders.
"Are you kidding?" she laughed, "I could use the company. I'm Ruth."
"Nice to meet you, Ruth. I'm Kyle." Kyle was grateful to actually talk to someone who could talk back.
"You mind?" Ruth asked, lifting her right hand into the air, revealing a half-smoked cigarette.
Kyle smiled, "You got another?"
Ruth chuckled and, after fumbling through her purse for a few seconds, produced a red pack of Pall Mall cigarettes. She extended her hand and gestured for him to help himself.
"Thanks." Kyle said, accepting the outstretched lighter she offered.

"Death," Ruth said, lighting another cigarette of her own, "thank God it only happens once."
Kyle nodded, "You said it."
"Who are you here for?"
"My father, you?"
"I'm sorry."
" too."

The sun had completely set now, causing Ruth and Kyle to become a couple of silhouettes surrounded by a thick haze of smoke. After a minute or two of silence, Kyle could hear Ruth weeping. He saw her reach up and wipe a tear away from her face.

He broke the silence. "It's not supposed to end like this. Alzheimer's. That's what he's Dad I mean. Stripped him of everything he used to be, now he's just a shell. Already died on the inside, you know?"

There was a palpable kinship between these two strangers. A kinship forged by loss. All typical relational inhibitors were thrust aside, if only for these few minutes. Their status as strangers, paradoxically, made them feel as if they could share their most intimate secrets.

Ruth exhaled another mouthful of smoke, "How's it supposed to end?"
She continued, "Well, you said 'It's not supposed to end like this.' So, how is it supposed to end?"
Kyle dropped his cigarette and squashed it into the deck with his shoe, "I don't know." He paused then continued, "Not like this though. You know what's crazy, when my father was seven, he fell off the roof of his house. Nearly killed him."
"So you wish he died then?"
"Not at all...I guess I'm just saying that it's not...fair. My grandfather loved to tell about how God healed my dad. The story goes that when my dad was dying in the hospital after his fall, my grandfather met up with some priest and the two of them struck a deal with God to let him live. So anyway, my dad survived and a few days later, he was released from the hospital."
"You want to know what he did after that?"
"He spent every waking hour of his life trying to pay God back for "letting" him live." Kyle's bitterness came spilling out, "How generous of God to "let" a child live. God saved him from one nasty death, just to kill him with another. What a joke."

Ruth looked startled by Kyle's sudden outburst of anger, but he wasn't done.

"Why does anybody even have to die at all? Was it too hard for God to make us live forever? Kyle had worked himself into a sweat now, "Even if for some rational cosmic reason, we do all have to kick the bucket, why doesn't God just take us all peacefully in our sleep? When we're somewhere around 150 and don't want to live anymore anyway? What kind of a God lets you live long enough to start to figure a few things out, long enough to freaking matter to somebody, only to disassemble you in the most inhumane way imaginable?"

Ruth responded, cautiously, "You know what's funny - my ex-husband was a preacher."
Kyle looked surprised, he started to backtrack, "I'm sorry, I hope I didn't offend you."
"Oh no," Ruth reassured him, "Believe me, you're preaching to the choir - no pun intended."
He smiled, relieved she wasn't upset.
She continued, "Anyway, my ex-husband used teach that when Jesus Christ was condemned to death by the Romans, it was actually God working behind the scenes. Can you believe that? Frankly, I found the thought of God killing his own son offensive - still do. But my ex-husband just thought it was the greatest news ever."
"So what's your point?"
"I guess I'm just saying that if there is an answer to your question about how it's supposed to end...and I don't think there is one...then I bet it's somehow tied up in the question of why God would kill his son."

A soft knock from inside the balcony door interrupted their thoughts. A heavyset male nurse wearing blue scrubs with a Harbor Grace logo in the upper right hand corner stepped onto the balcony, "Excuse me, are you the son?"
"Yes, I'm Kyle."
"I'm sorry, but your father's breathing has become very shallow. I think it might be good if you came inside." 


Kyle was on an emotional high as he waited impatiently for the elevator to reach the fourth floor. "Come on...come on!" He commanded, trying to hurry the elevator along.  He held Mary's hand so tightly she feared he would crush it from excitement. He looked at her and concluded, "It's a miracle!" Mary, speechless with joy and fighting back tears, could only nod her head in agreement.

"I can't believe it worked." Kyle shouted, "It actually worked. I mean, I prayed and the swelling stopped. Mary! THE SWELLING STOPPED!" Kyle pumped his fist and let out a whoop.

"I just can't believe it worked."

Kyle pushed his way out of the half-open elevator doors and sprinted to his son's room. It had only been ten hours since Ryan had fallen off the roof, and now, Kyle couldn't believe that today might just be remembered as an act of God, and not a tragedy. Waves of happiness came crashing onto Kyle's giddy shores as he watched his son lying awake and alert in his hospital bed.


As Kyle stepped back into his father's room, the first thing he noticed was how obviously painful his dad's breathing had become. The second thing he noticed was how pale and sweaty his dad's face had become.

Kyle spoke up, hoping to coax some information out of the two nurses busy trying to make his dad more comfortable, "What's going on?"
One of the nurses, the same one who had summoned him from the balcony gave his assessment, "Hard to say - his body could be shutting down. You should talk to him."


Kyle slung a light blue tote containing a few of his son's belongings over his left shoulder so that he was free to hold his son's hand as they made their way across the parking garage, looking for the car they had parked here a few days before. Kyle thought back on the last few days, and couldn't hold back the tears.

"Why are you crying, daddy?"
"I'm just happy."
"Why are you happy?"
"Because I'm glad you're okay."
"Daddy, did I almost die?" Kyle tried not to react, wondering where his son had heard something like that...certainly not from him. Kyle came to a stop, stooped down to one knee, and looked his son in the eye.

"Ryan, do you remember when we were up on the roof at our house a few days ago?"
"Do you remember when you fell off?"
Ryan nodded.
"Well, when you fell off the roof you hit your head really hard."
Ryan grimaced, "Ouch!"
Kyle laughed, "Yes, ouch. Well, you were very sick and the doctors were very worried about you. But you know what?"
"God didn't want you to die. When you were in your hospital room, I was busying praying and asking God to heal you - and He did!"
"Ryan, I don't want you to worry about death anymore. Everything is going to be fine. Just, fine."


Kyle bit the inside of his cheek and blinked several times trying to fight back tears. He scooted a chair up to the edge of the bed and stroked his dad's forehead with his hand.

"Dad, it's me, Kyle." Kyle took a deep breath and leaned a little closer, "Dad, I want you to know how much I love you. And I want you to know that you don't have to hang on any longer." Kyle began crying from somewhere deep from within. "You don't have to fight anymore, Dad. You can let go, we'll be okay. Don't worry about us, Dad. You can go. Everything is going to be fine. Just fine."

Kyle's eyes widened in shock as he felt a faint, yet definite, squeeze from his dad's hand. A few seconds later, his breathing stopped completely. Kyle sat motionless, still holding his dad's hand, afraid to let go. But it was no use. Ryan was already gone.


  1. Wow. I just totally bawled through this story. This was so great, so many things to think about, I can't even write a legible comment right now. :) Really well written!