Paul has just lost his wife. Now there is nothing left to do.

After a busy life of getting an education, raising a family while building a career, and, finally, supporting a wife until she lost her battle with cancer, it’s all done. There is nothing left to do. What now?

Nothing left to do yawned before Paul like a vast, dark, foreboding chasm.

 

The Gift

by

John Burnham

Paul sat beside the bed, holding her hand. She wasn’t returning his grip. She hadn’t spoken in a week. Her eyes had remained closed for the last three days. Her breathing was slow and ragged.

Paul squeezed her hand, “I love you,” he said quietly

A smile seemed to flicker across her face. Her breathing became easier. “I must go now, so that you may receive your gift,” she said in a clear voice.

Startled, Paul didn’t know what to say. Was she hallucinating? “I love you,” he repeated. She didn’t take another breath. Silence filled the room. Her hand became an inanimate object. She was no longer there—she had left her body.

Paul tenderly placed the cool hand on the bed, rose, and made his way to the nurses’ station. As he approached, the charge nurse looked up and smiled.

“I think my wife justchecked out,” he choked.

The nurse’s smile changed to knowing compassion as she got to her feet. Grabbing a stethoscope from the counter, she walked briskly down the corridor. By the time Paul got to the room, she was bending over his wife, checking for vital signs. After a few minutes, she straightened.

“Yes Paul, the nurse confirmed, she’s gone.”

Thanks”, Paul hesitated …”what do I do now?

The nurse stepped away from the bed “There is nothing left to do. I checked your file when I came on tonight. Everything is in place. Feel free to stay here with her as long as you like.”

Paul took the chair beside the bed as the nurse left the room. The words “nothing left to do” hung in the air. She was right. He’d known this was coming. All the arrangements were completed weeks ago. He pulled out his cell phone and thumbed a speed dial number.

On the second ring, his adult daughter’s voice said, “Daddy?”

“Yes honey. . . . Mom’s gone.”

“Did she go peacefully?”

“I think so. A few minutes ago, I told her that I loved her. I thought I saw a bit of a smile. Then she stopped breathing.”

“Awww Daddy—the last thing she heard was that you love her that’s so sweet.”

Paul closed his eyes, “I guess so.”

“Now Daddy, don’t you worry. I’ll notify everybody and coordinate with the funeral home. You’ve been such a trooperbearing the brunt of Mom’s illness for the past few years—Ive got it from here. You just relax and take care of yourself. There’s nothing left to do.” They exchanged good-byes and he pocketed the phone.

His daughter the organizer. Paul smiled. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Of his four children, she was the most like himalways planning and organizing. It was right that she should take over now. Notifying everybody and making final funeral arrangements would give her closure. His wifes illness had been long and, in a way, he had already said his good-byes. There really wasn’t anything for him to do.

He looked at the bed, feeling a little lost; a body was there, but Patti wasn’t in it. There was no reason to stay.

***

Paul waved silently as he passed the nurses’ station. Exiting the main doors, he continued down the street instead of turning toward the parking lot. His feet were moving one ahead of the other without direction from his head.

“Nothing left to do, nothing left to do,” kept bouncing off the insides of his skull. When was the last time there was “nothing left to do?” He couldn’t remember. He’d always had lots to do: get an education; establish a career; help the kids get started, care for Patti. Now, there was nothing left to do. Was this all there was to life? Where was the meaning in life now that there was nothing to plan for, no goals to reach towards, nobody who needed his care? “Nothing left to do” yawned before him like a vast, dark, foreboding chasm.

One foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other. There wasn’t really anything to think about, only the darkened street and the sound of his footfalls. It all seemed so pointless. Gradually little things began to filter into his consciousness. The variations in the texture of the sidewalk beneath his feet, different aromas, muffled sounds. In his numbness, Paul didn’t try to interpret anything; he simply experienced, without categorizing or analyzing. A light rain began to fall. He didn’t concern himself with whether it was a good thing or a bad thing. He gave himself over to experiencing the way the moisture modified the sounds and smells. He turned his face toward the sky. The drizzle felt good. He began to enjoy being in the here, experiencing each instant as it happened. Raindrops sparkled as they fell illuminated from the streetlights. Falling to the ground, they became indistinguishable from the rest of the wetness on the street. They hadn’t ceased to exist, Paul reflected. They’d simply merged with something bigger. He began to experience something similar; a feeling of oneness with the night and the rain comforted him in a loving embrace. He felt a part of everything around. It gave him a crazy sense of not being any particular place, because he was everyplace. He sensed other people there, too. Patti was there . And now, she was peaceful and complete. As Paul walked, tears of gratitude filled his eyes.

***

Without realizing, Paul made a couple of turns that took him back toward the hospital. His head began to feel sticky under his hat. He took it off. The cooling drizzle gently caressed his bald pate. Arthur Jenkins had observed that baldness was a sign of maturityyou are growing up through your hairhe had exclaimed. Arthur! Paul thought to himself, Why was he thinking of Arthur? He had met many other patients during his months of keeping vigil at Patti’s side. Why should he be thinking of Arthur in particular now? Almost as if in answer, Paul got the feeling that Arthur needed him. That was absurd. Arthur had the best in cardiac care that medicine could offer. Besides, at this hour Arthur would be fast asleep. The feeling grew stronger. Paul was surprised to find himself in front of the hospital. Well, he thought, maybe I’ll just go up and look in on Arthursee that he’s resting comfortably. Or, if the old guy is having one of his bouts with insomnia; maybe I’ll chat with him for awhile.

***

A nurse in the cardiac unit smiled as Paul passed by; she was accustomed to his wandering the halls at all hours. As Paul approached Arthur’s room, he heard the sound of someone thrashing about in the bed, but the call light over the door wasn’t on. He quickened his step. Inside the room, he saw Arthur clutching the call button. The old man’s eyes were wild as he convulsed. Red lights flickered and flashed on the heart monitor. Paul spun about and ran down the corridor. Colliding into the nurse’s station, he shouted, “218, convulsions! 218, red lights!” The charge nurses’ fingers flew at the keyboard. Seconds later, she ran down the corridor. Code numbers and “room 218” repeatedly blared from the P.A. system. Lights flashed, people and equipment seemed to materialize and head toward Arthur’s room. Paul tried to stay out of the way as he made his way back. He leaned against the corridor wall where he could look into the room. All he could see was the backs of medical staff clustered around the bed.

After several minutes, Paul found a chair. He began thinking about how he had come to be here. As he sat, he drifted back to the moment of peace and comfort he’d experienced in the rain.

Paul didn’t know how long he’d been sitting when a nurse began to wheel a gurney out of the room. Quickly he stood. As the gurney passed, he could see Arthur breathing comfortably. Following the group of medical staff out of the room, the charge nurse stopped in front of Paul.

“You may have saved his life, you know,” she said with a smile.

“He’s going to be all right, then?” Paul asked.

“He had a cardiac arrest but, thanks to you, we got to him in time. He’ll be in ICU for a while, so we can keep a closer eye on him, but he should recover fully. I still can’t believe that actually happened.” She said shaking her head.

“What did happen?” Paul queried.

“The call bell failed at the same time that the communication between his heart monitor and the nurses’ station failed. The odds of that happening are huge. And then, for you to come walking injust as it happenedthose odds are too big to contemplate!” The nurse shook her head again.

“Well, Paul hesitated …I …I just had a strange feeling …I …I’m glad that I decided to check in on him.”

The nurse gave Paul a puzzled look, then excused herself.

***

In the hospital parking lot, Paul sat in his carthinking. He’d just performed the single most important act of his entire life, hed saved a life, but there had been no planning or forethought. It was more a case of . . . ofhe groped at the unfamiliar conceptof being in the right state of mind. Yes, that was it! When he was in that state of experiencing unity with all around him, it was as if he could somehow hear, or sense, Arthur’s need. Gradually, Patti’s last words, “I must go now, so that you may receive your gift,” came back to him. Was the epiphany he’d experienced earlier the gift? Paul wondered. Did she have to leave for him to be brought low enough to receive it? Probably, he thought sadly. As long as she was with him, he’d have continued to plan and scheme to manipulate or organize the world around him. Tonight, he’d experienced being a part of events instead of trying to influence them. It was, Paul realized, a gift beyond . . . beyond . . . beyond . . . what? Somewhat awed, he sat there struggling to find the words.

As the grey light of dawn crept over the parking lot, the drizzle became rain. Paul still didn’t start the car. He gave himself over to enjoying the drumming of the rain on the roof—and becoming one with it. He didn’t have anything to do. He didn’t have anywhere to go. In fact, he realized, he didn’t have anything to prove. What he should do next would become clear soon enough. Meanwhile, he’d enjoy the waiting. Wrapped in a warm, new sense of self, Paul smiled, “Thanks Patti”.