Miles to Go
by Dave Bachmann
When I woke up in the ICU the first thing I saw was a heavily bearded, elderly gentleman sitting beside my bed, reading a book of Emily Dickinson’s poems.
“Because I could not stop for death…” I croaked, not recognizing my own voice.
The man looked up suddenly, his eyes sparkling. “….He kindly stopped for me,” he finished, his voice muffled because of the mask covering his mouth. “Only he didn’t. Glad to see you’re awake, Mr. Gibbons. For a while, we weren’t sure you were going to make it.”
“I’m not sure about anything,” I responded in a scratchy voice which sounded foreign to me, “except my head feels like it’s been used as a pinata.”
“The rather unpleasant aftermath of having survived the Coronavirus. You’re in a special club now. Congrats.”
“Rather not be a member,” I observed, trying to push myself up.
“Hold on there, Mr. G,” the bearded man interjected, gently placing a gloved hand on my chest, “doctor will be here soon and give you the all clear. You just rest easy for now.”
“My wife,” I stammered, “is she here?”
“She’s at home. I’ve been giving her and your kids regular updates. Non-combatants are off limits in the hospital.”
“The last thing I remember is that I couldn’t breathe. The doctor said something about a ventilator.”
“It saved your life, Mr. Gibbons. Well, the ventilator and an army of nurses and doctors.”
“Call me Eric. I think formalities are a thing of the past. Are you one of the nurses to whom I owe my forever thanks?”
“I’m a volunteer.”
“They still allow those in the hospital?”
The bearded man laughed. “They made an exception for me. I was a medic in the Vietnam War and they’re pretty desperate around here for anyone with skills, no matter how obsolete.”
“Well, your skills and compassion are appreciated, obsolete or not. I owe you, my friend.”
“No,” the bearded man explained, “it’s what I do, that’s all. And since you’re on the mend, I’m going to do my volunteer thing and check in on some other patients. You stay put until the doc stops by. I’ll be around if you need something.”
The bearded man rose slowly and headed toward the door. His movements were stiff, and he walked with a slight limp. I heard him breathing heavily, the sound of a man exhausted, weary, spent.
“Hey!” I called out weakly, “what’s your name? I’m sure my wife will want to send you a thank-you card. Probably some flowers and a box of candy, too, if I know her.”
The bearded man turned and hesitated, as if assessing what he should reveal to this person he had almost watched die. “Name’s Hearst,” he pronounced haltingly, and then as an afterthought, quickly added, “William Randolph.”
“Nope. Parents thought that naming me after a famous, rich, media magnate would rub off and make me a respectable, upstanding citizen.”
“Did it work?”
William grabbed the bottom of his mask, raised it and grinned. “Not even close,” he said with a wink.
“William!” a harsh voice called out from the hallway, “keep your damn mask on!”
“Oops,” William mumbled as he ambled away, “busted again.”
My recovery was slow. William visited frequently, always with a different volume of poetry tucked under his arm. Between verses of Frost, Whitman and Longfellow, we shared our life stories; mine, privileged and blessed with opportunity; his, a constant struggle with poverty and loss, punctuated with bouts of depression and alcoholism. But through my convalescence, we shared something deeper and more profound than our differences and discovered a commonality, not just about poetry but about life, love, duty and, ultimately, friendship.
And then one morning, abruptly and without fanfare, my doctor, who had coaxed me back from the edge of death, declared me well enough to go home. I was elated.
William appeared at the appointed time and began negotiating my still-weakened frame into a wheelchair.
“I’m not going to be the first to cry,” I confidently announced.
“Uh huh,” he said nodding.
“I’m going to be strong. For her and the kids.”
“Sure you are,” William agreed, backing the wheelchair into the elevator.
“She’s gone through so much. Wouldn’t do to see her husband blubbering. Right?”
“Right,” William echoed, wheeling me to the front entrance.
And then I saw my wife, cloaked in mask, protective gown and plastic gloves. I burst out crying.
We collided in a clumsy, clutching, tearful embrace, our breathless sobs reverberating through the hospital. Doctors and nurses, who had become my temporary family for the last three weeks, had gathered to watch our reunion. Someone cried, ‘Code Rocky’ and the theme from the movie began to play.
William stood nearby, the calm, strong, familiar presence I had come to depend upon. I glanced at him and despite the mask, could see he was crying too.
“Ellen,” I said, struggling to compose myself, “I want you to meet someone..” but before I could finish, she had untangled herself from me and rushed to embrace William.
No introduction necessary.
As we were about to leave, I motioned for William to come close.
“Stay healthy. And keep your damn mask on!”
“Don’t worry about me,” William responded. “Like Robert Frost, I’ve got promises to keep.”
Ellen commandeered my wheelchair and carefully maneuvered it to the exit. Once outside, the vastness of a moonless night swept over me, washing away the haunting memories of disease and despair.
I had been given another chance by the doctors, nurses, William and Providence itself to live, not just for myself, but for those around me.
Recalling William’s last words to me, I finished the poem, a quiet promise to embrace the opportunity I had been given.
“…..and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”