As I approached the doorway, two of his doctors stepped out and walked down the hall away from me. A nurse stood at his bedside, fiddling with the tubing on the IV bottle.
"Morning," I said, reaching out to take Mike's hand. He was still asleep. "How's he doing?"
"Well . . . " She glanced at me, then back to the clip on the IV tubing until she made it secure. "The doctors were just here to see him."
"Yes, I saw them walk out of here as I came down the hall."
"They're reducing the morphine drip, so he must be doing better! He should begin to wake up before long now . . . " She stopped talking long enough to pull a large safety pin out of her uniform pocket and fasten the delicate tubing to the crisp white bottom sheet, beyond the pillows that cradled Mike's head. "There," she continued, "can't have them get caught in the side rails."
"How long before he starts waking up?" I asked.
"Oh, I would say in two or three hours. It could be longer." She eyed the entire length of tubing—from the bottle to Mike's arm—running her hands along it, making sure there was nothing in its path and that it hadn't been crimped anywhere. She made a quick inspection of the intravenous needle taped to his arm and pulled the light-weight blanket back over it, then smiled at me. "Everything looks good. I'll see you later." She headed for the doorway and disappeared.
I squeezed Mike's hand, gently. "Can you hear me? Mike?"
His head turned slowly in my direction, but he did not utter a sound.
I closed my eyes and prayed. For help. For healing. For minimum brain damage, if any. And for strength, for myself.
"Not awake yet, huh?" My sister had come into the room and was standing next to me.
"Nope. But maybe this afternoon. They reduced the amount of morphine now. I guess that's a good sign. The nurse said maybe in two or three hours he'll wake up. I hope he recognizes me."
"I do too," she said. "Why don't you take a little break? Let me stay here for a few minutes. I'll come get you if he shows any signs of waking up." She put an arm around my shoulders and hugged. "You should really visit a little with Mom."
"Yeah. I know. I'll go do that." I patted Mike's hand and left for the waiting room.
Mom was sitting on the leather sofa, the same spot she sat each time since arriving on Saturday afternoon. She was holding a magazine in one hand and lifting her eyeglasses up with the other in order to access a certain part of her trifocals, like she always did when reading. I exchanged smiles with Freddie's parents, busy at the puzzle table, as I walked toward my mother.
"Find something good to read?" I sat down next to her.
"Oh, just an article about a man in Mexico who makes sandals from old truck tires and rope and sells them. We should do that here."
"I suppose so. Heard any more about the burned lady?"
She turned to face me, letting go of her glasses and setting the magazine down on her lap. Evidently this topic was of interest to her.
"Yes. Her husband stopped by a while ago, and I asked about her. She's still in critical condition. Poor woman.
"Her room is right over there." She pointed down the ICU hallway to a doorway, maybe four rooms closer than Mike's. "I peeked in there after her husband left. They've got her laid straight out in the middle of a great big wheel. It stands upright; must be seven or eight feet tall! They turn the wheel to change her position. All the doctors and nurses that go in and out of there are covered up, head to toe. I guess it's so they don't bring in any germs that might give her an infection."
"Yeah, that wouldn't be good for her. Want to know how Mike's doing?"
"Oh, sure. I don't suppose he's in there dancing a jig?" She grinned.
"No, Mom. But they're reducing the morphine, so he should wake up sometime today." Would she ever care the least bit for him? So what if he wasn't a rich doctor or lawyer that she had always wanted her daughters to marry? How many times did my sister and I hear her say: "It's just as easy to love a rich man as a poor one."?
What she didn't like about Mike, I think, was that he was a natural-born debater; unabashed in sharing his knowledge and opinions on things. He had done so in her presence more than once during our first three years of marriage, when she had finally begun to acknowledge him. She didn't know that if his early life had offered more opportunities, he could have become a darn good lawyer.
Mike delighted in disagreeing with Mom at any opportunity, just for the sport of it. She would get noticeably confused and could never win, try as she might. Finally she would just put on that saccharin smile of hers and shut up. Maybe that's what drew me to him in the first place—he was not afraid to stand up to her.
"You getting hungry?" Mom's question jerked me back to reality.
"Maybe a little."
"We could go down to the cafeteria for some soup."
We got up, walked to Mike's room to get my sister, and headed down the hall to the elevator. When the stainless-steel door slid open, Mrs. Benson, from Admitting, stepped out.
"Helen," she said. "Just the person I am looking for."
I said hello to her, then urged my mother and sister to go on ahead to the cafeteria. "Get me a cup of soup, please. I'll be there in a minute or two."
Mrs. Benson ushered me to a quiet corner. She held two pieces of paper in her hand. I could see what looked like a list on the top one. She gave it a glance and started talking.
"I called your insurance agent last night, as you suggested," she said. "He told me he no longer sells insurance, and I should call his attorney.
"So I did that, this morning, and had a long conversation with him. I learned that you only made application for automobile insurance."
"Yes, and that had medical coverage on it."
"That's coverage for those you might injure, not for yourselves. Someone must have misinformed you." She put her hand up to stop me from interrupting. "There's more. It seems your agent never submitted your insurance application and fee."
"Oh, God. That means we don't . . ."
"Have any insurance? Correct. It also means you remain liable for your car payments." She eyed her notes again.
I felt like a piece of firewood on a chopping block, with axes attacking me from every angle. What more did she have on that list?
"He also neglected to renew the Errors and Omissions Policy on himself. So you have no recourse that way. Our legal counsel here suggested that you hire an attorney in Seattle and sue your agent. He said it should be a cut and dried case, because the check you gave him as a deposit was cashed."
"What about the hospital bill?"
"There may be some programs for assistance that you can qualify for. I've made an appointment for you with our financial officer this afternoon." She handed me the second piece of paper. It read, simply: "John Rosenberg, Room 108, 3:00 PM."
"I'm so sorry to bring you this news on top of everything you're going through right now. If you have any questions, about anything, let me know and I will do my best to help you."
"Thank you. I appreciate all you've done so far." I waved the slip of paper at her as I took a step backward toward the elevator. "I'll be there." If there's anything left of me, I thought.
"Don't be nervous, Helen. He's nice, and very knowledgeable. If there is any help out there for you, he will find it."
"Thank you." I pushed the elevator's down-button as Mrs. Benson walked away. "Dear God," I whispered. "Please make something good happen today."
The cafeteria smelled of spaghetti and freshly baked bread. And floor sanitizer. Not the most appetizing combination. If there was one thing that Palo-Alto Stanford University Hospital did not lack, it was clean floors. There were housekeepers everywhere, on every level. Ubiquitous.
I located my mother and sister and sat down in front of a cup of beef-barley soup. It was still warm. Not hot, just warm. It didn't matter, and I didn't realize how hungry I was until I swallowed a surprisingly tasty spoonful. I consumed the dinner roll alongside it as well.
"What'd that lady want?" my sister asked.
"To let me know our insurance agent went out of business and didn't place the policy we ordered. There's no insurance. None. Not for the car. Not for the medical bills."
"Ah, jeez!" My sister slapped her napkin down on the table. "What next?"
"I don't know. I have to see the hospital's financial officer this afternoon. I imagine that's to discuss the humungous charges that must be piling up." I took a deep breath and blew it out through pursed lips, shaking my head from side to side. "I wonder if it's ever going to stop."
I rose from my chair. "Do I owe somebody for the soup?"
"No," my sister responded. "Mom bought lunch."
"Thanks, Mom. I'd better get back upstairs and check on Mike before I need to meet with the finance guy. You two coming?"
We rode the elevator up one floor and walked the hall to Mike's room. Two nurses were starting to change his bedding. They let me stay, but sent Mom and my sister to the waiting room. Freddie's parents stood at the foot of their little boy's bed, calling to him again and again as they had for over a week, trying to bring him out of his coma. "Freddie! Freddie! Wake up!"
I stood inside the privacy curtain at the foot of Mike's bed, watching the nurses. He moaned when they rolled his body onto its side to start replacing the bottom sheet. His hospital gown fell open, exposing his back from shoulders to buttocks—a single slab of dense, dark purple. I gasped in disbelief.
"Is that bruising?" I gestured toward the mottled mass that showed not one spot of normal flesh-colored skin.
"Yes, much of it," a nurse replied. "The rest is from internal bleeding that settles into the tissues. It should go away, in time. And it will be painful as the body tries to withdraw it, but they'll keep him on adequate medication for that."
They rolled him onto his other side, and finished exchanging the sheets, blanket and pillow cases for freshly laundered ones. He moaned again. I thought it sounded as if he was trying to say something, but dismissed it as wishful thinking on my part. After the nurses had pulled the privacy curtain aside and carried the soiled bedding out of the room, I moved in and took hold of his hand.
"Mike? Can you hear me?"
"Uuuuuh . . . "
Shivers ran up my spine. "My God, you are trying to talk!" I glanced at my watch to mark the time. It read 2:45 PM. "Oh drat! I'm due at the finance office at three. Rotten timing—just when you're starting to come around. I'll be back."
I hurried to the waiting room and asked my sister to stay with him while I went to the finance office. She agreed.
The meeting with Mr. Rosenberg lasted forty minutes. I learned from him that our best chances of financial help would be something called the Ben Casey Plan. Named after the main character in a popular television series, this plan had, in the past, paid medical costs in full for situations like ours. He helped me fill out an application, and advised me to "just pay what you can when the hospital statements start arriving." If we were approved—which could take up to a year—the billings would simply stop coming. That was it. Sounded too good to be true, but better than nothing, which was all we had right now.
I made a stop at the rest room near Mr. Rosenberg's office, then hurried back to the ICU. My sister was sitting on the far side of Mike's bed, grinning at me over the shiny chrome bed rails.
"What did I miss?" I grinned back, in anticipation of good news.
"He moaned a few times, and moved his head from side to side." She grinned wider. "And once he moved his arm a little bit. He hasn't said anything we could understand yetwe being me and Freddie's parents, and the nurses that have been in and out of here."
"Thank God. At last some news to smile about." Excitement raced through my body. I couldn't wait to hear him say something, although it scared me at the same time. I feared the brain damage.
"Uuuuuh . . ." His head rolled to the opposite side. Other than that, his body lay as still as the silent room. Except for the recurrent pleas by Freddie's parents for their boy to "Wake up" and the increasing "Uuuuuhs" from Mike, the room remained stone-cold quiet.
My sister and I leaned against the side rails on his bed, watching for any signal that he might speak. We listened to his breathing. It seemed to grow deeper and louder with each twist of his head. Then, without warning, eyes still closed, he bellowed for all to hear . . .
"Heeeeeeeeeey Freddie! Wake up, boy!"
Silence seized the entire room, then burst into unrestrained laughter. It was as if some horrible spell had been lifted and, for a precious few seconds, life was good.