A Bed Of Death
It's been a minute. So to make up for lost time, please enjoy this short story.
A Bed Of Death
By M.E. Blaustone
Bartholomew Goodwin lay in his bed. It was a bed of death and not a bed of sleep, for he was dying.
Tubes hung here and there—plastic tubes snaking their way from origins of metal canisters with dials, and glass bottles, down silver poles and over bed rails and white sheets—tubes carrying life-sustaining air and fluids to Bartholomew Goodwin’s lungs and veins. But they were all for naught, for as I said… he was dying, and he lay in a bed of death.
Now and again a nurse would enter the room, clothed pristine in a starched white dress, white cap, white stockings, and white orthopedic shoes that squeaked out an irritating rhythm when she walked across the hardwood floor. The nurse had two main duties; One was to adjust and rearrange the snaking plastic tubes that carried the life-sustaining air and fluids. The other was to sop up the drops of death sweat that would gather on Bartholomew Goodwin’s fevered brow. She would repeat these duties several times a day, day after day. When not performing her duties, she would retire herself to a straight-back chair in the far corner of the room, where she would retrieve a knitting project from a woven basket that sat on the floor next to said chair. There she would sit, knitting needles clicking in and out of brightly colored yarn, weaving an ongoing flap of unrecognizable something-or-another, just to pass the time.
How many days had the nurse been performing her duties of palliative care upon Bartholomew Goodwin? The man had no way of knowing, because, you guessed it…he lay on a bed of death, and he was dying.
Until, one day, upon hearing the squeak of the nurse's orthopedic shoes, Bartholomew Goodwin opened his heavy eyes to the bright sunlight that beamed through the window to the right of him, causing those eyes to sting and well with tears.
“Glorious,” he intonated, high-pitched and breathy.
The nurse, who had been untangling and readjusting the plastic tubing at the base of the dying man’s prickly-haired nostrils, jumped at the strange sound of his voice, for until this moment, it had not been heard in her ears.
“I…I beg your pardon?” she questioned.
Lifting a crooked, shaking finger, he pointed to the window.
“The sun,” he answered. “Is it not glorious, Nurse…um, Nurse?”
Bartholomew Goodwin paused, and as his breathing whistled and wheezed in and out through the plastic tube, a single tear pooled until it overflowed the corner of his eye, and rolled down his pale, sunken cheek.
“Forgive me, dear Nurse, for I don’t know your name.”
The nurse eyed him quizzically, for as I said, her dying charge had yet to speak one word since she took the position eight days prior. In all her forty years of caring for patients who lay on beds of death, the only words she’d heard spoken were those the dying muttered to the ghosts of loved ones who came to guide them to the great beyond. Of course, it startled her that this particular dying one spoke out to ask for her name.
“My name is Viola Johnson. I am your palliative nurse.” She said it as though she were introducing herself to just about anyone, be it a friend or colleague.
Bartholomew Goodwin’s faded eyes brightened, as though a light had been switched on behind them.
“I’m delighted to know you, Miss Johnson,” he responded. “I am Bartholomew Goodwin. As I am a gentleman, or once was quite some time ago, it is my reasonable duty to stand when greeting a lady such as yourself. But as you can see, I am confined to this bed of death, chained to bottles and canisters by these blasted tubes. So, from this lowly state, I shall raise my hand and simply say, How do you do?” And then, with significant struggle, he lifted his hand to the nurse.
Nurse Viola Johnson eyed the frail, pasty appendage being offered to her. How strange it was, that after several days of looking after the man, whose breathing had begun to gurgle a bit, and whose only sounds were soft moans, he now spoke to her, bright-eyed and awake, lifting his hand to greet her. The nurse’s heart swelled, then melted, and without turning her eyes away from his, she took his hand into hers.
“How do you do, Mr. Goodwin? I am delighted to know you,” she said, noting a bit of warmth still left in his palm and fingertips.
Once shaken, and the weak hand released, Bartholomew Goodwin dragged his crooked finger to the plastic tube at the base of his nose which carried the life-sustaining air. Hooking his finger around the tube he said, “Nurse, if you wouldn’t mind helping to remove this blasted tube… I would like to converse with you for a bit.”
Nurse Viola Johnson straightened, and then stopping the man’s finger from any further tugging, she said, “Um…I’m not so sure that’s such a good idea. You need that tube and what it provides.” She said this, knowing that tubes were removed, and canisters shut down, only when the dying were ready to give up, and thus end their time spent in a bed of death.
His mouth curved into half of a smile, revealing only soft gums, for the dentures had been permanently laid to rest.
“At this stage, my dear, what harm would it do? Please, remove the tube, then if you would, scoot that straight back chair in the corner over there next to my bed of death, over here, so that I can speak with you for just a spell.”
Though feeling a bit uneasy at his request, she did as he asked. She removed the plastic tube from under Bartholomew Goodwin’s nose, as the life-sustaining air hissed out into nothing. Then, she scooted the single, straight-back chair from its corner, over to the bedside, and sat down, folding her hands in her lap.
“Now, my dear,” he began. “I have some requests I’d like to make.”
His eyes reared and darted about the ceiling, peering into its corners, as though searching for something—a thought, or a memory. Maybe something lost that must be found. Without turning his eyes back to her, he spoke out his first request.
“I would like for you to get a hold of my children so that I may speak to them before I leave my bed of death. I can’t recall the last time I spoke with them, and as such, I do long to hear their voices.”
Nurse Viola Johnson sat still, stymied by Bartholomew Goodwin’s request, for the man’s death chart listed no next of kin. Also, in the eight days of palliative care given, not a single, solitary soul had called upon the man to show their last respects. Yet, she knew she’d heard him correctly—he asked her to get a hold of his children.
“Mr. Goodwin,” she responded, “To the best of my understanding, you do not have any children for me to get a hold of. Your death chart states no next of kin. I am very sorry, sir.”
At that, Bartholomew Goodwin turned his eyes to his nurse. He questioned her with a knitted brow and said, “How can that be, for I’ve dreamt of them every day. I’ve seen a boy and a girl. Or was it a girl and two boys? I could have sworn they were with me always. They adored me, and I adored them. Oh, how I’ve missed them. I must tell them so before I go.”
His countenance displayed a longing so deep, so utterly dismayed, again placing Nurse Viola Johnson at a loss for words, for there were no adoring children to call. There never were.
“Mr. Goodwin,” she said, “Again, I’m so sorry, but you have no children that I should call them to your side”
Bartholomew Goodwin’s furrowed brow relaxed.
“I see,” he said with resignation in his voice.. “I suppose they were always a dream that my busy life prevented from coming true. Had they truly been, and had you called them to come to me now, I would tell them how sorry I am that I did not spend more time with them. So sorry to have missed the ball games, and ballet recitals, and the late night cups of tea around the kitchen table. I would tell them how I wished I could live life again, if only to be with them one more time.” Again, his eyes pooled, and a single tear rolled down his cheek. “I would tell them how much I loved them.”
Nurse Viola Johnson removed a handkerchief from the pocket of her starched,white dress, and blotted the tear before it landed on the white sheet beneath him. As difficult as this first request was for her to hear, she steadied her resolve to continue and listen to the next. And so, she asked, “What else can I do for you, Mr. Goodwin?”
Bartholomew Goodwin again turned his eyes to the corners of the ceiling above and searched deeper than before.
“I realize now that my children were only a dream. But, what of my beautiful wife? Is she dead, or does she still live…or was she also a dream? That cannot be, for I remember her completely. Eyes, the bluest of all blues. Hair as red as the setting sun. Just to be near her brought contentment and bliss to my soul.”
His eyes remained fixed on a single spot, whether an insect or a small gathering of cobwebs, he stared at it until his recollection cleared.
“She waited for me, always. My dear wife forever waited for me to come home to her after my long days of work. But you see, I was working to do more and to be more, for I always believed that there would be more, and that I needed more. Yet, all I needed was her.”
Again, he turned his eyes from the spot in the corner of the ceiling up above, and to the nurse at his side.
“And, she died waiting for me. Is this the truth? Am I correct in assuming that my memory of her is not a dream?”
Nurse Viola Johnson sighed, knowing in her heart of hearts that what Bartholomew Goodwin spoke about his wife was indeed true. She’d heard similar stories time and time again from others who lay in a bed of death. Though descriptions and details may have been different, the regret remained the same. No matter how good a life the dying one had lived, there was always some regret that remained. It was no different for Bartholomew Goodwin. He wished for more time, more love, and more life to live with the love of his life. The nurse didn’t know how long his wife had been gone, nor did it matter. There was no reason for her to know that particular detail, for she could see the answer in his dying eyes. The love of his life had been gone for a very long time.
At this time, Bartholomew Goodwin began to fidget. His legs squirmed, knees bent, and he scrunched his eyes as a means to display his discomfort to the nurse. And so Nurse Viola Johnson rose from her chair to fluff the feather pillow behind the dying man’s head. She then reached for the plastic tube which carried the life-sustaining air.
“No thank you,” he said to the nurse, his eyes still wrinkled shut. “I don’t want the air. Besides, I have still one more request to make of you—or rather, one last question I must ask.”
And so, Nurse Viola Johnson returned to the straight back chair, folding her hands in her lap.
This time, Bartholomew Goodwin did not search the corners of the ceiling. Instead, he looked directly at the nurse sitting beside him. He searched deep into her eyes…much deeper than he had previously looked into the corners of the ceiling above him. Just as a sea captain sounds the declinations of the ocean blue, so was Bartholomew Goodwin’s searching of Viola Johnson’s eyes.
The nurse perceived a sort of sinking feeling inside of her, right at the intersection of her stomach, and her heart. If she were to have listened in on the aforementioned description of the sea captain’s sounding of the declinations of the ocean blue, she would have related to the same, for she felt an anxious anticipation, a sort of sinking sadness inside as she waited for his last question. Finally, the question came.
Bartholomew Goodwin inhaled and then began. “Have I made a difference, Nurse Viola Johnson?”
The nurse held tightly to her hands, ruminating over his words. “A difference?” she asked. “I’m afraid I don’t understand the question.”
“Yes, a difference,” he repeated, weak and desperate for resolve. “You must know. Did I feed the poor? Did I welcome my neighbor into my home when he was in need? Was I generous with my wealth to the orphanage down the way? Or, did I comfort the old widow who passed the window at my place of work day after day? I feel that my time of lying upon this bed of death is coming to an end. Sadly, my children were but a dream, and my wife is no more. I must have done something, or been someone to somebody…anybody.”
Bartholomew Goodwin exhaled as the corner of his eye pooled once more.
“Tell me, good nurse,” he asked. “ Did I make a difference?”
Nurse Viola Johnson sat still, hands folded, stomach and heart sinking. In the totality of the past forty years of palliative care, she’d never conversed with one in a bed of death such as this man. And so, she pondered her own life. She had three children—all raised, and grown into strong, responsible, loving human beings. Her children were living their own lives. Yet she too missed the sound of their voices and longed to spend more time with them, as well as to tell them how much she loved them. She too, had a caring husband who waited for her each night at home, even as so many of her nights were spent sitting next to someone who lay in a bed of death while she adjusted and rearranged the plastic tubes that carry the life-sustaining air and fluids. Even still her husband waited for her. Even now, he waits.
Viola Johnson watched as a single tear rolled down Bartholomew Goodwin’s ghostly pale cheek. Looking away, she retrieved the handkerchief from the pocket of her starched white dress and looked back. Bartholomew Goodwin's eyes had closed. He made no more wheezing, no high-pitched moans, and no words were spoken. He was only quiet. And so with the handkerchief, she blotted the tear from his sunken cheek. She then turned down the dial on the metal canister until it came to a complete stop. She scooted the straight back chair into its place in the corner of the room, and lifted the woven basket of brightly colored, unrecognizable knitting, sliding it over her arm. She stood at the doorway of Bartholomew Goodwin's bedroom, with her fingertip gently resting upon the light switch. She looked at the quiet man who lay upon his bed of death, and whispered two words.
“Thank you”, she said.
With a flip of the light switch, the nurse shut the door.