If I Stay (If I Stay #1)(16)


by Gayle Forman

I picture his head, his tight blond curls. I love to nuzzle my face in those curls, have done since he was a baby. I kept waiting for the day when he’d swat me away, say “You’re embarrassing me,” the way he does to Dad when Dad cheers too loudly at T-ball games. But so far, that hadn’t happened. So far, I’ve been allowed constant access to that head of his. So far. Now there is no more so far. It’s over.

I picture myself nuzzling his head one last time, and I can’t even imagine it without seeing myself crying, my tears turning his blond curlicues straight.

Teddy is never going to graduate from T-ball to baseball. He’s never going to grow a mustache. Never going to get into a fistfight or shoot a deer or kiss a girl or have sex or fall in love or get married or father his own curly-haired child. I’m only ten years older than him, but it’s like I’ve already had so much more life. It is unfair. If one of us should have been left behind, if one of us should be given the opportunity for more life, it should be him.

I race through the hospital like a trapped wild animal. Teddy? I call. Where are you? Come back to me!

But he won’t. I know it’s fruitless. I give up and drag myself back to my ICU. I want to break the double doors. I want to smash the nurses’ station. I want it all to go away. I want to go away. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be in this hospital. I don’t want to be in this suspended state where I can see what’s happening, where I’m aware of what I’m feeling without being able to actually feel it. I cannot scream until my throat hurts or break a window with my fist until my hand bleeds, or pull my hair out in clumps until the pain in my scalp overcomes the one in my heart.

I’m staring at myself, at the “live” Mia now, lying in her hospital bed. I feel a burst of fury. If I could slap my own lifeless face, I would.

Instead, I sit down in the chair and close my eyes, wishing it all away. Except I can’t. I can’t concentrate because there’s suddenly so much noise. My monitors are blipping and chirping and two nurses are racing toward me.

“Her BP and pulse ox are dropping,” one yells.

“She’s tachycardic,” the other yells. “What happened?”

“Code blue, code blue in Trauma,” blares the PA.

Soon the nurses are joined by a bleary-eyed doctor, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, which are ringed by deep circles. He yanks down the covers and lifts my hospital gown. I’m naked from the waist down, but no one notices these things here. He puts his hands on my belly, which is swollen and hard. His eyes widen and then narrow into slits. “Abdomen’s rigid,” he says angrily. “We need to do an ultrasound.”

Nurse Ramirez runs to a back room and then wheels out what looks like a portable laptop with a long white attachment. She squirts some jelly on my stomach, and the doctor runs the attachment over my stomach.

“Damn. Full of fluid,” he says. “Patient had surgery this afternoon?”

“A splenectomy,” Nurse Ramirez replies.

“Could be a missed blood vessel that wasn’t cauterized,” the doctor says. “Or a slow leak from a perforated bowel. Car accident, right?”

“Yes. Patient was medevaced in this morning.”

The doctor flips through my chart. “Doctor Sorensen was her surgeon. He’s still on call. Page him, get her to the OR. We need to get inside and find out what’s leaking, and why, before she drops any further. Jesus, brain contusions, collapsed lung. This kid’s a train wreck.”

Nurse Ramirez shoots the doctor a dirty look, as if he had just insulted me.

“Miss Ramirez,” the grumpy nurse at the desk scolds. “You have patients of your own to deal with. Let’s get this young woman intubated and transferred to the OR. That will do her more good than all this dillydallying around!”

The nurses work rapidly to detach the monitors and catheters and run another tube down my throat. A pair of orderlies rush in with a gurney and heave me onto it. I’m still naked from the waist down as they hustle me out, but right before I reach the back door, Nurse Ramirez calls, “Wait!” and then gently closes the hospital gown around my legs. She taps me three times on the forehead with her fingers, like it’s some kind of Morse code message. And then I’m gone into the maze of hallways leading toward the OR for another round of cutting, but this time I don’t follow myself. This time I stay behind in the ICU.

I am starting to get it now. I mean, I don’t totally fully understand. It’s not like I somehow commanded a blood vessel to pop open and start leaking into my stomach. It’s not like I wished for another surgery. But Teddy is gone. Mom and Dad are gone. This morning I went for a drive with my family. And now I am here, as alone as I’ve ever been. I am seventeen years old. This is not how it’s supposed to be. This is not how my life is supposed to turn out.

In the quiet corner of the ICU I start to really think about the bitter things I’ve managed to ignore so far today. What would it be like if I stay? What would it feel like to wake up an orphan? To never smell Dad smoke a pipe? To never stand next to Mom quietly talking as we do the dishes? To never read Teddy another chapter of Harry Potter? To stay without them?

I’m not sure this is a world I belong in anymore. I’m not sure that I want to wake up.

I’ve only ever been to one funeral in my life and it was for someone I hardly knew.

I might have gone to Great-Aunt Glo’s funeral after she died of acute pancreatitis. Except her will was very specific about her final wishes. No traditional service, no burial in the family plot. Instead, she wanted to be cremated and have her ashes scattered in a sacred Native American ceremony somewhere in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Gran was pretty annoyed by that, by Aunt Glo in general, who Gran said was always trying to call attention to how different she was, even after she was dead. Gran ended up boycotting the ash scattering, and if she wasn’t going, there was no reason for the rest of us to.

Peter Hellman, my trombonist friend from conservatory camp, he died two years ago, but I didn’t find out until I returned to camp and he wasn’t there. Few of us had known that he’d had lymphoma. That was the funny thing about conservatory camp; you got so close with the people over the summer, but it was some unwritten rule that you didn’t keep in touch during the rest of the year. We were summer friends. Anyhow, we had a memorial concert at camp in Peter’s honor, but it wasn’t really a funeral.

Kerry Gifford was a musician in town, one of Mom and Dad’s people. Unlike Dad and Henry, who as they got older and had families became less music performers than music connoisseurs, Kerry stayed single and stayed faithful to his first love: playing music. He was in three bands and he earned his living doing the sound at a local club, an ideal setup because at least one of his bands seemed to play there every week, so he just had to hop up on the stage and let someone take the controls for his set, though sometimes you’d see him jumping down in the middle of a set to adjust the monitors himself. I had known Kerry when I was little and would go to shows with Mom and Dad and then I sort of remet him when Adam and I got together and I started going to shows again.

He was at work one night, doing the sound for a Portland band called Clod, when he just keeled over on the soundboard. He was dead by the time the ambulance got there. A freak brain aneurysm.

Kerry’s death caused an uproar in our town. He was kind of fixture around here, an outspoken guy with a big personality and this mass of wild white-boy dreadlocks. And he was young, only thirty-two. Everyone we knew was planning on going to his funeral, which was being held in the town where he grew up, in the mountains a couple of hours’ drive away. Mom and Dad were going, of course, and so was Adam. So even though I felt a little bit like an impostor crashing someone’s death day, I decided to go along. Teddy stayed with Gran and Gramps.

We caravanned to Kerry’s hometown with a bunch of people, squeezing into a car with Henry and Willow, who was so pregnant the seat belt wouldn’t fit over her bump. Everyone took turns telling funny stories about Kerry. Kerry the avowed left-winger who decided to protest the Iraq war by getting a bunch of guys to dress up in drag and go down to the local army recruiting office to enlist. Kerry the atheist curmudgeon, who hated how commercialized Christmas had become and so threw an annual Merry Anti-Christmas Celebration at the club, where he held a contest for which band could play the most distorted versions of Christmas carols. Then he invited everyone to throw all their crappy presents into a big pile in the middle of the club. And contrary to local lore, Kerry did not burn the stuff in a bonfire; Dad told me that he donated it to St. Vincent de Paul.

As everyone talked about Kerry, the mood in the car was fizzy and fun, like we were going to the circus, not a funeral. But it seemed right, it seemed true to Kerry, who was always overflowing with frenetic energy.

The funeral, though, was the opposite. It was horribly depressing—and not just because it was for someone who’d died tragically young and for no particular reason aside from some bad arterial luck. It was held in a huge church, which seemed strange considering Kerry was an outspoken atheist, but that part I could understand. I mean where else do you have a funeral? The problem was the service itself. It was obvious that the pastor had never even met Kerry because when he talked about him, it was generic, about what a kind heart Kerry had and how even though it was sad that he was gone, he was getting his “heavenly reward.”

And instead of having eulogies from his bandmates or the people in town who he’d spent the last fifteen years with, some uncle from Boise got up and talked about teaching Kerry how to ride a bike when he was six, like learning to ride a bike was the defining moment in Kerry’s life. He concluded by reassuring us that Kerry was walking with Jesus now. I could see my mom getting red when he said that, and I started to get a little worried that she might say something. We went to church sometimes, so it’s not like Mom had anything against religion, but Kerry totally did and Mom was ferociously protective of the people she loved, so much that she took insults upon them personally. Her friends sometimes called her Mama Bear for this reason. Steam was practically blowing out of Mom’s ears by the time the service ended with a rousing rendition of Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

“It’s a good thing Kerry’s dead, because that funeral would’ve sent him over the edge,” Henry said. After the church service, we’d decided to skip the formal luncheon and had gone to a diner.

“‘Wind Beneath My Wings’?” Adam asked, absentmindedly taking my hand into his and blowing on it, which is what he did to warm my perpetually cold fingers. “What’s wrong with ‘Amazing Grace’? It’s still traditional—”

“But doesn’t make you want to puke,” Henry interjected. “Or better yet, ‘Three Little Birds’ by Bob Marley. That would have been a more Kerry-worthy song. Something to toast the guy he was.”

“That funeral wasn’t about celebrating Kerry’s life,” Mom growled, yanking at her scarf. “It was about repudiating it. It was like they killed him all over again.”

Dad put a calming hand over Mom’s clenched fist. “Now come on. It was just a song.”

“It wasn’t just a song,” Mom said, snatching her hand away. “It was what it represented. That whole charade back there. You of all people should understand.”

Dad shrugged and smiled sadly. “Maybe I should. But I can’t be angry with his family. I imagine this funeral was their way of reclaiming their son.”

“Please,” Mom said, shaking her head. “If they wanted to claim their son, why didn’t they respect the life he chose to live? How come they never came to visit? Or supported his music?”

“We don’t know what they thought about all that,” Dad replied. “Let’s not judge too harshly. It has to be heart-breaking to bury your child.”