If I Stay (If I Stay #1)(17)


by Gayle Forman

“I can’t believe you’re making excuses for them,” Mom exclaimed.

“I’m not. I just think you might be reading too much into a musical selection.”

“And I think you’re confusing being empathetic with being a pushover!”

Dad’s wince was barely visible, but it was enough to make Adam squeeze my hand and Henry and Willow exchange a look. Henry jumped in, to Dad’s rescue, I think. “It’s different for you, with your parents,” he told Dad. “I mean they’re old-fashioned but they always were into what you did, and even in your wildest days, you were always a good son, a good father. Always home for Sunday dinner.”

Mom guffawed, as if Henry’s statement had proven her point. We all turned to her, and our shocked expressions seemed to snap her out of her rant. “Clearly I’m just emotional right now,” she said. Dad seemed to understand that was as much an apology as he was going to get right now. He covered her hand with his and this time she didn’t snatch it away.

Dad paused, hesitating before speaking. “I just think that funerals are a lot like death itself. You can have your wishes, your plans, but at the end of the day, it’s out of your control.”

“No way,” Henry said. “Not if you make your wishes known to the right people.” He turned to Willow and spoke to the bump in her belly. “So listen up, family. At my funeral no one is allowed to wear black. And for music, I want something poppy and old-school, like Mr. T Experience.” He looked up at Willow. “Got that?”

“Mr. T Experience. I’ll make sure of it.”

“Thanks, and what about you, honey?” he asked her.

Without missing a beat, Willow said: “Play ‘P.S. You Rock My World’ by the Eels. And I want one of those green funerals where they bury you in the ground under a tree. So the funeral itself would be in nature. And no flowers. I mean, give me all the peonies you want when I’m alive, but once I’m dead, better to give donations on my behalf to a good charity like Doctors Without Borders.”

“You’ve got all the details figured out,” Adam said. “Is that a nurse thing?”

Willow shrugged.

“According to Kim, that means you’re deep,” I said. “She says that the world is divided into the people who imagine their own funerals and the people who don’t, and that smart and artistic people naturally fall into the former category.”

“So which are you?” Adam asked me.

“I’d want Mozart’s Requiem,” I said. I turned to Mom and Dad. “Don’t worry, I’m not suicidal or anything.”

“Please,” Mom said, her mood lightening as she stirred her coffee. “When I was growing up I’d have elaborate fantasies about my funeral. My deadbeat father and all the friends who’d wronged me would weep over my casket, which would be red, naturally, and they’d play James Taylor.”

“Let me guess,” Willow said. “‘Fire and Rain’?”

Mom nodded and she and Willow started laughing and soon everyone at the table was cracking up so hard that tears ran down our faces. And then we were crying, even me, who didn’t know Kerry all that well. Crying and laughing, laughing and crying.

“So what now?” Adam asked Mom when we’d calmed down. “Still harbor a soft spot for Mr. Taylor?”

Mom stopped and blinked hard, which is what she does when she’s thinking about something. Then she reached over to stroke Dad’s cheek, a rare demonstration of PDA. “In my ideal scenario, my bighearted pushover husband and I die quickly and simultaneously when we’re ninety-two years old. I’m not sure how. Maybe we’re on a safari in Africa—’cause in the future, we’re rich; hey, it’s my fantasy—and we come down with some exotic sickness and go to sleep one night feeling fine and then never wake up. And no James Taylor. Mia plays at our funeral. If, that is, we can tear her away from the New York Philharmonic.”

Dad was wrong. It’s true you might not get to control your funeral, but sometimes you do get to choose your death. And I can’t help thinking that part of Mom’s wish did come true. She went with Dad. But I won’t be playing at her funeral. It’s possible that her funeral will also be mine. There’s something comforting in that. To go down as a family. No one left behind. That said, I can’t help thinking Mom would not be happy about this. In fact, Mama Bear would be absolutely furious with the way events are unfolding today.

2:48 A.M.

I’m back where I started. Back in the ICU. My body, that is. I’ve been sitting here all along, too tired to move. I wish I could go to sleep. I wish there was some kind of anesthesia for me, or at least something to make the world shut up. I want to be like my body, quiet and lifeless, putty in someone else’s hands. I don’t have the energy for this decision. I don’t want this anymore. I say it out loud. I don’t want this. I look around the ICU, feeling kind of ridiculous. I doubt all the other messed-up people in the ward are exactly thrilled to be here, either.

My body wasn’t gone from the ICU for too long. A few hours for surgery. Some time in the recovery room. I don’t know exactly what’s happened to me, and for the first time today, I don’t really care. I shouldn’t have to care. I shouldn’t have to work this hard. I realize now that dying is easy. Living is hard.

I’m back on the ventilator, and once again there’s tape over my eyes. I still don’t understand the tape. Are the doctors afraid that I’ll wake up mid-surgery and be horrified by the scalpels or blood? As if those things could faze me now. Two nurses, the one assigned to me and Nurse Ramirez, come over to my bed and check all my monitors. They call out a chorus of numbers that are as familiar to me now as my own name: BP, pulse ox, respiratory rate. Nurse Ramirez looks like an entirely different person from the one who arrived here yesterday afternoon. The makeup has all rubbed off and her hair is flat. She looks like she could sleep standing up. Her shift must be over soon. I’ll miss her but I’m glad she’ll be able to get away from me, from this place. I’d like to get away, too. I think I will. I think it’s just a matter of time—of figuring out how to let go.

I haven’t been back in my bed fifteen minutes when Willow shows up. She marches through the double doors and goes to speak to the one nurse behind the desk. I don’t hear what she says, but I hear her tone: it’s polite, soft-spoken, but leaving no room for questions. When she leaves the room a few minutes later, there’s a change in the air. Willow’s in charge now. The grumpy nurse at first looks pissed off, like Who is this woman to tell me what to do? But then she seems to resign, to throw her hands up in surrender. It’s been a crazy night. The shift is almost over. Why bother? Soon, me and all of my noisy, pushy visitors will be somebody else’s problem.

Five minutes later, Willow is back, bringing Gran and Gramps with her. Willow has worked all day and now she is here all night. I know she doesn’t get enough sleep on a good day. I used to hear Mom give her tips for getting the baby to sleep through the night.

I’m not sure who looks worse, me or Gramps. His cheeks are sallow, his skin looks gray and papery, and his eyes are bloodshot. Gran, on the other hand, looks just like Gran. No sign of wear and tear on her. It’s like exhaustion wouldn’t dare mess with her. She bustles right over to my bed.

“You’ve sure got us on a roller-coaster ride today,” Gran says lightly. “Your mom always said she couldn’t believe what an easy girl you were and I remember telling her, ‘Just wait until she hits puberty.’ But you proved me wrong. Even then you were such a breeze. Never gave us any trouble. Never the kind of girl to make my heart race in fear. You made up for a lifetime of that today.”

“Now, now,” Gramps says, putting a hand on her shoulder.

“Oh, I’m only kidding. Mia would appreciate it. She’s got a sense of humor, no matter how serious she sometimes seems. A wicked sense of humor, this one.”

Gran pulls the chair up next to my bed and starts combing through my hair with her fingers. Someone has rinsed it out, so, while it’s not exactly clean, it’s not caked with blood, either. Gran starts untangling my bangs, which are about chin length. I’m forever cutting bangs, then growing them. It’s about as radical a makeover as I can give myself. She works her way down, pulling the hair out from under the pillow so it streams down my chest, hiding some of the lines and tubes connected to me. “There, much better,” she says. “You know, I went outside for a walk today and you’ll never guess what I saw. A crossbill. In Portland in February. Now, that’s unusual. I think it’s Glo. She always had a soft spot for you. Said you reminded her of your father, and she adored him. When he cut his first crazy Mohawk hairdo, she practically threw him a party. She loved that he was rebellious, so different. Little did she know your father couldn’t stand her. She came to visit us once when your dad was around five or six, and she had this ratty mink coat with her. This was before she got all into the animal rights and crystals and the like. The coat smelled terrible, like mothballs, like the old linens we kept in a trunk in the attic, and your father took to calling her ‘Auntie Trunk Smell.’ She never knew that. But she loved that he’d rebelled against us, or so she thought, and she thought it was something that you rebelled all over again by becoming a classical musician. Though much as I tried to tell her that it wasn’t the way it was, she didn’t care. She had her own ideas about things; I suppose we all do.”

Gran twitters on for another five minutes, filling me in on mundane news: Heather has decided she wants to become a librarian. My cousin Matthew bought a motorcycle and my aunt Patricia is not pleased about that. I’ve heard her keep up a running stream of commentary like this for hours while she’s cooking dinner or potting orchids. And listening to her now, I can almost picture us in her greenhouse, where even in winter, the air is always warm and humid and smells musty and earthy like soil with the slightest tinge of manure. Gran hand-collects cowshit, “cow patties,” she calls them, and mixes them in with mulch to make her own fertilizer. Gramps thinks she should patent the recipe and sell it because she uses it on her orchids, which are always winning awards.

I try to meditate on the sound of Gran’s voice, to be carried away by her happy babble. Sometimes I can almost fall asleep while sitting on the bar stool at her kitchen counter and listening to her, and I wonder if I could do that here today. Sleep would be so welcome. A warm blanket of black to erase everything else. Sleep without dreams. I’ve heard people talk about the sleep of the dead. Is that what death would feel like? The nicest, warmest, heaviest never-ending nap? If that’s what it’s like, I wouldn’t mind. If that’s what dying is like, I wouldn’t mind that at all.

I jerk myself up, a panic destroying whatever calm listening to Gran had offered. I am still not entirely clear on the particulars here, but I do know that once I fully commit to going, I’ll go. But I’m not ready. Not yet. I don’t know why, but I’m not. And I’m a little scared that if I accidentally think, I wouldn’t mind an endless nap, it will happen and be irreversible, like the way my grandparents used to warn me that if I made a funny face as the clock struck noon, it would remain like that forever.

I wonder if every dying person gets to decide whether they stay or go. It seems unlikely. After all, this hospital is full of people having poisonous chemicals pumped into their veins or submitting to horrible operations all so they can stay, but some of them will die anyway.

Did Mom and Dad decide? It hardly seems like there would have been time for them to make such a momentous decision, and I can’t imagine them choosing to leave me behind. And what about Teddy? Did he want to go with Mom and Dad? Did he know that I was still here? Even if he did, I wouldn’t blame him for choosing to go without me. He’s little. He was probably scared. I suddenly picture him alone and frightened, and for the first time in my life, I hope that Gran is right about the angels. I pray they were all too busy comforting Teddy to worry about me.