On Photosynthesis

Mr. Smith’s seventh grade biology classroom was pregnant with the smell of rats, snakes, and fish, but surely the worst odor emanated from the dozens of adolescents in plastic, multicolor chairs. The floor was institutional grey tile, and the pale green walls did little to jazz up the look or add pizzazz to Mr. Smith’s lectures. Still, I remember finding the salamanders enchanting and the thrilling prickliness of the tarantula’s legs as it would slowly walk up and over your nervous hands.

As a school building of some age, my junior high enjoyed old, plate glass windows, and, while Mr. Smith droned on about the beauty of photosynthesis, I often found myself gazing out the window to the local cemetery that abutted the school’s property. In almost every way, the cemetery was unremarkable: a tidy small town cemetery with gently rolling hills, grey headstones for Smith, Thomas, and Johnson, and a smattering of flowers and other tokens of affection. As a 13 year old, I didn’t understand death or really have any conception of it, but, in hindsight, I enjoy the irony that my distraction from learning about life in biology class was to tombstone watch the local graveyard.

A little more than a quarter century later, I found myself in that graveyard, looking up at my seventh grade biology classroom window, listening to a minister drone on about life and death and God and other bromides that were reaching me with the impact of Mr. Smith’s photosynthesis lectures. Now, the prickly tarantula’s legs were replaced with the softly stinging realization that I was studying death. And it wasn’t a gaggle of pimply teens staring at a spotted salamander in a stinky aquarium, but a gathering of friends and family around my grandmother’s casket.

I’d like to imagine that the 13-year-old me could look out that classroom window and see the 40-year-old me, in some weird and wonderful disturbance in the fabric of space and time. If I could see him, and if I could talk to him, I’d tell him that Mr. Smith has more to offer than he realizes, but, every time he says the word “sun,” replace it with the word “love.” And, when my 13-year-old self laughed or made a sarcastic remark, I would tell him that, one day, as you stand in the back of the funeral home and see friends and family and strangers and neighbors from thirty years ago walk in, you will understand that love is the light that makes everything grow.

On a Kick to the Confidence

At six years old, I wasn’t fascinated with Little League, and I wiled away the hours during soccers games, stuck in the goal as the goalie. I like to think it was because I was tall with a decent wingspan for a kindergartner, but I probably wasn’t athletic enough at that point to hold my own in the scrum at midfield.

When I wasn’t playing half-heartedly on the soccer team, my childhood years were largely spent trying to find time to hang out with my uncle. At only thirteen years older than me, he wasn’t quite the adult Mom and Dad were. He could drive, enjoyed eating pizza, and played boardgames; he was the complete package in my book. Hence my proclamation that, like him, I would one day become a bagger at a grocery store. Given that level of idolization, it’s no surprise that I followed him into martial arts.

My Tae-Kwon-Do classes were held in a cinderblock building where big mice/small rats ran across the ducts in the ceiling. After my first class, I smarted off to the instructor, and he made me drop and give him ten push-ups right then and there. He was, obviously, not familiar with my very sarcastic whit, but the discipline and respect were probably just what I needed. I’m sure I started the classes to be just like my uncle; I stuck around because I enjoyed it. In three short years, I was a nine-year-old black belt.

Throughout elementary and middle school, I attended practice regularly, and, by the time I was in high school and college, I was attending when I could, relishing the sparring (fighting) aspects of the sport. I was big, strong, and not afraid to take a punch or kick. What I lacked in technical skill (or grace) I made up for in brute strength and determination. At my dojo, I fought anyone and everyone, confident I could hold my own, even against my long-time instructor. The fighting, even within the rules and discipline of the sport, reaches something primal, and I wasn’t the first to love that feeling. I won’t be the last. The sport had given me discipline that touched all aspects of my life, enhanced my athleticism to something only slightly below average, and built in me a confidence that served me well. Almost always.

My high school and college days took me away from the dojo for long stretches, but my old instructor was always indulgent of my random, occasional drop-ins to work out and spar. After my sophomore year in college, I heard of a kickboxing tournament in southern Indiana that summer. I entered on a lark with no preparation but a head full of confidence. I loved sparring, was in decent shape, and was as strong as I ever had been. What could possibly go wrong?

I entered the ring to blaring music as about a thousand spectators cheered me on. My opponent bounced in the opposite corner. A 6’5″ Indiana state trooper. A little taller than me, but I wasn’t intimidated. I had in my corner my uncle and my old instructor. The bell rung, and the rest is a little hazy. I’d like to describe the fight as the duel of two kick boxers at the pinnacle of their powers. In reality, we were two lugs whaling away at each other with little poetry or even science in our attacks. As the bell signaled the end of the first round, I shuffled back to my corner. My instructor gave me some advice, my uncle gave me some encouragement, and I kept wanting more oxygen to come into my lungs.

The second round is even more of a blur. Kicks landed, punches careened, people yelled, and I did what I had to do to survive. After the bell to end the second round, I returned to my corner gasping for air. For all the confidence I had gained fighting in the controlled environment of the dojo, I had not gained the experience of taking blow after blow from a bigger opponent wearing weighted gloves. I had not gained the experience of giving maximum effort. I had not, truly, kick boxed. I had done something very close, but not quite the same. Just like the end of my first ever martial arts class, someone needed to tell me to drop and give them ten push-ups when I arrogantly decided to enter a kickboxing tournament without ever, you know, kickboxing.

I leaned against the ropes gasping for air, listened to my instructor give me tips for the next round, and then proclaimed, “Darryl, I’m done.” It was the first and only time in 15 years I had ever called him by his first name. That and surely the look of exhaustion in my face conveyed the message. He said no more and informed the referee I was retiring. I wasn’t embarrassed or ashamed, I was too exhausted to process those feelings. I shook my opponents hand and limped to the locker room. The spry young thing that had entered the ring to rock music and the shouts of a thousand just minutes earlier was a distant memory.

Thirty minutes later, I sprawled along the locker room floor, dizzy with what was probably a concussion. I had only the energy to make my way to the toilet to throw up. My uncle, ever the wonderful uncle, was there with me. Admittedly, I felt better when he told me that he was sure I was winning on points after two rounds and could’ve won if I had held on. Whether it was his positivity or my vomit, or a combination of the two, I held my head a little higher and managed to change and leave under my own power. The Booneville Bash was my first and last kickboxing match. Five years later, when I shattered my knee training in a dojo in Jacksonville, Florida, my martial arts career came to an ignominious end.

Nearly 20 years after that kickboxing tournament, I still have the medal I “won” for participating in the tournament. The ribbon is stained with blood, and, for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you what part of me was bleeding. What I lost in blood was surely only exceeded by what I lost in confidence. Or cockiness. Or arrogance. And gained in wisdom and humility and appreciation for non-contact sports.

On Counting Time

The Christmas tower of candies, pretzels, and chocolates I ordered arrived at my grandmother’s house today. Nestled at the end of Arlington Drive, she lived in the house for over fifty years, with very few nights not spent in her bedroom at the end of the hall. But, yesterday, the day before my Christmas gift arrived, she moved to a nursing home to receive the level of care she now needs. Pick any one of the last 18,000+ days, and she would have been there to receive the gift. You almost have to try to have timing that terrible!

This time of year, timing is a big thing. Kids are counting down the days to Santa’s arrival. It’s an agonizing count. I can still recall feigning illness one Christmas Eve as a child, hoping, somehow, that it would make the day go faster. I’m sure I learned that, whether you’re participating or not, time does not sympathize.

It’s not just kids counting days or this time of year, though. Adulthood is all about counting the days. Hubby and I watch the calendar as we prepare to move and wonder how many days until our adoption finally materializes. My sister wakes each day, closer to ending the chapter of her marriage and striking out, single, soon. Mom tarries over her mother and an impending goodbye, while Dad acclimates to his new cashier job at the local retail store during the holiday rush. My brother- and sister-in-law count the days to their baby’s first birthday, as well as the days to their next baby’s birth, while my mother-in-law juggles an impressive social calendar with the responsibilities of a family matriarch. My best friend frets his next court date with the ol’ ex-, while my aunt spends her time in Escher-like administrative litigation.  Coming full circle, my older nephews plead with me for hints about their Christmas gifts, unable to bear the nearly infinite amount of time before they can open them.

We’re all a day or two away from the next big thing, biding our time until we can cross it off the list. It may be wonderful, it may be awful, but, regardless, it’s the rhythm and order of our lives. It’s the foreseeable and unforeseeable sequence of future events that give such meaning to our current selves. And it’s such a cliche to ruminate about “living in the moment,” especially when so many of our moments find our minds trying to make sense of the past or to give order and meaning to the future.

The cookie company e-mailed me to say that my grandmother’s gift had been delivered “on schedule,” but I knew it was one day late. Most definitely, one day late.

 

On Prayers Over Pastrami

My neighborhood sandwich shop is a great place to people watch. On any given day, you can witness hungover college students gulping down giant sandwiches, priests and nuns passionately debating the latest Catholic news, neighborhood kids ordering milkshakes they can barely carry, beggars shuffling through the store asking for money, pamphleteers taking a break from changing the world one leaflet at a time to chug a soda, and local beauty school attendees nervously studying up on the latest hair-dos (and hair-dont’s, for that matter). I never know what I’ll encounter, and I guess that’s half the fun of walking down a few blocks for my usual ham sandwich and chips.

Yesterday, as I waited patiently in an unusually short lunch line, an older woman pushing a wheelchair caught my eye as she approached a monk quietly enjoying his lunch in a sunny part of the shop. I could not hear what was said, but the body language, the eyes, the mouthed words indicated to me that these two people did not know each other. I wondered, with at most half-interest, if she was asking for directions, or inquiring as to his funny-looking robe. Then, among the crying baby, the teenage girls on their cell phones, and the panicked clerk floundering behind the counter to make change, my world slowed down as I watched the lady reach out to hold the monk’s hand and bow her head as he said a prayer.

It’s not unusual to see someone pray in public. Although I will always maintain that Jesus does not want any soul to invoke his name over a plate of McNuggets, I grew up seeing families bow their heads before a meal, teammates take a knee after a hard-fought game, and students gather around flag poles to join hands in prayer. Despite being a faithful churchgoer all throughout my childhood and youth, these displays always seemed a little showy to me, almost profane to make something so personal so public. As I got older, grew into myself, and abandoned the orthodoxy if not the lessons of the church, the call to prayer, faint as it had ever been, left permanently. Over time, I viewed these public prayers with bemusement and perhaps a little self-satisfied indignation.

The woman holding the monk’s hand in the sandwich shop was different, though. She wasn’t putting on a show, waiting to be seen, or going through the motions. I don’t know what compelled her to approach the monk. She was pushing a wheelchair carrying a man I presume was her husband. Maybe she was praying for a miracle that he would walk again. Maybe she was simply tired. Maybe anything. Who knows?  It doesn’t really matter, and it’s none of my business. The sincerity of her approach, the respect she held for the monk was evident, though. That level of faith and belief is simply inaccessible to me.

I don’t know why people pray or believe in God or attend church. As someone rejected by the larger institutional church, it’s all a little hocus-pocus to me. Perhaps a sincere hocus-pocus, but a hocus-pocus nonetheless. Magical spell or no, the lady in the sandwich shop was a believer, and her humble exchange with the monk transcended the precision of science and rejected my smug certainty. I doubt I’ll ever approach a stranger in public for a prayer, but I will admit to a little jealousy, for I find something beautiful about this woman’s world. A world where, among sandwiches and soda pop, strangers can transcend the known world, invoke all-knowing and all-loving power, and comfort each other with their faith. True or not, in its sincerest form, it has a poetry. Even over pastrami.

On Weightless Things

In eleven days, we will welcome the end of a presidential political campaign that, regardless of the outcome, will leave our national psyche bruised and battered. The rhetoric has been occasionally tawdry, frequently nonsensical, and almost universally devoid of substance. The idea of a vigorous contest of ideas seems as far away as it ever has been in American political history, replaced instead with a funhouse mirror distorting any semblance of maturity, seriousness, or sophistication. It’s downright depressing.

As beleaguered as I feel after unsuccessfully avoiding most of the news coverage for the past year, I have enough spirit left to make the obvious point that beyond the brutish nastiness of the campaign has been the jaw-dropping realization that one of the political candidates is fundamentally unfit for not just the highest office in the land but perhaps any office, anywhere, anytime. The childish, moronic, boorish behavior is so prevalent that a single example would do a grave injustice to this candidate’s near savant-like capacity to offend, to distract, and to pulverize any pervading sense of national decency. To entertain a notion of equivalency of the candidates is to render one’s self untethered to reality. To endorse this candidate is not to express a coherent political opinion, or to make a statement against the other party or candidate, but, rather, it is a wholesale abdication of the responsibility every citizen should feel. It is an investment in nihilism.

Flexing moral outrage (dare I say moral superiority) can feel good, but the day after the election will be no party. We will wake up to the politics of division. We will wake up to a country seemingly unmoored to common ground. And we will wake up to the dawning reality that the previous 12 months have revealed more than the triumph of scorched earth politics. Rather, we have witnessed a perhaps unparalleled expression from millions of American citizens that they feel so abused by an indifferent political class, so marginalized by a changing economy, and so broken by the combined might of poverty, lack of education, and drug abuse, among others, that the empty promises of a demagogue speak to them on a profound level, despite such promises being obviously contrary to fundamental American values, the very values in which they drape themselves.

The candidate is not the problem, and the election won’t provide the solution. Our national political paralysis comes at the hands of snotty children the size and shape of adults, free to pillage national character while representing districts where diverse electorates that would hold some semblance of balance and moderation have been conveniently gerrymandered out of existence. Our collection of adult children, nary a statesman to be seen, largely answer to plutocrats and pollsters, and, while self-preservation has been at the top of a politician’s priorities since the beginning of time, the national interest seems to have completely fallen off the list. At least it seems that way.

It would be a somewhat comforting thought to take solace in our national inertness if we could explain the stalemate as the byproduct of a healthy equipoise, a reflection of well-balanced forces rightly aligned to best serve a polity ready to take great steps, even leaps, in the areas of economics, eduction, the arts, science, and on and on. While strides are certainly being made, it doesn’t feel like we’re fighting because it’s so good. Instead, it feels like we’re fighting and falling behind in many important areas. Again, at least it feels that way.

It’s not all doom and gloom. I’m not moving to Rwanda anytime soon.  But to say we deserve better is an understatement. Our political dialogue should be sharp and it should be passionate, for it is important. When our political life leaves behind spirited debate and transforms into a vulgar carnival that misleads the masses and distorts American values to the point of unrecognizability, however, we find ourselves much less than we can be. Less than we should be.

The lack of substance of this campaign and the lack of heft in our current political life has one redeeming quality: like all weightless things, it is swept aside relatively easily. Perhaps that unifying event or force, that thing that reasserts our common American purpose, is right around the corner. Of course, the problem with things easily swept aside is you’re never guaranteed it will be replaced by something better.

On Acting Like a Kid

“Am I too old to be doing this?” entered my mind several times that night, but I didn’t betray my self-consciousness to my husband, as we criss-crossed across Disneyland, bouncing with childish delight from candy station to candy station, filling our bags with candy and our hearts with joy. We weren’t costumed, but at Disneyland’s Halloween party that didn’t matter. And it didn’t matter that we’re in our early 40s and weren’t accompanying a child. That night, it was okay to laugh, to let go of the boring minutia of our very adult lives, and to just act like a kid.

We had flown to San Diego on an ambitiously scheduled vacation that included visiting family, celebrating my brother-in-law’s birthday, soaking up time with our 10-month-old nephew, spending two days at Disneyland, and making a personal appearance at the California-based adoption agency handling our adoption journey. It took grown-up planning, grown-up money, and grown-up know-how, but, as I flew back to my life in Washington, D.C., squished into my airplane row with my husband and mother-in-law, I was surprised to find myself pondering how much acting like a kid had been a part of my vacation.

We arrived in San Diego to find our infant nephew as cute, precocious, and beguiling as we left him six months earlier, if not more so. Everyone thinks their family’s baby is the sweetest, cutest, most precious thing on the planet, and I feel sorry for those folks, as clearly our family enjoys the best little baby in the world. Just like last visit, I feared at times that my husband would not let anyone else handle our nephew, magnetically drawn to hugging, cradling, and playfully jostling baby Bryce as he is.

It’s fun to watch normally straight-laced family members melt to puddles of yammering and blabber when faced with the pile of cuteness that is an infant. You see sides of loved ones you never knew existed, peeks behind our adult selves that we flash to all the world, at work, at home, online. If only for just a moment, the trivial seriousness of life is left behind as we revel in those bits of pure connection without pretense or duplicitousness.  I had arrived at my baby nephew’s home on the heels of two months of intense work and, unfortunately, a tad under the weather. But none of that mattered as I watched my husband smile and laugh and practically beam as he held our nephew. Just as wonderfully, launching my nephew into the air, carrying him around the room, and blabbering on like a 10-month-old myself was a fantastic antidote to all of the “important” work I had been undertaking.

A few days later, I found myself at Disneyland, trick-or-treat bag in hand, snaking around in candy lines behind 8-year-olds dressed as Pixar’s greatest hits, and, yet again, I was acting like a kid. Hoping for my favorite candy — Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups — to fall into my bag. Proclaiming “trick-or-treat” with gusto. And running onto rides such as It’s a Small World, Thunder Mountain, and Peter Pan — the ultimate boy who refuses to grow up. Among the doubts of age-appropriateness were other thoughts: isn’t this fun? shouldn’t I feel this way more often? why is this place so darn magical?

The next day, I arrived with very sore (but happy) feet at the adoption agency. The walls were covered with pictures of babies and toddlers and children wearing smiles with various number of teeth, as proud parents held them or stood in the background. The best pictures, though,were those of parents in the mix with their kids, be it blowing bubbles, hula hooping, or wearing funny hats. In other words, acting like a kid. We met with the lead attorney and several of the social workers, and our discussion proceeded to be very adult with talk of adoption trends, rules, and practices. All very necessary, all very warm. But none of it as sweet or meaningful as the thoughts of blanket forts, cartoons, or special stuffed animals. Is it a cliche, romanticized version of childhood and parenthood, for that matter? Of course. But, then again, adults think about things like that.

It’s not profound or novel to suggest that we could all stand to be less serious, more goofy, more playful. And right-thinking folks always do well to recognize there is a time and place for everything. But it’s certainly interesting to ponder how most of us spend our lives being a kid or trying to act like a kid via our children or grandchildren. Could it be the universe’s way of reminding us that the meaning of life isn’t so serious or complicated? That, perhaps, the answer is right before our eyes…spraying a water gun, hosting a tea party on plastic cups, or snuggling up for a nap with a favored blanket? A serious adult might write a blog post on that subject. Someone acting like a kid would probably just go color in their favorite coloring book.

On our final full day of vacation, as we drove back to San Diego to rejoin our family, my husband asked, “At what point do you think we will be too old to trick-or-treat at Disneyland?” I smiled and confidently proclaimed, “We’re a long way from there.”

I hope I’m right.

On Choices: Part 5 (A Sci-Fi Short)

The steel door to Dr. Timothy Hobson’s office was heavy enough to allow Mark Stanton to recognize the effort it took for him to open it, to begin this appointment long in the making and long in the dreading. It was fitting the doctor’s office was far removed from the light, airy feel of the hospital’s remodeled wing and impressive atrium. Buried deep in the hospital’s bowels, Mark Stanton could suffer in peace or in isolation, depending on how you looked at it.

“Good morning, Mr. Stanton.”

“Good morning, doctor.”

“Please, have a seat.”

Dr. Hobson’s office was right out of central casting:  anatomical drawings of every part of the human body, shelves burdened with oversized books, piles of paper adding a veneer of organization to chaos, and framed degrees just far enough out of sight to underscore their irrelevance in the moment. As the doctor shuffled files and folders, Mark Stanton noticed the pictures of the doctor’s family on the rear credenza. The smiling wife, the two kids, the dog, the posed perfection.

Mark guessed the doctor’s children were around the same age as his daughters, and he was caught off guard by the disquiet roiling inside him as he watched the doctor fuss about his desk. The total lack of awareness, the entitlement Dr. Hobson enjoyed with his perfect wife, perfect children, cut right through him. The doctor, twenty years his senior, enjoyed every perk of life Mark did, and then some. And, now, the rest of his life and what was left of the perks, lay in his hands.

“Here they are, I apologize,” Dr. Hobson plead.

Mark Stanton simply stared at the doctor.

“Mr. Stanton, thank you for meeting with me today. As you know, two months ago, your wife Katy suffered a traumatic brain injury. Her car crash caused what we call a diffuse axonal injury. When she first arrived at the hospital, we could not detect this type of injury because it does not show up on a CT scan. This is a microscopic injury, affecting the nerve cells in the brain, and it is the most common form of injury in high-velocity traumas like the one your wife suffered. This is the reason she has been unconscious for the last two months.”

Mark Stanton simply nodded.

*****

“Mark…”

“Hey babe, what’s up?”

“Sorry, hey, I just dropped Beth and Sarah off at….Hey, watch it asshole!”

“What?”

“Some jerk almost ran me off the road. Anyway, ummm, it’s been a morning.”

“Are you okay? You crying?”

“I’m just, I’m just having a morning. Sarah got into all the donuts. Mark, there was powdered sugar everywhere. She looked like a ghost with pig tails.”

“You should have snapped a picture and posted it. Bet she was cute.”

“She wasn’t cute, she was annoying. I was in such a rush because, dammit, pull over honey, I’m in a hurry….”

“Katy, calm down. It’s okay. Be careful.”

“No, it’s not okay, Mark. I’m glad you’re comfortable in your desk chair, but I’ve had to get the girls ready this morning, and I’ve got work too, okay. I…”

“Okay, okay, okay. I hear you. I hear you.”

“I had to help Beth with her school project…”

“Those mandibles were pretty cool, huh?”

“Focus Mark! Between Beth’s ants and Sarah’s body coated in powdered sugar I left the house without Sarah’s medicine. Now, I’m rushing back to get it. I’ve got a meeting at 9am. I think I’ll make it barely, but I need you to…”

“Yes. What?

….

“Katy? Hello?”

….

“Katy, I can’t hear you, are you there?”

*****

“Mr. Stanton, are you okay?” Dr. Hobson slid his glasses off and looked at his patient’s husband staring right through him.

“Yes, I’m sorry, doctor. I, umm, let my mind wander.”

“I know this must be very hard to hear. I’ve reviewed your wife’s entire medical file for the past two months. I cross-checked every note. I see no evidence of self-awareness or the environment, and, upon examination, she demonstrates no signs of interaction. There are no purposeful responses to external stimuli.”

“And the blinking and crying? I sit by her bed and I see her eyes move. She knows I’m there, doctor.”

“I understand, Mr. Stanton. I know how hard this must be for you.”

Mark Stanton shifted his gaze to the credenza again, eyed the doctor’s impossibly beautiful wife and children, and thought, “Do you?”

“It’s not uncommon for patients with such injuries to exhibit certain signs.”

“Signs?”

“Yes, we see eye opening, pupil movement, yawning, even chewing and swallowing movements. Patients may cry, move their eyes, and make facial expressions that appear to be smiles or frowns.”

“But?”

“They aren’t crying, moving their eyes, smiling, or frowning.”

Mark Stanton looked down at the floor.

“Mr. Stanton, patients in a vegetative state like your wife are not moving or acting volitionally. We may see a primitive motor response to pain or we may see an object grasped when it is placed in the palm, but these are not acts of volition. You are seeing a simulation of awareness, not actual awareness. Mark, I am very sorry to tell you that your wife’s vegetative state has been persistent, and, after this amount of time, given the nature and extent of her injuries, I can come to no other conclusion than your wife’s vegetative state is a permanent vegetative state.”

Again, Mark Stanton eyed the photograph of the doctor’s family, focusing on the doctor’s wife.  He fingered the button on his shirt cuff and shifted in his seat. As he contemplated tying his shoe and strafed his tongue against the bottom of his teeth, he understood that, as long as he occupied his mind, he would not be required to ask the next question. He could slow the hands of time and fall into a moment where he had a wife, where life retained the possibility of normalcy, where he could romance the idea that the doctor was wrong, that it was a mistake.

“I know this is a lot to take in, Mr. Stanton.”

A knock on the door broke the spell between the two men, and Nurse Cecilia entered with Beth and Sarah in tow.

“Daddy!” Sarah proclaimed, as she rushed over to him.

“Hello, sweetie.” He stood and embraced both his daughters, twisting to envelop both of them.

“Mr. Stanton, your sister went on to work. She left the girls’ school things out by my desk. I’ll be happy to watch the girls while you and the doctor finish your meeting.”

“Thank you,” he replied, watching Nurse Cecilia walk over to the girls and gather them towards the door.

“I want you two to be big girls, okay. Stay with Nurse Cecilia; Dr. Hobson and I need to talk a little bit more.” The blinking lights on Sarah’s shoes caught his attention, as Nurse Cecilia stood behind, hands on the girls’ shoulders. The light from Sarah’s sneakers flashed off the nurse’s white pants and white shoes.

“I’ll keep a close eye on them, Mr. Stanton. Come on girls.”

Only once the girls turned their backs and headed out with Nurse Cecilia did Mark Stanton permit himself to tear up. He gave himself credit, though, for making it that long.

“Mr. Stanton, we need to talk about where we go from here.”

“Go?”

“Your options.”

Mark Stanton resume staring.

“We can continue as-is, but I see no reasonable medical probability for any improvement in your wife’s condition. Or, and I know this will be difficult to hear, we can remove your wife’s artificial nutrition and hydration.”

No amount of psychological games was a defense to the doctor’s words, and the impossibility of the situation allowed for Mark Stanton to simulate bravery and look the doctor in the eye.

“If we remove your wife’s nutrition and hydration, she will pass away within one to two weeks. She will not die of malnutrition, but, rather, she will pass due to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. I understand it is little solace, but it is my duty to let you know that, if we pursue this route, your wife will not experience thirst or hunger. She simply can no longer experience those sensations.”

Mark Stanton heard every single word, and each bounced around in his head.  As each new word entered his skull, it joined the chorus of pre-existing words zig-zagging in colorful volleys across his brain. His wife’s lack of sensation became, to him, nothing but sensation.

“The removal of nutrition and hydration may result in your wife slipping into a coma, but it may not. We simply cannot tell. The only outward signs that you may see would be a dryness of the skin and mucous membranes. She cannot perceive discomfort, but we would, of course, continue to provide any other comfort necessary for her in your eyes.

“I see,” was all Mark Stanton could manage to push beyond his moist, hydrated, sensate lips.

“Of course, this decision is something you will want to talk over with your family, your friends, and any faith leader, if you have one.”

“What?”

“I’m sorry, minister, rabbi, priest. You may want to discuss this decision with them. Many people find great comfort in talking this decision over with a member of the clergy.”

“They do. I see.” Mark Stanton looked down at his hands – hands that, twenty years ago, served as an acolyte in his church. Was Pastor Don even still alive? When was the last time he even went to church? If he found Pastor Don, how would that chat proceed exactly? “Hi Pastor Don, remember me? That’s right, I loved lighting those candles. Oh, why am I here? Well, you see, I need you to tell me if it’s okay to kill my wife. Before you answer, will my years of absence from the church impact your response?”

“Mr. Stanton, you take all the time you need.” The doctor pulled out a small gray console from his desk drawer. “With the recent remodel and additions to the hospital, we have upgraded all of our computer software and hardware. All of our records are stored electronically. When you are ready, be it today, next week, next month, you can enter your choice on this console. I can take you to the right screen, and it will give you three options. From there, you can choose to continue current care or remove nutrition and hydration. You just click the button.”

“What’s the third option? I see three buttons.”

“In cases of significant brain trauma, we can, occasionally, pursue experimental treatments, such as deep brain stimulation or surgical steps, and, if that were an option, you would select the third button. Unfortunately, in your wife’s case, I am sorry to say that that is not an option. None of the tests we’ve run, like the MRIs, show any evidence of cognitive activity.”

Mark Stanton studied the console, hermetically sealed in plastic and glass. It was no bigger than his e-reader or his daughters’ tablets. It was such a tidy package, with all the attendant and requisite eye-catching gleam of new technology. His choice to end his wife’s life, to end his marriage, to end his daughters’ mother would be akin to buying a ninety-nine cent song.

“I know this is difficult, Mr. Stanton. It is not an easy choice. I have all of your wife’s records, and, after you’ve had some time to think it over, we can meet again. If you would like a second opinion, I am more than happy to forward your wife’s charts to anyone you wish.”

The doctor set the small, handheld console down between himself and Mark Stanton.

*****

Two Years Later. Mission Township Courthouse.

“Your Honor, the prosecution’s last witness is Dr. Timothy Hobson. We would call him to the stand at this time.”

“Your Honor, defense counsel renews its objections to this witness, as stated in our pre-trial motions and brief,”

“You can stop right there, Mr. Riley. As you and the prosecution know, the court received, read, considered, and ruled on all of the objections in your pre-trial motions. I see no evidentiary or other legal barrier to the doctor’s testimony.”

“Your Honor,”

“No thank you, Mr. Riley. You need say no more Your objection has been noted and preserved in the record for purposes of appeal. Bailiff, please escort Dr. Hobson into the courtroom to the witness stand.”

“Thank you, Your Honor.”

Dr. Timothy Hobson walked into the courtroom and walked the short distance to the witness stand. He kept his eyes fixed on the judge and the jury, but he could feel Mark Stanton sitting in the rows to the right. He knew Beth and Sarah would be right by his side, too.

“Dr. Hobson, please raise your right hand.”

*****

“Dr. Hobson, as of 2014, how long had you worked with Nurse Cecilia Boniface?”

“At that point, I guess it had been around one year.”

“Just a year?”

“Yes. Beginning in 2010, the hospital began a large expansion and renovation. Staff were moved around to different departments. In neurosurgery, we were always losing and gaining different staff members as the nurses and assistants were shifted around the hospital to cover for one another.”

“So, you started working with the defendant at some point in 2013?”

“Yes.”

“At what time did the hospital install its new medical records system, doctor?”

“2013.”

“So, around the same time you began working with the defendant?”

“Yes. Actually, she started working for me just before we got the new system. At that time, it was a great relief to me, honestly. The new electronic medical records system was complex and difficult to learn. Nurse Cecilia,”

“You mean, the defendant?”

“Objection, Your Honor,” defense counsel interjected.

“Mr. Asher, the witness can answer in his own terms. Dr. Hobson, please continue.”

“Well, Nurse Cecilia had been working in pediatrics before she was rotated into neurosurgery, and pediatrics had been using the new medical records system for months before it was installed in our department. Since she was experienced with the system, it took a lot of pressure off of me. She was able to demonstrate the system to me, and help me when I needed it. I appreciated it. At the time.”

“At the time, doctor?”

“I mean, before I learned about everything.”

“And what do you mean by that Dr. Hobson?”

“I always relied on my nurse to organize and update the charts for all of my patients. In the new system, it was a complicated process to pull in testing from other parts of the hospital, such as an EEG or an MRI. Nurse Boniface was experienced with the system, like I said, so I relied upon her to update the charts. As far as I knew, all of the charts were always updated. I could see update dates, but…”

“But?”

“But the update dates did not reflect all of the chart activity. The dates were accurate, but it did not tell me if evidence had been updated and, then,….changed.”

“Changed, Dr. Hobson?”

“Yes. Changed or deleted.”

“Dr. Hobson, did you provide care for a Mrs. Katy Stanton?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Could you tell the court why Mrs. Stanton was in the hospital?”

“Yes, Mrs. Stanton was involved in a high speed automobile accident. As I understand it, her vehicle ran a stop sign and the driver’s side was impacted by an oncoming car. She suffered a traumatic brain injury, and that’s when she came under my care.”

“Dr. Hobson, what was Mrs. Stanton’s diagnosis?”

“After her condition stabilized, she entered into a persistent vegetative state.”

“Doctor, explain that term to the court.”

“The diagnosis refers to a disorder of consciousness. Patients in a vegetative state do not enjoy true awareness of their surroundings or consciousness as we understand it.”

“So, it’s a coma?”

“No, it’s not a coma. A coma is where the patient lacks both awareness and wakefulness. Patients in a vegetative state may have awoken from a coma, but still have not regained awareness. In the vegetative state patients may appear to open their eyes or mouth, but they completely lack cognitive function. Patients that enter a vegetative state as the result of a traumatic injury, like Mrs. Stanton, can awake from the vegetative state within a year of the injury, but that timetable is only when there is some evidence of cognitive activity. If there is no cognitive function detectable, the state becomes permanent in only 2-3 months.”

“Dr. Hobson, you just mentioned cognitive function. How would you have tested Mrs. Stanton’s cognitive functioning?”

“Well, I first checked Mrs. Stanton’s clinical signs, such as eye tracking and pain responses.”

“And what did those signs tell you doctor?”

“Mrs. Stanton was unresponsive to all stimuli, which is not uncommon given the nature and extent of her physical injuries. She would, without provocation, open her eyes or occasionally her mouth, but she never did so when provoked.”

“Would the clinical signs from your examination have been the best information concerning Mrs. Stanton’s cognitive functioning?”

“No.”

“What would be the state of the art in your field for that, Dr. Hobson?”

“A PET scan or functional MRI would be considered the state of the art.”

“Did Mrs. Stanton ever undergo a PET scan or a functional MRI at your hospital, doctor?”

“Yes.”

“And, what did those tests reveal, Dr. Hobson?”

“At the time, when I reviewed the results of all of Mrs. Stanton’s PET scans and MRIs, they revealed no cognitive functioning whatsoever.”

“At the time, doctor? What do you mean?”

“I mean that I came to learn that the results I was viewing had been altered in our computer system.”

“Altered?”

“Yes, the results I reviewed at the time were changed to reflect no brain activity.”

“And what did that mean, Dr. Hobson?”

“That means that Mr. Stanton made a choice he never should have been allowed to make.”