The nightlight glows dully from behind the heavy metal lines of the bed, casting strange shadows that perch menacingly on the walls. The soft, downy hair on my wife's arms is the only comforting thing in the room.
Our son thinks she is getting better. That she's going to roll over one day soon and leap out of bed, casting off her wasted body. In his three-year-old fancy, anything can become something else and something beyond repair can always be fixed.
That world is full of possibilities I want to believe in when I see my son speaking excitedly to his comatose mother.
His eyes are alight in those moments, as he waves about the remains of garden creatures he's discovered and clutched into oblivion — leaving limbs and shells and eyes scattered across the coarse white sheets. She sometimes twitches in response, but to what exactly is uncertain.
For seven weeks, three days and some number of hours we've come here; nocturnal pilgrims looking for answers — holding vigil while she drifts further from our grasp. I don't think it's helping.
We should go home again, but he's asleep now in a chair in the corner, fists locked tightly around his latest find: cicada 'jackets'. These sloughed off relics have him captivated.
A single leg, a cicada's forelimb perhaps, lies tangled in the fine hairs at my wife's wrist. It reminds me of the things clawing at her cells, and I'm repulsed. Picking it carefully from her skin, I crush it to a fine powder between my fingers and sob dry-eyed in the stillness of this place.
I am to blame for our boy's new obsession, this ray of glittering hope about his mother's condition.
Discovering the husk of a molted cicada last week, I explained how they crawl out from the cloying earth after sleeping for years, remove their jackets, and take wing to live a new life as the chirruping insects on the summer trees and lampposts around us. I too was filled with a defiant glimmer of hope.
Cancer like hers is a gluttonous creature that can never get enough; is never generous enough to leave any crumbs for impatient onlookers. It feeds with one gaping mouth and laughs at us with the others.
Sandra laughed when she got the news she was dying, she cackled in a way I'd never heard before. It was as though she couldn't believe the sombre young doctor was telling her such an absurd joke. I didn't laugh. I stood up, strode into the hallway and roared meaningless words into my balled fist.
Telling our son was the easy part. He took it in his stride, asking if he could still have a birthday and would she cut the cake for him.
It's mid-December, but I'm told she won't make it to Christmas — let alone his birthday in March. What do you make of such a pronouncement? Where do you put it in the scheme of things?
There are no plans to make. There's only an uncomfortable wait in the grimy bus station of a clinical death sentence. I hate this room and its spare curtains; its dry, acrid smell of a body decaying.
It's definitely time to go home, but I can't do it. How much time is there left, really?
"Where are you?" I whisper. "Just wake up before you go. He needs to hear you, and I need … something."
Sandra moves in response, or I think she does. It's impossible to know whether she hears anything through the layers of unconsciousness growing around her like scar tissue.
Standing up, I creep quietly over to my son and pry one of the cicada's jackets from his small hand. It's brittle and smooth, inanimate. Will her body look like this when she's gone? I won't even know her.
I hold it carefully in my palm while I ride the elevator to the ground floor and step out into a balmy nine o'clock Saturday night. This part of town is busy with student commotion and drunken exuberance.
The after-hours clinic is nearby, and I can hear a young couple arguing about the morning-after pill.
"Just fuckn take it. Stop pissing about," I yell, the words flying furiously from me before I can stop them. It feels good to shout and rage at something so trivial.
It's not for them, and the guy is on me before I can take it back. His stubbled face pressed right into mine. I can smell liquor and sweat, and something else. He's afraid. Not of me, but of his situation.
I want to hit him, to break his angry mask and reach in to squeeze that fear. I gently push him back instead.
"Don't do this. I'm not myself."
He wants to hit me too, but he can't. His girlfriend puts a hand on his shoulder, and he crumples. The fight goes out of him and he looks lost. I want to hug him.
"I'm sorry. My wife's dying and there's nothing I can do. That was shit of me."
They stare at me with confusion — a couple of kids swimming out past their depth.
"I'm so sorry," the girl says looking down. She bites her lip, then looks back up at me.
"What do I do? I want to try, but … he's not sure."
I'm the adult now, but I have nothing to offer.
"I wouldn't know. You might not even be pregnant. It's just a pill, and then your problem is solved. Or don't, and see what happens. It's wonderful having children. I have one, but it's not what you think. You can't take it back."
The boy scowls, his anger seeping back in.
"He doesn't know anything. Let's go. He's got his own shit to deal with. Come on!"
He tugs at the girl's hand, but she's still hopeful. Moon-eyed and pleading, she's apologising but asks again what they should do.
I just shake my head. It's too far removed from my problems, and what can I say? I hold out my hands, close-fisted with the palms down.
"Pick a hand. Go on, choose which hand and that will decide."
She's confused but smiles slightly as she reaches out to tap my left hand with a painted purple nail. Her boyfriend stares at me with a hard dislike.
Opening the hand she's chosen, I show them the cicada jacket.
"Do it, have a kid. Part of you will end up like this, cast off and brittle, but you'll be something brighter, louder and better for it. Or one of you might end up like me, out here talking to some dumb kids about starting a family while their wife is dying in a room back there."
I know I shouldn't have said the last part and ruined the magic of my off-the-cuff speech, and I'm not surprised when he hits me. Perhaps I even wanted it. But the punch is harder than expected, and my head snaps sideways with the force as the pavement rushes up to meet me. He kicks me in the gut once for good measure. And then leaves, dragging his protesting girlfriend away.
Lying there, ear bleeding where he hit me and stomach aching, the cicada jacket rests in my outstretched hand. I've not cried in the seven weeks since we sat in that room with the serious young doctor, but the tears come now. They pour out of me in wrenching sobs that drench my bloodied shirt as I sit up.
And then just as suddenly, they're gone — put back on a shelf so we can go on.
Clambering to my feet, I stare at the insect's skin, still pristine and intact, and grin as I place it carefully in a prescription pill container from my pocket. With a child's eyes, it's everything you could want in the world; a marvel of transformation in your own backyard. The remnants of one body cast off for the next.
I make my way back up to the room, imagining my wife shaking free from the grip of this disease, from her desiccated body, and perching quietly on the windowsill with gossamer wings drying in the dim light. She would tell us both how much she loves us, kiss our son on the cheek and me on the lips, and launch herself into the night with a swish of the curtains.
From the door, I can see my son sleeping, curled up and fragile in a functional, navy-blue hospital chair. Sandra and her bed are nowhere to be seen.
For a moment, perhaps a minute, I'm seized by the idea she has already flown from the open window. That they removed the jacket she left behind and I missed her transformation.
"Mr. Daniels? I'm sorry, your wife has been taken into surgery. She stopped breathing and we're…"
I can't hear the rest of what this small, round woman is saying. I can just see her mouth moving, enunciating my wife's departure. There's no point in prolonging things, so I tell her that I want my wife back in this room. I lead her outside, shut the door and hiss it at her.
"Do not do this. She needs to be done with this. There's nothing left of her here but us."
"I understand, but they're doing what they can now to help her."
"Tell them to stop. We don't want this. We want her back here, now!"
"Are you asking the surgeon not to operate? You need to be very clear about this, and you will need to sign some forms. Is that what you're asking?"
I pause to consider this action, the consequences of my next words. What do I want for us? What will it really do for her chances? I just want her back.
The moment lasts longer than I intended — so long that the nurse's grave look slips into one of annoyance at my dithering. This is a serious matter and she sees only a worn man with a glazed expression, not grasping the enormity of what he will now decide.
"Yes, I want you to stop this operation and bring her back to us. There's nothing more they can do. You people said as much."
This nurse, Abigail reads her name badge, peers at me carefully — assessing my mental and emotional competence to make this decision. I seem to have passed her test, but it's taken a toll on her too. The calm, empathetic mask of professionalism vanishes, as she sighs deeply and with real emotion.
"I understand, I really do. I shouldn't say this, but I think it's the right thing to do. My mother died of cancer last year, and at the end, we didn't want her to go through any more tests or surgeries. When it's time, it's time."
Briefly unburdened of her own grief, she reaches out to hug me in the way only strangers sharing a common experience can. I resist the urge to hug her back. But it lasts only the time it takes to release my own deep sigh, and I lose myself in her embrace. I cling to her, wanting it to last and for her to somehow make it better. She can't, and I step back before it gets awkward.
Abigail's face is shining, wet with tears for a loss that can be shared. I'm not ready to accept it.
"I'll sign the papers now if that's okay."
It feels cruel to her, to us and our shared grief, to cut this human experience short. But I have something other than solemn acceptance in mind. My wife isn't dead yet.
The nurse nods at me with an empathetic smile and leaves to gather the forms.
When she returns, I fumble through signing various papers — Abigail guiding me past irrelevant sections and quietly tapping a coral-pink nail on the boxes that require answers. I'm grateful but impatient, and yet she never loses that smile. She's made for this job.
"That's all you need to do. I'll bring her back to the room now," she says.
"Thank you. I … just, thank you."
She nods again and walks quickly away, her shoes scuffing quietly on the hospital floor.
Inside the room, my son sleeps on. I'm restless and excited. I can't even sit down. Where is she? I want to see her again. I miss her already — or what's left of her.
There's a knock at the door, polite but firm. I move slowly to open it.
A tight cluster of orderlies is gathered around the gurney bearing my wife. They nod at me, not saying a word as they wheel her in. Abigail appears, professional and impersonal, to attach various lines to her veins, but walks over and embraces me silently before leaving.
It's just us now — me and my family. All I can see are my wife's pale arms neatly arranged like exclamation marks on the bleached sheets. Her body looks diminished and there's an odd sheen to her skin. It looks translucent and thinner, delicate and tearable.
I'm afraid to look at her face and see what it's lost — that youthful smiling woman. Does she still have those beautiful arching lines at the edges of her lips? She must, but I can't remember the last time I looked at her properly. How can that be? How can I have been here in this room beside her for more than seven weeks and not really looked, not memorised every small feature that matters when they're gone?
Starting at her wrist, I make my way up her withered limb, wincing as I rest my gaze at her shoulder. The clavicle juts out obscenely from her papery flesh.
I take a deep breath and stare into her eyes. She stares back. Her sage-green eyes are open, and she sees me. A lip twitches and I see those lines are still there, still graceful and seductive.
"Sandra? Are you … Are you awake? I'm so glad to see you, love. We miss you so much. I'll wake David."
She shakes her head slightly and beckons me over with a slow movement of her chin. The rest of her doesn't seem able to respond.
I walk quickly over to her, bending down to kiss and hug her. She makes a noise, a kind of groan that becomes a rattling cough, and I look up.
"What is it? What can I do?"
Her lips are moving, but there are no words. I come closer to listen, angling my damaged ear towards her.
It's a jumble of urgent words coated in strange rasping noises, pushed out of her in a final forced desire to make me understand. Nodding helplessly, I want to understand but I'm at a loss. I move back, clutching her hand and peering carefully at her.
Suddenly I can hear what she's saying, or discern the meaning in the dry, scratching sounds she's making.
"Don't let him down, take care of him. I have to go now. I'll see you both again. I love you. Open the window for me. Keep it open."
She closes her eyes then, her body slumped, sinking back into the hard bed. There are no more sounds. My wife's face has become a smooth shell.
I stumble blindly to the window, tears streaming freely as I push it open and rest my forehead on the cool metal of the window sill. It's over and she's gone. What do I do now? What will we do?
There's a sound like tearing tissue paper behind me and I turn around, wiping my eyes with a sleeve.
A plump, healthy arm emerges from Sandra's skin. Then a leg, shapely and toned; followed by another arm. The bed shakes vigorously for a few seconds, and then she's free. What's left of my wife resembles a discarded suit, flaccid and benign. Perched on top of it, naked and shivering, is another Sandra — as she was when we first met.
I fall into the seat next to my son as she climbs over the metal railing of the gurney and steps briskly to the window. A glance is all she gives me as she climbs up and crouches on the ledge. I stare in disbelief, or wild, hopeful delight, as deep grooves are carved either side of her spine. They spread under her shoulder blades, lifting them out and away from her body. Elongating and growing thinner, they no longer resemble flesh and bone and skin. Her wings are membranous and moist, drying swiftly as she flitters them in the warm air.
She stretches them about her and looks over her shoulder at me, saying something I can't quite hear, before lunging forwards and out into the night. And she's gone.
I blink rapidly, forcefully. Each breath is crystal clear, filling my tingling chest. My entire body is tingling and alive. Is this what she feels now? Like new? What just happened?
How can that be real? What's left of the woman I knew is right there on the hospital bed. It is real and I am here. She has moved on.
I grin then and laugh out loud. I cackle in the way I remember Sandra laughing when this began. It feels wonderful. I'm a child again, and the world is full of mystery and promise.
Turning to look at our son asleep, I reach out and stroke his hair. The still-whole cicada jacket lies inside the pill container in my pocket. Taking it out, I place it on his now-open palm and sink back into my chair.
Keep it open, she said. That's what it was — keep the window open.
I fall asleep then, tumbling into a deep and restful place where anything can become something more, and what is broken can always be repaired.