By Jennifer Adedeji
The sharp clacks of my Oxfords against the tiled floor echo irreverently through the early morning hush of the halls. A few of the elder nurses in their starched white uniforms break somber countenances to spare my familiar face weary smiles as they retreat homeward from long nighttime vigils, and I nod in deference as I march further into their domain, my second home.
This section of the hospital has always been still, which I’ve slowly come to accept over the years. As a child, the quiet unnerved me—silent as the grave, as they say—and it didn’t help that Silas was so thin and pale, a wraith swaddled in stark white sheets. He was always a little cold to the touch, too, and I used to stay up in bed at night, snug as a bug and feeling about as small, wondering if Silas would appreciate a warmer blanket and if the nurses ever said “sweet dreams” when they tucked him in like Mother used to do for me.
I pause at the end of the hall beside one of the floor-length picture windows that line the corridors nearest the building’s facade; a heavy morning fog obscures the normally striking view of St. Catherine Hospital’s ornate and meticulously tended grounds. A dull ache begins to thrum in my shoulder and I set down my briefcase; the delicate crinkling of wrapping paper breaks the silence as my movement upsets the package clutched in the crook of my other arm. The rising sun is just beginning to burn away the edges of the morning’s fog and its faint wisps of golden light drift sluggishly along bare walls. Leaning forward, I can vaguely make out the imposing columns and obelisks of the larger topiaries before my breath begins to mist the glass. I shake my head, recollect my burdens, and continue toward Silas.
Father would visit every day and bring me with him twice a week, on Fridays after school and Sundays after church. On Fridays I was supposed to talk to Silas about my week at school, and on Sundays Father would read to him from the Bible whatever the priest had read in church earlier. Sundays weren’t so bad; I was used to sitting and listening, but I dreaded Fridays; back then it’d seemed all too much like disturbing the dead. I rarely dared to speak above a whisper lest that ghastly spirit that was my brother would rise and haunt me, even during daylight. Now the silence just helps me listen to the hums and beeps of the machines and Silas’ relatively quiet but stable breathing, which has only recently replaced the hiss of a ventilator. They took him off it a few months ago, and now I can hardly focus on anything when I’m in there beside the sound of his breathing and how odd it is that everything’s getting quieter the closer he comes to waking.
All through my childhood I wondered why they didn’t give him a warmer blanket; it would have made him feel less like a corpse. Since my father always insisted that I talk to Silas as if he were alive, really alive and not a coma case, he could have at least made him look a little more like the part. I freeze in the middle of the hallway and my shoulders quiver with the effort it takes to keep myself from laughing aloud at the absurdity of it all—I mean—I don’t even know if he’d appreciate a blanket but still I spent countless nights thinking about how my all-but-dead little brother might be cold! It really is ludicrous, and as the quaking of my shoulders finally subsides, I adjust the package again, fumbling with the glossy wrapping as I attempt to secure my grip. I majored in business, not medicine, and I’ve never actually worked up the nerve to ask one of his doctors, so I don’t know if he feels as cold as he is…but at least I’ll feel a little saner during these visits, less like I’m attending the same wake over and over every morning. I sigh as I finally manage to get a good hold on the package again and stand stock-still for a minute that lasts an eternity before I resume my trek, as if the moment of doubt never occurred.
I suppose this whole sentimental mess is finally making some headway in wearing down my nerves. The entire affair has always been a little on the eccentric side, any rational person would have given up by now, but as my father was so fond of saying, “We McGiven lot can afford to be eccentric. That’s what fortune’s for.” Humph, fortune indeed. We could afford a blanket; in fact, we could easily afford a hundred of the finest cashmere coverlets money could buy, so I don’t see why no one had ever bothered to bring Silas one before. I touch the package under my arm and resist the urge to turn around and toss it in the first wastebasket I can find on my way out; it’s slipping again. I halt in front of the door to readjust it, thinking just how ridiculous it was to wrap it in the first place. It’s unlikely Silas is in any shape to appreciate it, and this particular paper was a poor choice, pretty, but slippery. I console myself with the thought that at least it probably looks more normal than a grown man in a suit carrying around a briefcase in one hand and a blankie in the other. I find myself worrying if Silas would mind that it’s not the finest cashmere coverlet money can buy; that it’s a faded, hand-me-down blanket I’d almost forgotten I had stashed in the attic…
I was there when he was born. Not right in the delivery room because I doubt they let seven-year-olds into the delivery room now, and they certainly didn’t 21 years ago, but I was in a waiting area just the next room over and I could hear everything. It was probably the loudest day of Silas’ life. I remember shrill keening, doctors shouting medical jargon with an unsettling urgency, the soft, wavering voice of an ashen, wide-eyed young nurse, I think her name was Fletcher, as she explained over and over to my father that he couldn’t go in “because it’s a sterile area, sir, and something could go wrong…” I remember sobbing… There were tears in my father’s eyes, but I think it must have been me sobbing. The keening cut off abruptly about halfway through the night. The absence of a baby’s cry amid the din was all too well marked. Yes, I’m sure that must have been the loudest day of Silas’ life, and probably mine too, now that I think about it.
I visit Silas every day now, but the most time I ever really spent with him was when our father was dying. I was at the hospital almost constantly then, and since my father needed rest to get well more than he needed company, whenever he nodded off I would wander over to Silas’ room and talk and cry until my eyes were bloodshot and my throat was raw. Despite my presence and absence at all the appropriate times my father didn’t get better, and the night he died I pleaded with a nurse to let me sleep over after visiting hours in Silas’ room. I stayed up the whole night there, listening for his breathing beneath the miscellaneous whirrs and beeps and the constant hissing of the ventilator that kept him alive; it was faint but present all the same. That night was the beginning of my daily trips to see Silas. On his deathbed, my father had asked me to look after him, and I promised that I would. It was the only secret I ever kept from my brother, the only night where I dared not even whisper to him lest I upset whatever delicate balance that held both life and death at bay within the confines of that room.
I can’t quite bring myself to turn the handle and walk in; an image of Silas sitting up and awake, staring at the door expectantly, accusingly, rises unbidden in my mind and I cannot help but shudder. Are his eyes brown like mine or blue like Mother’s? I never asked; it didn’t matter; my father had probably known… It never really occurred to me before what I would do once Silas woke up. Well, it’d happened a few times near the beginning, but I grew out of it the same as I grew out of footie-pajamas. Silas wouldn’t wake up, didn’t exist outside of a hospital bed, outside of a grieving father’s desperate delusions. It only recently occurred to me, after getting the professional opinion of five doctors, two psychologists, and a liberal Canadian psychiatrist, that when, and not if, Silas woke up, he would need a wheelchair, and I should get him one. There were nurses and machines employed specifically to stretch his muscles, to minimize the physical effects of a life spent prostrate, but one couldn’t avoid some atrophy with a case like Silas. No, no matter how meticulous the care, and regardless of whether or not he would ever be able to walk on his own, he would have to be wheeled out of the room when, and not if, he woke up.
The first thing I notice when I walk in is the wheelchair waiting in a corner of the room, then the bandages on Silas’ arm, and finally the grey-whiskered doctor smiling widely beside the window, heavy bags beneath his eyes bunched together even as his lined face takes on the healthy, youthful glow only genuine mirth can lend.
“Good morning, Mr. McGiven, there have been exciting new developments in your brother’s condition. In fact, an incident occurred early this morning, not long before your usual visiting hours, and I thought it would be prudent to inform you as soon as possible.”
He pauses then and fiddle with his mustache, which I find strange since he just insisted that whatever he has to say is urgent, and quite frankly I agree, but it wouldn’t speed things up to point this out so I simply nod for him to go on as I take my usual seat in a chair beside Silas’ bed.
“As you know, or rather, as myself and a good number of my esteemed colleagues have informed you repeatedly, young Mr. McGiven’s condition has been showing slow but steady improvement in the last few months; his movements have become increasingly pronounced and frequent. The bandages on his arm are the unfortunate byproduct of a nevertheless particularly encouraging bout of activity this morning that managed to dislodge the IV. Complete overreaction, really. Nurse Fletcher was simply a bit paranoid about the bleeding; she gets nervous whenever the slightest thing is off with the boy, but we all do, really.” He smiles again, not at me but at Silas this time. “Of course, I can assure you, Simon, that Silas is fine—in fact, better than fine. Why, he may emerge any day now.” By the time he’s done, the smile on his face has shifted from excited to proud, from the smile of a kid on Christmas to that of a grandfather at graduation. I almost want to comment that he looks like the crafty old cat that ate the canary, ready for a celebratory nap, but I guess he has the right to one, and I stay silent. He’s been Silas’ primary doctor ever since they took him out of the NICU, and for 21 years he’s helped my brother cheat death. I think he was supposed to retire a few years back actually; he looks ready, and I guess he probably will sometime soon. Any day now.
I don’t want to get my hopes up. Deep pockets and empty hopes may have kept a shell of a man dreaming for 16 years and a boy balanced on the threshold of life and death for 21, but the living need a little more to sustain them. When I was 10, I came home to an empty house for a week because Silas had somehow caught a cold. Sitting at the dinner table alone, I imagined what life would be like if Silas died; if the brother it seems I was never meant to have would join my mother in an early grave. I can still taste the vile mixture of vomit and tears and mucus in the back of my throat whenever I recall the bitter confession of “wonderful” that slipped out in that instant of shameful weakness. It didn’t seem fair back then that life could take away someone I loved and needed and leave me with almost nothing in return, but Silas and secrets and cold hands in colder white rooms reminded me that Sunday that life wasn’t fair, and my father hovered over me as I retched breakfast and communion into a hospital toilet, Silas’ Sunday reading all but forgotten.
The only one I ever told how I felt about Silas was Silas. I never kept any secrets from him except the one, and I told him about how I wished for him to die just like I told him everything else. It came out as an apology but most of the things I told him did, too. Stories about what my friends and I did to get detention for a week, about why the Angels didn’t stand a chance in their game against the Yankees next week, about what I had for lunch that day—all of it always metamorphosed into apologies and promises by the time the sun set and visiting hours ended.
The doctor is gone now but the fog hasn’t burned away completely. What little sunlight that manages to leech in through the windows isn’t enough to coax even the faintest glow from the sober white walls. I set the gift and my briefcase down at the foot of the bed and take Silas’ hand in my own, cradling it loosely, like my father used to do; it’s as familiar and comforting a gesture for me as I imagine it is for Silas. A few more of the machines have disappeared this time around and his breathing sounds louder than ever in the almost-silence. I have to say something sometime, and I came here for a reason, but my heart clenches as I suck in a breath to speak.
“Silas, I’m sure you can understand…” I begin but the words die in my throat. I’m not sure they were ever there. “I-I’ve been busy lately…” Another pathetic, abortive attempt and I swallow the thick lump that’s formed in my throat. My suit suddenly feels stifling and my hands, already growing slick with sweat, begin shaking. The thump of my heartbeat and the ticking of the clock rebound against the walls and windows; the doctor’s parting words ring ceaselessly through my ears. “H-have I told you about the o-office? I p-probably haven’t mentioned it much, it’s not my favorite place, but it’s important that I k-keep up there, and I really don’t know how Father managed…” I’m babbling and my face heats up with each stutter until I’m sure there can’t be any blood left below my neck, and I’m not sure whether it’s all out of embarrassment or shame. Maybe I’m better off not knowing.
Silas’ emergence has always been some far-off impossibility, and now it’s real; it will happen any day now, and I can’t help fidgeting. I drum the fingers of my free hand against the side table, mesmerized by the uniform, hollow knock of each digit against the synthetic surface; it’s calming. “It’s not easy to make time to come here every day, you know? I was thinking that m-maybe I could come a little less often.” It sounds irresolute even to me and I wonder what Silas thinks of it, what my associates think when I offer up propositions in the exact same tone.
I wait there for an hour, for what exactly I’m not sure, drumming idly against the table. Two realizations slowly rise to the forefront of my thoughts: If the fog hasn’t lifted by now, no matter what the weatherman said, the sky will not be clear today, and “any day now” is not immediately. I stop drumming my fingers and sag in the chair as all of my resolve seeps out of me along with my nervous energy. I grip Silas’ hand a little tighter. “I don’t really want to come less often, you know? I-I’d rather go to the office less or something. I really don’t know what to do. Does it make sense that I’m telling you this? God, it doesn’t make any sense does it? I’m really losing it. What am I waiting for?”
Thankfully, I could not will Silas to die all those years ago, but I cannot will Silas to wake up now either; “you cannot tip the scales if there aren’t any.” That’s the first thing I learned about the adult world and I feel like the callow fool all over again, a waif unfit to sit in his father’s chair, as I did at my first board meeting years ago. For the last hour, I’ve wanted and willed and begged without words for Silas to open his eyes and tell me not to go, but it’s been an hour and there is still no long-awaited, miraculous jolt of life, just a slight, pale, limp hand, clutched in my clammy one. “I’m tired, Silas. You can understand that, right?” I begin to gently disentangle my hand from his but a feather-light pressure on my fingertips gives me pause. A trick of the mind, almost certainly, and if not a mere coincidence, a meaningless reflexive grasp. Still, it’s more than I’ve come to expect. Certainly Silas knows what it means to be tired. Isn’t he tired?
Nevertheless, my hand lingers on his for a moment more; nothing happens, and I’m not surprised, but a little disappointed. I gather my briefcase and lay the gift down on the wheelchair on my way out, its shiny, gold wrapping paper gleaming despite the dim light. I get halfway to the door before I turn around and look back at Silas. I can actually see the rise and fall of his chest and I smile because for once he looks like he’s just sleeping. I sigh as much in resignation as relief. “Is it that you don’t get tired or you don’t give up, Silas? I want an answer to that when you wake up.” I check my watch—8:02—past the time to go. “I’ll think of something, and I’ll be back tomorrow, like always, alright?” It’s strange how I’m reluctant to walk out. Didn’t I come here just to be able to walk out? I traverse the rest of the distance to the door and turn back to Silas one more time. “Sweet dreams, Silas.” My voice sounds louder in the quiet and it’s reassuring, just like Silas’ breathing.