That’s the last joke I told you before I was bundled up and carted off like my own little packet of radioactive material. The truth is that your love has always been my hazmat suit, surrounding me, engulfing, protecting me from unseen horrors in the world around us.
Funny thing about “last times” — we rarely know when exactly the last time we do anything will be. Sure, sometimes we can gauge it by the inevitable: the last time I will walk in this school, the last time I will sit at this desk, or the last time I kiss my mother goodbye.
Those last times we see coming, and if we’re smart enough, we make the most of the moment, memorializing it in some way, protecting it like the aforementioned suit. We make sure the last lasts. (And I won’t blame you for not laughing at that last joke.)
Times like these, I’m sorry to say, we might not know that the last time will indeed be the last time.
And yet we fear, especially now, that we will be moving through many last times.
Yours was the next-to-last face I ever saw. Your tears, your furrowed brow, your crumpled chin, even the tremble of a brave smile — a smile to protect me from the fear that we both knew was about to overtake us both. Your face, pleading, as the EMT workers put me on a gurney and shoved me through the ambulance doors.
You suspected that we wouldn’t be seeing each other after that, I know. And I think that maybe, in your own way, you were trying to hang on to what little time we had left. But because I am, as I mentioned, hazardous material, the emergency workers were doing their best to protect all of us. So, no, you could not ride with me on the way to the hospital. Not one last time.
I know that you didn’t want me to be alone. So I tell you I am not.
The EMT workers might have well been in disguise, their faces covered with masks. Masks above which peering eyes do their jobs, as gloved hands check pulses, probe with stethoscopes, fiddle with dials. Above the masks the eyes share kindness, concern.
Funny how masks, in comic books and movies, always obscure the eyes, as if any onlooker would forget what someone’s mouth looked like if you weren’t seeing the eyes above. Didn’t they recognize Batman and Zorro from their smiles and frowns?
Your mouth, the next to the last that I saw, held a bounty of expressions, expressions only enhanced by the sparkling, probing, searching eyes above. Your single dimple, gap-toothed smile melted my heart when we first met, and it still does. I see your face for just a glimpse, just a glimmer, as I’m wheeled off the ambulance (how did you get there so fast, never mind, I don’t want to know). I see your face over my toes as the doors swing shut, and in a blink, you are gone. One flap of the swinging doors, and your funny little mouth becomes a memory.
The last time I saw your face. Roberta Flack never sang about that. First times being so much happier.
Now many more masked medical bandits surround me, orders and directives uttered from masks that muffle. Eyes, peering over masks, sweep my body on their way to finding the right dial, the right switch, the right thump or press or whatever they need to do their jobs.
Fluorescent lights glare; silhouetted figures hover and toil. I’d expect to smell alcohol and sanitizing solvents, all those scents that stretched back to the doctor’s office of our childhood. Instead, I smell the garlic from the last pizza I ate, the impersonal smell of the plastic apparatus, strapped over my face like an alien invader.
I wonder if they see my face, above the muzzle of oxygen I rode in with. Can they see past the terror in my eyes, past the sheer wrenching pain I’m enduring, can they see that somewhere beyond that is deep trust and appreciation?
Before they prepare to intubate me (I learned that one from TV shows), I am granted one final gift: the last face I ever will see.
The last face is kind, warm, confident. One doctor who pulls down her mask, looks at me, right at me, and says:
We’ll take good care of you.
Just that. A simple statement. A few words before she, too, must disguise herself from the vicious enemy who lurks, invisible and deadly.
How brave that face is. How confident in her faith, risking her own well-being, to grant me one last look. I savor this as they shove tubing inside me. Tubing that transforms me into my own kind of cyborg, a vast human/machine that will belch and wheeze and bellow for me as my own powers decrease.
I guess that was the last breath I took on my own, and I’ll never be able to recall it. That moment was already taken, by the kind face that said those last words to me.
We’ll take good care of you.
I am not alone because I am surrounded by masked marvels who risk everything so I can have one last breath, one last chance to see this world around me.
Sad to think that these dedicated medical practitioners go about their days like this, their real selves camouflaged from the people who depend on them. For those of us fortunate enough to experience their dedication, these nurses, doctors, assistants, and technicians, they are an anonymous army, fighting a noble battle.
And this will be my last battle. That I know.
You said you didn’t want me to be alone, and I assure you I am not. I am still with you, like the last time we said goodbye to mother. I am not alone because I savor every “last time” I can scoop up in my fading memory: the last time we hugged, the last time we kissed, the last time we laughed.
I am not alone because I am surrounded by masked marvels who risk everything so I can have one last breath, one last chance to see this world around me. No one tells these brave soldiers when they will be going into battle, when they may encounter enemies so monstrous in nature, so ruthless in their quest. And yet, they don’t back down. They accept their service and offer their expertise and dignity.
We owe them our faith.
I ask you not to grieve. Or if you grieve, to come to peace. This time here is precious, and it can vanish. Sooner than you think. Understand that the love we shared will never die.
I see the eyes above the masks, I hear the beeps and hisses of life-saving equipment, and I know that I am surrounded by love.
I look at the eyes, kind eyes peering above the mask, and they say:
I am here for you.
I see you.
You are a person, and you have suffered, and you have lived, and you matter.
For now, that is enough. Enough to last forever.
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