In my dream, two bright, red cardinals sat on the power line outside my window at our house. I was back in my home sitting in the living room with the curtains pulled back looking out the big window on a beautiful, sunny day. The birds were cardinals because, other than blue jays, they were the only birds I could positively identify.
I looked to my left at the empty chair, Barbara’s chair. Even in my dreams, she was missing. Had she been there, the birds would have been something more extravagant. I sighed at the emptiness and stared at the birds as they sat there fluttering in the slight breeze. Their chirps sounded like a conversation. I tried to discern what they were saying to no avail.
Instead, I just watched them and enjoyed the beauty of the moment – blazing read feathers set against the deep blue sky. It had been so long since I’d seen such a gorgeous day so clearly and since I’d sat in my own living room. Too long, actually. I took another breath, which felt too easy for me of late. That’s how I knew it was a dream. Nothing was easy then.
The realization jolted me to consciousness. My head lolled to one side and I felt the irritating tug of the cannulas. My eyes felt like they were glued shut, but I forced them open slowly. My breath tasted antiseptic and sterile. I thought for a moment that I was back in the hospital. Only when I saw the glaring light next to my bed did I understand that I was in Carla’s room.
The light seemed brighter than usual. It hurt my eyes and I tried to cover them with my arms, but my hands dragged like anchors at my side. My fingers, swollen and useless, dragged across my chest and caught the oxygen tube pulling it from my nose.
“Mr. Dunn, you need the oxygen. Don’t pull it out,” Marty said quietly.
I opened my eyes into tiny slits and peered at his big, jovial face. He smiled at me as he placed the clip back onto my nose. I thought I smiled back, but it could have been a sneer. Every movement I made felt lethargic, weighted. I tried to speak, but only gasping, inaudible words came out.
“Don’t worry. Carla and Rudy are on their way,” Marty said as if responding to some request I had made. I didn’t remember asking for them. They had visited with me every night the past few days, and quite frankly, they were real downers – all sad and dreary. Both refused to tell me where Barbara was. I would have felt so much better if they would have forced her to come back. I needed her.
I closed my eyes and my eyelids scraped my corneas like they were made of sandpaper. I refused to open them for fear of more pain. I concentrated on breathing in the crisp oxygen. It felt cool to my nostrils. I could sense Marty moving adroitly around me. For such a big guy, he floated effortlessly around the room. I could barely hear him.
Time passed. I’m not sure how much, but I heard a commotion in my room. Whispers. Cries. I tried to open my eyes, but I couldn’t at first. I tried to shake my head to make my eyelids work, but stiffness froze my neck in place. I felt a cool cloth touch my forehead and wipe away the anxiety that overwhelmed me. I heard Barbara, no Carla, speak in hushed tones.
“Dad?” she said multiple times.
“Dad?” Rudy spoke.
I finally willed my eyes opened. My vision blurred and swirled for a moment before I saw their faces hanging in the space above me.
“Daddy!” Carla said as she buried her head into my shoulder. Her sobs shook my bed.
Tears streamed down my normally stoic son’s face. He said nothing. His words drowned in his stifled sobs.
The scene confused me. Carla and Rudy took seats next to my bed. Carla held onto my hand. I couldn’t remember where I was, but I remembered my dream about the cardinals. I remembered the birds on the wire. I remembered the empty chair next to me, and I wondered why Barbara still refused to see me. I looked for Marty. He lurked just behind my kids busy with things unseen, but he kept his eyes on me.
“Do you remember when we worked at the mill together? I asked him. My voice came out raspy and ragged. My throat burned.
“Yes, I do, Mr. Dunn,” he said cheerfully.
“Why are you calling me that? I whispered. Seconds passed between each word I uttered as if I were reciting some beatnik poem with a strange rhythm.
“Get some rest, sir,” he said as he leaned over and placed another cool cloth on my forehead.
“Do you remember Barbara?” I asked. Again, it took me forever to get the words out.
“I do, Mr. Dunn. I do. Beautiful lady.”
“Where is she?”
“You’ll see her soon, Mr. Dunn.”
Carla broke down again. Rudy grabbed my other hand. Marty stood over me, smiling.
“I can’t wait. I love her so much.”
I thought I saw tears in Marty’s eyes. I couldn’t be sure. I fell silent. Only Carla’s sobs filled the room. I tried to touch her, but my hands clung to my sides like heavy clubs. I took one hard breath and coughed. I tried to take another but I labored under the effort like a weight had been placed on my chest.