Marek, hands grasped together as though in prayer, sat in the intensive care unit of Metropolitan Hospital by the bed of his wife, Yolanda. “Mi vida, I’m so, so sorry. I’ve failed you.” He was preoccupied with the final attempt in court that day to set things right for her. Marek hoped for good news from their lead attorney, Sandra, of a favorable ruling from the presiding judge.
Yolanda breathed at a slow and steady rate, assisted by a ventilator. Marek’s eyes always avoided the monitor connected to her EEG. He wanted to touch her, but the months of inactivity had left her limbs so stiff that when he last held her hands, Yolanda’s bones cracked despite his gentle grip.
Marek’s eyes closed as his hands dropped to the arms of the stuffed chair. He was tired. Tired of being in this room. Tired of its pale green walls. Tired of the disinfectant smell. His mind drifted back to happier times when they were both nursing students in Arlington. The Holistic Health Assessment Practicum at nursing school had been more than he could master. It wasn’t just the 200 pages a week of reading he had to finish; he needed help getting through the class.
Upon entering the tutoring lab, Marek saw a shapely, raven-haired woman with middle-of-the-winter tanned skin. She was leaning over, pointing to something on the monitor of a seated student. Her long, straight hair fell from her face when she stood up. He approached and could not help staring at the fine facial features he had long admired in Tejano women and her striking hazel-colored eyes. Before speaking, he regained enough self-control to avoid making a total fool of himself. Yolanda turned out to be the most patient and intelligent woman he had ever met. She helped him make sense of the coursework, and he finished the practicum without lowering his grade-point average.
As a reward for all her help, Marek treated Yolanda to a homemade Slovakian dinner, beginning with a ham-flavored lentil soup, followed by a main course of traditional sheep-cheese gnocchi with pieces of bacon and chives, and ending with a sweet pudding made with apples and pears. Though Marek had his doubts, Yolanda always claimed he had won her heart by the end of that meal, even after he revealed his mother had prepared it for them. His only talent in the kitchen was being his mother’s sous-chef and chopping all the vegetables.
Marek’s phone vibrated.
He tapped the button on his earpiece. “Hello, Marek here.”
“Hi, Marek. It’s Gloria. Sorry I’m a few moments late.” Gloria was Sandra’s associate counsel. The previous day in court Yolanda’s legal team had emphasized that the substance of the law as written did not coincide with the hospital’s interpretation.
“Good news, I hope?” Catching his eye, a half-filled Mylar balloon floated, twisting in the soft breeze provided by an air vent. A yellow ribbon tied to the arm of a gray teddy bear kept it from drifting off. One of the only presents brought for Yolanda in the first couple of days. A few Get Well cards remained. An empty ceramic pot missing its long-gone flowers. No photos in frames. When everyone realized Yolanda would never be able to appreciate the gifts, family and friends stopped bringing them. Pointless.
“Nothing to report either way, Marek. There’s still about half an hour until the Fifth Court of Appeals closes.”
The complications Yolanda's attorneys had to deal with were twofold. The first was the Texas Advance Directives Act of 1999 stating, ‘A doctor may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment from a pregnant patient.’ The second was a law passed just two months before the blood clot put Yolanda in the hospital. The Texas Legislature determined that a fetus sensed pain at twenty weeks. However, only one member had a medical degree, though an abundance of paid experts supported this line of thought.
Because of Yolanda’s pregnancy, her attorneys suspected the hospital feared the loss of liability protection from the state if they disconnected her from life support. Sandra and Gloria had stressed the Act was written ‘may not,’ not ‘can not,’ nor ‘must not.’ Their point being that the legislators had written the law for someone in a coma, not someone with no brain stem activity.
The hospital’s attorneys also expressed a fear that the baby would suffer an agonizing death if the hospital disconnected Yolanda from the ventilator. They overlooked the fact that the baby had hydrocephaly, compounded with a possible heart problem, and was probably suffering in utero. Also disregarded were the effects on the baby of all they had done to restart Yolanda’s heart. Gloria pressed the point that if the doctors had disconnected Yolanda when they determined a pulmonary embolism had killed her, the baby would have been incapable of feeling anything.
“So what can you tell me?”
“Sandra’s in her summation. Her focus is the hospital's shackling of emergency medical crews to the policy as applied to Yolanda. At an accident, having paramedics perform pregnancy tests on all women of childbearing age and first treating those who prove positive would be a potential death sentence to all males and remaining females. Sheer insanity.”
Marek shook his head. “Tunnel vision.”
“I agree, Marek. The baby’s heartbeat is all that seems to matter.”
“Yolanda and I discussed end of life many times. Neither of us wanted life support if we were brain dead. Even her parents testified to the fact in court. They’ve made my wife an incubator. Her rights are a fiction.”
“I totally agree with you, Marek. I’m sorry I don’t have anything yet. I’ll get back to you by four o’clock with the ruling.”
“Thanks.” He glanced at the television monitor hanging from the ceiling on the opposite side of the room. “Goodbye.” The late afternoon local news ran silently.
He kept the broadcast on hoping they would interrupt with an important announcement at the courthouse. Still nothing. The North Central Expressway remained a parking lot. The scrolling banner across the bottom of the screen displayed the end-of-the-day stock market numbers. A commercial for the Central Market on East Lover’s Lane announced a weekend special on short ribs.
Footfalls at the doorway drew Marek’s attention. Dr. Rupasinghe entered. She had been in charge of the emergency room when Yolanda arrived. “Any word yet?” she asked.
Out of habit, Marek pulled his phone from his pocket. No messages missed. “Just spoke with one of our attorneys. Nothing to report. The court doesn’t close until four, so I still have hope.”
“Is this the last day?”
“Tomorrow is estimated to be the beginning of the twenty-fifth week.” They both understood. Roe v. Wade only guaranteed the right to an abortion for the first twenty-four weeks of pregnancy. “At …” Marek’s voice became choked, unable to continue.
“I wish you the best of all possibilities. Please contact me no matter the outcome.”
Marek nodded, still incapable of speaking. He rose from his chair and walked over to the windowsill where he picked up a pot of paperwhite narcissus. The view overlooked the parking lot where a few cars moved about. A young couple approached the entrance doors. She looked pregnant. Marek shuddered. He took another quick glance at the television before bringing the gift over to his wife.
At the bedside, he placed one of the flowers under Yolanda’s nose. “I don’t know if you can smell them, mi amor, but I hope you enjoy the scent. I’ve been told by visitors who bring them in for others that their fragrance is uplifting.” He stood for a moment in the silence, save for the soft beeps of the medical equipment and finally returned the plant to the sill.
Marek bit his lower lip. Memories of the moment he discovered Yolanda on the floor of the kitchen flooded his mind. She had gotten up to give Moisés his bottle. Marek had dozed off before reawakening and realizing the time, 2 a.m. Over an hour had passed. Believing his wife had fallen asleep in the rocking chair, he figured he’d put Moisés back in his crib and walk Yolanda back to bed.
In the baby’s room, his son slept quietly. After checking the bathroom, Marek found Yolanda lying on the kitchen floor unconscious and unresponsive. No pulse. Cold. Her face blue. Frantic, he went into automatic pilot and gave her CPR. Though he had no memory of doing so, Marek had grabbed a cell phone charging on a kitchen counter and called 9-1-1.
Marek leaned forward and gazed at his wife’s peaceful face. “I hope you know, had I realized the result of my actions, I never would have resuscitated you.
“I did it for you.
“I did it for our love.
“I did it for our baby, Moisés, and the one growing in your womb.”
Marek sat down, leaned back into the stuffed chair and tilted his head upwards toward the ceiling. A small blue dome protruded as it recorded the activities in the room. How many times did the thought of disconnecting Yolanda pass through his mind? He could be subtle enough with the ventilator so the camera wouldn’t pick up what he was doing. Probably. Marek decided ‘No’ after weighing the consequences of the actions. What would be gained? A month less of this torture? Maybe two before they took the baby and let Yolanda return to the Holy Spirit? He would be sentenced to jail; first for ‘killing’ his wife, but also for killing their daughter. Moisés would grow up without either parent to care for him.
Marek drew in a deep breath and looked at Yolanda with half-closed eyes. “Every day we’re in life-and-death situations. How many times did we talk about our end-of-life wishes at home after finishing our shifts? How foolish we were.” He shook his head and thought, Oh, how I wish we’d drawn up the legal paperwork. Not that any document would be much good here in Texas.
In his childhood, his mother had taught Marek that God watched over him, and life would be good. His father, an immigrant to America from Czechoslovakia, imparted a belief that the legal system always did the right thing. Marek had begun to have doubts about the former, but prayed the latter would still be true, at least when the final ruling came down. He wondered how Job had kept his faith.
A knock at the door.
Marek’s eyes widened and his jaw clenched as he realized who was speaking.
“I have good news for you,” said Pastor Thomas.
In a flat, controlled tone, Marek said, “The best news you could give me is that you are leaving.”
Pastor Thomas stepped into the room. “A family in my congregation wants to adopt the baby if you feel you cannot handle—”
“I can handle it. She’s my daughter.”
“I thought, perhaps, given the circumstances.”
“What circumstances?” Marek burned. “The baby suffers from life-threatening deformities in her brain and heart.”
“But just in case—”
“But just in case, what? She was deprived of oxygen for an hour, like her mother. If the baby survives the caesarian, they doubt she’ll survive her birth day.”
“Perhaps they are in error. God—”
“Don’t give me God as your excuse. I watched your interview on the news last night.” The sound of Marek’s voice reverberated in the hallway. “Pastor Haughty should be your name. You’re now in the limelight. You’re in your glory. You don’t care about Yolanda or our baby or all the heartache you’ve caused our family. If it wasn’t for people like you and your bull-headed supporters, Yolanda’s last wishes would have been followed months ago.”
An orderly stepped into the doorway. “Marek, is there a problem?” Jerry was an old friend who had worked with Marek many times.
“Yes, there’s a problem.” He pointed. “Pastor Thomas here. He claims to be a man of God, but he’s a scavenger, a vulture, just looking for a front-page photo op.”
“Pastor, I’m sorry, but you must leave.”
“I came to help.”
“The best way you can help is by leaving with me now.”
“But …” said the pastor, perplexed.
“I’ll only ask you one more time, otherwise I’ll contact security.”
Crestfallen, Pastor Thomas opened his mouth but stopped himself before uttering a word and left with Jerry. Marek stood there shaking, hands clenched.
A moment later Jerry returned. “Marek?”
“It’s okay, Jerry. Please, come in.”
“He’s gone. I alerted Security and he won’t be allowed up here again.”
“Thanks.” Marek released his balled hands and gave them a shake.
“Nice suit,” said Jerry.
“Feels odd being in a hospital out of my scrubs. The attorneys suggested I dress up, in case I had to shoot down to the courthouse.”
“Anything I can do for you?”
Jerry nodded. “We’ll talk later.”
Marek’s phone beeped.
Only nine minutes until the court closed. A text message from his sister, Lenka. He had hoped it would be from one of the attorneys. ‘Nothing yet.’ was his response.
“Mi preciosa,” Marek said after returning the phone to his pocket. “Moisés and I had a good talk about you last night when I gave him his bath. He told me—well, as much as any twenty-one-month-old baby can—Moisés told me he misses you and wants to know when you’re coming home. Moisés loves you so much and needs both of us. I miss you, love you. I’m not sure how I’ll go on, but I must, for Moisés’s sake at least. I’ve started seeing a therapist to help me.
“I dropped Moisés off with your parents this morning. Mamá Josefa had just spoken with Abuela. Your grandmother was looking forward to our visiting with the babies this summer. I’ve decided to fly her in to spend a couple of weeks with us.
“I’m still hoping Moisés and I can go on the trip to Slovakia next year to visit my father’s brothers and their families in Komárno. My father’s youngest brother, Strýko Henrich, said he will arrange for us to take a cruise on the Danube. I suspect all of my relatives, especially the strýkovia and tety, will fight with each other to spoil our Moisés.
“Papá Rafael apologized for not coming to visit you in the past few weeks. He wants to remember you as you were. Vibrant, happy, alive. I assured him you would understand. Mamá Josefa and Papá Rafael love you so much.” Marek’s eyes drifted back to the monitor.
He looked at his beloved, lay out in her bed, and croaked out, “They should honor your wishes.” The unspoken end of the sentence was ‘and let you die with dignity.’
Marek tensed and tightly closed his eyes. The soft beeps of the equipment again punctuated the still of the room. He thought what he could not say: Each day, your body dies a bit more.
“Everyone has been lighting vigil candles for you at Our Lady. This past Sunday, there must have been more than fifty lights burning in the nave. For the first time, Father Muñoz lit a candle for you despite knowing your wishes. He’s a good man. He told me he’d be honored to give you your last rites.”
Marek turned again to the television monitor.
He turned up the volume when he saw a reporter standing in front of the courthouse. “In the Four O’Clock Report, we’ll give you the results of this human rights case playing out at the Fifth Court of Appeals this afternoon.…” Marek silenced the sound. Still nothing. He continued staring at the monitor as his eyes became unfocused. The seconds seemed to go by slowly as he prayed time would stop or at least slow down to give the judge enough of it to make the correct decision. To allow Yolanda to die without resuscitation, as was her wish. To give her the gift of going to God. To let her family mourn her passing and remember her for the wonderful, funny, warm and loving person she was.
Marek prayed again to God for the phone to ring or for a text message to appear or for some dramatic announcement from the television. He prayed the judge would, in the final moment, make the correct decision and let the family deal with Yolanda’s passing in their own good, Christian way.
In the distance, a church bell slowly pealed the hour. The court was closed.