“Here to see Alley again?” the old woman perched behind the reception desk asks me. I nod, and watch as she types something on her keyboard. “Someone will be here to take you to her room in a moment,” she tells me.” My heart erupts in my chest at the memory of our past meetings. ‘Do I really want to see her like this?’ I can’t help but wonder. The truthful answer is no, I don’t, even if I can’t keep myself away.
“Jason?” I look up to see one of the clinic nurses gesturing towards me. “Jason, she’s ready to see you now.”
As we walk down the hall I hear the panicked scream of another patient. I can’t help but wonder if this one has lost herself to the same degree as my Alley, or if she’s only half way there. I debate what I would prefer if I could choose. Would I rather have the dead look I see in my best friend’s eyes every day, or would I prefer to hear her scream as the unnamed horrors etch themselves in her mind?
As we continue to walk, as usual I wish I was anywhere but here. I miss the days when visiting my childhood sweet heart meant our laughter and joy. The longer we walk I see men and women I recognize from my first visit.
“Hey honey! Come to see your little wife again?” asks an elderly patient, who I know to be Chandra. “Why don’t you come see me, sweetheart?” I don’t bother to remind Chandra that we’re not married, and I know to ignore her final comment. Ever since that first visit, I’ve learned to get used to comments coming from people who you almost think would know better. Then you remember where they are.
I stay close to the nurse even though I know where I’m going. I don’t want to feel lost in this place, or lost myself. We walk until we enter the ward for people who need constant care, like Alley. I still remember Natalia, her former roommate, saying that patients who entered this ward would never recover. Then I didn’t want to believe. Now I know how true it is.
My body is caught between panic and hope when I see the name ‘Alexandra Shaw’ on the outside of a room. The nurse unlocks the door, allowing me continue unaccompanied. My chest tights as I recall a time when every meeting required a chaperone.
The room we enter is completely white excluding the long light blue visitors bench against the wall, and the glass across one wall. I realize that doctors must be monitoring us and a chill runs down my spine.
Alley is dressed in a patient’s gown, and her once warm brown eyes are vacant. She only slightly lifts her head to acknowledge me. For a moment I see something jump in her as she recognizes me. There is a faint flicker of her former self there, kindling a glimmer of hope that maybe she’s not all gone. As the expression reaches her eyes, however, it is extinguished, and I fall back into the pit of despair.
Her body is the color of new fallen snow, and it’s apparent that she hasn’t seen the light of day in months. Once, I tried convincing her caretakers that she could do with some time outside. For a moment it worked, and then Alley just stopped. She didn’t want to be outside. She didn’t even want to try normal activities. All I must do is glance at the machinery in her room to remember it. Perhaps that was when she’d lost her will to live. Now they force her nutrition. At first she fought their attempts, and I was there to comfort her. As time passed even that small resistance died out.
“Hey there Alley,” I call out to her. She looks up again and barely gives me a sad smile. “How are you?" I ask. I don’t know why I bother every day. I know her condition, I know she won’t speak. Nothing changes, but still I reach to feel the fire she once had. Still I fall into the icy numb when I realize again that I can’t reach her.
I sit with her and ask her yes or no questions about how she feels. She doesn’t respond, and I must work to hold back tears when the memory of what I lost clenches my heart. She is essentially a living corpse with her white robe and her ribs flashing out under her skin. I don’t know why I’m surprised when she seems so tired. Her doctor once told me that she could only sleep when I came to visit. What does she do all day if she can’t sleep?
I hold her in my arms and whisper pleasant things to her until her eyes close. I give her hand a slight stroke and lay her down in my lap as if I were her parent. I mimic the way her mother would cradle her and care for her when she first became ill. Now her mother can’t even see her daughter regularly, and I know tonight I will call to update her, even if there is nothing to say.
When she has been asleep for ten minutes a nurse comes to get me. I give her hair one final stroke, and take note of how she sleeps. She is only the Alley I remember in sleep. “Goodbye Alley. I already miss you.”
I follow the nurse back to the waiting room, trying to remember why I still hold on her when I know she’s already gone. She’s already dead to the world. Something in me reminds me that I never will be able to leave her. I will cling unto her until her body catches up, and she falls asleep for the last time. As I walk out of that place, I let the tears fall down my cheeks as I mourn my best friend, my breathing corpse.