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Life Support

There was no hope: machines were keeping him alive. His kids, who hardly knew him anymore, had to decide whether he'd live or die.

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"Hi babe," came Eileen's voice over the phone. "I need you to do me a really, really big favor."

It had been about two years since Eileen had last called my friend Mary, about ten years since Mary had last seen her. That was on Eileen's final night in Chicago, which she and her two kids spent in Mary's flat. Their rent-a-car was packed full for the trip out west. Nothing in Chicago anymore but Bob's people, Eileen said. All her people were in Arizona, and it felt good to be starting over.

"The kids are coming in on an airplane," is what Eileen said next. A man had called the day before and said he was glad he'd tracked them down because Bob had had a heart attack while driving his cab and hit another car. He was in a coma in the ICU at Illinois Masonic. There was no hope: machines were keeping him alive. Someone had to decide what to do with him, and the poor kids were the closest family he had, though he'd been nothing of a father to them, Eileen said. They were flying in tomorrow. Larry was 19 now and Linda was 17. Eileen couldn't afford to come with them. Could Mary please be there for them, give them "moral support"?

The medical examiner's notes say Bob,* a 59-year-old white male, was driving his own car (not a cab) when a massive heart attack hit. He lost control and struck another car, but there were no other injuries, to himself or others. Bob had called his garage that day to reserve a cab, but he never showed. He was probably on his way there when the accident occurred, nine blocks from where he lived.

Mary remembered Bob as thin-haired and burly, bordering on fat. He was a bitter man. She figured he resented her because she was one of Eileen's friends. Sometimes, back in the 70s, he'd come pick up his kids from Mary's house, back when he was still married to Eileen. Never said anything more than he had to. Hi. Fine. Bye. Just wanted to get the kids and go.

On the phone Eileen announced with great excitement that when all this was over, she and the kids were going to move back to Chicago. She'd had enough of Arizona. "Be ready to stay up till three in the morning when I get back," she told Mary.

That's how Mary remembered Eileen's last night in Chicago--cigarettes and two-handed solitaire until nearly dawn. The kids slept on mattresses on the floor because Mary and her family had just moved in and hadn't had a chance to set up the beds yet. Eileen was six years older, so Mary held her as a big sister. They were two mothers with kids the same age. They were neighbors and drinking buddies. Mary admired the way Eileen seemed to be doing pretty well with two kids and no husband. She couldn't imagine doing the same. She also admired Eileen's boldness and how it could bring out her own impulsive nature. One time Eileen came by in the middle of the day and said, "Let's get a six-pack and take the kids to the beach." So they did. Mary would never have done anything like that on her own.

And ten years ago Eileen's kids seemed to be turning out pretty well, considering. Just like her, they knew how to have fun.

But it was a really, really big favor. Mary had a few days off and had planned to get away, go visit her brother in Wisconsin. But what else could she do? The kids had nowhere else to go.

And maybe it wouldn't be so bad. It would be great to see them again, see how they turned out.

It was nearly midnight when the plane arrived. In the swirling airport crowd Mary spotted Linda first, a buoyant young girl with a fair, slightly freckled Irish complexion. Mary wanted to run up to her, hug her, and say, "I recognize those chipmunk cheeks!" But she wanted to make sure she had the right girl first. The olive-skinned, sullen teen slouching along beside her looked nothing like Larry. He had an adolescent hint of a mustache, and steel wool on his chin. "What happened to you?" Mary said. "You used to be cute."

Right away Linda asked about Bob. "How does he look?"

"Not good," Mary said. "Be prepared." She had stopped by the ICU before coming to the airport. A nurse was tending to him and asking another, "When's his family coming?" The puffy-faced man hooked to the gasping, beeping, clicking machines was definitely Bob, though his hair was thinner and grayer and he was even heavier than Mary remembered.

Larry never asked about Bob. It became obvious to Mary, just in the time it took to walk through the airport, that Larry had a lot of his father's anger, though he wasn't steeped in it like Bob was. Whenever the conversation turned to Bob, Larry seemed to drop back a step or two. It was as if he wanted to make it clear that he wasn't interested, though he stayed close enough to hear what they said.

It was nearly one in the morning when they arrived at the ICU. The kids hadn't wanted to wait till the next day. Mary walked between them as they approached the ward, each of them holding a hand. Linda squeezed hard.

At Bob's bedside Linda held his hand and cried. Larry tried his best not to, standing behind Linda with his hands on her shoulders. Bob's eyes snapped open like a window shade and he jerked. Linda and Larry jumped back and hollered for the nurse, who came running.

"He opened his eyes! He opened his eyes!" Linda said.

"It's just a reflex," the nurse told them. As she calmly suctioned Bob's throat, Linda stood steadfast at her father's bedside and peppered the nurse with questions. Larry either leaned against the wall or sat at the foot of the bed and said nothing. Linda asked what was wrong with Bob's ear. It was gnarled and deformed and practically swollen shut. The nurse said it was from an ear infection Bob never took care of.

They sat in silence for a while after the nurse left. Mary noticed how Linda's tearful eyes slowly scanned her father's body with the fascination of discovery, the same look with which a mother stares for hours at her newborn baby. "Look. He's got bunions," Linda said, almost in a whisper. "That's where I get them from."

Eileen was always a hard person to keep track of. Her phones were often disconnected, and the last Christmas card Mary sent her had come back marked "Return to Sender."

When Eileen's letters did come, they were always an event, full of her wild, impulsive plans and confessions. In one of her most recent, a few months earlier--the first Mary had gotten in years--Eileen out of the blue told her about an oldest daughter Mary never knew existed. Her name was Donna, she was 25, and Eileen and Bob gave her up for adoption at birth. Larry and Linda had never known about her either, until three years ago when Eileen told them they had a big sister who was coming to Arizona to live with them.

Practically all Larry and Linda had talked about the night before, all the way to the ICU, was how they resented the fact the doctor insisted Donna be involved. It was a disaster, Larry and Linda said, when she lived in Arizona with them, before she moved back to Chicago. She argued with Eileen constantly. They said she was incredibly selfish. She expected them all to baby-sit for her toddler son for days at a time. She kept saying she wanted to give him up for adoption.

But the doctor had insisted that the "two oldest blood" decide Bob's fate, and that was Donna and Larry. Here it was the next morning, when they were to come to a decision, and Donna was five hours late. She was always late. And the ICU had listed as Bob's possessions a watch and a wallet containing $215 in cash. None of it was at the hospital, and only Donna had been there.

When Donna finally bounced into the waiting room, she took one look at Larry and Linda and bounced back out. She didn't say a word or even break stride. The glimpse Mary got of her did not reveal the haggard bitch she expected. Donna was quite attractive, with expensively styled curly hair and meticulous makeup. She had Bob's large deep brown eyes. That glimpse also seemed to reveal an innocence, the last quality Mary had expected to see.

Larry and Linda immediately hustled after Donna and confronted her in the corridor. Without even a hello they demanded to know where the wallet and money were.

"It's in his apartment," Donna said, with a dismissing flip of her hand. "I put it all there!"

"There was money there, Donna!" Larry said, his eyes flashing with anger.

"It's there," Donna said. "It's all there."

Larry tensed and took a step toward Donna, so Mary gently squeezed her nails into his bicep to calm him. His muscles relaxed. He took a step back.

They all went into the waiting room, and Larry, Linda, and Donna gathered in a far corner while Mary watched a soap. Their discussion looked as unanimated as a business lunch, as grudging and forced as a deposition. But there was consensus in their gestures and postures. After 20 minutes they announced to Mary they'd all agreed to give permission for Bob's life support to be disconnected the next day.

The home address on Bob's hospital chart turned out to be a transient hotel near Fullerton and Pulaski. The man behind the desk buzzed Larry, Linda, and Mary in. The lobby was dim, dingy, and musty. There was an ancient elevator with a cage door you pull shut.

The man behind the desk was jovial. They recognized his voice: he was the one who'd called Arizona to tell them about their father's heart attack. "I've heard a lot about you," he said. "Which one of you was the one who was going into the service?"

"I was," Linda said, looking surprised he knew. "But they wouldn't take me because I have tubes in my ears."

The man told them Bob kept to himself. He wouldn't even let the maid in his room, the room he'd been living in for ten years--probably since right after Eileen took the kids to Arizona. "Every year or two, we'd tell him he could move into another room while we painted and cleaned his, and then he could have it back," the man said. "But he never wanted to do it."

The maid, a hefty Latina, took them up in the elevator and unlocked the door to Bob's room. She immediately pointed out the wallet and watch on the neatly made bed. The wallet was open and the contents strewn about. "It was like that when I found it," she said as she left.

Larry checked the wallet fast. The money was gone. "Donna!" he said, but Mary said not to be so quick. Maybe the maid took the money when she came in to make the bed--she looked nervous, and it was doubtful Bob ever took the time to make a bed so carefully.

Linda looked around at the cluttered room and shook her head. "Now I see why he wouldn't let me come live with him." The room smelled like an ashtray and a greasy hamburger grill. In Bob's wallet Mary noticed a recent picture of Larry and Linda. No pictures of Donna. She wondered how Donna had felt when she saw that.

"Linda, remember this?" Larry said as he lifted an old calculator from a dresser drawer. "He used to yell at us for playing with this." Linda rummaged through the closet, opened a box, and began to cry. It contained all the letters she'd sent her father. He never wrote back. She read through a few of them silently and put the box aside to take with her.

Mary opened the small refrigerator, but the stench that came screaming out made her shut it right away. The inside of the toaster oven was covered with charred drippings. They found a box full of cab receipts and a box full of coupons from the backs of cigarette packages. When Linda opened another box, she giggled and said, "Dad!" It was full of porno tapes.

They took with them the calculator, the television and VCR, the box of letters, and the porno tapes. They gave the man behind the desk the cigarette coupons.

"We'll be back," Linda said to him. "Don't let anyone else in."

"Don't let Donna in," Larry said.

The next day there wasn't the debilitating sense of dread Mary had feared. The kids were loose. Linda was almost giddy. She had coped by immersing herself in details--calls to Social Security, vain efforts to track down bank accounts and insurance policies. While she did all this Larry watched TV or ran off to the park.

Donna was five hours late again. When she finally arrived, the doctor brought all the papers into the waiting room for them to sign. Donna asked about donating the body parts, but the doctor said none of Bob's organs would be of value.

The three kids went back to Bob's room by themselves. Larry and Donna came out after 20 minutes. Mary thought she'd better go check on Linda.

Linda was holding her father's hand and crying. Mary stood behind and rubbed her shoulders. Bob's chest rose and fell mechanically with the rhythm of the clicking respirator. "He looks different," Linda said. Mary agreed, but she wasn't quite sure what it was. He'd been cleaned and groomed. But maybe the difference was that, for the first time, even since he'd been in the coma, he looked like he had nothing pent up.

Donna entered slowly and stood on the other side of the bed. After a moment she said, "I've got his eyes."

"I've got his bunions," Linda said.

"Mostly, you look like your mother," Mary said to Donna.

Donna rolled her eyes and said, "Well, Eileen always tried to tell me how to run my life."

Linda said, "Well, you would leave for three days sometimes and not call or anything!"

"She was possessive."

"She can be possessive," Linda said, still holding Bob's hand. "But that's no reason to rip her off and stuff. We were trying to help you!" Donna just shrugged, perhaps as close as she would get to an acknowledgment of responsibility.

Mary went back to the waiting room and sat with Larry. Donna followed shortly after. Mary was about to go check on Linda again when she finally returned. With forced composure she said, "Let's go. I've got a lot to do."

Donna said she would stay with Bob until he died. Larry and Linda said good-bye to her without affection.

Bob's life support was disconnected at 6 PM. He lived until 9.

On the shelves in the reception area of the Cremation Society of Illinois were all kinds of urns. Metal vases both slender and squat. Ornate boxes. Linda browsed through them, wondering which would be best. Some cost as much as $400, which was about all they had left to spend on cremation and urn both.

That's why the man at the funeral home near Mary's house had called the Cremation Society. Whoever he talked to here told him the Cremation Society could do the whole job for $350, and the best the funeral home could do it for was $700. Or, he told them, they could also just leave Bob in the morgue, and eventually he would be cremated at public expense.

The Cremation Society receptionist told them the cost was $450. She was round and humorless. Mary told her about the phone call, but the receptionist just said, "Well, that's what we charge." She called the boss after Mary insisted, and then said $350 would do. But it would take a couple days. (Probably for the check to clear, Mary thought.) The receptionist would call when Bob was ready. She never asked them to select an urn.

Larry had to fly back--he couldn't take any more time off work. As he turned to board his plane, he told Mary he was looking forward to coming back to Chicago for good in a couple months. Linda got nervous and silent, as she always did at any talk about them moving back.

Two weeks after Linda flew back, Mary got a letter from Eileen with the news that she would not be coming to Chicago after all. Linda was three months pregnant. "You know how she told me?" Eileen wrote. One day they went out for lunch and had a real nice day. When they got home, Eileen took a little nap, and when she woke up she found a note: "Dear Mom. Thank you for a beautiful day. I had alot of fun but I felt so guilty. I'm pregnant. Went to Phoenix. Be home by eleven. Love, Linda."

So now Linda refused to come back to Chicago, Eileen wrote, because Mary and everyone had told her how smart and mature she was, the way she handled all those practical details, and now she was ashamed to face them. "I hate being here so much. . . . I feel like I have wasted 18 years of my life," Eileen wrote. "I feel about as happy with these guys as I did being with their father."

Eileen's next letter came a week later: "I can't worry about this anymore. I've done what I can do. . . . I guess it's time for them to grow up and it's time for me to get a life.

"Tell you what, Mary. I'm going to Reno this weekend with my mom. This is our birthday present to each other. If I win any money, I'm definitely moving."

She hasn't written since.

One thing Linda wanted to do while she was waiting for them to cremate Bob was stop by the restaurant where the manager of the transient hotel said he'd had breakfast nearly every morning. She wanted to talk to the waitresses and regulars, see if anyone could tell her anything about him.

But she never did go. More paperwork and phone calls, and then the woman from the Cremation Society called. When Mary and Linda went to pick Bob up, they signed some papers and the receptionist pointed to a brown paper shopping bag on a chair in the reception area. "That's him." Inside was a brown cardboard box.

Linda carried the bag out, hugging it to her chest like a heavy armload of groceries. She set it down by her feet in the car and sat there quiet, sad, contemplative.

They took the shopping bag back to Mary's house and left it on the dining room table with a big note taped to it that said "DO NOT TOUCH," underlined and with exclamation points. Then they went to the zoo.

The next day, by the time they got to the airport, you could see by Linda's posture and stride she'd been rejuvenated. She gave Mary a long hug good-bye at the security checkpoint.

"I can't wait till you guys move back," Mary said.

Linda's only reply was, "Thanks for everything."

The woman sitting on the stool next to the conveyor belt told them to run the shopping bag through the X-ray device.

"Does she have to run it through?" Mary asked the woman. "Can't you just look inside?"

"Why?" she said. "Is it something that will spill?"

"Yeah," Mary said. "Her father."

The woman looked inside. Her eyes opened wide and her brows shot up. She quickly shoved the bag back toward Linda and waved her through.

* Most names and some details have been changed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.

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