I don't know who started this absurd Christmas ritual, but it's become as essential to family get-togethers as pecan pie or honey-baked ham. As soon as the food is served and we're all seated around... [+]
Turning to him, she took a deep breath. “Jake, I don’t think I properly prepared you for what you’ll see in this room. If you decide you don’t want to come inside, or if for any reason you need to leave, please don’t hesitate. I’m grateful that you have come with me, but I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.”
Before she could continue, Jake placed his free hand against the side of her face. “Willow, I’m not going anywhere. You don’t need to worry about me, I’ll be fine.”
Willow nodded and turned back toward the door. Pushing the handle with one hand and gripping his hand with the other, she entered the room. Jake understood what she meant when she’d said he wasn’t properly prepared for what he was going to see. The woman in the room was barely visible beneath all the wires and tubes. Blue veins punctuated the paper-thin skin from the hand all the way up the arm, and the sunken cheeks and eyes could have belonged to someone long dead.
Jake kept his thoughts and questions to himself while Willow leaned her head against the bed. A sound at the door had them looking up at the doctor who entered. Jake knew the look on his face, and he was sure Willow knew it, too. She took a deep breath, and he squeezed her hand in comfort.
The doctor paused at the foot of the bed and cleared his throat. “Ms. Redwood, I’m Dr. Ranklin. We’ve spoken a few times on the phone over the last year.” He waited for Willow to acknowledge him with a nod before he continued, “I wanted to come by and see you today. I need to inform you of the decline in your mother’s condition.”
Willow interrupted whatever he had planned to say. “How long do you give her?”
“I can’t be sure, but I know she’s declined rapidly this week. She should never have made it this long. I don’t know what is causing her to hold on. She could last another week, a month, or she could pass at any time. There simply isn’t any way to be certain unless we unplug the machines.”
Jake felt Willow tense. “I won’t be doing that.” The tone of her voice made the doctor give her a quick glance before he nodded at them and turned away. Willow waited for the door to close behind him before she leaned her head against her mother’s hand and sighed.
They sat that way for hours before Jake finally had to stand and stretch his legs. Willow never moved. Her hand remained wrapped in the skeleton of a hand that belonged to her mother and her head rested on the bed. At times Jake wondered if she slept. The stillness with which she rested was almost uncanny, but then he remembered that her last year had been spent in this very hospital. She’d probably spent countless days in this same position as she waited for her father’s death. She said she didn’t leave his room for a month before he finally went home to heaven.
Jake felt his gaze drawn to Willow’s mother. He remembered the picture on the wall at Willow’s home, the picture where they were all happy and smiling. It was painful to see her in the hospital bed. Jake could only imagine Willow’s pain. He could only sympathize with the years of drawn-out agony as her parents wasted away. Would he have been able to survive such a loss? His parents had been there one minute and gone the next, the pain swift and cutting. This, though, what Willow suffered was a horse of a different color. She had been through this already and would have to suffer yet again. This was a long, drawn-out torment that only the strongest souls could endure.
Willow spoke to him only once. It was soon after darkness had fallen, and the room darkened to the point that it was only shadows.
“You can go home whenever you want to, Jake.”
He’d shaken his head in the darkness, knowing she would still see the movement. “I leave when you leave.” He thought he heard her sigh, but it was impossible to be sure. Without meaning to, he slept, and the quiet sound of Willow’s voice pulled him from the depths of a dreamless sleep. He opened one eye to see her sitting on the side of the bed with both her mother’s hands in her lap.
Her voice broke his heart and made him fall in love with her all at the same time when she whispered into the night. “God, please help me. Please give me strength one more time. I’ve begged you for their lives, and now I know that I was asking for the wrong thing. Help me to let her go. Give me the courage to face the world without them.” She bowed her head and nodded before speaking again. “I love you, Mama. I know I asked you to stay. I know I said I couldn’t stand to lose you, not now, not so soon after Dad. But I can’t do it, Mama. I can’t be selfish enough to ask you to stay here anymore.” She took a deep breath and continued. “It’s okay for you to go now. You’ve waited long enough. You deserve to rest now.” Jake watched her lean forward and press her lips to her mother’s forehead. “Go home, Mama. I know He’s there waiting to take you, it’s okay. I’ll be all right.” Her voice drifted so low he was sure he misheard the next words. “Jake will make sure I’m all right.”
Jake stood up and made his way quietly over to the bedside. He sat down behind Willow and wrapped one arm around her chest. She leaned against him and waited. The beep of the machines continued for a few minutes more in that same steady rhythm before, ever so slowly, the heartbeat decreased. Willow’s head drifted forward, and Jake wrapped his other arm around her so that her chin rested on his forearm.
Minutes later, the monitor stopped beeping altogether. Willow’s hands clenched together with her mother’s, and she brought them to her lips one last time. There would be no attempts at resuscitation. It was not what Willow’s mother wanted. It wasn’t what Willow wanted. Willow was rigid in his arms, and Jake tugged her toward him. Gently he turned her around to face him.
She leaned her forehead against his chest, and Jake rubbed her back. “Come on, now you need a good ugly cry.”
“I don’t want to.” Her voice choked on the words.
Jake brushed her hair over his arm and tugged her closer. “I know you don’t want to, but you need to, Willow. Don’t try to hold it in. There’s no reason to hold on to all the pain. Let it go, I’m here, I’m not going anywhere. Do it for me, Willow.”
He kissed the top of her head while her shoulders began to shake. A surge of love so powerful it nearly made him gasp raced through him and tears darkened his eyes at the sound of Willow’s pain. Her strength amazed him, and her act of absolute love left him breathless. The fact that she would let him be here for this made him feel incredibly lucky. Jake knew Willow did not share her life – or her pain – very easily. It showed a great amount of trust that she would do this while he was here.
Slowly, her shaking subsided, and she hiccupped a few times before she turned her face to the side and let her cheek rest against his chest. Her hands tangled his shirt in a viselike grip while her breathing hitched.
Jake forced himself to remain silent about his sudden revelation of feelings toward her. Willow had enough to deal with right now. What he was feeling wasn’t something she should have to work through just yet. Jake knew now without a doubt that Willow was the one he was meant to live the rest of his life with. He didn’t know when or if she would ever be ready to have him in her life as more than a friend, but Jake knew he was willing to wait for her.