There were two people in Melanie’s room besides Melanie herself. Henry was not pleased to see either of them. One was a man with dark skin wearing round wire-rimmed glasses and sporting an immaculate mustache. This was Dr. Sheldon Fletcher, and he was everything you could want in a doctor: calm, professional, compassionate yet detached. When he spoke it was like honey was being poured directly into your eardrums. Henry hated him because he never had good news to share. Since Melanie was physically stable, Dr. Fletcher came around only rarely. He was only a few years older than Henry, but he had the unassuming arrogance that only a doctor working at one of the most prestigious hospitals in the world could have. He treated everyone as if they were beneath him – and they quite literally were, since he nearly topped six and a half feet.
The other person was a girl who could almost have passed for Melanie’s twin. She had darker hair, a rich brown color, done up in a ponytail so that the pink streaks running through it were clearly visible. She was thin and wiry, normally bristling with barely restrained energy but today considerably more subdued. She was wearing a denim jacket over a striped black and white v-neck shirt with a loose black skirt and white stockings. Leather boots came up nearly to her knees. Her gray eyes were sharp and predatory like a hawk’s. This was Gina, Melanie’s younger sister, a girl of twenty-four years of age. As soon as Henry entered the room, she ceased her conversation with Dr. Fletcher and walked over to wrap her arms around Henry in a surprisingly powerful hug. Henry did not return the hug, but he did note that her hair was redolent with the aroma of some strange fruit, perhaps passion fruit or mango.
When Gina stepped back, Henry could see tears shining brightly at the corners of her eyes. Her glasses were small and rectangular, with a mottled pattern on the arms. She wore them in order to look older, but the effort was in vain because she would always look young and sprightly no matter her age. Henry was ill-prepared to see her looking so devastated.
“Henry, I –” Her voice cracked as she tried to get the words out. “I don’t know how to tell you this, but –” She turned away and was wracked by uncontrollable sobbing.
Dr. Fletcher took this opportunity to step forward and extend his hand. Henry shook it slowly, now just feeling confused.
“Henry, we’ve had this conversation before,” Dr. Fletcher began. “There’s nothing new for me to tell you at this juncture.”
“Um…so why are you here?” Henry asked.
“Let me just remind you where we stand. At this moment, Melanie has been in what is referred to as a ‘persistent vegetative state’ for over a year now.”
“One year, two months, and thirteen days,” Henry interjected. “I know how long it’s been. Like you said, you’re not telling me anything new.”
The doctor continued as if Henry had not even spoken. “The head trauma that Melanie incurred in her car accident caused severe damage to her reticular activating system –”
“Which maintains the level of arousal and controls sleep-wake transitions. I know, I’ve read every book, article, and website on comas and brain damage I could get my hands on.”
“Yes, if only medical practice were as simple as reading some books.” When Dr. Fletcher was annoyed, his mustache twitched slightly, but other than that his face was a mask of composure. “You may also know then that after four months in a coma caused by brain damage, the chance for a partial recovery is less than 15%, and the chance for a full recovery is even lower.”
“Yeah,” Henry replied, “you told me that at the four month mark.”
“After a year, the diagnosis is classified as a ‘permanent vegetative state.’ At this point, I as the attending physician, upon the agreement of all the other doctors in the neurosurgery ward, have concluded that by any informed medical expectations it is impossible that Melanie will ever recover.”
Though he knew exactly what this meant, had in fact been expecting this day for some time now, Henry still had to stammer, “What…what are you saying?”
At this point, Gina had recovered to the point where she could cut in. “Henry,” she said, her voice shaky and eyes wide in panic, “my parents are going to pull the plug!”
“That is pending a formal judicial request to end life support,” Dr. Fletcher added, “but I’m afraid events have already been set into motion. I spoke with Mr. and Mrs. Merkowitz on this matter last night.”
Henry felt like he was going to throw up. His first inclination was to collapse on the spot into a useless puddle, assume the fetal position, and bawl like an infant. However, it seemed more productive to grow enraged. He could seize that little ball of fury and use it to hold back the tide of sorrow that threatened to wash over him and leave him utterly inert.
“There is no fucking way I’m going to let that happen!” Henry shouted. “I have some say in this, don’t I? I’m her fiancée!”
“Yes, her fiancée,” Dr. Fletcher agreed. “Not her husband. Because you were never officially married, you have no power of attorney. If you were married, then you could turn this into a clusterfuck of Terry Schiavo proportions, but as the situation stands you have no legal rights here.”
It took all the force of will Henry had to refrain from slamming his fist into Dr. Fletcher’s smug face. Still, his intentions must have been clear on his face, because Dr. Fletcher took an involuntary step backwards in spite of the fact that it was almost inconceivable that Henry could ever take him in a fight. Gina took him by the arm and led the fuming Henry out into the hallway. However, the anger had already begun to subside. That sort of rage required a great deal of energy to maintain, and Henry did not have much to spare. The roaring inferno was reduced to a flickering flame, then smoldering coals.
Gina was still clutching his arm in a vice-grip. The pain and fear on her face was difficult to behold but even more difficult to look away from. “Clearly you’re not ok with this either,” he said.
It was a stupid thing to say. “Of course I’m not ok with this!” she responded. “What part of this situation could possibly be misconstrued as ok? You think my parents are ok with the idea of ending their own daughter’s life?”
“I can’t believe they’re just giving up hope like that. As long as she’s still alive there’s still a chance she might recover.”
“And how long do we wait around for that to happen, Henry?” Gina asked. “Maybe you’ve forgotten this, but you’re only covering less than a third of the cost of keeping her alive. My parents can’t afford to keep her on life support indefinitely.”
“I can figure something out!” Henry pleaded. He nearly cringed at how desperate and whiny his voice sounded. “They’ve got to give me a chance. I can’t believe your parents would decide this without even consulting me!”
“That’s why I’m here – so I could get you to come to our house so you that we can all sit down and talk about this together! I’ve been trying to contact you, but you won’t return any of my calls or texts.”
Henry remembered the missed text he had received last night. He never even bothered to look at his phone. Then he remembered that he had been in the habit of ignoring his phone anyway whenever Gina tried to contact him. She used to call or text him several times a week, but she had stopped doing so for the last several months. The calls and texts had resumed full force in the last week.
“I thought about just showing up at your house, but…” Gina hesitated. “I thought that would be…inappropriate.”
That summoned thoughts that Henry would rather not think about, so he put them aside and said, “I don’t care what you or your parents say. I’m going to fight this. I’m not going to let you take her from me.”
Gina’s face grew flushed. “Take her from you? As if she means nothing to the rest of us? She’s my big sister, Henry. I’ve known her all my life – a lot longer than you, I should add. I know that when the life support is terminated and I watch her take her last breath, that image is going to stay with me the rest of my life. The guilt, the helplessness – I’ll carry those feelings until the day I die. But Melanie deserves to move on and go to a better place. But for you to want to prolong her suffering just because you’re incapable of moving on? That’s just…selfish. Totally and completely selfish.”
Henry turned and, because it seemed like the right thing to do, slammed his fist into the wall. This drew the attention of several nurses and orderlies, but they all quickly resumed what they were doing. Dr. Fletcher popped his head out of the room with a concerned look on his face, but seeing that this was a conversation he wanted no part of, he turned and walked down the hallway in the opposite direction.
His hand hurt. He had skinned several of his knuckles. “She’s all I’ve got,” he said. “She’s the only thing in this world that makes me happy.”
Gina shook her head. “That’s not true. You’ve got a lot of people who care about you. I’m one of them.” She took a deep breath. “Look, I felt the same way as you at first. She was like my best friend. You should have heard me scream at my parents. Even the neighbors were worried. Then I went in her old room and sat there and cried for a long time. Every time I thought I was out of tears, a few more would come. But finally I realized that I already lost Melanie. She’s not in that room. A motionless vegetable isn’t going to make you happy.”
“No, that’s true.” Henry involuntarily reached up to touch his own cheeks. They were dry, as were his eyes. He had never really known how to cry. Melanie used to comment that she had never seen him cry, and Henry would joke that his tear ducts were just too manly to release any liquid. “But I’m not ready to say goodbye to her. I don’t even know how to say goodbye to her.”
“It’s not going to happen right away,” Gina said, resting her hand gently on his arm – the same arm that she had clamped onto before. “This process is going to take some time, which honestly just makes it even harder. I don’t know how to say goodbye to her either, but we can figure out together.”
“Maybe.” The thoughts he was trying to repress were threatening to creep in.
“Please, Henry, stay with me. I really don’t want to be alone right now.”
Then, either because she could not control her emotions or because she had been planning this all along, Gina leaned forward and kissed him. It was a desperate kiss, a kiss born of many conflicting emotions, the kind of kiss that normally only happens in movies, and it first it completely overwhelmed Henry. He felt himself being drawn him and wanted nothing more than to let that happen, but then the levees in his mind broke and all the thoughts came rushing in, bringing with them guilt and anger. He pushed her away and glared at her. The look on her face suggested that she had not in fact planned this, but that did not make him any less furious.
“And you call me selfish,” was all he said, and then turned and walked away.
Gina called after him, “Henry, wait! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to do that!” However, she did not follow him. She stood rooted to the floor as the tears burst forth. Henry forced himself not to look back. Perhaps Dr. Fletcher would comfort her; surely, he would be more than happy to.