By the time Frank Singer clears customs it is nearly midnight. His eyes itch and his skull pinches. He flips his backpack over a shoulder and speed walks through baggage claim with his carry-on rolling behind him. Tired as he is, Frank still smirks at the poor souls waiting to pick up their checked luggage on carousel five. At the booth, he hands his “nothing to declare” form to the guard, gets a crisp “welcome home,” jogs down the hall and through the giant sliding doors. A crowd of families, lovers and chauffeurs look up at him expectantly and then down in disappointment.
Up the escalator, a quick stop to pee and onto the last BART train of the night. It will get him home in time to catnap and shower before heading to the hospital.
Willa Woods has changed. She looks paler, smaller. “Frank, I’m done. I’m not useful anymore.”
“What do you mean, not useful?”
“Your memory is worse than mine. The healthcare directive, remember? The most important thing for me, the thing I’m not willing to live without, is being useful. I’m not useful right now, Frank.”
The night nurse comes in to for one last check before he leaves to go off shift. Virginia Barre almost runs into the nurse with her arms full of croissants, coffee and oatmeal. She half hugs Frank, puts the food down on Willa’s tray and chats while Willa slowly takes a few bites of the hot cereal.
When the croissants are gone and the oatmeal is cold, Jackie arrives with damp hair and clean clothes but looking years older. She embraces Frank, holding him long and hard. He realizes she’s crying, keeping her head turned away from the bed. Between silent sobs, she whispers, “Thank, you, for coming, home.”
“Of course I came home.”
“She’s going to die. She wants to die.”
“Frank, Jackie, are you talking about me? My eyes are closed but I can still hear you.”
There is a knock on the door and Virginia opens it for a large man who introduces himself as Dr. Weinberg, the palliative care doctor.
Virginia blocks his way. She is half the doctor’s size but looks like she would rather throw him down the hall than let him in. “I’m sorry, Doctor, but you have the wrong room. This patient is being treated by an oncologist.” She starts to close the door but Dr. Weinberg uses his foot to stop it. “I am definitely in the right room. Ask Mr. Singer.”
Virginia looks back at Frank, who nods. He remembers Dr. Weinberg for Willa’s last hospital stay and notices he’s wearing the same rumpled suit.
Dr. Weinberger steps around Virginia with surprising grace and speed. “Hello, Mr. Singer. Another opportunity missed, perhaps?”
Frank flushes, “I wouldn’t know – I just flew in from Europe a few hours ago. They didn’t call me. Zip has the power of attorney for healthcare now so...” Hearing the whine in his voice makes Frank cringe. “I just found out that Willa was in the hospital.”
Hearing her name, Willa opens her eyes and says, “Who are you?” to the doc.
“Dr. Weinberg, Ms. Woods. We talked a few months ago, when you were in for pneumonia.”
“Are you sure it was me? You don’t look at all familiar. But then again, I don’t remember much from my last visit to your neon-lit halls.”
“Yes, Ms. Woods, it was definitely you. We had a long talk about your options at the time.” He checks the clipboard he’s holding. “Unfortunately, it looks like your treatment since then has been unsuccessful, especially given your strong request to stay on your current psychotropic medications.”
“You mean my ‘strong request’ to stay sane, Doctor? Yes, I’m quite partial to retaining my marbles.”
“I understand, which is why I’m here: it’s time to take stock of where we are and plan for palliation.”
Still holding the door, Virginia says, “Palliation?” Her voice is a half octave lower than usual and full of menace. “I don’t know whose chart you’re holding, Doctor, but it sure isn’t Willa Woods’. I know when it is time for palliation; I watched my mother die of cancer. Look at Willa — this woman is not ready to die.”
A wave of sadness washes over Willa Woods. She’s making her friends miserable, which is worse than useless. She’s not the only one dying. Virginia’s mother is dying with her. Hetty de Brun is dying with her, and Magda Singer and all the other people her friends have lost, and she has lost, to cancer and drugs and the plague of the 80s that turned gorgeous acrobats into hollow-eyed skeletons. They are all here, dying again in her hospital room.
Willa’s sadness turns to anger. This is her death, only hers. She doesn’t want share it. No one gets to die with her. She wants to die her way, the way a clown should die – with style and skill and laughs, a death different from any one else’s death. Willa Woods’s Own Original Death. And she wants to die useful, helping Jackie get her life together, helping Frank stop running away, helping Virginia grow up.
She looks at Virginia, still the teenager she taught to climb and twist and flourish, her beautiful face contorted in pain. She sees Frank, drained of life from jet lag and grief and Jackie, her rock, balled up in the chair gripping her knees to her chest. She’s killing her family.
Jackie explodes out of her chair, “I gotta go teach a class.” She gives Willa a kiss on the cheek, hugs Frank and Virginia and glares at Dr. Weinberg, “She’s not ready to die!”
In the quiet after Jackie slams the door, Willa whispers, “Actually, I am.”
©2020 Jeff Raz | ISBN 978-0-9979048-3-3