The steel-gray helicopter floated onto the tarmac; its skids set directly center of the center. Doors whooshed open as paramedics jumped out to take control of the situation and prepare the patient for flight.
I stood next to the gurney, white knuckling the steel rimmed body bed that cushioned my best friend. His withered hand adhered to mine like they were glued in place. Luke, his son, leaned against me and placed his own hand on ours.
One look down at Will filled my stomach with waves of undeniable fear. The translucent complexion of this once ruddy-faced man foreshadowed the colorless room he would enter to exchange his worn out heart for another. I wasn’t sure if Will’s small indecipherable smile was an attempt to defy his discomfort, or acceptance of the “whatever.” But I believed he could see that he was at the point in his journey where there was not more to say.
An EMT asked Luke and me to move aside. Luke begged the medic for seconds more, and the medic patiently waited as Luke whispered to his father, “We’ll see you in New Haven—along with your buffed up new heart.”
While Will lay on the gurney, he stared into my eyes. I felt like he was trying to set something in his mind he did not want to forget. I was Godfather to Luke, his only child—this 14-year-old boy—who desperately grasped at what could be the final moments with his father, a man whose crippling cardiac event had withered his skin, challenged his stamina and robbed him of hope for growing old.
Now, as we stood next to the helicopter, his face and his entire body had been contorted as if he had been thrown up and down and around by a great wind—and shorn of all remnants of health. We had been forced to watch for weeks as Will was stripped of his dignity while every other organ challenged him to hang on. As a medic gently pulled my hands off the stretcher, Will struggled to pull his head up slightly to say, “Remember—look for me—I’ll be there; I promise I will.”
Will’s bruised arm, still crusted with dried blood from many needle stabs in search of veins, reached out to me. In the few moments of quietude, when doctors and technicians were not around he whispered, “Jake, if I don’t make it, please take care of Luke.” I hunched over, shook my head and whispered, “No. I don’t want to listen to this.”
“Look for me, Jake; look all around you.” He made sure that the medics could not hear him. But the whisper could not be heard by anyone not directly facing the sick man. “Make sure you look around. You know my soul is going somewhere—somewhere good, I hope, and if that’s true, you’ll know. I promise you.”
The medics lifted Will into the copter and the door zipped shut. A cold gentle rain grew stronger and quickly enveloped the helicopter as it ascended into the fog, taking Will off to another place.
It all began six weeks before at the end of September. Will called at seven a.m. and told me he was sick—very sick. He told me his stomach ached, his arm was numb and the pressure in the center of his chest made breathing almost impossible. My wife, Nancy, told me his symptoms sounded like a heart attack and grabbed the phone from me only for a moment to tell Will to take an aspirin.
I told him I’d be at his house in five minutes—five less than it normally took to get there. When I arrived, I saw that he had managed to get his son off to school and was waiting alone, on his front porch.
Will was truly sick, possibly dying and it didn’t matter of what. I had to get him to the local hospital. Fortunately, Will had listened and taken the aspirin. Nancy also told him to cough and cough and cough, since that action required the heart to start and restart if it attempted to stop. I don’t know where she learned all that stuff, but it worked.
Once we got to the emergency room, Will had to be paddled back to a normal sinus rhythm. Fortunately, his stubborn heart muscle had waited till we arrived before it stopped working.
The ER doctors knew that Will needed far more than they could offer so they called for a helicopter to transfer him to the high risk medical center in our region, just minutes away, by air. Will was paddled back to life once more before he arrived at the county health care center and taken to angiography for testing and initial repair work. I raced over to the Center by car, knowing that I’d have to pick up Luke in a little over six hours. A lot could happen in that time. I’d have to tell Will’s son the truth but I didn’t want to think of how.
Once I parked in the hospital lot, I went directly to the Information Desk and asked for an update on Will’s condition. The woman behind the desk wasn’t sure what to tell me.
“First, who are you, sir?”
I told her I was Jake McManus, Will Coughlin’s friend. She asked for identification and I gave her both his and my own, since Will gave me his wallet on the way over, anticipating just this need.
She handed me a clipboard to fill out; and with the documents in his wallet, health insurance card and every thing else I knew about this man, I was able to complete the paperwork.
This was not a new experience for me. I was the one who had previously taken him to the hospital when he broke his arm, having fallen off a ladder; I was the one who made sure he was treated for pneumonia when he was too sick to drive. I also testified on his behalf at his divorce trial that gained him sole custody of his son.
Over the years, Will had become my brother. When this particular catastrophe hit, I acted on impulse, picked Luke up after school, gave him only the basic information necessary while we sped back to the hospital.
After an interminable wait in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, Will’s surgeon told us how dire things had become throughout the day. Luke, who didn’t have any more than a child’s sense of the true meaning of dire, slumped against me in shock. I managed to pick him up before he actually hit the ground.
During the time that we waited, I called Luke’s mother and told her what happened. She said that there was no way she could leave work and asked if I could keep him at our house for at least a day or two—or possibly more. Considering the fact that Luke has chosen his father as his caretaker at the custody hearing, the boy was clearly relieved that he didn’t have to go back to his mother’s house; at least, not yet.
We waited in the CICU—hour upon hour, until the cardiovascular surgeon told us he had done his best to patch up the holes, prop up the veins and attach new ones. The best news was that he had placed an “LVAD” in his chest to keep him alive, temporarily.
The LVAD is a left ventricular assist device that provides an electrical current that works as an artificial heart for the short term, days months, even years. The LVAD, we were told, is essentially a bridge for a person waiting for a donor heart.
The doctor said without a blink of an eye, that he hoped Will would make it through the night. We couldn’t fathom what that meant at the time so we sat there, unable to move. Numbness serves a valuable purpose at times like this.
The surgeon also told us that if he managed to survive this attack, he would be considered sick enough to qualify for a heart transplant. This, according to the doctor, was good news .Luke and I looked at each other. Twenty-four hours before, we were planning a camping trip—the three of us. Now we were hoping his father would live long enough to get a transplant. All we wanted was to keep him with us for however long he was given. Our acceptance of what we faced fluctuated from hour to hour.
Morning arrived and Will continued to breathe with assistance. As far as we were concerned, he had hit a home run. Home runs, fouls, bunts and bloopers were our verbal coinage over the next six weeks. With the LVAD assist, Will developed some residual strength. We were told, over and over, that he was a great transplant candidate. He was young—only 51—and in good health, apart from his cardiovascular disaster. But most of all, Will was ready to take the risk. The hospital staff told us that this was the deal clincher. Without a strong desire to survive, a patient’s chances were reduced by huge large margin. Will’s concentration in life was solely on Luke.
There was no way around it—the man ached to live for his son. Will’s inherent strength would not accept any other fate. We did our best to help him hold on, and reveled with the knowledge that half an artificial heart would hold out till a real heart arrived—one that would set him free.
Luke and I went back to my house after our first 24 hours in the hospital and Nancy had a hot meal ready for us. We were silent as we ate. No one wanted to be the first to speak; to say something awkward or absurd.
Shortly before dawn, I learned that the new heart was “flaccid” upon arrival in New Haven and efforts to liven it up when it was placed in Will’s chest cavity were not very good. I couldn’t make sense of it. What could I tell Luke?
Around seven, I woke Luke up and told him the news as best I could. We desperately wanted to perk up the heart and give Will life again. So we dressed quickly and grabbed some food on our way up to New Haven.
Once at the hospital, we walked into his room and saw a technological phantasm of at least eight colorful monitors—all sizes, all shapes— springing and spouting squeaks and horns to indicate how badly Will was doing. My friend was a small lump in the middle of the large hospital bed with a technical rainbow surrounding him like a halo.
I moved closer to hold his hand, but it was tucked inside the bedding. When I looked at his face, however, I almost keeled over. His eyes were open, but all that was there was a dull blackness. The black pools moved back and forth, making no contact, seeing no light.
Will was brain dead; no doctor needed to tell me that. I turned around in time to prevent Luke from moving close enough to view this sight. I held my Godson in a protective embrace, attempting to be a brick wall that would prevent him from seeing the worst thing he’d ever face in his current life, and perhaps the worst he would endure later on.
I believed when I signed this contract years ago, that when and if this decision had to be made, it wouldn’t be me who would have to carry it out. I expected Luke to be grown and with his own wife and family, the owner of this responsibility.
At this point in time, I knew wisdom came from experience and experience brought courage. I was an adult, had been though many other crises, but now it was time for me to make the decision—with Will’s signature on paper to disconnect him from machines that superficially kept him alive. But I lacked the most important element of all: courage. Now I faltered. How do you let your best friend go?
My knees buckled, but before anyone could notice, I sat on a visitor’s chair and asked Luke to stand next to me.
“I know you’re only 14 but you have a terrible decision to make with me. Your father has given me permission and the power to disconnect these machines that are keeping him alive, but honestly, Luke, it’s you who has the personal choice. Can we figure this out, together?
Was I being spineless or making the most loving decision I had ever made?
Luke looked down at me, as I remained seated in the chair and he said, “I just want him to have a peaceful journey to heaven, Uncle Jake.”
The decision was made.
Within minutes we paged Will’s surgeon who arrived shortly thereafter. Luke calmly, confidently told him, “I want you to let my father go to heaven,” he whispered to the man—his youthful voice breaking. I looked at Luke and said, “I think you need to be in there when the surgeon removes the apparatus.”
Luke broke down again and I took his quaking body and hugged him to my chest. “Listen to me Luke,” I said as I took his head in my hands. “Age does give me some degree of wisdom, but at a time like this I’m not sure what wisdom really is. But I believe you’ll wish you had gone the distance with the doctor, and seen it through. Sometime in the future, you’ll know for sure, but for now—I’m trying to think like your father; giving you the decision I believe he would want you to make.”
Luke’s agonized face stared directly into mine. At that moment, I only wished he had more age and wisdom on his side. Luke stood upright and walked straight into his father’s room. The surgeon looked at my Godson for a sign. Luke nodded and off went the monitors, out came the tubes and Will’s body was at rest. The surgeon mercifully turned it off the cardio machine before it began its final whine.
Will’s life was over.
Luke collapsed on his father’s body and heaved great gasps as if trying to infuse some of his own air into his father’s chest. No one tried to pull him off the lifeless man. I think we all of us saw it as part of a necessary ritual.
When Luke had cried himself out, he wrapped his arms around me, once more. We thanked the doctor—Luke held out his hand to shake it and that doctor took his hand in both if his own. I marveled at my Godson’s strength. We waved goodbye to all the support staff, walked out of the room, went down the elevator and drove home, neither of us uttering a word.
Nancy met us at the door, but Luke brushed by her and went directly to his room. I’m sure he lay down, put his head in the pillow and continued to cry. The day had been long and torturous. I wrapped my arms around my Nancy and sobbed on her shoulder. She held me tight and let me undo my suffering as I lingered in her embrace.
She had prepared a meal of “comfort food,” but it was obvious that Luke was not hungry. “What should I do?” I asked her. She was crying too. “I don’t really know, Jake. Perhaps you should just join him upstairs and sit by his side until he wants to come down here to be with us.”
I couldn’t imagine the two of us sitting in the dark, saying nothing. If I turned on a light in the room, it wouldn’t change a thing. I couldn’t find the answers.
Whom should I ask? It would have been Will who would tell me what to do next, if he were still alive.
Funny. I was certain I heard Will’s voice resonating in my head. Wishful thinking, I suppose. But he told me to treat Luke as I had always done. My dead friend said dinnertime should remain the same as always, and I should ask his son to join us at the table, take him out for his favorite ice cream afterward, then suggest that he call his mother and friends when we got back to the house.
So I did.
Luke, wet faced, eyes swollen, reached for my hand as I tugged him off the bed. I knew, without knowing how, that his father had put us together for support for now and forever. Why would I have even considered leaving this fatherless boy up in that unlit room without offering him dinner, I asked myself?
I knew that Will was there, just as he said, and he always kept his promises. At that moment in early November, I knew for sure, Will’s ability to reach me on earth, as he said he would, had just begun.
Weeks flew by with promise of winter storms that never came and nor’easters that surprised us, and Luke was a trusty man with a shovel. I swear his shoulders grew broader with each attack at the snow drifts left after every storm.
Nancy drove him to school every day, and often picked him up at a friend’s house after he had dinner there. The parents of his friends went out of their way to help. They took him on trips to museums, concerts and even on a ski vacation. Luke looked as though he was healing well, but it wasn’t until we were together, alone, that he’d reveal the depth of his loneliness, how much he missed his father and his intrinsic fear for his mother’s wrath.
She, on the other hand, was gracious about Luke living with us. None of us really knew how to broach the subject as to when he should make the transition back to his own family.
I really wanted to hear him speak of it first. One evening, while helping him with some homework, he said, “I don’t think my mom knows as much about biology as you do, Uncle Jake. What should I do when I need help and I’m back at her house?
He gave me the perfect opening. “You know, you can always call and ask me to come over or come directly here from school to do the hard stuff. I’m not going away, you know.”
“My father didn’t think so either,” he said morosely.
“Luke, Nancy and I are your Godparents. We take our connection with you very seriously and you should know how unlikely it would be for either of us to disappear until you are quite old. In fact,” I added, “If you prefer that Nancy and I fly on different planes when we go away, for you sake, we will.” I took his hand and slapped it hard. “We’re all yours, Luke. Whether you live here, with your mom or on your own when you are grown. We are here and always will be.”
Within the week, Luke stopped at his mother’s house after we had dinner out and made a bargain with her—to this day I don’t know the provisions—that he would move back the following week.
And he did.
We missed him tremendously. So did the dogs and the cats. It felt like the times when our daughters had left for college and how empty the house seemed, thereafter.
We still saw Luke regularly. He made regular plans with me to do homework, at our house or his. And when we were there, his mother was cordial and usually offered us warm baked cookies to help our brain cells work harder, so she said.
By the end of winter, Nancy and I realized that we had a full weekend, with no responsibilities, to clean out the garage. We’d been hoping for time to do this for months. It was a mild day in March and most of the remnants of snow along the perimeter of our land had disappeared.
I opened the garage door with the automatic opener and stared at the boxes that belonged to Will and had never been unpacked in the apartment he briefly shared with Luke. They were carefully stacked three high and securely bound with tape and wire. One sat on top of another, never having been moved a millimeter since Will died, five months before.
When we packed his belongings in the boxes, we did it in haste, never labeling each with the contents. It was hard to think of the little things at that time. The only boxes that had been identified clearly were Luke’s, since three months after his father died, he moved back in with his mother.
It was a very big undertaking. Luke had talked to his mother daily, but he knew his mom would never get over the fact that he chose his father over her in the divorce.
And his mother had every right to be angry. Luke preferred to stay at our house after his Dad died. We had two dogs and two cats and our daughters were grown and off to college. The house was full of activity with the pets and there were no restrictions on the boy who only yearned to be wanted.
At one point during the intervening months, before Luke decided to go home, his maternal grandfather called me and threatened to sue us for holding his grandchild against his will. I had to reassure the crusty old man that Luke needed to make these transitions in his own time, but our plan was to assist him with this objective, when the time was right.
I don’t think the grandfather ever believed me, but he had to wait a reasonable amount of time to see if Luke would indeed go back to his mother on his own.
So Nancy and I looked at the boxes, nine in all—three upon three upon three. We sat down on an old bench and surveyed the dusty space that held the kid’s old bikes, snow shovels and peeling paint containers. We both shifted our eyes back and forth from our belongings to Will’s boxes.
“Do you have any idea what’s in them?” Nancy asked me. I shrugged. It had been months, not years since we packed it all, but I didn’t hold a memory of any of it. All I know was that we through out a great deal and kept those items that Luke might someday cherish—whatever they were.
“You know, Will does talk to me,” I told Nancy, directly. I had never spoken of it before, but now that we were surrounded by his things, it seemed the right time to tell her.
She didn’t seem the slightest bit disturbed. “I’m not surprised,” she said. “There were no two friends closer than you two and his interests must still remain with you and his son.”
I nodded. “That’s true. He’s advised me many times throughout these months on decisions I needed to make for Luke, and I don’t think for a second, I thought them up myself. I never raised a son, yet I know what to do for him when he needs some support. Will would have known to what to do, so I think he tells me in his own way.
“Do you ever SEE him?” she asked. I looked at my Nancy, the most stable unwavering person I knew and asked her, “Do you mean do I see his spirit?”
“Yes. That’s what I mean. I suspect there’s more to that notion than people like to talk about. And I do believe that loved ones make their presence known when the earth-bound soul is open to it.”
Then I told her of all of the times, starting on the night that Will died, that he coached me through difficult times. I recalled the nights I lay in bed having conversations in my head with him—afraid to tell my wife.
I told her of his pledge on the night he was shipped off to New Haven and how I believe he was fulfilling his promise.
Seconds later, one of the boxes, perched on top of another flew off the stack and landed directly in front of my feet. The boxes had been sealed with duct tape, months before, and yet the box that fell was undone and its contents spilled out in a straight line. Out came the remnants of his tools. The floor was strewn with paint brushes, plastering tools, paint color chips, his hand saw, wrench, pliers, hammers, measuring tape and nails—all the things we used to work on the worn areas of our homes and a hoard of other utilitarian paraphernalia that were so much a part of my friend.
The other boxes stayed in place and we waited for minutes longer to speak. “I haven’t touched those boxes since the day we put them there,” Nancy said fearfully, “I guess he’s letting you know that he’s with you. These are his belongings—the ones you shared together.”
“Have you ever sensed him around here before,” I asked in amazement.
“I sense him around me a lot,” said my wife. “He’s smiling, I think—the way he looked before he got sick.” I remained silent. I wasn’t ready to discuss this further. But if I thought about what had happened over the past few months, like phones ringing and no one being at the other end of the line, or the light bulbs flickering on and off, with no one near them, I might think they were signs from Will. But I didn’t give in to my speculation. My efforts were spent letting the pain die down, day by day.
But Nancy pointed these things out all the time. She was content to believe that he was still with us. She believed that by dealing with it, I could suspend the grief that lay continually couched in the pit of my gut.
Nancy bent down to touch the items and I involuntarily shouted, “NO!” She jumped up as if I had told her the tools were on fire.
“No,” I said again, this time more gently, because I knew I needed to touch them first. But we stood side by side across from the splayed out objects, just peering down, afraid to touch. I desperately wanted to scream out Will’s name, but my fear, my close-to-the-edge vulnerability kept it in. All these months, my resistance made it impossible to let go of the pain. But Will, my best friend—my brother in life—had given me the signal to let go.
And I did. My wife felt my body careen in her direction. She wrapped her arms around me and led me outside to the porch. For the first time since I was a small child—a very small child— I wailed. Nancy held onto me as if she feared I might slip to the ground.
I have no idea how long I remained in my wife’s arms, crying as if I had just lost my best friend. But I had lost him months before. The tears were a long time coming. The more intensely I cried, the faster I felt relief.
So on that mild March day, after Luke had returned home and I faced Will’s belongings, I found my best friend again. I accepted the fact that Will was dead, but now I knew he was far from gone–not very far away at all.
And he never will be.