“Life Support” by Karen Zey

Issue 15 / Fall 2018


The hum and swoosh of the ventilator echo constantly in the small room in the ICU. My 37-year-old husband, Michael, lies as if asleep—his eyes closed, his face rosy and serene, his injury invisible. A thick, white bandage swathes his head. Three days ago, he collapsed in the backyard. A ruptured brain aneurysm. Massive, irreversible damage. No brainstem response. Yesterday, after the tests, the hospital asked me to sign the paperwork for organ donation.

It’s the third day of my vigil, the third day of machines sustaining the rise and fall of his chest, the third day of machines monitoring his still-pumping heart—the third day of the terrible burning in my throat. The third day of the fierce pain in my chest.

I’ll be leaving later today. Thinking about my two-year-old son keeps me from collapsing like a jumble of rags on the floor. I need to be ready to walk out of the hospital, gather Adam in my arms and soothe him. He’s been with friends for the last three days. He’ll ask for his daddy. What will I say? I have to be ready—ready to go home alone and hug my baby boy.

I told them I wanted to stay in the ICU while they prep Michael for the O.R. I’ll wait here until they take him away—to transfer his gift of life to another patient. To someone on another floor, perhaps with a wife at his side. I picture a woman sitting and weeping in another hospital room, rising from her chair, her eyes brightening in hope when they tell her they’ve found a transplant donor. My head throbs thinking about this. The ventilator hums and swooshes. I wait. “I love you,” I tell Michael for the hundredth time. My bones ache.

A nurse in her twenties comes in to check on him. I haven’t seen her before. Her tawny hair is pulled back in a loose braid, and she has freckles on her nose and cheeks. After glancing at the monitors, she raises the sheet to check his torso and limbs. She notices a line of small, pale bruises on both of his shins, all the way from knee to ankle. She turns toward me and asks: “Do you know how he got these bruises?”

I reach over and entwine my fingers with Michael’s. “We have a two-year-old son, and they play this game together. He holds his daddy’s hands and climbs up his legs. Then he jumps off and climbs up again. That’s how he got the bruises.” My voice splinters on the last few words.

A flush spreads across her youthful face and down her neck. She stiffens, trying to remain professional, but her eyes grow wet. She turns away from those blossoms of purple on Michael’s shins—bruises that will never fade. She slips out of the room. The squeak of her rubber-soled shoes fades in the beeps and whirs of the ICU.

Soon after, a man in a lab coat appears at the door. “The doctors will begin in a couple of minutes,” he says. Begin the ending, I think. I inhale and exhale. One jagged breath after another.

Three men with stethoscopes around their necks enter the room. One of them speaks in a gentle voice: “We’re ready to start. Time to say goodbye.”

I lean over the bed and embrace Michael. I can’t say anything. My throat is raw. Someone asks me to step to the side. They surround the bed, study the monitors, write on clipboards. A doctor turns off the ventilator. The room grows quiet, so very quiet. Minutes pass. He restarts the machine. They bustle around Michael, speaking in hushed voices. I stand by the window, watching. My knees tremble. They disconnect the ventilator. Switch to a portable bag for transport. My chest aches and aches.

A month ago, Michael was watching a TV news story about a terminally ill child, a four-year-old waiting for an organ transplant. I was there too, not paying much attention until Michael took out his wallet. “If anything ever happened to Adam,” he said in a choked voice, “I hope someone would make it possible to save his life.” He signed the organ donor section on his driver’s licence and put it away. The hospital never asked to see it.

One day, when Adam is old enough, I’ll tell him this story about his father. But right now, they’re unlocking the wheels of Michael’s bed. From across the room, I whisper to my husband, as if the two of us were lying side by side at home, my mouth right next to his ear. I whisper a promise about Adam, and then the awful silence begins.


Karen Zey is a Canadian writer from Pointe-Claire, Quebec. Her work has appeared in the Brevity Blog, Cleaver, Crack the Spine, Hippocampus, Memoir Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, and other places. She received her first Pushcart Prize nomination in 2015. This essay was first published in Cold Creek Review.

1 Comment

  1. Diane Sprackett

    Such a heartfelt story Karen….brought tears ro my eyes again as it did before!


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