Wednesday is my new favorite day.
It's the only day of the week she gets a break from the chemo.
Two months ago we started with just one day a week, but that was before the cancer enveloped her entire spine like a lion devouring its prey.
I walk through the doorway and the heart monitor begins to chirp wildly.
Her weak smile is electric, and I know that she is happier to see me than I am her, but I smile back, careful to make sure it doesn’t show.
See, for her I am the last constant in her ever-changing life. I even keep everything the same because I know this is what she needs. I style my short blond hair to the right, just as she likes, trim my stubble daily, and wear her favorite fitted navy blue suit, pressed white shirt, and ruby red tie.
I show up every evening at precisely 5:25 PM.
Wednesdays I bring with me a dozen red roses from Monet’s on Grand Avenue. She always smells them the second I hand them to her.
Tonight is no different.
“Hey, beautiful,” I say as I kiss her on her forehead. She feels colder today than she did yesterday.
“Hi, handsome,” she replies. Her voice has a rasp in it that has only started to appear within the last week.
I sit down in the uncomfortable plastic chair beside her and the heart monitor begins to slow. Beep. Beep. Beep.
Taking the flowers from her fragile, arthritic hands, I toss the dying flowers from last week into the waste bin, then put the new ones into the vase adjacent to her IV stand.
I notice a quarter-sized bald patch on the side of her head, but don't mention it.
The reason I know that she is probably happier to see me than I am her is because while I represent something constant for her, she represents the opposite for me, something I still haven't fully come to terms with: a me without her.
Every day I see my wife, I notice the subtle differences. Sometimes her skin is paler, sometimes her face is stretched tighter, sometimes her bones are frailer, and sometimes, like today, her hair is thinner.
It isn't as though I don't want to see her, this wouldn’t be so hard if that was the case. I love her more than life itself. To see the love of my life deteriorate with so much physical pain hurts me more than she will ever know. Each time I see her, I am reminded that the inevitable end is just around the corner.
“How was work?” she croaks, her glassy eyes trying to focus on me.
The medicine is kicking in.
“Same as always. Screwed over another innocent person who was simply hoping their insurance would cover them. That’s the life of a health insurance lawyer.”
“You need to quit. That place is toxic,” she says, barely loud enough for me to hear over the machines keeping her vitals steady.
“We need the money. I'm being dramatic anyway,” I lie.
The truth is that I would quit in a heartbeat. When I graduated law school fourth in my class, I had ambitions to be the best civil lawyer California had ever seen. I wanted to be the one that the other side of the bench feared, but that is the exact opposite of where my career in law has taken me. I haven't even set foot inside a courtroom. I took a contract reviewer job out of college during the Great Recession. It turned out that the one industry that seemed to be booming more than any other was the fucked-up American healthcare system. After being turned down by twenty different firms, I succumbed to the life I never wanted. The only decent thing about the blood-sucking company I work for, American True Care, is the money. I pulled in one-hundred K my first year, and just three years later I am now on pace to do over one-fifty. Who would have thought that raking in this much money would still have me in debt? We even had to sell off our second car. Four hundred thousand dollars in uncovered medical bills will do it, and I blame American True Care far more than the Big C for that.
She places her delicate, icy hand in mine and looks as though she is about to say something, but instead, her eyes droop shut.
The meds have fully kicked in.
Her uneven (thinning) brunette bangs blow ever so slightly in the draft from the air conditioning vent. Her still face, ghost white and dry, is just as beautiful to me as the first day I met her.
Seeing her like this reminds me of that day.
About a month into my new position at American True Care, my piece-of-shit ’98 Civic broke down, forcing me to take the rail into work. My apartment in South Pasadena was only a few stops away from headquarters. Every seat in the entire train was taken, aside from one beside an attractive but pretentious-looking brunette woman wearing a black pea coat and jeans. The problem arose when I noticed that her purse sat on the seat, and she was fast asleep.
“Excuse me, ma'am,” I said.
I tried to clear my throat, realizing the train was about to start.
I leaned in and tapped her shoulder. A second later, a mesmerizing pair of hazel eyes glared back at me.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Sorry to wake you, there are no seats left. Mind if I sit?”
She rolled her eyes, and moved her purse. I almost turned around, but the stars set in motion a series of events that I seemed to have no control over, and I sat down before I knew what was happening.
Within seconds of leaning back into the padded leather seat, something fell onto my shoulder. I glanced to the right to find flowing brunette hair just inches from my face. A pleasant scent of something reminiscent of vanilla cookies graced my nostrils.
I contemplated moving my shoulder to wake her, but decided better of it after remembering how she’d reacted to me waking her the first time.
I sat as still as I possibly could for five stops.
The truth was that I actually enjoyed the physical touch of another person. Being single for over a year can do that to a guy. Coming home every night to an empty apartment with no one to talk to is utterly unsatisfying. People looked over to see her head on my shoulder, and a part of me wanted them to think that we were together. Maybe that’s weird, but that was how I felt.
Soon, my stop approached. I moved my shoulder an inch to see how she would react, but instead of waking, she readjusted her head closer to mine.
I took a deep inhalation. Being late for my brand new job wasn’t exactly the start I was hoping for.
But I let her be.
I rode the rail four more stops past my own, already ten minutes late.
The train banked hard to the left, and her head slammed into my chin.
“Damnit,” I said, biting my tongue.
“Ugh,” she grunted. When she turned and saw me holding my face, she softened.
My jaw throbbed, but I knew it wasn’t broken.
She scrambled to grab her purse when she saw the Second Street exit outside.
“Crap. I missed my stop.”
“Me too,” I mumbled under my breath. She paused to look over at me again.
“Because of me?”
She bit her lip, clearly upset.
I got up and walked toward the door to get off the train. She followed right behind.
On the platform, I turned the corner and started up the stairs to get across to the other side. A second later, she booked it past me. I laughed under my breath.
A set of gates blocked us from entering without a ticket. I approached the gate next to her, and slid my ticket in. She fumbled with her purse.
“Shit! I lost my ticket.”
She dug through the contents of her purse but clearly wasn’t having any luck. Part of me wanted to press on through the gate as sweet revenge, but the other part of me wanted to help her.
After looking around to ensure the coast was clear, I whispered, “Walk in behind me before the gate closes.”
She hesitated, but conceded soon after, and the next moment she was directly behind me. I pushed the gate forward knowing it would only stay open briefly before slamming shut.
The woman’s body pressed firmly against my back and, right as the gate snapped backward, we were both on the other side.
I stumbled from the sudden commotion, then she did the same.
When we both got to our feet, I noticed she was staring at me.
“Thank you,” she finally said, breaking the silence.
“No problem. We better get down the stairs before the next train comes.”
Then for the first time, she smiled at me. The pretentious-looking brunette woman looked pretentious no more. She had a new radiance to her that beguiled me.
The noise of a locomotive thundered through the hallway, waking me from my temporary daze. She darted down the stairs, and this time I followed behind her.
A moment later, we were inside the train.
There were three open seats, one in the front, and two toward the back.
She looked to be approaching the single seat, and realizing my time with the woman had come to an end, I walked past her.
I took one step, then felt a hand at my elbow.
“Mind if I sit with you?” she asked. She was smiling again.
“Not at all.”
We sat together at the back, and the train set off. A moment later we hit an abrupt turn in the track and our knees bumped a little. My heart started to beat faster from her touch.
Houses blurred by through the window. I knew we only had a couple minutes before I’d be back at my stop, but something in the moment felt right.
I looked over to see if the woman was asleep again, but this time she wasn’t. Her gaze was fixed on mine.
“What’s your name?”
“David. And what’s yours?”
Her eyes narrowed slightly. “Lexi.”
“Good to meet you, Lexi.”
She nodded, then looked ahead for a long moment. When we neared our stop, I felt her eyes on me again.
“David, do you like me?”
Taken aback by her bluntness, I didn’t know how to respond.
“You are different, aren’t you?”
She raised her eyebrows as if signaling for me to continue.
“You’re intriguing. I’ll admit I find you attractive, but I also found you rude when I first approached you.”
She let out a quick laugh. “Rude, huh? You aren’t so good with women, are you?”
“Well then. I better get going,” was all I could say. When the train came to a stop I stepped onto the platform.
“Wait,” she interrupted after catching up to me. “Would you like to grab coffee with me?”
I couldn’t believe my ears, she was asking me out.
“Why would I do that?”
It was my turn to play hard to get.
“Look, I’m not normally such a bitch. Or maybe I am, I don’t know. I’m running on three hours of sleep and I’m late for a job I loathe. You’re cute and seem like a nice guy.”
I didn’t say anything. She was attractive, no doubt, but she was the opposite of the girls I normally dated. She was bold, and unpredictable.
“Alright,” I finally answered.
“Give me your phone,” she insisted. I hesitated, thinking it might be one of those scams where she’d run off with it, but realizing full well I was making a potentially very stupid move, I convinced myself she didn't seem the type to pull a heist—she was well-dressed and in heels, not a good outfit for sprinting away.
I gave in.
A second later, she handed it back. My phone book was pulled up with a new contact front and center: Lexi.
“Friday at 5:30. Text me,” she said.
“It’s a date,” I replied.
“Wow, don’t get ahead of yourself, mister. It’s coffee, not a date.”
She winked, then set off up the stairs through the bustle of the crowd.
We met for coffee that Friday, and it went so well that she agreed to continue the night at dinner. Her sarcasm was even stronger than when we’d first met, but I found it refreshing.
I let her pay for coffee since she insisted on repaying me for helping her at the train station, and I paid for dinner.
She told me about her life growing up in Seattle, and her parents who both died from cancer a couple years apart from each other. She told me about the depression and insecurity that it left her with. She told me about how she’d become a “yogi” and ended up finding herself again. I soon learned that “yogi” was just the name for someone who did yoga. She told me about her days at UCLA where she decided to study philosophy, then ethics, then spent a brief stint in art history, and ultimately settled on advertising.
She told me about her drinking days and how she almost joined a sorority.
She told me about how she dated a professor, then her roommate, then another couple guys she couldn’t even remember because she’d banished them from her brain.
Then she told me that she hadn’t been on a date in two years. She wanted to quit guys after the last one cheated, and after she talked herself into taking him back, he cheated again. She’d got her revenge when she left his MacBook, PlayStation, and television on the curb for anyone to take while he was at work. I told her how, as a lawyer, I had to inform her that that was technically illegal, but he had it coming. Needless to say, she didn’t care for my legal advice.
She had two female roommates who happened to be her co-workers at the advertising firm she hated. Becca was the annoying one who talked about anything and everything, but mostly herself. Shannon was the professional one who didn’t understand why Lexi wouldn’t take her job more seriously.
Basically, her life was not going as she had planned, so now she lived it on her own terms.
I told her about my days growing up nearby in the affluent small town of Glendora with both of my parents, who are still alive, but divorced. I told her about how after the divorce my mom had crashed her car into my dad’s parked Porsche in the driveway. I told her about all of his belongings being thrown into the pool. I told her about not seeing him for a couple years after it happened. I told her that eventually my dad and I made up, but that I only saw him on holidays.
I told her about how I’d always argued with everyone as a kid, including my brother, Evan, who I was still close with. Because I was so good at arguing, people told me I would make a great attorney. I told her about my dreams of being the best lawyer California had ever seen and how the Great Recession took those dreams from me.
I told her that I, like her, loathed my job.
I told her that I wished I was in the courtroom doing what I do best; arguing. These days the only arguing I did was with my brother over whether the Lakers or the Clippers were the better team.
Lastly, I told her that she would never be able to be my girlfriend because she wasn’t a nice girl like the ones I normally dated.
She took that as an invitation. She leaned in over the table and kissed me. And yes, I kissed her back.
It was at that moment that I knew I was in trouble.
After two hours at the restaurant, we took the hipster-mustached waiter’s hint after he asked us for a sixth time if we were ready for the check. We ended up back at the coffee shop, neither of us ready for the night to end.
Later, she invited me to her place, but I refused. She seemed taken aback, but I could tell she also liked that I treated her as a true gentleman should.
We saw each other the next night.
And the next.
And the next. It was on the fourth night at my apartment that I turned the corner and found her standing in front of my bed, completely naked. I couldn’t resist her, and she knew it.
We had our fights along the way, but nothing could ever keep us apart for long. She was the sarcastic, say-anything, do-anything, absolutely beautiful, genuine woman that I never would have guessed would end up being the one. She was ever changing, and I loved it.
I was the witty, charismatic, well-mannered yet argumentative, and some might even say handsome, man that she too grew to love. I was her rock. She was my air.
We got married on a bluff overlooking Laguna Beach two years later.
It wasn’t until our honeymoon in a villa in the Bastille district of Paris that the pains started to arrive. Don’t ask me what the timing meant.
All I know is that the pains got worse, and six months later we learned she had cancer. The exact same type as her mother’s—spinal.
It wasn’t ever something we talked about, but in the back of our heads, I know we had both thought about it being a possibility given what had happened with her parents.
She told me that I was better off leaving her. I told her that leaving her would be the death of me. There was no me without her.
And that’s when everything went to shit.
The doctors insisted she needed to be at Hope Hospital for the best chance of survival. Hope Hospital, conveniently, wasn’t in my insurance network, and thus it became quite costly. At first she refused, but I told her that money was only an object and that love and time, ultimately, were more important to me. I also told her that I was stronger than her and that if need be I would use physical force to get her to Hope. She hit me, playfully of course, and conceded.
One appointment a week became two. Then treatment got thrown into the mix. Then checkups on top of the treatment. Then surgery. Then another surgery. One doctor would have an idea and it wouldn’t work. Then another. And so on, and so on. We got charged for all of it.
Working as a contract reviewer for the healthcare industry, I knew what I was getting into. I saw this type of thing all day. The sick ones are the ones who get screwed over first. Insurances cover average people with mild to average problems. Outside of that, insurance companies purposefully put clauses in contracts that get them out of the costly stuff.
People sign the contracts all day long, either not reading them fully, or not really caring because they figure, like most people do, that they are invincible and that cancer and other deadly diseases couldn’t ever touch them.
The hardest part is watching the most confident person I know become fearful. She knows the end is near, but neither of us is willing to admit it.
A tap on my shoulder brings me back to the hospital room.
Lexi is asleep under a blue hospital gown, and her thin arms are trembling. Is it from the cold?
I look to my left to see a young Asian nurse, I think her name is Aly, gesturing for me to join her outside. I stand, pull the blanket over Lexi’s torso, then turn to the door.
Outside, the nurse hands me a piece of paper.
“Mr. Higgins, this is the estimate for the surgery that Dr. Constance plans to perform tonight. Did your wife tell you about it yet?”
I look through the window in the door at my sleeping wife, surprised. “No, she didn’t. I thought we were done with surgeries for a while.”
“After our scan today, we found that the cancer was crawling its way up the spine and into the skull. If the cancer continues up any further, she will die within days. With this surgery, we think we can remove a large chunk of it. From there we hope to isolate the rest of the spine and continue treatment as normal.”
I look at the piece of paper to find a statement about the intent of the surgery. On the bottom I notice a nice little disclaimer about payment required even in the event the surgery is unsuccessful, and even if complications lead to death. I also notice the nice little bit about any accidents not being the hospital’s fault.
I flip the page over to find the estimate, and my eyes go wide.
“Fifty-six thousand dollars?”
The nurse is silent.
“Does my insurance cover any of this?”
She looks up at me, and after a moment replies: “They will cover twenty percent, and you will have to file it with them once you receive the final invoice.”
The nurse looks into the room, then back to me. “Mr. Higgins, if you don’t do the surgery, she will only have days left.”
“And what if we do it?”
She lets out a deep exhalation.
“As Dr. C has said, she has about a thirty percent chance of reversing the cancer. If it doesn’t start to show progress, probably a few more weeks at the most.”
I look back down at the paper, not wanting to meet her eyes. This isn’t the conversation I wanted to have when I walked in the door. After a workday reviewing mind-numbing contracts with clause after clause about exceptions for this procedure and that disease, the last thing I wanted to do was discuss my wife’s death.
“Are there risks with the surgery?”
“Yes, of course. We would be removing a piece of her spine, which is extremely risky. The doctor has given the surgery a fifty-fifty chance of success.”
“Goddammit!” I slam my fist into the wall. The nurse jumps back after letting out a startled scream.
I look at her, and know I have gone too far. “Sorry,” I say.
She nods. Lays a gentle hand on my arm as though to tell me she understands and it’s okay.
“Shall I let the doctor know that you consent?”
Through the window, Lexi is still asleep inside the room. I look back to the nurse. “Lexi approved?”
“She said yes as long as you did too. Mr. Higgins, this is the only way she has a chance.”
My body feels numb. Finally, I reply. “Okay, you have my consent.”
“I’ll let the doctor know.”
She looks as though she’s torn, like she’s about to warn me of something, but then she turns and walks down the hall.
Back inside the room I take Lexi’s hand.
The fear that's always present in these types of operations has shown its ugly head. I'm scared for what might happen, but I can't let her see it. Not now.
Soon, the nurses enter. Dr. Constance stands at the foot of the bed.
“Hello, David,” he says. His overly tanned face looks redder today, more tense.
“Doctor,” I say.
“Lexi, we are going to take you in for surgery now,” one of the nurses says as she presses something into the IV.
Lexi’s eyes gradually blink open.
Her hand twitches in mine.
She looks at me, and in that moment I can see she is afraid.
“Lexi, can you hear us?” another nurse asks.
She nods her head.
She opens her mouth to speak, but at first nothing comes out. “You’re okay with it?” she finally rasps, looking at me.
I nod this time.
A tear streams down her face. “David, I’m scared.”
My eyes well up. What can I say? What can I do to give her the comfort she needs? I’m scared too.
“It’ll be okay, love.”
She squeezes my hand then nods again. “I love you.”
“I love you, sweet pea. I’ll be right here when you get out.”
Her lip quivers, and more tears stream along her nose.
“Okay then. Let’s head to the prep area,” Dr. Constance says.
I stand, and the nurses pull the bed out of the room.
All I can do is watch as my love is sent into the surgery room. And now I wait.
On the table beside me sits the piece of paper with the description of the surgery and estimate of costs. Goddamn ruthless, money-sucking-at-any-expense healthcare industry.
Two hours later I am surfing the web on my phone.
I am caught off guard when the door swings open and in walks Dr. Constance.
His eyes are dreary, and his face is flushed. He peels back his mask, then pulls one white rubber glove off his hand, then the other.
Something feels askew.
“David,” he finally announces.
“I’m afraid I have some unfortunate news.”
“What is it?” I demand, all sense of politeness is gone. I’m already past my limit. For fifty-six thousand dollars there better not be any damn thing wrong whatsoever.
“During the surgery, we began to cut away the tumor on a vertebrae at the top of the spine. When we did this, Lexi’s heartbeat spiked. We tried to stabilize her, but before we could, her heart stopped. We attempted to resuscitate, but it was too late. I’m sorry to tell you this, but Lexi— well, she didn’t make it.”
The words sound like pure gibberish. My gaze drifts from him back to my hands. My eyes are fuzzy and a bright light is pulsing to my left.
I use my index finger to scratch at my right hand. I know I’m in a dream, but I can’t find a way to wake myself up. The ceiling starts to close in on me.
To my right, his eyes are still there. A hand is on my knee. The room begins to take shape again, but Lexi still isn’t here.
“Doctor, where is Lexi? Is she coming back soon?” I ask.
He looks at me. “David, did you hear what I told you?”
I laugh. My laughter seems contagious because I can’t stop. I start laughing louder. How do I get out of this dream, this nightmare?
I keep poking at my skin, waiting to awake from the dream, but it doesn’t happen. “Ouch,” I say as blood seeps down my hand.
I cock my head to the right, and realize that I’m not dreaming. Reality starts to creep in, and I think back to the doctor’s words.
“Yeah. Can you repeat what you said?”
I’m growing impatient.
He starts talking, but it still sounds like gibberish. Then I hear the words again, “Lexi didn’t make it.”
I look up. “Where is she?”
The doctor leads me through a series of hallways until he is standing outside a white door.
I push it open.
Inside, a loud uneven beeping echoes through the room. The lighting is very dark, but on the other side of the room there’s a bed.
I approach it, still waiting to wake up. It feels as though I’ve walked into a parallel universe where everything looks the same, but isn’t.
Then I see her face. Her mouth is open and her eyes are closed. Her lips are blue and her thin brunette hair is soaking wet. This isn’t the Lexi I know. But yet at the same time it is.
She is still, and when I rush toward her she doesn’t move. My face is next to hers and my lips are on hers, but they are cold and lifeless. It is at this moment that the realization slams into my gut like an eighteen-wheeler on a freeway.
Lexi didn’t make it.
Lexi didn’t make it.
My heart pumps at what seems to be a million beats a minute. A tingling engulfs my body and my muscles begin to pulsate and expand. My pupils dilate then contract. The beeping noise is more magnified. Adrenaline courses through my veins, and I am ready to bring her back.
Before I know what I am doing, my hands are pressing against her chest. The faster I move, the more I want to continue.
In a blur I am pulled away. Multiple bodies are restraining me, but I break free and run back to her.
“Lexi! No!” I shout at the top of my lungs.
I wipe away rapid warm tears and look back to the woman on the bed. She lies completely lifeless and still. I want so badly for her eyes to open, for her to touch my hand, for her to say something sarcastic, and for us to just be. I want to rewind to the day I met her and cherish her that day and every day again and again.
She is just as beautiful as that first day.
She doesn’t move.
I’ve never been one for a flask.
I’ve never really been a drinker. Lexi and I popped open a bottle of wine once every blue moon, but that was it.
My breath is hot, my head is warm. Everything feels to be numbing, and I welcome the sensation. I take another swig of the clear vodka from my half-full water bottle.
I try to walk straight, hoping no one takes notice.
I look down. Did I loosen my tie?
I pull the knot up, then adjust my suit jacket.
Voices are buzzing all around me.
Someone ushers me to a white cushioned seat.
The smell of fresh-cut grass fills my nostrils. Above me, the marble clouds look ominous. Or maybe they don’t, and I just want them to.
“David, I’m so sorry for your loss,” a woman says from behind me. I turn halfway around and give a nod without looking to see who it is.
Soon, a preacher asks everyone to take their seats. I take this as an invitation for another drink.
My brother, Evan, is sitting beside me, and he notices the bottle. His surfer, sun-bleached blond hair is slicked back and he’s wearing the same black suit as I am. The one from my wedding. He reaches out his hand for the bottle.
I hand it to him. I’ve been caught.
He opens it, and his head bobs back after smelling the contents. Then, he takes a swig.
“Can I have a sip?” my mother asks from beside him. Her face is tear-stained and I wonder why she’s wearing such an ugly-looking black dress. I get that this is a funeral, but she looks like a witch from a horror movie.
“Sorry, I think I’m getting sick, Mom,” Evan replies.
He hands it back while giving me a dubious look. I want to laugh, but can’t find the strength. I’ve heard about the steps in the grieving process, but since day one I have been stuck on anger. I’m not angry with Lexi, that wouldn’t be fair. I’m not angry with God, because I lost faith in him quite some time ago. No, I am angry at the system that did this to her. The system that pays my bills. The system that has me in debt. The system that killed her. The entire medical industry needs to burn, and I want to be the one to light the match.
They were the ones who told us we needed to come in for screenings, treatments and surgeries. They were the ones that told us that if we spent the astronomical amounts of money, she could be saved. They were the ones pumping false hope while cashing in every step of the way. They were the ones with one idea, then another, then another.
Every idea failed. And what was this bullshit surgery they needed to do at the last minute on her neck? All I know is that they want fifty-six thousand dollars for it, even though it—they—killed her. Of course the insurance plan that I pay fourteen hundred dollars a month for didn’t cover even a quarter of it. That same insurance plan covered almost none of the treatments or medications. It’s because of people like me that clauses, loopholes and exclusions are added to plans that screw us over. The issue is bigger than that though. It comes from the top. But where is the top? The insurance companies are in on it, the hospitals are in on it, the doctors are in on it, the pharmaceutical companies are in on it, the psychologists are in on it, the GMO food industry is in on it, and even the funeral industry seems to be in on it.
The ultimate problem: the mother-fucking government.