by Joel Howard
Hypoplastic. Left. Heart. Syndrome.
The words clung in some measure to Tim’s every thought, weighting life’s every turn with its dark aura. He held himself hostage, the angst fed by guilt and self-doubt serving as an implacable warden. The realization that he himself held the keys to his emotional freedom – or at least a one-day pass – was itself another ill-fitting burden.
Born prematurely, each day for his daughter was a struggle, every elapsed second presenting itself as another opportunity for death to announce an end to six-month-old Faith’s life. As his emotions paced in feverish anguish, the young father sensed the world was openly mocking his ability to cope on any level – financially, emotionally, or physically. Worry and despair had settled into his existence as unwanted guests, both giving no indication of leaving anytime soon.
The heart transplant Faith had required had been completed, and she had so far not rejected the new organ. Yet every aspect of the disease – the surgeries, the tests, the uncertainty, everything – continued to wrestle ownership of his thoughts and emotions, as much a part of him as the sinew connecting bone to muscle. In time, he’d grown to feel that even the tiniest moment of joy – even emotional calm – on his part would be a betrayal of his daughter, that it could somehow cause her death. All things in his life stood on a dark, lonely precipice. He saw in that inky abyss below a future of certain doom, but for him or his daughter – even his entire family – he was not sure.
Upon his arrival to work one morning, Tim was handed a sealed envelope inscribed with the company logo, his manager having simply said ‘this is for you’. He’d been smiling as he handed it over, causing in Tim a rise of that turmoil that centered itself safely in his gut. Was this to be the day he was given the heave-ho, the company tired of his many absences from work? And yet, any ill feelings quickly abated when thoughts of freedom overcame him. No more drudgery under the filthy chassis of Buicks and Nissans. The pervasive stench of grease, belching mufflers, the hissing sounds of the machines at the oil change facility – all gone. And just like that, that glimmer of blue had him silently berating himself, ruing his brief release of pain.
He’d lately fallen into fits of self-recrimination, as countless people had reminded him that he should be thankful for having a job, especially one with such handsome benefits. Such comments had an ill effect on Tim, as it reflected back to him the scepter of himself as a cold, unfeeling bastard, a man so shallow as to be unable to give thanks for such things. The health insurance alone was generous in scope, and his co-workers and the company itself had been more than supportive. It left Tim filled with self-loathing. The support had become its own burden, as heavy as it was debilitating. None of it made Faith better. None of it released her or his family from the enormous weight of Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome.
With his manager’s eyes following him, Tim carefully tore the envelope open, treating the whole exercise as one of delicate, exploratory surgery. His finesse in opening the flap and extracting the enclosed single page stood out of place amongst the garage’s ambience of petroleum and tires, fluids and batteries.
The letter, from the company’s human resources department, informed Tim he was being given an additional four weeks of paid vacation, adding that the additional time off was available due to the generosity of employees giving from their own accrued vacation time. These co-workers, it added, came from every division and location of the company, and all wished to remain anonymous.
Tim had, during times of distress, begun to have something akin to out-of-body experiences. At that moment, his entire field of vision was overwhelmed with a kaleidoscope of bright colors, almost neon in their intensity, each dazzling in luminous shards, as if a beam of a nearby sun stood off to the side. He shook his head, and the colors left, leaving him to imagine them lying all about the manager’s office.
Anonymous generosity, Tim had learned, can be its own form of bother. Certainly, he believed in charity, yet the overabundance he’d received had made him feel inadequacies he might otherwise never have been forced to confront. He saw himself as a grifter, a street corner bum with his hand constantly held out.
Tim could sense his bosses’ continued stare and for that reason did not look up. He refolded the letter and neatly placed it back in the envelope before repositioning the flap to its original place, suturing the surgical site with precision. It appeared as if the envelope remained unopened.
“Pretty nice of those people to give up their vacation days for you, huh Tim?”
Tim muttered a slight “yes” and then shuffled his life’s burden to his station, where he then hid the letter in a lower drawer beneath an array of adjustable wrenches. He concentrated on avoiding others, as he couldn’t know to whom he was indebted, who may have been a donor of their own vacation time. It seemed to him as if the whole of the world knew of his personal problems, forcing him to dwell in the long shadows cast by others’ uninvited benevolence.
Tim had once dreamt of a career as a graphic artist. Drawing and sketching had been his one salvation. He’d investigated various art schools, hoping to achieve a different life than he’d thus far known. Art was to be his means of escape, a way to step into a future rid of his small hometown and what he saw as pervasive mediocrity. Pencil and paper were to craft a magical transport that would whisk him to untold bliss, his wife Lauren at his side.
His recent drawings of Faith were taped to the brick wall along the side of his work bay, many of them depicting her in bed anchored with a myriad of spidery tubes and fierce illness. All were in black and white, seeming to pose a symbolic struggle between evil and good. These sketches, unlike his others, were done so that they depicted every item in sharp relief – except for Faith. His daughter was drawn completely penciled in, with rounded shades of gray that undulated across the paper as if to imbue the tiny girl with a robust and permanent energy. In having the drawings close to him all day, Tim brought the reality of his family’s heartache to work with him, such normalcy in the darkness they depicted oddly comforting.
Just before noon Tuesday, an employee from home office came in to replace the safety lever that operated the lift in Tim’s bay. The state mandated that the lever be replaced annually, as well as the electrical relay inside the control box. The system was then thoroughly checked and the process documented. The lever required constant pressure, either up or down, to operate the lift. Tim watched idly as the man did his job, a line of cars forming outside the adjoining bay.
“Name’s Jon Campbell,” the man said. The man’s idle chatter seemingly had no end. Tim had seen Jon’s name stitched on the breast pocket of his work shirt, and now just stared at the man’s hands as he deftly disassembled the control box and went about his work. At one point, Jon looked up at Tim and smiled, now taking notice of the name stitched on Tim’s work shirt.
“Tim? You by any chance the Tim who’s got the sick baby?” Before he received an answer, Jon averted his eyes back to his task at hand, the question he’d posed suddenly seeming to him as an invasion into a stranger’s heart. He didn’t see the look of irritation on Tim’s face. Silence enveloped them both before Jon again spoke.
“Guess not, huh? I just knew there was a Tim something-or-other that was having a tough go of it with his new baby. Brannigan or something like that.”
“How’s that?” Jon stopped his work and looked up at Tim..
“Branford. The last name is Branford. And yeah, that’s me. I mean, it’s my little girl who’s been sick.”
Jon stood stiff and tall, as if the occasion deserved a measure of respect given a trial judge. Surprise was writ large in his wide, hazel eyes as he carefully put his test light aside. “Oh man, well, I’m sorry. I mean, it ain’t right a young kid being sick like that. Bad enough for anybody to be sick like that, but a little baby. No, it just ain’t right.”
Tim responded with a tepid smile.
“I know it’s tough. Must be,” Jon said, scratching at the thick stubble on his throat. “And I know them days off you’ve been getting from everyone’s gotta be a big help to you. I’d have given some but I got four kids and a wife who rides me close. If I’d of given my vacation time to you she’d have squawked to high heaven, not that she’s mean-hearted or nothing. It’s just, well, as it is, I ain’t got enough days to satisfy the kids softball and camps and going to see my damned in-laws half way across the country. If I coulda, I woulda give you a day or two. But I just…”
“Don’t apologize. I know it’s hard out there and all.” Both men stared at the cement floor, finding there a disinterested place from which the awkward moment could pass.
“Sure, sure.” Jon bent again to work on the safety lever.” I just wanted you to know and all, we’re all pulling for you. Sad thing your little girl is going through. All the way around, just terrible.”
Tim watched in silence as Jon finished his task. The man hurried, quickly replacing the last of the screws securing the cover to the panel. So fast was he that Tim was left wondering if he actually got everything inside the control box back to its proper place. Jon smiled toward Tim. “I’ll keep your family in my prayers.”
Silence again enveloped them, hanging about as a sad and desperate fixture.
“You know, my mom wanted to name me Jonathan.” Jon at last broke the quiet, fighting the awkward feelings that yet held him as he simultaneously packed his tools away. He stopped to wipe non-existent sweat from his brow. “My dad sad it was too hoity-toity, that John was more to their station in life, plus it was his dad’s middle name. So what’d mom do? She said okay, but made it ‘J-O-N’, leaving the ‘h’ out. Dad always sad it was a dig at his not wanting ‘Jonathan’, that she was mad and wanted to one-up him. Funny how things that’ll directly affect your life happen before you’re even born.”
To Tim’s ears Jon’s words then became mere babble, Jon’s goodbye and kind wishes lost to Tim. For a moment, Tim was awash in pain, despair lapping at his frayed edges, flooding his soul with recriminations. His thoughts had given completely over to Faith and Lauren, hoping that today was a day of positive progress for his daughter. The time apart was always excruciating, leaving him to worry about his daughter’s condition on a minute by minute basis.
> > > > > >
Hypoplastic left heart syndrome.
They had been told it was genetic, and that the disease was most often passed down paternally. Surgery was vital to her survival. Little Faith, born five weeks early, was so tiny that Tim had thought it impossible for any operation to be performed. She’ll splinter into a million pieces, he’d told Lauren.
“We perform surgery on lab rats, and they’re smaller than your baby.” The doctor’s words of attempted comfort had not set well with Tim. True, the baby was tiny and wrinkled, wizened much as his and Lauren’s youthful dreams now appeared in the face of their daughter’s troubles. Yet the one thing Tim always noted above all else when looking at her was the valiant struggle she waged, unabated, unyielding.
Lauren had quit her job as a cashier at Food Giant, the demands of their daughter’s illness having necessitated it. Tim was their sole source of income, already spent years into the future from what Tim could figure. Yet it didn’t take a calculator to see that the family had fallen into an inky-red abyss, their future stained with crushing debt.
Just nineteen years old at Faith’s birth, Tim and Lauren had been ill-prepared for parenthood. They’d had a future planned: college, marriage, a house – and then a family, an orderly progression along well-placed stepping stones. The pregnancy had upended things, and with Faith’s birth, any plans they’d made were shattered, scattering bits of dreams as the fine hairs of a windblown dandelion.
“If only I could switch places with her.” This was Lauren’s constant lament. Tim never thought such a thing, sometimes thinking instead that it’d be nice if he were just gone, a blank space, his physicality disappearing like steam brushed aside from a boiling pot. Such a wish was at least realistic, he thought, whereas his wife’s idea of trading one life for another was nothing but foolish dreaming.
Tim soon availed himself of two of the donated vacation days. Faith was to have a series of tests to be certain the transplanted heart was functioning properly. Through the ordeal of waiting for one test and then another, hoping for positive news, he felt continued pangs of guilt as regarded his coworkers’ generosity. There was scant space for these feelings, but that made them all the more powerful, sandwiched as they were between all of the other emotions swirling helter-skelter in and about him. These feelings of guilt stood ever tall, becoming the ominously dark cloud among whatever perilously frail pieces of blue sky that might be found. No matter how much he willed these sensations to leave, guilt demanded its due.
After this latest round of tests – which provided mostly positive results – Tim felt more lost, more ineffectual than he’d previously experienced. Joy had become a taunting mistress, always threatening her pendulumlike swing to the darkness of bad news and its inherent sadness . The costs of the tests and co-pays loomed ever larger as the number of procedures increased, and no amount of donated vacation days or medical benefits could scour away such a looming truth. Life’s ills slurred together as one diabolical albatross whose weight Tim could not offload, not even for one moment of tranquility.
- > > > > >
The baby’s sputtered breathing set off the alarm that blared less than two feet from Lauren’s ear. It was just after 2 a.m., and the alarm sent she and Tim racing into Faith’s tiny, pink bedroom. Their blood coursed in throbbing anxiety as, in the overhead light, they saw Faith struggling. Her every breath was erratic, her tiny chest spasming in fits of up and down motion.
Having grabbed her mobile phone from her nightstand (she’d been presented with this emergency twice before), Faith dialed 9-1-1. Words stumbled fitfully from her mouth: baby, heart, God, breathing, hurry, alarms, hurry, help, fast, God. And more than once: hypoplastic left heart syndrome. The operator knew the address and the situation from history, and she dispatched help before Lauren had spoken but a few words.
As they awaited the paramedics, with time teasing and taunting them, Tim and Lauren each , two traced their fingers across their daughter’s brow, the baby’s labored breathing seeming to calm ever so slightly.
< < < < < < < <
Faith had been stabilized, yet to Tim’s weary ears the doctor’s words hadn’t the same sense of hope as times past. Lauren, however, seemed to accept the doctors’ words of encouragement, but perhaps, Tim thought, she chose to believe because the alternative was simply too much to bear. For him, second guessing – Faith’s condition, his abilities to provide, life’s purpose – had become a sport, his own Russian roulette.
Tim had initially taken two additional days off. At Lauren’s pleading, he agreed to take a third day. Fatigue had wracked their minds and bodies, leaving them to lean heavily one upon the other to remain upright in facing the situation, two trees felled in a storm. It was midday into the third day that Tim stepped out to call the garage and update them on Faith’s condition. Lauren followed him, intertwining her hand with his as they went to the hospital’s central courtyard, resting in the open air, the sunlight scissoring through high branches of the potted trees.
The call was never to be placed. As they settled their weariness one against the other on a wooden bench, the door they’d just passed through again opened. Tim sensed someone having come up behind them, a shadow trespassing upon their agony.
“Sorry to bother you. How’s your daughter doing? Better, I hope.”
Tim and Lauren’s faces were awash in surprise, their eyebrows arched and their mouths agape. They’d never expected to see Tim’s boss’ boss, Mr. Jensen – the man who managed the state’s 29 locations. Unease quickly settled upon the parents, fearing this as the moment of Tim’s termination. They were mindless of the public relations nightmare such an action would create for the company.
“Is she holding her own?”
The first two times Tim opened his mouth, a tired, dry croak came from deep within. On the third try, coherency took a frail grasp on his words. “She’s, well, we’re waiting. We wait a lot. They said it’d be a bit later today before they knew if they’d caught things in time. An infection. She got an infection.”
“Well, we’re all praying for her, for all of you. Family is important. Most important.”
A tall man, Mr. Jensen towered over the two on the bench. He stooped, using his hands to steady himself, looking like a wind-whipped airplane landing in strong winds, tilting side to side. As he lowered himself, the young couple felt him pulling their lives down with him, a weight as unwieldy as it was determined in reaching its destination.
“I’ll only be a minute. I hate coming here and telling you this, but you’re going to hear it soon. And I wanted it to be from me, just so you know the truth of what we know, which isn’t a whole lot, actually. Of course, I wanted to check on little Faith as well. We all keep her close to our hearts.”
Lauren whimpered, a nestling’s cry for nourishment, for life. Her hand squeezed hard around her husband’s arm.
“Anyway, I have the sad task of telling you that we lost an employee today. His name was Teddy Anderson. I’m not sure if you knew him or not, Tim. Anyway, he works – rather worked – at one of our garages over in Springfield. He’d agreed – volunteered actually – to come over and fill in for you while you’re out. And earlier today, well, right after opening, he had an accident.”
Tim couldn’t recall ever having met him. His head just kept shaking – left, right, left, right – a metronome of fatigue and incomprehension.
“He was at your station, Tim,” continued Mr. Jensen, “and something went wrong. He was sweeping up the area, keeping things nice and clean, that was Tim’s way. He must’ve bumped the safety lever on the lift switch, maybe with the broom’s handle. We’re just not sure. All we know is that he was under the lift and it came down. The safety switch, it must have somehow failed. It caught him underneath there while he was sweeping. And, well, he didn’t make it.”
Mr. Jensen didn’t tell them of the details, of how it knocked Teddy to the ground after hitting his head, likely rendering him unconscious. One of the four giant arms then compressed his chest, crushing it, squeezing it until the ribs and organs were huddled impossibly tight, finally giving way in an avalanche of life-ending insistence.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, here and now. It’s just I knew you’d get word of it, there’s no escaping that fact. None of us want you to be loaded down with any more pain than you already have. You two just take all the time you need, focus on your baby and her getting strong and back home. The garage is going be closed for a while anyway, inspections and lawyers and all.
“Tim, here’s my business card. Take it. I’ve put my cell number on the back. You call me anytime – anytime at all – if you need anything. I mean it.
“Oh, and they’ll have to interview you, it having been your station. Just asking about any problems you may have noticed. I’ll try to hold them off for a couple of days. They can interview Jon Campbell first, maybe find out what he might have seen before he gave that lift a clean bill of health just a few days back.”
Mr. Jensen disappeared, the scepter of the violent death lingering over Tim, hanging as an angry cloud portending a violent release. The two young parents again leaned into each other, their linked hands transmitting anguish one to the other like static electricity.
A fleeting image of Teddy Anderson skipped across Tim’s thoughts as he watched the speedometer inch past the midway point. Air poured through the open windows, buffeting him in a cool cascade of freedom. At seventy-three miles per hour, the Civic started to shimmy, quickly falling into the shakes, the tremors of an old car quickly protesting as it is pushed from its comfort zone.
Three days had passed since Mr. Jensen had visited the couple. Faith had been stabilized, but would remain in the hospital for an indefinite period of time. They had to be vigilant for infections.
Tim had found a picture of Teddy on a social media site. It showed a sandy haired man with a slightly darker beard, smiling into the camera. He was posed with a striking woman, her hair a thick auburn tangle that framed an angular face with blue eyes. Two small children – a boy and a girl – sat serenely at either side of the couple. The family looked happy, their smiles natural, the sparkle in their eyes a sign of deep satisfaction with life, the very life for which Tim had prayed – begged – of God.
His picture of Jon Campbell was imagined only, as he’d been unable to find a trace of the maintenance man online. He’d conjured up a hectic family, the four kids Jon had mentioned so active that they hadn’t the time to gather for a family photograph. Jon and his wife would be breathless from chasing their children, waging a constant battle against chaos, never certain what constituted normalcy under their roof.
Tim had left Lauren as she slept in Faith’s hospital room, taking the family car for a ride in hopes of clearing his head. However, he soon found himself deep in despair. His state inspector’s interview was scheduled for the next morning, a thought that elicited within him waves of paranoia. No doubt police and attorney interviews would populate his next several days.
He pushed the Civic to eighty-four miles per hour. Hypoplastic left heart syndrome. “Why us, why Faith?”, Tim wondered aloud, the rush of wind placing it in an echo chamber about his ears.
Soon the rusted sedan reached eighty-seven miles per hour. He recalled the shriek of Faith’s home heart monitor. The pain of his inadequacy gripped him in cold shivers.
Ninety even on the speedometer. The bills piled high at home, familial red ink to infinity.
In death, Teddy had left behind fifty thousand dollars for his family. The life insurance was a company benefit, another perk for which Tim was to to be thankful. Tim had been told of it upon being hired, and it was his recollection of that knowledge, coupled with his other agonies, which led him to think about tampering with the up/down safety lever of the spidery car lift. If, he reasoned, he disabled the spring that forced the unattended lever to default to the OFF position, he could make the future brighter for his wife and daughter.
Ninety-two. A raucous noise of complaint from the front of the Civic. The dull vapor of the streetlamps whizzed past in an eerie fog of indifference. Poor Jon, almost Jonathan. Perhaps he’d be blamed for the tragedy, having just worked on the safety lever and blessed its fitness for daily use.
Tim couldn’t think his way through the situation. That Teddy had died due to the safety lever having been rendered inoperable was a weight so crushing to Tim that he’d been unable to take even one full breath since being told of his death. His mind reeled uncontrollably.
Ninety-five miles per hour. The gas pedal hitting the carpeted floorboard behind it. Lauren and Tim’s first illicit kiss behind the school, him pressing himself into her, pushing her back and shoulders into the brick wall, teenage urgency urging him onward. Her high laughter – a giggle really – so delicious to his senses.
A concrete abutment of an overpass fast approached, illuminated by the headlights which Tim flicked to high beam. He studied the grey buttress of impenetrable stoicism, unyielding to man’s foibles, unconcerned with any conflictions of mortals.
The car shook uncontrollably. Ninety-nine. Hypoplastic left heart syndrome. A family curse, father to child. Flickering red light.
If he’d wanted to stop things, to undue things, to make things not what they were, it was not to be. Those things now in motion would not be denied their outcome. The world, Tim realized, was going to go on about its business – good and bad – no matter. Indifference enveloped him. Heavy inhale, powerful exhale. He relaxed his body, the finality of the situation allowing him to at last complete a full breath, an intoxicating breath. A howling laugh parted his lips as the cool air soothed the darkness, calming the uncertainty, allowing joy to settle within.
The implosion of faded metal, angry at being forced to make room for Tim’s desperation, the final crescendo of shattering noise so like the alarm of Faith’s heart monitor. Without the aid of a seat belt, his body hurtled forward as the car itself jolted backwards from the impact, the two seemingly on opposing sides of a standoff. Catapulted through the windshield, then dancing with shards of glass, he stopped only when he was as one with the abutment that held his future in smug silence. In one transformational moment, Tim saw reflected his own image in fragmented, dazzling pieces, each one but a sliver of a future to which he’d once aspired.
He’d arrived where life dances with death, a place of familiarity if only through his daughter’s unending struggle. Blankness could now swallow his place on earth, for he’d happened upon the precise spot where the mind ceases to distinguish between hope and despair, where physicality has no standing.
Such were his thoughts as the faintest wails of the ambulance roared toward him. Then, on the way to the hospital, the clamor of the sirens remained so immense that it easily broke through his thoughts of death with an insistence that he remain in life. He was at that moment incredulous, having never thought that once dead a person could yet hear. Surely, he mused, to be gone from the world, this world, meant also to be deaf, as one must go with the other as sin with forgiveness.