The Man by the Window
In Jefferson Memorial Hospital, two men, both in bad shape, were confined to a room in the cheerless recovery wing on the twelfth floor. It was a small room, no bigger than 10 by 12 feet and it was connected to another room of identical size by a tiny bathroom. Mr. Vincent, the man in the bed by the only window was doing poorly after the removal of his lung. He was in severe pain most of the time, and every afternoon the nurse came in and propped him up to a sitting position to clear the accumulated fluid. He sat there by the window and between labored breaths he told his roommate, Parker, all the things he saw outside.
It was good for Parker. Parker was in an accident last month and his lumbar vertebrae was dislocated, resulting in the loss of cartilage between them. He was forced to lie perfectly still on his back until it healed. All he could see was the ceiling curtain track and the face of the nurse when she bent over him.
The two men talked through the long night and during the early morning hours. They spoke of their families and friends, their jobs and their experiences in the war. They were restless and resentful of their confinement in Jefferson Memorial and the waste of the precious time left to them in their senior years. They dreaded the bed pan and the cold wash cloth -- and although they wanted to be left alone they were filled with sadness during visiting hours if no one came to see them. Worst of all they lost track of the world outside.
Whenever Mr. Vincent was propped up by the window, Parker would ask him, "What do you see Vinny?"
Mr. Vincent would hesitate before answering, partly because of the pain and partly because he wanted his words to be worthy of the scene, "Well, first of all it's a beautiful day. The kids must have the afternoon off from school ... they're all over the park. I remember now, the nurse said there's a school board election."
"How would she know?"
"Well she had to get a sitter. That's where her little boy is -- over there, in the park. I'll bet he's the one by the lake. He's got a sailboat and it's headed for this little string of ducks ... look at that!"
"The little boat. It sailed right through the line of ducks ... now it's headed for the other side of the lake. The little kid is running like heck around the lake trying to get there before his sailboat does."
"Gee, I wish I could see."
"You will, you will, as soon as they let you sit up. You're a sick man Parker ... remember?"
Every day the park was different, and every day Mr. Vincent had a different story to tell.
"It's cloudy today -- it looks cooler. You can see ripples on the lake."
"Any kids in the park?"
"Not so many as yesterday."
"You'll tell me when you see something, Vinny ... won't you?
Mr. Vincent turned his head back to the window. "I see a couple walking under the trees at this end of the lake."
"What do you mean, 'couple'?"
"You know what I mean. They're walking together. The man has his arm around her and her hand is on his shoulder. They just stopped by the willow -- you remember the willow, Parker?"
"Yeah, I remember. What are they doing now?"
"What do you suppose?"
"How the heck do I know! I'm layin' here flat on my back ... you can see. I can't."
"They're kissing." A moment or two passed and Mr. Vincent turned to Parker
... "They're still kissing. How long can you hold a kiss without breathing?"
"You breathe through your nose, remember -- you can go on for hours. ... they still at it?"
Mr. Vincent took a quick look out the window. "No, they're walking off arm in arm. Those were the days, remember Parker?"
"You kiddin'? I proposed to my wife in that same park."
"By the willow tree I'll bet."
Both men could hardly wait the afternoon of the parade. When the nurse came in at three o'clock, both Mr. Vincent and Parker were on edge. They checked the route of the march in the morning paper, "They'll be coming down Fifth Street then turning north up into the park," Parker said. "You'll be able to see them all the way up to the exit." He looked up anxiously at Mr. Vincent. "Well. Well, what do you see?"
"Gimme a chance, will you. I only got two eyes." He sat up extra straight. "Beautiful day for a parade ... I can see the High School band."
"Are you sure it's the High School Band? My grandson's in the band."
"What color uniforms?"
"They wear green and white. My grandson plays the clarinet."
"Gimme a break. They're a block away, I can't pick out a clarinet a block away. I can see the tubas and the drums though."
"He marches right in front of the tubas." Parker looked puzzled. Shouldn't we be able to hear them from here?"
"No. Not with these double glazed windows -- you can't hear anything through these windows. Like the traffic down there -- there's traffic in the street below, you can't hear any of that either."
One hour a day may not seem a lot but for both men it was an hour that sustained them throughout the sleepless hours of the night. Parker would close his eyes and relive the scenes that Mr. Vincent had painted for him. Mr. Vincent, in turn, felt as a great artist might feel -- painting a picture for someone who could not see.
The nurse was particularly energetic that final afternoon. Her rubber soles squeaked on the tile floor as she put on the brakes next to Mr. Vincent's bed. "Three o'clock, Mr. Vincent. Time to sit up -- get some air into those lungs." She rapped on the side rail of his bed -- "Let's go, let's go ... Mr. Vincent ... " There was a pause, then she spoke his name more gently. "Mr. Vincent, Mr. Vincent ... oh dear God no. No. No!"
"What's the matter with Vinny. Nurse? What? What?" She turned and with her hand covering her mouth, she ran from the room.
She was back in a moment with the floor doctor and a specialist. Two nurses followed them with an EKG machine. Parker lay there and tried to make eye contact with someone, but all eyes were on Mr. Vincent.
The floor doctor straightened up and shook his head. "He's gone," he said, "Been gone at least a half hour or more." He waved off the two nurses with the EKG machine. The surgeon searched for a heartbeat at Mr. Vincent's wrists, neck and leg. He finally straightened up also and closed Mr. Vincent's eyes. The nurse was shaken and the floor doctor put his arm around her ... "It's okay. It's okay. It happens. Nothing you could have done." He pulled the sheet up. "Let's get him downstairs."
The nurse, the last to leave, was still sobbing; she looked at Parker as she left. "I'm sorry Mr. Parker."
"It's not your fault."
"I hate it when these things happen. I'll never get used to it. Are you okay? Can I get you something?" She brightened up a little and said, "There's good news for you, by the way. Your X-rays show the cartilage is building -- you'll be starting on re-hab." He listened to her shoes squeak on the tile floor as she hurried out of the room.
He lay there looking at the covered figure. The man who had been his eyes for the past month. Now, with his own eyes closed, he could see the park, the children by the lake, the lovers, the parade -- as clearly as the day Mr. Vincent described them. "What would these last two weeks have been like without Vinny? Never got a chance to thank him, did you Parker? Course you did -- you had all the chances in the world." He wished he'd taken the time -- once in a while -- just to say, "Thanks Vinny. Thanks for seeing for me." Now it was too late, who was going to see for him now?
A sleepy eyed attendant came in with a gurney. He pulled it up to Mr. Vincent's bed and looked at Parker. "Lost a bunky, huh?" Without waiting for an answer, he pulled a curtain around Mr. Vincent's bed and went to work. When he pulled the curtain back again, the bed was empty.
The bed stood empty against the wall by the window. Parker could still see Mr. Vincent there, looking out the window with the back of the bed cranked up. His face would often break into a smile when he saw something to humor him, and he would turn the scene into words so Parker could see it with him. He wondered if the nurse would let him have that bed by the window. He was responding to the first week of therapy and his spine was better now, there was less pain and it was torture to lay there not knowing what was happening outside.
"How are we doin' Mr. Parker?" The nurse charged in pulling a cart with one hand and shaking a thermometer down with the other. Without waiting for an answer she put the thermometer in his mouth. "Gonna give you a sponge down Mr. Parker. Gonna get up real close and personal."
"Can I ask you a question?" Parker said around both sides of the thermometer.
"What's on your mind, hon?"
"I was wondering if I could be moved to the bed by the window -- where Mr. Vincent used to be."
"Sure. Why not? You're gonna have a new bunky the end of the week, he can
take over on your side. I don't know what you want with the window though, there's nothing to see out there."
"The world is out there."
The nurse shrugged, "It's up to you, hon. I'll roll you over when I'm done, okay?"
He wanted to be alone when he looked outside. What was out there was between Vinny and him. Nobody else had a right to that view, it was theirs. When the nurse was finished with him she wheeled Mr. Vincent's bed out of the way and rolled Parker over to the window. He waited, watching her finish up around the room -- looked up at the ceiling and listened for the squeak of her rubber soles to fade away as she walked out of the room and back down the hall.
He tried to sit up and a stabbing pain in his lower back stopped him cold. He held tightly to the bed rail until he could stand the pain no longer and dropped back panting and drained of strength. His eyes closed and he counted 'til ten waiting for the pain to subside -- then he tried again. He was able to raise himself on one elbow. The pain in his lower back was fierce and unrelenting but he stayed with it. His chin was almost on a level with the window sill, and if he could just ... just push a little more ... that's all dear God ... just an inch more.
He got the inch and he brought his face to the window. He opened his eyes and looked out. There was a brick wall! Nothing!
Nothing but a brick wall!