Read This Month's Free Short Story

Until We Meet Again

Shara held tight to Joby’s hand as the sound of the siren grew louder.

“You hold on now, old man. That ambulance is nearly here. Don’t you quit on me, you hear!” She heard a sharpness in her tone she hadn’t intended and took a deep breath before continuing. “Come on, Joby. I love you. You hang on.”

He blinked both eyes, then he winked one eye, their longtime symbol of agreement and understanding. The red spiderweb painting his eyes only accentuated the dark brown pupils in contrast. The smile lines around his eyes showed almost stone-colored in a grayed landscape rather than his usual rich coffee complexion. His steel gray curls were wet with sweat, even as his hand felt like dry sandpaper. The rasp coming from his throat tore at her heart. He seemed small and lost on the massive couch, not the powerful man she had married more than forty years ago.

“Oh, baby, I don’t mean to fuss. But you can’t give up.” Tears streaked her mahogany cheeks as she pleaded. He signaled another wink but didn’t speak.

She jumped at the sharp knock at the door, accompanied by “Paramedics!”

“Come in, please, come in. It isn’t locked,” she called.

Two men in blue uniforms, gloves and face masks entered the shotgun house. The gurney they carried between them held boxes and containers. The room seemed to shrink with their presence.

“Excuse me please, ma’am,” came from one of them. He moved closer to Joby as his partner closed a gloved hand gently around her upper arm.

“Ma’am, I wonder if you could give me some information?” the second man said as he steered her toward the armchair across the room as he spoke.

“What’s his full name?” he asked, once she was settled in the chair.

“Joseph Brumfield Smithington,” she answered. “But he goes by Joby.” She leaned to the side so as to keep Joby in her line of sight.

The man nodded as he wrote and continued asking for information as the other man worked over Joby. He asked a few more questions and copied Joby’s insurance information before joining his partner in a whispered conference at the sofa.

Events passed in a blur. Shara felt as though their examination had taken forever, as she listened to Joby gasping for breath under a plastic mask. The two men worked together to move him to a stretcher and covered him with a blue blanket.

“We’re headed to Hattiesburg Hospital, ma’am,” said one of them. then they wheeled him out of the house.

“Wait, I’m coming with you,” Shara said, as she followed them on to the porch.

“No, ma’am, you can’t. He’s going to be in isolation for some time. Call the hospital in a few hours and they will give you an update.”

“Stop! You can’t make him stay up there all alone.” Her tears began again. “Who’ll watch out for him?”

“Mrs. Smithington, he probably has COVID-19. He’s in a bad way. The folks at the hospital will take good care of him, the best care anyone can. Between Mississippi universities and hospitals, the staff has come up with a lot of treatments and care for patients. You shouldn’t be in the hospital right now. Call your doctor and explain the situation. You should be tested yourself. If you’ve contracted the virus, you can get the care you need. If you haven’t caught it, you don’t want to be exposed. He’s going to need you healthy when he comes home. You should let your family know what you find out from the hospital.” The man turned back to the gurney and they proceeded on their journey.

She watched the lights of the ambulance fade in the distance before she left the porch. A trail of tear drops marked her passage.

Shara wandered around the house and found little tasks to busy her hands. She took the blanket she had placed over Joby as he rested on the couch and put it in the washing machine. The two coffee cups they had used at breakfast went into the sink. She collected the scraps of paper left behind by the paramedics, wrappings and backing peeled off various tabs, sensors and equipment. Should she throw them away or might they be needed? She couldn’t decide, so she put them in a sandwich bag and left them on the end table.

“Call your family, the man said. Hah!” She muttered as she worked. “He didn’t say what to do if you don’t have no family but each other. Reckon Pastor is the closest I got anymore.” Once she said it aloud, she realized she had an action she could take. She called the pastor’s cell phone and filled him in on what had happened so he could call on the prayer warriors of the church.

She forced herself to wait three hours before calling the hospital. The receptionist told her there was no record of a Joseph Smithington being admitted but transferred her to the triage area of the Emergency Room in case he hadn’t been processed through to a hospital bed yet.

“Triage, this is Dora.” The voice sounded weary but professional.

“Miz Dora, my name is Shara Smithington. My husband Joseph was taken by ambulance earlier today. The young man said they were going to your hospital. They said I couldn’t go with him, but I should call. So, I’m calling. Can you tell me anything about him?”

“Joseph Smithington? Yes, ma’am, we have him here. We’ve got him started on treatment and he’s resting easier now. I think we’ll have him moved to a room in another hour or so. Maybe you can answer a question for me. He seems to have a tic in his right eye. He keeps…well, almost winking at the staff. Some of the nurses are finding it a little disconcerting. Do you have any idea of what the problem is?”

Shara gasped and then laughed, a guffaw which was almost painful to the nurse’s ear.

“Oh, honey, if only you knew. I bet you’ve got him where he can’t talk, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Well, he’s just letting you know he hears you and understands what you’re saying. That’s been our signal for years. We worked together in a plant where personal conversation wasn’t allowed on the work floor. So, we would wink at each other. The first one to wink was saying ‘I love you.’ The second one was saying ‘I know what you mean to say, and I love you, too.’ It got to be a habit. I bet if you pay attention, he’s doing it when someone gives him instructions. He’s not flirting, he’s just agreeing to try to do whatever you need him to do.”

Dora’s chuckle filled Shara’s ear. “That’s good to know. I’ll tell the others.”

“Would you tell him something for me, please? Would you tell him I’m sending him lots of love and prayer, every minute until we meet again? And I’ll be there just as soon as you all give me permission? Please?”

“Yes, ma’am, I surely will. And someone will call you with a room number once they get him settled.”

Three days later, Shara called Joby’s room, as she had done every two hours every day during visiting hours since he had been moved from the ER. No one answered. She waited fifteen minutes and tried again. Still no answer.

Her finger trembled as she dialed the hospital’s main number and asked for the nursing station on Joby’s floor. She identified herself to the woman who answered and asked about Joby.

“He’s taken a bad turn, Mrs. Smithington. We’ve moved him to ICU. He can’t take any phone calls there.” The nurse on the other end angered Shara with her matter of fact attitude.

“You listen to me, young woman. I want to know exactly what his condition is, and I also want to know why no one let me know he was moved.”

“I’m sorry no one called.” Shara heard exhaustion enter the woman’s voice. “We’re swamped up here and running behind on anything that doesn’t directly provide care to a patient. Please forgive me. I didn’t mean to sound insensitive. Your husband developed a more intense congestion and a temperature spike. The doctor wanted to get him under closer monitoring than we can provide on this floor. His progress had been good up until about an hour ago. That’s when his oxygen levels dropped dramatically.”

“So, he is in Intensive Care. Does he have a telephone in there?”

“No, ma’am, there are no patient phones in ICU. I can transfer you to the nursing station there and they will have the latest information.”

“Thank you, I would appreciate that. And thank you for caring for my husband.” Shara held while the clicks and clacks of the telephone transfer sounded.

“ICU, this is Cathy.”

“Miss Cathy, I am Joseph Smithington’ s wife. They tell me he was transferred to your ward. Can you give me an update on his condition?”

“Yes, ma’am, he was transferred here. We’ve got him stabilized for the moment, but his blood pressure is giving us some challenges. Please know we’ll do everything we can for him.”

“I appreciate that. Is there anyway I can talk to him?”

“There are no patient phones in the unit. I’m sorry.”

“Miss Cathy, are you married? Do you have someone you love in your life?”

“Yes, but…”

“Suppose something happened to separate you from your loved one and the only connection you had was a telephone call? Then something threatened to take even that little bit away. How would you feel?” Shara concentrated on keeping her voice calm and even. What she really wanted to do was scream at the top of her lungs.

“I would be angry and hurt,” responded the nurse. “But telephones would be just another surface to catch germs and most of our patients are not in any condition to use them, anyway. Please understand, we aren’t trying to cause you pain. It’s for the safety of the patients.”

“I understand. Do you carry your cell phone with you in your pocket when you go into the ward?”

“I carry a smart phone with me. It helps me keep notes without bringing in a lot of paper and lets the staff stay in touch when we aren’t at the desk. I disinfect it every time I use it.”

“Then would you be able to use it to call me from my husband’s bedside? Could I talk to him that way? You could put it on speaker and not even have to have it close to him. Please?”

Cathy paused. “I suppose I could. I don’t know of any hospital policy against it. Let me give it a try. The next time I’m with him and he’s awake, I’ll call you. But I have to warn you, he isn’t very strong right now.”

“I appreciate whatever you can do. I just want to remind him I love him.”

“I understand. Give me a little while to get back to you, okay?”

“Thank you. I’ll look forward to your call.”

Catalina Morales, R.N., placed the receiver back on the console and cocked her head. She thought of her husband, home caring for their two children during the pandemic. Yes, she would want any contact she could have with him if they had to be separated. She would do whatever she could to give Mrs. Smithington some comfort.

Shara jumped when the phone finally rang.

“Mrs. Smithington, this is Cathy. I’m with your husband now. Hold on while I put you on speaker…. Okay, go ahead.”

“Joby, it’s Shara. I just wanted to tell you I love you and I’m planning to make your favorite pot roast when you get home. So, you listen to what the doctors and nurses tell you and get better. The bed seems too big without you in it. I love you and I’m praying for you all the time.” She listened but heard only the sounds of machines in reply.

“Mrs. Smithington, it’s Cathy. He heard you. The corners of his mouth twitched and he’s winking his right eye.” The nurse’s words warmed Shara’s heart.

“Thank you, Miss Cathy. I appreciate your help. You take care of yourself while you’re taking care of your patients, okay? I will keep you in my prayers.”

“Thank you, ma’am. I will do that. You take care, too.”

Shara held the receiver close to her heart for a moment before hanging up. Her heart glowed with the joy of knowing he heard and responded. He was fighting to come home to her.

When Shara received her test results and learned she was clear of the COVID-19 virus, she rejoiced. She would be healthy to care for Joby when he got home.

Four and a half weeks after the ambulance took him away, Shara and the pastor waited in the passenger pick up area of the hospital. Shara paced back and forth outside the pastor’s sedan as she watched over the top of her mask for Joby to appear. On the advice of the medical staff, both she and Pastor Gilliam wore mask and gloves. A bleached and sun-dried sheet covered the back seat to protect Joby from exposure to any opportunistic germs. Pastor Gilliam assured her he had wiped down the entire vehicle interior with disinfectant agents before picking her up for the trip to the hospital.

A crowd began to gather in the hospital lobby. Shara could hear the cheers and applause as a wheelchair came into view, followed by at least a dozen people in mask, gloves and disposable gowns. In the wheelchair, a slight figure sat and waved his gloved hand to the people he passed.

He caught sight of Shara through the glass and brought his hand to his mask to blow her a kiss. She reached up and caught it and pressed it to her own mask. A moment later, he was at her side and their hands touched for the first time in more than a month, albeit through gloves.

“I love you, Joby,” she said and leaned in to touch her mask to his. She stood up and looked into his eyes. “Now don’t you ever scare me like that again, you hear?”

He winked his right eye at her, then turned his head to speak to the nurse who had pushed him to freedom. “I told you she could be bossy, didn’t I?”

“And I told you we’d meet again!” Shara squeezed his hand. “Let’s go home, baby.”

© 2020 Mary Beth Magee