THE FOURTH WEDNESDAY
It was the fourth Wednesday of November, and Patrick Guthrie was giving thanks.
Tomorrow there would be no turkey, no cranberry sauce on the side, no dry stuffing to somehow strategically hide under a drumstick so as to not offend the chef. Tonight there was only a slice of pumpkin pie sitting on his son’s hospital tray along with a single can of ginger ale, the pop that Patrick and his ten-year-old son, Braden, shared.
“But it’s not ‘pop,’ Pop,” Braden said as he grinned. “It’s a ‘soda.’ You’ve lived in Manhattan for, like, thirteen years. You’ve got to start picking up the city lingo or you’re gonna get your keister kicked out there on the mean streets.”
Patrick smiled at the boy lying in the bed, his head balanced on a neck that seemed too thin to hold up such tough words.
“Keister?” said Patrick. “Where’d you learn to talk trash like that? We need to clean up your vocabulary.” Patrick lifted the book in his hand. “Macbeth.”
“Sure,” said the boy. “Clean up my vocabulary with the story about the guy who kills his king, then kills his best friend, has the nutso wife who can’t stop washing her hands, and then ends up getting killed himself when he thinks that a bunch of trees are, like, walking up to his castle to get him. That’s a good clean one, Dad. Yeah, let’s read that one again.”
Braden had his mother’s love of ribbing Patrick about his obsession with Shakespeare, and the father embraced it as the teasing that is allowed inside the intimacy of real love. Especially since it was something Braden had inherited from Linda, Patrick didn’t want to discourage it.
But Braden hadn’t inherited only the gift of Linda’s sly irreverence; he’d also inherited her heart. Her big, generous, and genetically flawed heart. Patrick’s wife had been born with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an extreme enlargement of the heart that one day suddenly stopped hers, and broke his. It had been just under three years since he’d lost her, since the night she’d gotten up from her barely touched meal only to collapse in his arms at their favorite bistro.
Patrick had buried her, and then, on the advice of the hospital cardiologist, had Braden examined only to discover that the child had indeed inherited his mother’s condition. The doctors’ consolations and explanations spun around Patrick’s brain like debris caught up in the whirlwind storm that was still circling his broken home. The heart condition was “asymptomatic,” not detectable through regular physical exams, giving signs of heart abnormalities in only three percent of people before cardiac arrest. All Patrick could think was that it was a cruel irony since he had often said to Linda, “Braden’s got your gift for compassion. He’s got your heart.”
It was the bitter truth. Braden had been born with HCM, as it was called when doctors would sit across from Patrick in offices, or nurses would crouch down beside him as he sat on a chair in a hallway, or a technician would pop his head out from behind a machine’s control panel . . . “HCM.” The abbreviation made it easier to say. There was so much information to absorb.
A hospital therapist had told Patrick he should bring someone along to the meetings with the doctors, someone who could listen with a calm head and later review all the medical information that was discussed, a family member.
But the sole relation Linda had left did not speak to Patrick, and everyone in Patrick’s family was gone. His father had succumbed to cancer not long after Patrick left home, and his mother had died soon after that from a blood clot. Patrick liked romanticizing his mother as the other half of a couple who’d married for life, unable to live on after the death of her soul mate.
But he knew it was nonsense. Patrick’s own soul mate had died and he was still here. No blood clot, no lightning bolt, no grand piano dropping on his head. He lived on after Linda’s death, if for no other reason than for Braden. Of course he had lived on. Where there was Braden, there was life: his own and, more important, his son’s.
So Patrick relied on all the abbreviations to get him through the days at the hospital, where he walked alongside Braden’s gurney as it was pushed down a hallway to yet another test. Then there came the day when the tests stopped, and so did the abbreviations. There was no short way of saying the word “palliative,” the kind of gentle care given to terminally ill patients who are simply waiting to die. And that’s what Patrick and Braden were told was all they could do: wait.
But that was before Patrick got the call. It came the day he was teaching his students at Independence High School in West Greenwich Village. Patrick, a drama teacher, had just begun his class filled with seventeen-year-olds. He’d grown quite fond of them in his first three months at the school, and to his surprise, they’d taken a shine to him and his flair for acting out Shakespeare and filling the air of the room with his spirit, rather than leaving the old bard to collect dust on the shelves of their young minds.
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
More than a few of the young men in the class were actually listening to Patrick, and more than many of the young women were quite in love with him.
“They have their exits and their entrances and one man in his time plays many parts.”
Patrick relinquished his acting pose and sat down behind his desk with his worn copy of As You Like It.
“What is Shakespeare saying to us in this passage about life?”
“That everyone’s a big fat faker,” one boy said.
“Give that man a pair of tights, because he’s wrong.”
The class chuckled.
“Old Bill is telling us that to find our way through life’s drama, we must play a different role in each of its stages. He boiled it down to seven: infancy, childhood, the lover, the soldier, the sage, old age, and then of course decline to death.”
The last handful of words brought Patrick’s lecture to a silence that settled through the seated rows filled with the young faces who’d heard about their teacher’s dying son. A girl in the front row spoke up to fill the quiet.
“Where are we?”
Patrick came to and clapped his hands together, perhaps in some wish to break the spell of his thoughts. “You are all still in childhood, though I imagine many of you are anxious to audition for the role of the lover before you’re prepared for that particular part.”
A few chuckles and snickers rose.
“You will all, I hope, become soldiers of one sort or another, whether you wear a uniform of public service or simply wear the courage of some cause in your heart. If you do decide to fight for some just cause, you cannot escape the stage of being a wise sage, and it will be your duty to help guide those who come after you. Old age, and then a peaceful decline into death . . . are two stages I wish for every one of you.”
Patrick scanned the faces of the classroom brimming with bright futures. “I pray each one of you comes to know all of life’s seven stages.” But then he leaned forward with a wink. “But to all you would-be Romeo and Juliets out there, take it slow and get to know the family first lest you end up with some really bad in-law issues. And as for film versions, I’m partial to the Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes film myself.”
The students let out a full laugh that pleased Patrick. Everything else in his world had gone into the toilet, but he still had this. Abruptly, the students all stopped laughing as an assistant from the principal’s office entered the classroom with a face awash in worry.
“The hospital called. They said they’ve been trying to reach you on your cell.”
Patrick fished out his phone, battery dead again. He looked at the woman and gathered the courage to ask the question that filled every one of his students’ eyes. “Is Braden all right?”
“They just said come as soon as you can.”
Patrick sat in the cardiologist’s office at St. Genevieve’s and stared out the window with a statue’s stony eyes, blinking only once in a while at the taxis shooting by below on Sixth Avenue. The doctor’s chair across from him sat empty.
Patrick had immediately called the hospital, and reached a nurse who assured him that Braden was resting. But the cardiologist had requested to see Patrick right away, and so here he was.
Patrick rose from his chair and turned to see Dr. Friedman entering her office. “They said you wanted to see me.”
Friedman said nothing, only dropped a bound folder on the desk and took her chair.
“They said Braden was resting. Has something happened? Is he all right? I mean—”
“Braden is stable and comfortable. I’m sorry if you were concerned. The nursing staff here is not permitted to pass along the information I’m going to discuss with you.”
“How bad is it?” Patrick said as he slumped back down in the chair.
“In this case, Mr. Guthrie,” Friedman replied as she took off her glasses, “it’s good.” She opened the folder. “In the past three months, Johns Hopkins has had great success treating several children with your son’s very condition.”
Patrick’s eyes widened as Friedman’s words washed over him.
“I’ll warn you up front. It’s an invasive procedure, a long time for a little boy to be on the operating table. There are many preparatory tests to be completed and there are serious risks involved, but . . .”
Patrick couldn’t help but wrap his arms around himself.
“Your son is a perfect candidate for this procedure. Would you like to hear more?” Friedman paused and looked at Patrick, who could only nod as if in a dream, a beautiful waking dream.
“Go on,” Patrick half whispered, not even sure he had said the words out loud, as if he were hovering just under the ceiling watching the scene from a bird’s-eye view of unexpected winged hope.
“The operation involves entering the heart through . . .”
But Friedman’s medical terms melted one into another and became music, Patrick now hearing only their melody of hope.
And so now, on this fourth Wednesday of November, Patrick sat with Braden sharing the ginger ale and watching his son eat the pumpkin pie, the only food and drink he would be allowed before the angiogram that was scheduled for late Thanksgiving afternoon. There was no question of waiting until after the holiday. If Braden was to have his operation by Christmas and come home with Patrick in the New Year, every day was a chance to take a step closer to that dream.
Earlier, when Patrick had gently explained to Braden that he would be allowed no holiday meal until the operation was over for fear of his vomiting on the operating table, the boy only looked up into his father’s eyes and said, quite seriously, “Into the breach, dear friends.”
It was from Henry V, the Battle of Agincourt scene. If the boy hadn’t been so frail, Patrick would have picked him up, carried him onto the hospital rooftop, and shouted to the entire world’s horizon, “This is my son! This is Braden Guthrie! He is the bravest soul you could ever hope to know!
“This is my son!”
The Ghost of Christmas Present
Patrick knows that he must somehow make it through the holiday season to a new job waiting for him in the new year. He also knows that Ted Cake, his former father-in-law, blames Patrick so much for the death of his daughter that he, a rich and disagreeable man, is the one pushing the city to call the custody hearing and give the boy over to him. Now Patrick has only three weeks before Christmas to somehow make enough money to pay his bills, present himself to the family court as a fit father, and keep Braden in his life.
It’s when Patrick sees a charming beggar on the subway dressed up as a crazy alien that he gets an idea. In true Dickensian holiday spirit, Patrick makes use of his old acting skills and his love of
A Christmas Carol and takes to the streets in the guise of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Making a midtown corner his performing stage, he begins to touch and change the lives of all those who come his way, including Rebecca Brody and the bitter and heartbroken Ted Cake.
The train stopped at a station where the signs read Thirty-fourth Street. The doors opened and Patrick waited for the commuters to disembark before he got off.
He walked to the stairs as the morning light from the street shone and the sounds of Broadway bounced down into the station in echoing waves. He caught sight of himself in the plastic window of the token booth, where the transit workers shook their heads at his appearance.
Perhaps he had gone too far with the costume. Perhaps he had gone too far thinking he should even attempt this madness. Perhaps what was worst of all was thinking he could save the semblance of a life that he could carve for himself with Braden.
Maybe Braden would be better off without him in his daily life. Maybe . . .
Patrick shook off the thought as the noise of Broadway waited for him above. He drew in a breath and exhaled. “Into the breach, dear friends.”
He began to climb the stairs.