I was laying in my bed at Sacred Heart hospital, pretty much out of it. My friends found me at home, delirious and semi-conscious following a toxic shock reaction to chemotherapy. They called an ambulance and soon had me at the emergency room. I was spending my time half in a dream state and half conscious, finding myself flying back and forth in time like the central character in a science fiction story. The dreams were vivid, so vivid that they were impossible to discern from ‘real life,’ whatever that was. At the time, I couldn’t tell the difference.
Ralph Mora, a Spc 4 and radio man for my infantry squad was sitting next to my hospital bed. He was wearing jungle fatigues, not the new digital camo BDUs that soldiers wear today. His trademark tiger striped boonie hat was tied under his chin and as I watched him, he pulled three little plastic cups out of his pocket. They were stacked one inside the other and he pulled them apart and set them on the bed stand upside down. He then took a bean out of his pocket, showed it to me, and then set it down and covered it with one of the cups. He slid the cups around one another in a smooth but flashy set of moves and then held out a hand, palm up, as if to say ‘ta-da!’ He wiggled his eyebrows Groucho Marks style and said “Well?”
I lifted up a cup. No bean. I looked to Ralph but he was gone and the cup I held contained a few pills. A male nurse stood by smiling. “Sorry to wake you, but the doctor prescribed these for you.” He held out a paper cup with water. I took the pills and enjoyed the fact that the water was cold. It felt good in my dry throat. I had been helped to sit up to take the meds but now I leaned back. My eyelids felt so heavy, I closed them for a second and then opened them. Ralph was sitting in the chair and said “You lose, compadre.” He pointed to the two remaining cups. I lifted them both and –no bean. “You always were a sap.” he said grinning, showing me the bean in his hand.
“That’s a neat trick, Ralph.” I said.
“It’s just the old hand is quicker thing, mano.” he replied.
“No, I mean the other one. You being alive.”
“But I’m not alive, Bobby boy. There’s no trick or skill to death. Anyone can do it.”
I was going to agree with him except that it wasn’t him. The nurse was back to take my vitals. “Sorry to wake you again.” he said. “We have to keep an eye on you. We almost lost you back there. The doctor said you were on the edge when you came into ER.”
“It’s okay.” I said. “How come you guys wake people up all the time? That machine is hooked to me and keeping track of everything. It seems like rest would be good for people trying to recover from stuff.”
“Well, we don’t like to trust the machines. Turn your back and something could happen. We lose you. We don’t like that to happen.” he said.
“Yeah, I don’t imaging it’s much fun for those who do get lost.”
He made a pistol of his thumb and forefinger and dropped the thumb as he slid out of the room.
I closed my eyes again. When they opened again I expected to see Ralph but I was alone in the room. The machine was inflating the blood pressure cuff for an automatic reading. I closed my eyes again and lay there wondering why Ralph had come to visit me. Part of me said that some small synapse had fired in my brain somewhere; some memory from the past that took this moment to reappear. Dreams are the mind working out things from the previous day …something like that. Perhaps I heard the medical staff talking and the word ‘death’ triggered the memory. I recalled the last time I saw Ralph. He was such a mess. Pieces of the PRC-10 radio he backpacked protruded from his chest –some wire and unidentified bits in the blood and ruin. My eyes stung and I realized I was making tears. They leaked and slid across my cheek to the pillow. It had been more than thirty years but losing Ralph, the way he was lost, has never stopped breaking my heart. I wondered what had ever become of Maria, the woman he loved who was waiting for him to come home so they could get married. Ralph talked endlessly about her, about her beauty, her wit, and all of the plans they had. Perhaps I was trying to remind myself of the preciousness of my life, a thought I hand’t had as I was brought to the hospital, drifting in and out of consciousness. Or maybe it was just a misfired synapse, a reaction to the chemicals that had shocked my system so traumatically.
I thought for a brief moment about Ralph being a casualty of war and how the doctors attributed my Multiple Myeloma to the Agent Orange used in the same war. Maybe I should think of myself as a casualty of war, much the same as Ralph. My eyes got heavy again and once again I closed them.
This time I didn’t dream.