“No plants, fresh flowers or balloons.”
If Max had gotten off the elevator on the sixth floor with me and seen the sign, he would have pointed out the missing comma before “balloons.” We would have laughed at the idea that fresh flowers didn’t qualify as plants because if plants were strictly edible, well then, nasturtiums would certainly fit the bill. And then he might have called me an idiot for going to the neonatal intensive care unit, because that’s the NICU, and he was waiting for me in the neurosurgical ICU.
Max wasn’t laughing, though. He was propped up on the bed, with a feeding tube stuck up his nose and a breathing tube taped into his mouth. Stop picking your nose and eating it, I wanted to say. Hear him laugh.
“Max, you look like shit,” I said, leaning in and watching his chest rise and fall with each breath the machine pumped into him.
Max opened his eyes, and they stared back at me, vacant pools of black ringed with hazel. They were like glass eyes, not really looking at me but looking beyond me. And that was the moment the cold sweat washed over me. This wasn’t Max. He wasn’t here.
“Are you Asher? Max’s brother?”
“I figured,” she said, washing her hands in the sink. “He was calling for ‘Asher’ when he was still coherent a few days ago.”
“Has anyone else come to see him?”
“I’m afraid you’re his first visitor.”
“Has he been getting better?”
“Did the doctors explain everything to you?”
“They said something about multiple organ failure.”
“We’ve been keeping him sedated, but he’s not doing too well.”
I reached for Max’s hand, feeling the calluses wrapped around his fingers, the creases on his palm. There was something unsettling about the stillness of the same hand that had kept me from drowning in the fishing pond when we were boys. Traced variables and adverbs across sheets of lined paper. Moved across the keys of the piano we used to own.
Max’s fingers twitched or spasmed, and his eyelids drew closed over those pools of hazel. Tears pooled in the little corner between the bridge of his nose and his eye, and I watched them inch along the contours of his face.
Was he crying? Max only ever let himself cry in front of me once. If he could move his head, he might have turned away from shame.
I watched his heart rate slip into the steady rhythm of sleep, watched the muscles around his eyes relax. If the hollows weren’t so deep under those eyes, or his skin so sallow, I might have thought that he was merely resting.
On my tenth day in the hospital, I received my pink slip via email. Too many days of bereavement for someone who was neither living nor dead.
Was it legal? I didn’t care.
The names on the whiteboard in Max’s room changed every few days. The television channel switched from a cartoon to an old Western film and returned to cartoons. Nurses and their aides came in every few hours to shift his body so that he wouldn’t develop bedsores.
They told me that Max was still alive. That he wasn’t waking up quite yet. But I knew better than that. He wasn’t here. He wasn’t going to wake up.
On the twelfth day, they came by with the paperwork. There was nothing left to say.
I noticed that the doctors and nurses kept looking at me in the way impatient people sneak looks at the clock every few minutes, expecting something to change. Maybe they expected me to cry. There was a time when I might have cried for him. But the weariness had already rendered my affect past repair. All I felt was a profound hollowness and nothing more.
The nurse glanced up from her desk right as I walked past with a bowl of nasturtiums tucked underneath my jacket. She didn’t say anything.
Max liked nasturtiums in every way. He tossed them into salads, pickled seeds like capers, and stuffed the leaves. He had a bad habit of packing his food in Ziploc bags, so whenever he walked around fishing nasturtiums out of a bag and eating them like potato chips, people gave him the crazy eye. But he liked them best in the crudely painted brown bowl that sat on his windowsill, the one I’d made him for his tenth birthday.
It was around that time that we had made a habit of pilfering secret gardens for wildflowers to press into books. Max, he would always find the nasturtiums. He didn’t care for roses or crocuses, only the seedy looking nasturtiums tucked along the rusted chain-link fences.
I placed the bowl of nasturtiums, a mosaic of orange and green, on the windowsill, where Max could see them. In a few hours, the respiratory therapist would be here to remove the breathing tube and shut off the ventilator. In another day, Max would get an inch in the obits. And after that, I would send him off with nasturtiums and David Bowie’s “Starman.”
“No one’s going to miss the nasturtiums,” he used to say.
“You’re wrong,” I wanted to tell him. “I’m going to miss the nasturtiums.”
But when the moment came, I couldn’t muster anything more than a simple “Bye Max.”
The nurse had left me a receipt for Max’s personal effects. If he had been at the security counter with me, I might have given him a hard time for making me walk across from one wing to the next for such inherently worthless valuables.
Aside from whatever he’d left in his apartment, there was nothing left of Max but four dollars and thirty-three cents in change and a battered wallet with a frayed photo of us when he had graduated from college.
Max had always told me he wanted to die historically. Saving someone in a fire or trying to rescue someone in a flood. Not in the quiet way most people die, alone on the sixth floor of a hospital, with a bowl of nasturtiums on the windowsill.