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It was the fourth day. The doctor had said they would need to try another course; Margie’s organs were showing stress. She was concerned about the kidneys. But today, she had nothing new or especially helpful to say.
“We keep doing what we’re doing, and we observe.”
One of the nurses was a Filipina named Gloria who came to take the tray.
“Sir, why don’t you have a bite — maybe get some fresh air?”
Pablo said no, he would wait for Dr. Goldberg’s afternoon rounds. He knew Gloria was from home the minute he heard her speak. Her drawling American accent did not hide this truth. Rather than feel comforted, Pablo was irritated by her. She was too friendly. Her lapses into Tagalog to him were overly familiar and inappropriate. Pablo disliked her presumption even though that was unfair, too. No matter what she had seen, she could not know what he was feeling. He hated that Brian had even made it a point of introducing them.
“Good to meet you, po. Don’t worry. We are taking good care of Marge.” Gloria nodded to Brian encouragingly as though they were on the same team. Pablo felt instantly offended on Margie’s behalf. He couldn’t say a word, just nodded his head, knowing he was being rude. But it was a shock to be in this formidable hospital with its long white corridors. Hospital? The café and waiting lounge in the lobby looked more to him like a shopping center or a five-star hotel. It didn’t even smell like a hospital, not like one in Manila anyway. And Dr. Goldberg was unlike any doctor Pablo had ever known. She seemed to him more like a doctor in the movies — crisp, business-like and altogether terrifying. Tall, thin and blonde, the doctor’s expression was as inscrutable as her glasses perched high on the bridge of her nose. She made no effort made to comfort him the way doctors at home did. Back home, doctors were always relatives or friends of the family, connected in ways more than medical. But Pablo forced himself to ask only one question.
“Please, tell me. How did this happen?”
“I know this is difficult, Mr…” Like Gloria, the nurse, Dr. Goldberg glanced briefly at Brian. “…Garcia…” She went on to explain the disease, using terrifying words: seizure, sedation, coma.
“I really can’t tell you how this happened. But it seems to be viral…similar to meningitis. That much we do know. We are hoping your daughter remains stable and her internal organs hold out. Unfortunately, the seizures cause terrible damage…to the organs.”
“But meningitis…there are treatments for meningitis…aren’t there?” Pablo sputtered.
“Yes, there are.” Dr. Goldberg nodded. “But this isn’t quite meningitis. Though it does exhibit many similarities.”
“You don’t know what it is.” Pablo’s voice fell to whisper-volume, like he was talking more to himself than to anyone else. It was incomprehensible to him that this highly-equipped, ultra-modern, first-world hospital had no answers.
Later on, Pablo stopped Gloria at the door, unable to resist a question to her in Tagalog. “Have you seen many patients like my daughter? Do they survive?”
Gloria nodded with a solemn air.
“Yes, I have seen them. They are doing a great many things here. Research and experiments. Marge will be out of this sooner than you think. You just have to have faith.”
Hearing this, Pablo allowed himself a split-second of hope. What he would give if tomorrow, when they returned, Margie were awake and laughing, waiting for them? Then he saw Gloria’s face, smiling with friendly confidence and self-important wisdom, and instantly hated her for knowing nothing. He sensed all these faded moments of hope in the hospital air, just floating there, like invisible dust.
Why had he let Margie travel so far to study in the first place? He remembered the day before she left, when she seemed to be having second thoughts. “Nonsense,” Pablo had scolded her. “How can you give up a chance that anyone would jump at?” he asked her. When she cried, he held her tight and then pushed her away. “You’ll be all right, anak.”
The two men walked out of Margie’s room in intensive care, and they passed another waiting lounge, one with a television. There was an NBA game on.
“Margie played basketball, you know?” Pablo said, wanting to say her name. Brian said nothing. “She was on the team in high school–she had a great three-point-shot.” It pleased him that he could reach for that detail, something he was sure this man did not know, and flaunt it.
But there was no mistaking the delight in Brian’s expression, hearing this story.
“Marge can do anything. She tries everything. It’s what I love about her.”
Pablo fell silent. Absurdly, he also felt jealous and further, angry, that he needed Brian now and had to depend on him. The complex sensation was not new in these past days, and popped up like a little bubble of toxic air that would then ping away.
They had a routine. Brian fetched him in the mornings from Margie’s studio apartment. They went to the hospital. They had lunch in the cafeteria. They went back to sit by Margie or in the waiting lounge where the television was. They spoke to Dr. Goldberg. They made small talk about golf, the weather, cars, Brian’s family. Already, Pablo knew how Brian took his coffee. That he drank diet soda. That he smoked nervously, around half a pack a day, and persisted, rudely Pablo thought, even in the face of his coughing fits. In the evenings, Brian took Pablo back to Margie’s apartment. Later, after Pablo opened himself a can of something he could eat with the rice he cooked in the rice cooker —sardines, luncheon meat— Dulce would telephone. At first, his wife would force herself to be calm, but toward the end of every call, Dulce would give way to shrill hysteria and anxious grief.
“What are you even doing? Why aren’t you with Margie?” And Pablo would wonder: what was he doing?
“No change for the worse. That’s something.” He had said to her last night. He knew he needed to have something else to say today.
“She is stable, the doctor says,” Pablo said.
“I’m coming. I will book my ticket right now,” Dulce said this, weeping into the phone.
He said no. He promised his wife that they would decide this once they knew more. It just didn’t make sense for both of them to be here right, not now. He knew he would not be able to keep it together if Dulce were here.
When their son, Miguel came on the line, he said, “Tell me the truth, Dad.” He knew too well how his father could lie to his mother.
“Just pray very hard, son,” was all Pablo could say.
Later that night, Pablo got up from his daughter’s bed, unable to sleep. He paced the short length of her bedroom, his cold bare feet on her furry carpet. He made his way by the light streaming into the window from the sidewalk lampposts. He stared at the pictures she had framed above her bed. Pray. But Pablo could not follow his own advice.
Instead he explored his daughter’s room. He opened her bedside drawers, examining their contents. She had pictures, letters, bits and pieces of things he could not see clearly in the dark. And then there was a journal, fabric bound and heavy in his hands. He switched on her desk lamp and leafed through it, pausing at the last page. Her final entry was in Tagalog and it was clearly about Brian. She was realizing just how special he was, what he was starting to mean. Pablo closed the book, not wanting to read more. He settled back in bed and only an hour later fell into restless sleep.
Now the silence in the hospital room was overpowering. Pablo made himself look at Margie again. Her face and her arms had swelled up. Her skin was ghostly white. Her eyes were partially open: slits of red and white. Her very position was unnatural—one arm jutting out, perpendicular to her torso as though it were not her own limb, but some appendage that had been screwed on, taped up, pushed through with a needle, so the fluid that was her tasteless food, drink and medicine could seep into her body. Margie had never been so still. Both as a child and as a woman, she was a boundless wellspring of energy. Even asleep, she was not still. Back from business trips, Pablo would inquire about a bruise on his wife’s arm or leg where a thrashing, sleeping Margie sharing her mother’s bed, had kicked her in the night.
Pablo sat down by his daughter’s bed, glad that Brian was back in the waiting lounge. Finally, he was alone with his daughter. He took her hand. Such a soft, white hand, and it didn’t used to be. It used to be brown, strong and even a bit rough. Pablo kissed it and allowed himself to sob in silence. He told his daughter he loved her, thought back upon all those times he recalls being seized with this emotion, like a sudden storm, and wished desperately he had been able to say the words out loud in this manner, each and every time.
But Margie could not hear him. She was dead. Pablo knew it. He could not stop thinking it. Dulce would never forgive him. She wouldn’t have it. She’d invoke the saints, recite the novenas. Brian, who bought flowers every day so Margie would see them when she woke, he was the one with the amazing faith. All Pablo could do was sit and think he no longer knew his daughter. He probably would never know her again. And his daughter was dead as surely as he was alive.
Pablo stood, crazed all of a sudden. He rushed back to Brian in the lounge for no reason he could fathom, at once overcome with harrowing regret and blame coursing through him as he ran through the gleaming, white halls. Why had he allowed her to leave? Why had he pushed her? He could feel the time closing in. He could no longer say that the doctors were doing their best, could no longer throw on this blanket of security. Because it was a lie. Looking at the floor as he ran, Pablo bumped into Dr. Goldberg.
“Where is Mr. Jacobs?” She asked with some urgency. Pablo gestured toward the lounge, unable to speak. Together they entered to find Brian smoking and drinking another cardboard cup of coffee.
“There is some news, Mr. Jacobs, Mr. Garcia. I’ve consulted with a colleague of mine at Cornell. He recommends a combination treatment that they use for encephalitis that, in his experience, has a way of stabilizing these seizures.” She pushed her glasses back up the high bridge of her nose. “If we can stop the seizures, we can slowly take her off the sedation. It’s an approach we can…utilize…”
The doctor continued to talk, more to Brian than to him. Pablo stopped listening. He needed all the concentration he could command to fill himself up with hope. He almost did not see the way Brian’s face had changed. No longer closed and remote. Perhaps this was what he really looked like. This was the face his daughter loved.