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Death of a Stranger

by Pete Sierra

He hears the gurgling murmurs of the sea. The sucking sounds of waves rushing into rocky openings. Air hisses out, water rumbles in mysterious cavities, yet he is not by the seashore. The patient in the next bed fights for air. He’s just a vague contour in the semi-darkness. He fades and blends with the shadows — he’s dying. Only his laborious breathing fills the room.

Who is he? Was he brought in while Juan was sleeping? It’s so eerie to wake up in the middle of the night and realize someone is dying next to you. It seems obscene not to know him. A complete stranger has materialized out of nothingness to die by his side.

It dawns on him that dying among strangers is a horrible thing, almost shameful. Juan is embarrassed not to know him. Is this person a man? He doesn’t even know that. He is pretty certain he is, but he doesn’t know for sure. If he could get up and look at him, maybe hold his hand, it would feel less shameful, but Juan is badly injured, he can’t even turn without help; his slightest movement feels like torture.

Juan tries to reassure himself, maybe he isn’t dying after all, but death stands by the bed, not like a hooded figure, he wishes it were that tangible — no, it’s a void, an absence, an impenetrable darkness, a dread that numbs the mind.

Is this man conscious? “Sir, are you awake?” Only the sea answers, as it feebly battles the shore. “Who are you, sir?” No answer. What answer did he expect? A name? What would his name, Juan Lomita, mean to this man? What answer could he give that would convey his essence? Who he is? Is his past life lying here with him? His past life is gone; it dropped behind him like a trail of blood. Only a few memories smolder in his brain.

What glows in this man’s brain? Nothing. He’s unconscious. Knows nothing, feels nothing, Juan alone fears for him. He, the only witness to this demise, feels his fear, dies his death. What indignity, to die unaware of our death, to abandon life without knowing its ending, like a reader bored by a book.

Juan doesn’t remember ever being this scared. The man’s breathing is like the grunting of an unseen beast approaching through a forest, like the scratching of rats in a dark basement. He feels the hairs on his arms standing on end, as if ready to flee the room.

He hangs on the man’s every breath. It sputters and stops. The silence in between seems endless. It starts again with a desperate gasping that startles Juan each time it occurs.

Lord have mercy! What’s the use of all this fighting to live a moment longer? Let him die! How would it feel to die like that? Does being dead feel any different than being unconscious? Or is it all a seamless darkness?

Juan doesn’t believe in an afterlife, and yet, he doesn’t believe in eternal rest either. Does this life that’s ending belong to this man? No, it’s just generic life. One ends here and another is born there. Is a newborn’s consciousness any different than his was at the time of his birth? I think not. It’s just life — living, dying and being born again. Life is a communal dream, it happens to no one in particular.

What is the self but a memory trick? Did he had a self the day he was born? Will he know a self when dead? This dying gives urgency to these questions. Who wants to know? Only this brain gripped by fear; the universe beyond doesn’t care. Its cold indifference fogs his mind with terror. He longs for some concern; some trace of pity from a loving deity, but there is none. Is his breathing contagious? Juan is hyperventilating. Their breaths race neck and neck like runaway horses heading for an abyss.

* * *

The two nurses enter the room. The new nurse approaches the patient’s bed and lifts his wrist. “Oh dear, I think this one is dead.”

The senior nurse places her fingers on the side of his neck. “Yes, he’s quite cold. Must have died some time ago.”

“What was his name?”

“Juan Lomita. I believe you talked to his wife this morning.”

“Yes, she is flying back from Chicago today. I told her he had a fractured hip. I mentioned he had a concussion, but it didn’t seem serious and that he was in pain, but alert.”

“Concussions are very unpredictable,” said the senior nurse.

“I wish he had at least another patient in the room. He died so alone. Do you think he died in his sleep?”

The senior nurse closes Juan’s eyes. “No. Come on, I’ll show you how to do the paperwork.”

“The paperwork never stops, even after death, does it?”

“That’s the only thing most people leave behind, a trail of paperwork from cradle to grave.”

“Oh dear, what a cheery thought!” She chuckles and pushes the senior nurse toward the door. “Let’s get to it!”

Copyright © 2008 by Pete Sierra

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