I sensed the sudden brightness through closed eyelids. I blinked and sat up. The bedside clock declared it was 1:00 am. Peter leaned against the doorway beside the now on light switch.
“I need you to,” he wheezed, “help me sit down.”
A few hours earlier, I had propped him with pillows in the recliner after administering his antibiotics and painkiller. I went to bed with fingers crossed that he had not cracked a rib by coughing. The physician at the quick clinic had ordered x-rays, but he was heading home by the time Philip was turning the lights on and off in the radiology department waiting room. We wouldn’t get the results until the clinic re-opened at 11:00 am.
I untangled myself from the covers and stumbled toward Peter. I shadowed him as he inched down the hallway, walking with my hands poised as if I could catch him should he fall.
When I could pass him, I darted ahead to fluff the pillows. I held Peter’s forearms as he eased down into the recliner.
“No, no,” he gasped. “Pull me up.”
He shuffled to his desk chair. Without waiting for me, he tried to sit. He grimaced and stopped. He looked at the couch, considered it, but remained swaying beside it instead. He had been awake for over twenty-four hours, in too much discomfort to sleep.
“Can’t sit. Can’t stand.” He tried to take a deep breath but failed. “Don’t know,” he admitted, “what to do.” I didn’t either, but that wasn’t an option. I helped him put on his shoes and then did the same with Philip. When neither was looking, I cried and laced up my own sneakers.
Fifteen minutes later, I winced along with Peter when I hit a pothole. During the earlier round trip to the clinic, Peter had felt every bump in the road. Fortunately, a half-awake Philip wasn’t kicking the seat this time, but was contentedly watching the stars. A softball-sized moth flew past the windshield, the only soul I saw in the thirty minutes it took to drive to the hospital.
Even though we told the triage nurse it wasn’t a heart attack, an EKG was ordered. Blood was drawn, beeping monitors were attached. Questions were asked and answered: two weeks of coughing; chest pain since Monday; clear mucus since Tuesday; a pack a day since age fourteen. Longer than I’ve been alive, I thought. An IV delivered fluids and a new, better narcotic. The nurses pulled the curtain on their way out.
Left alone and with the painkiller taking effect, Peter confessed, “That scared me.”
“Me too,” I said.
The doctor returned with a diagnosis based on the x-ray from earlier: inflammation of the lungs caused by an infection and aggravated by forty years of smoking. With the pain dulled and an answer provided, Peter wanted to go home. He repeated this to me several times before his wish was granted.
Just over an hour after arriving, we walked back to the parking lot. Peter moved more easily than he had on the way in.
“That scared me,” Peter confessed again. I was too drained to do more than nod in agreement. Maybe now he’ll stop smoking, I hoped.
I helped the boys into the car. I was just about to turn the key in the ignition when I heard the familiar snick. The lighter illuminated Peter’s face, cheeks drawn in as he inhaled. The cigarette glowed red in the darkness.
“You’re kidding me,” I said. He blew out smoke.
He still wasn’t scared enough.