~ Bertha Calloway
The Condo project was behind schedule. Each missed deadline carried a fresh set of penalties and now a design problem had the steelworkers at a standstill. It wasn’t the news that John Douglas needed to hear on that crisp October morning. The architect grabbed his plans and headed for the jobsite.
The foreman strutted up to the Explorer and before John could even slam the door, began spewing forth a diatribe of complaints, his stubby finger punctuated each word inches from John’s chest. He would like to have punched the air in front of John’s nose, but at 5’7” he was hardly a match for the architect’s 6’4” frame. “I’m telling you the tolerances are off.”
“And I’m telling you, they’re not.” John unrolled the plans and slapped them onto the hood of his SUV. “Here, take a look for yourself.”
“Are you telling me I don’t know my business?” The foreman started to raise his hand again, but reconsidered under John’s steely gaze.
“I’m telling you they’re accurate.”
The foreman glanced over them, shook his head and turned on his heel. “It’s your ass when this goes down wrong,” he shouted over his shoulder.
John rerolled the plans and threw them onto the passenger seat. The last thing he needed was another delay. He’d reviewed the specs on this project a dozen times, always second-guessing himself. He was a perfectionist. He couldn’t afford to be anything but—given what was at stake. One small slip up could cost lives. He’d seen it firsthand as a kid fresh out of college. Insurance carriers for a South Korean project had hired his firm to go in and make an independent assessment as to what had caused the collapse of a department store. His boss had sent him along, more for the education than what he might contribute, he was sure. Structure failure due to negligence and unsafe design changes had killed 501 and injured another 937 people. He’d been indelibly impressed. So much so that when he was tempted to skip that last verification, the tortured faces of those survivors still picking though rubble days after the collapse pervaded his thoughts and he’d review his calculations one more time.
So now, it wasn’t ego as much as pure confidence that drove him to the conclusion that he was right and the foreman was wrong. Still… The guy was a hothead, but John had worked with him on other projects and had to admit he knew his stuff.
The foreman was anxious to make up for lost time so when he raised his arm and spun his finger in high sign fashion to the crane operator, it was an oversized load of I-beams that left the ground and began their six story ascent.
The tolerance issue nagged at John as he watched the load lift. He couldn’t afford to take any time off, especially with this new wrinkle, yet he’d be away most of the following day. Poor planning on his part, but there was no way around it.
Their appointment with the infertility specialist had been a long time in the planning and he couldn’t back out of it at this late date. Not that he wanted to, although he wasn’t any too eager to jerk off in a cup and hand it over to some lab tech.
They were going to check for swimmers. Yeah, he could only imagine. The weaker ones probably floated around the top like dying fish leaving the strong ones to wiggle their way around the middle and bottom.
Somehow the doctors thought by making light of it the process wouldn’t seem so embarrassing. Hah, he thought. He only hoped that his weren’t all floaters. Besides, hadn’t the doctors pretty much determined that the problem was with Audrey? Not that he wanted it to be her fault, but a man’s virility wasn’t measured exclusively by muscle mass and he knew it. Maybe the power of suggestion would pull him through— strong swimmers to the middle and bottom. No weak floaters, please.
Strong to the bottom, weak to the top.
A sudden realization swept over him and he prayed that he was wrong. Could the wrong stock have been delivered? If these were the beams intended for the top three levels, of course the tolerances would be off. Only the engineer might have realized the distinction and he was off at another site.
John grabbed his hardhat and ran in search of the foreman, but he’d disappeared. Desperate to get the steel back on the ground for inspection, he jumped into view of the crane operator and signaled him to stop.
The operator shot him a disgusted look and threw the levers hastily while the load was in mid-swing. The sudden shift in momentum produced uncontrollable torque on the heavy payload and the cargo shifted, snapping the harness. The crane, unable to stabilize the weight, began to tip and released the girders from their sling, transforming them into missiles.
“Hey, watch out!” shouted the crane operator. But the warning came too late.
Audrey was putting the finishing touches on an article for the next day’s edition of the Essex Free Press when her phone rang. “Damn,” she said. She was hoping to skip out early so that she could get to the market in time to pick up a few things for dinner. She enjoyed cooking and had planned a special meal for the two of them. Tomorrow would mark the start of a new chapter in their lives and she wanted it to be memorable.
“Audrey?” The voice was unfamiliar.
“Yes,” she said, still keying the final paragraph.
“Yes,” she repeated, allowing a tone of impatience to creep into her voice.
“This is Mass General Hospital. Your husband is John Douglas, born on March 23rd?”
“Yes, what’s wrong?”
“He was injured at work. It’s very serious. Please come to the emergency department as soon as possible.”
“How bad is it?” She scrambled to grab her purse and keys.
“He’s in critical condition, Mrs. Douglas. Please come immediately.”
Rush hour was at its peak as she navigated from one lane to the next, hitting the gas one minute, slamming the brakes the next. What in God’s name has happened? She hadn’t taken the time to ask a lot of questions. That would have delayed getting to him. He can’t die. Critical is bad, but people survive critical, don’t they?
The traffic in Government Center was at a standstill. Horns blared, people rushed by in front of her BMW. Lights changed from red to green to red again. Audrey wanted to scream. Didn’t they know her world may be ending? She pounded the steering wheel with her fists and waited for them to turn again. Finally, they changed. She dared anyone to cut her off. Just two more streets. I’m almost there. Hang in there, darling, I’m coming.
Looking around quickly for a space and seeing none, she pulled up to a loading zone. Throwing the car into park, she grabbed the keys and raced for the bright red EMERGENCY sign.
“Hey, Lady, you can’t park there!” yelled a security guard.
“So tow me!” she shouted over her shoulder as she slipped through the automatic doors.
The emergency department lobby was bustling with activity. Two ambulances had just pulled up and attendants raced past, pushing the stretchers ahead of them. They reminded Audrey of the bed races held each year at the town fair back home. Bizarre, she thought disgustedly. As if she had any control over her thoughts or anything else at that moment.
Squeezing through a small crowd of patients waiting to register, she pushed her way to the front of a partitioned cubicle where a clerk was cradling a phone on her shoulder and entering information into the computer.
The clerk looked up and stopped typing long enough to hold up her index finger.
“No, you don’t understand!” Audrey snapped. The clerk looked up quickly, her eyes widened and her fingers stilled.
“I received a call from this hospital that my husband was admitted in critical condition. His name is John Douglas and I need to know where he’s being treated.”
The clerk spoke softly into the phone and hung up. “One moment please, and I’ll locate him.” She typed a new entry into the computer, read it slowly and quickly picked up the phone. “Mrs. John Douglas is here.” Another moment passed before she cradled the receiver. “Someone will be right with you.” Looking past her, the clerk resumed her duties. “Next?” she said.
Audrey turned, expecting to see a nurse in scrubs but instead found a stout middle aged woman in business clothes. “Where is my husband?” Audrey was trying desperately to control the panic in her voice.
Quietly, she spoke. “Please come with me.” She guided her to a nearby room. A young man in a lab coat waited at the door. “Please sit down,” she said patting the seat next to her. Audrey searched the woman’s face, then the man’s.
Clearing his throat, he spoke. “Mrs. Douglas, I was the physician assigned to your husband when he was brought in by ambulance two hours ago. I am very sorry, we did everything possible...”
Audrey felt the blood rushing to her head, filling her ears with a pulsating roar that grew louder with each breath. She turned to the woman and tried to speak, but couldn’t form the words. Finally, with great effort, she spoke. “How?” Her voice was guttural.
He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs. His hands clasped and he seemed to relax, if only slightly. “Your husband suffered a fatal head injury, Mrs. Douglas.” He recounted the details of the accident.
“Da, di, did he suffer?”
“No. Although he was alive when he was brought in, he was unconscious. We inserted a breathing tube and placed him on life support. The damage was simply too profound. He was declared brain dead approximately thirty minutes ago.” He hesitated, and then spoke. “Mrs. Douglas, we have not disconnected the life support because some of your husband’s organs may be suitable for donation. Under federal law we are required to ask you if you will give your consent.”
Audrey reeled backward as if she’d been slapped. “NO!” she cried. “He’s been through enough!” Sobbing and shaking, she leaned into the woman’s shoulder, burying her head as if to rid herself of the conjured image of her strong, handsome husband, mangled from a huge hunk of steel, now waiting to be carved up, dissected into only God knew how many pieces and doled out to strangers.
Looking over the top of Audrey’s head, she met the doctor’s eyes with a look of resignation. “I’ll be back with the release to remove him from life support,” he said, as he left the room. “Audrey. May I call you Audrey?” The voice was soft, speaking directly into her ear. “I know how shocking this must be for you. I will stay with you for as long as you need me, to help you with arrangements and in any other way I can be of assistance.”
Audrey tried to straighten up in her chair. “I just don’t want him to go through any more. He’s been through enough.”
The woman was quiet for a moment and then she spoke. “I understand,” she said. “It’s completely your choice. But have you thought about what he might have wanted?” She let the question settle over Audrey before she continued. “John was a young man. His organs could save the lives of several people who may not otherwise live to grow up, marry or have children of their own.”
Audrey covered her eyes with her hands. Children? The children that she and John had been trying to conceive would never be. She would never be able to look through the kitchen window while preparing dinner and watch him teach their son how to hit a baseball. Never have the pleasure of watching their daughter pirouette her way through her first dance recital. No tangible evidence of their love would ever exist. His life and hers, at least as she knew it, had just ended. Without looking up she spoke. “What organs would they take?”
“Whatever organs you gave permission for them to take, but primarily they would be looking at John’s heart, liver, lungs, pancreas, kidneys and possibly his corneas.”
Several minutes passed. “Will I be able to see him first?”
“Absolutely. We can go in whenever you are ready.”