portion of the artwork for Dave Clapper's essay

Do You Think He Heard Me?
Dave Clapper

It starts with the phone ringing on a Saturday morning. It’s not a long conversation. Ellen pulls me aside, crying; tells me it was Kathleen. Sean is in intensive care. My kids are already online. I apologize to them, tell them that I have to take them back to their mother, that Ellen and I have to go to Montana. I cry, remembering them going through this not so long ago with their grandfather, Ron, a big man sinking into a hospital bed, unaware of his loved ones around him. I cried then, too, unable to get out more than, “Thank you.” It’s what I want to say to Sean, too, but just as thanking Ron wasn’t for me, was for what he had done for my children, this is a thank you for what Sean has done for Ellen.

My ex is displeased—she has plans with her best friend who she doesn’t often see. If Lance were dying, I’d do this for you, I say, and she’s not happy, but she understands, even if her voice sounds like she disbelieves me. And my car won’t start, the battery having been acting balky for days before finally giving up. I take Ellen’s car to the ferry, take the boys across, and come back home in the early afternoon.

We’ve already looked at flights. Driving is faster from Seattle to Missoula. We take Ellen’s car, usually the less reliable of the two. I drive. It’s not a short trip, and a lot of it passes in silence. There’s not much to say. Sean’s dying. Everything that needs to be said needs to be said to him.

We arrive at the hospital well after visiting hours have ended, and we don’t have the password to gain access to the room or to information about how he’s doing. It’s after midnight. The receptionist recommends a few hotels nearby. We’ll come back the next day.

The days spent in Sean’s room blur together, and we alternate optimism. On one day, Ellen is sure that Sean’s already gone, that he is, at best, in a dream state, but I think he’s still there. On another, our roles have reversed.

“Do you think he heard me?” Ellen asks me after several visits. “Sean, it’s Ellen,” she would say. “Dave Clapper is here, too. Sean, I love you. Thank you so much.” Yes, I would tell her, he heard you. And he did. His eyes, if closed, opened; if already open, they opened wider. And, after the confusion of waking, of finding his hands trapped to keep from pulling out the ventilator, of finding the ventilator itself, the goddamned ventilator that wouldn’t let him talk, and fucking hell, why couldn’t he talk, he lived to talk … after that, his head would turn to her voice, his eyes would find hers, and he would smile as the wildness, the terror, went out of his eyes. And he’d keep his eyes on her as she would explain, as his daughter had explained, as nurses had explained, where he was and why he had to have the tube in.

And then he’d go back to sleep.

The nurses, I should say, are amazing. Three are beekeepers (two of the three a married couple), and we learn about different strains of bees, and how risky the shipping of bees is, the iffy survival rate of each colony. As a five-year-old, I used to pet bumblebees at a house at the end of my street.

We learn to distinguish beeps and alarms through the days of sitting in a room in ICU. At first, every mechanical sound seemed cause for alarm, but eventually, the numbers on all the machines become familiar and the worry lessens. As long as the oxygen levels stay above 90, things are OK. Most of the time, the number hovers between 90 and 92. Sometimes, high 80s. Except when it doesn’t, when a dosage of one medication or another has been changed, when the staff needs to ask Sean questions, needs him to be as alert as possible. These times are terrifying.

We are there once as everything comes crashing down, and the room fills up with doctors and nurses so quickly that it’s impossible for us to get out. And the reason is a mystery, as there’s nothing that has been changed in the treatment to bring this on.

He has a heart attack. Maybe two? One while we’re there, one while we’re not, I think. And every incident weakens him further, makes bringing him to alertness that much riskier.

The staff rotates him periodically to lessen the impact of bed sores. Upon pulling up the sheet, we see Sean’s bone white legs, crooked to his body, invisible until now. “Oh,” says one of the attendants. “He’s a tall man.”

We spend about five or six hours a day in Sean’s room. Mostly, nothing happens. At our hotel, we watch episodes of Law & Order on my laptop, or the Mariners, if they’re on; and listen unwillingly to arguments in the parking lot. We love Jerry Orbach; Sam Waterston not so much. The Mariners somehow score 21 runs against the Rangers on Wednesday. The people in the parking lot drive giant trucks and don’t have all their teeth.

And we’re exhausted. They try to bring him to consciousness again to find out if he wants to live, and if so, how he wants to live. But he’s not really there, it’s clear.

“Remember all those times you called and I couldn’t talk and you said, ‘But I just want to talk?’ We just want you to talk,” Kathleen says.

And God, he wanted to talk; he always wanted to talk. If the phone rang, and the caller ID said Sean, and Ellen wasn’t home, it was always a decision: did I want to spend an hour on the phone with Sean, most of that time listening to him talk?

Finally, we are spent. And his family from the east coast is arriving and school’s over so Kathleen no longer has to split time between teaching, parenting, and being with her father. We’ve said what we’ve needed to say.

And maybe it was the worst fucking thing about those days in the hospital room: that Sean couldn’t talk, that he couldn’t communicate, because Sean lived to communicate—it was everything. But maybe it was the best fucking thing that he couldn’t talk, because the people who loved him, if for just a little while, needed him to shut up long enough to be able to hear I love you, Sean, and thank you, Sean, for everything you did for me. And maybe, just maybe, that’s the only way he could have really heard it, accepted it.

Forgive me. It’s awfully easy to be angry at people for dying.

Sean died within a couple of days of our driving back to Seattle. It was not a surprise. We’d already said goodbye.

“I love you, Sean. Thank you for everything you did for me.”

“Do you think he heard me?”


Table of Contents

FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 40 | Spring 2013