We arrived early at the hospital. Again, the police took us to the side entrance away from the media. While Nicky had showered in the hotel room, I managed to turn on the television and watch CNN.
The police were right. The shooting was the lead story. The first thing they showed was a video of Joey. Tears welled up in my eyes when I saw his smiling image on the screen. It had been taken at a board meeting earlier in the year when he presented several students with community service awards. I briefly broke into tears when they interviewed him. It was evident the pride and love he had for his students.
The next video was that of Coach Arnold. It showed him coaching on the sidelines during a football game. He was shouting and screaming at his players. I had never met the man, but I instantly hated him.
The program went to a commercial, but when they returned I was surprised when they began discussing a possible motive. They told how Joey had been trying to form a Gay-Straight Alliance at Southwestern, and how Coach Arnold had been suspended for his homophobic behavior. When they introduced a panel of ‘experts’ who began discussing Arnold’s irrational behavior, I turned the television off.
The waiting room was already full when we entered. Everyone became silent as we walked across the room and asked the receptionist if we could see Dr. Singh. She smiled politely, and then told us to have a seat as she disappeared from the room. About five minutes later, Dr. Singh appeared and asked to speak to Star and me. He led us to a private room and closed the door.
As we sat down, I grabbed Star’s hand and held it. Dr. Singh sat across from us and smiled. “He made it through the night without any major complications. I’m beginning to feel a little more optimistic about his recovery than I was yesterday.”
If we had not have been seated, I think Star and I would have collapsed onto the floor. She leaned against me, and I could feel her expel the breath she had been holding.
“He’s going to live?” She asked hopefully.
“I didn’t say that,” Dr. Singh responded, “but I think his chances are greater today than they were yesterday. Unexpected problems can always arise, but right now I’m satisfied with the improvement he’s made in the past twelve hours. We removed the respirator a couple of hours ago, and he appears to have no problem breathing on his own. That is a very positive sign.”
“Can we see him?” I found myself asking.
“He’s still very heavily sedated,” he explained. “He probably will be for a few more days. However, I don’t see any problem with you seeing him for a few minutes.” He stood up and looked down at us, “If you’ll wait here, I’ll go get a nurse and have her take you to him.”
He started to leave, but then stopped and turned. “Mrs. Wendelmeirer, I need to get your permission for something. The media has been hounding the hospital for information on Dr. Carpenter’s condition. The hospital administrator has asked me to conduct a brief news conference this morning, but we first need to get your permission. Will you consent to this?”
Star looked at me. I nodded my head. She then told Dr. Singh to proceed with the news conference. He thanked us and then disappeared from the room. A minute later the nurse who had taken us the previous day to see Joey appeared. She smiled when she entered.
“I guess Dr. Singh told you the good news,” she smiled. “He seems to be improving hourly.” We got up and followed her from the room. Star once again gripped my hand as we entered the ICU.
When she pulled back the curtain, the first thing I noticed was that Joey seemed to have color to his skin. He didn’t look as pale and ghostly as he did the previous day. The tube running in his mouth had been removed, but he had tubes running into his arm. There were still several monitors situated around him.
“I’ll get you a couple of chairs,” whispered the nurse, “and you can sit a few minutes with him.” She left and Star walked over and kissed Joey on the forehead. I then walked over and gently took his hand, leaned down and kissed him on his cheek.
“Hey,” I whispered in his ear. “It’s Gene.” I was surprised when I felt him squeeze my hand more forcefully than he had the day before. The nurse returned with a couple of chairs, and I sat down and continued to hold his hand.
After a few minutes of silence, Star arose and walked over to the bed. She ran her hand over Joey’s hair. “We’re here with you Joey,” she said. “The waiting room is filled with people praying for you.” He squeezed my hand gently.
“Nicky’s worried about you,” she continued. “I told him you’re going to be all right. So you better pull through this.” Joey gripped my hand tightly. Star looked down, and she looked back up at me with an astonished look.
“He can hear you,” I whispered.
“Can you hear me?” Star asked. “Squeeze Gene’s hand if you can.”
Tears fell from my eyes when he squeezed my hand. I leaned in and kissed him on his forehead. “Thank, God.” I said loudly. “Thank you.”
Star leaned over and talked into his ear. “You’re going to be all right, Joey. There are a lot of people who love you.” She looked up at me. Again, Joey tightened his grip on my hand.
The nurse appeared and informed us that we should leave and let Joey rest. I leaned in and whispered into Joey’s ear. “I love you, Joey. I always have.” He squeezed my hand gently, and I pulled away and wiped the tears from my eyes.
As we walked into the hall, Star collapsed against the wall and began crying. I held her and whispered that things were going to be all right. She nodded and wiped the tears from her eyes with a tissue. We both then took a deep breath and walked toward the waiting room. Before opening the door, she stopped.
“When we go out there,” she said, “take Nicky out to the garden and talk to him. Assure him that his Dad is going to be all right.”
“Why me?” I asked. I was a stranger to him. He’d probably feel more comfortable hearing the news from Star.
“He trusts you,” she said. “He told me this morning that his father was going to be all right because you promised him that he would make it. Silly as it may seem, he believes you.”
We entered the waiting room, and Nicky ran over to us. “How’s Dad?” He looked hopefully into our eyes. I put my arm around his waist and led him quickly from the room. We walked down the hall, and I led him into a small conference room. I closed the door and pulled him into me. He wrapped his arms around my waist.
“He’s doing better, Nicky,” I said softly. “The doctor says he’s going to make it.” I knew it wasn’t exactly what Dr. Singh had said, but I felt confident that Joey was now going to pull through this.
I rubbed his back as he cried into my chest. He pulled away and looked into my face. “You’re not lying to me are you?”
“A few minutes ago Star told him you were worried about him,” I knelt down and looked into his tearful face. “Star told him you loved him and he squeezed my hand. He heard her.” Nicky wrapped his arms around my neck and cried once again.
After a minute, I stood and looked into his tearful face. “I need you to do something for me.” He nodded. “You have to be really strong right now, okay?” Once again he nodded. “Your Dad is going to need all the strength you have.” He looked at me and wiped away his tears.
“When can I see him?” he asked.
“That may be awhile,” I replied. “Right now they have him in a special room with tubes running into his arm. They are keeping him sleeping because of his injuries.”
“But you said he squeezed your hand.” He looked at me skeptically.
“That’s because the drugs are keeping him asleep,” I assured him. “But I think that deep down he can sense what’s going on around him.”
“Will he be all right when he gets better?”
“I don’t know,” I replied honestly. Dr. Singh never did go into his long-term injuries. We were just concerned that he would live through the night.
Again, I knelt before him. “But whatever happens,” I said, “he’ll always be your Dad. We’ll just have to, I mean, you’ll just have to love him no matter what.” He gave me a puzzled look and then nodded.
When we entered the waiting room, I had my arm protectively around Nicky’s waist. I don’t know why, but I began to feel it was my responsibility to keep him safe until he was reunited with Joey. Perhaps it was because Star had told me he trusted me, but I think it was more out of a feeling of loyalty to Joey.
As we made our way through the room, several people reached out and hugged him. Each time, I’d wait until they released him, and then I’d lead him away. Star was smiling when we reached her on the other side of the room.
She held Nicky’s head in her hands and gently kissed him on his forehead. “You all right?” She asked him. He nodded and looked up at me.
“Uncle Gene says I have to be strong for Dad.” A lump formed in my throat, and I thought I was going to break down when he called me Uncle Gene.
Star looked at me and smiled. “Yes, Nicky,” she said. “You be strong for your Dad.”
“I want to see him,” Nicky announced. I watched as tears started to stream down his face. “I don’t know why they won’t let me see him.”
“You’re too young,” Star informed him. “There are hospital rules..”
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I interrupted Star. I reached down and grabbed Nicky’s hand. “Don’t you have to go?”
“Not really,” he replied.
“Yes, you do,” I insisted as I took his hand and led him away.
“I don’t have to go,” he whined and struggled to pull his hand away.
“I don’t either,” I said. “Come on.” I released his hand and he followed me closely. I began tiptoeing down the hallway, and I was amused when I looked back to see him mimicking my steps.
“Ssshh,” I said as I opened a door and pulled him inside.
He asked, “Where are we going?”
“Just follow me.” I was trying to find the ICU, but I quickly realized I was lost. As we entered another doorway, we were stopped by a police officer.
“You can’t come in here,” he stated tersely. He looked at me and then at Nicky and his expression softened.
“Mr. Albright,” he said. “You and the boy have to go back to the waiting room.”
“But he wants to see his Dad,” I said with a pleading look. I looked down at his name plate. “Come on, Officer Davis. If your father was in the hospital, you’d want to see him.”
“My father died four years ago,” he said sadly. “He died before I had a chance to see him.” He looked down and studied Nicky.
“I’m going to get fired if they find out I did this,” he sighed. “Follow me, but don’t say anything if we get stopped.” I nodded my head and then grabbed Nicky’s hand. We followed Officer Davis down a long hallway before entering another doorway. I immediately recognized the area. We had entered the ICU through a back entrance.
“Thanks, Officer,” I whispered. I led Nicky over to the green curtain of Joey’s cubicle.
I knelt down and talked softly to Nicky. “You have to be strong, Nicky. Don’t cry when we go in there. He may be able to hear us, and it will hurt him if he knows you’re upset.” He tearfully nodded at me.
“Now listen carefully.” He nodded again. “Be prepared for what you see. He’s going to be asleep, and there’s going to be a lot of tubes running into him. Do you think you can handle that?” Again, he nodded. I stood and grabbed his hand tightly. “Ready?” He nodded and I slowly pulled back the curtain.
I felt his knees go weak when he first saw Joey lying on the bed. I held him up and put my arm around his waist to steady him.
He cautiously walked over to the bed and looked down. “Dad?” He reached down and grabbed Joey’s hand. He looked at me and his eyes widened when he realized that Joey had squeezed his hand.
“Dad?” He leaned in and began kissing Joey all over his face. “I love you, Daddy.” One of the monitors began making a beeping noise and seconds later a nurse rushed into the room.
“What are you doing in here?” she asked angrily. She looked down at Nicky. “Children are absolutely prohibited in here. You’ll have to leave immediately.”
“It’s his son,” I began to explain.
“I don’t care who he is,” she replied angrily. “Right now my main concern is for Dr. Carpenter’s health. Now get out!”
I grabbed Nicky’s hand and we quickly left the room. Nicky tried to stop and look back, but the angry look on the nurse’s face told me we should leave as quickly as possible. Just then, Officer Davis appeared and grabbed my arm. He gave me a quick wink and then turned to the nurse.
“I’ll handle this, Nurse.” He then pulled me and Nicky down the hall. When we turned the corner, he released us.
“Please don’t come back here again without the doctor’s permission,” he pleaded. “I have a wife and three kids I have to support.”
I stuck out my hand and shook his. “Thanks, Officer. We may have broken a few rules,” I said looking over at Nicky, “but we put one kid’s mind to rest.” He nodded and then walked away.
As we walked down the hallway, Nicky announced, “Now I do have to use the bathroom, Uncle Gene.” I laughed as he entered the bathroom. A few minutes later he emerged happily. He walked over and put his arms around me. “Thanks, Uncle Gene.” I hugged him tightly as tears appeared in my eyes.
When we returned to the waiting room, everyone was standing and watching what was occurring on a television set in the corner. I don’t remember ever noticing it being on the day before. As we approached, a news reporter was talking anxiously.
“The SWAT team has surrounded the house, and they are trying to get the subject to come out and surrender.”
I walked over to Ticker and whispered, “What’s going on?”
“Coach Arnold is locked up inside his house, and the police are trying to get him to come out. It’s on the national news.” I looked back up at the television and noticed the CNN logo in the corner.
“We’ve just heard gunshots coming from the house!” The reporter shouted. “The police are asking everyone to leave the area immediately.” We heard several more gunshots, and then it appeared that the reporter and cameraman ducked down behind a news van.
Suddenly, we heard shouting. “Put the gun down! Drop your weapon!” There were several more gun shots, and then silence. We watched in horror as the reporter rose to his feet and looked around. The next scene showed the SWAT team surrounding a body on the front lawn of a home.
“It appears the subject has been shot by the police.” Again, the camera panned in for a closer view, but the SWAT team held up their shields, blocking the camera’s view.
“We’ll break for a commercial,” announced the reporter. “We’ll be back with more information in two minutes.” Just then a toilet paper commercial began to play.
“Jesus,” hissed Star. “Can you believe that?” I looked around the room at the stunned looks on the people in the waiting room. Except for me and perhaps Nicky, all had known the coach. Most of them appeared to be in a state of shock.
“Did the cops kill the coach?” Nicky looked at me and Ticker.
“I think so,” I said.
“Good,” he stated coldly. “I’m glad he’s dead.”
Star walked up, grabbed his hand and led him from the room. Ticker and I followed them down to the cafeteria. We went through the line and got a light lunch. The hotel had sent us up food earlier, but we had all been too worried to eat.
When someone walked up to Nicky and asked him how he felt about Coach Arnold being killed by the police, a plain-clothed officer stepped between them and escorted the person away. We were led to the back of the cafeteria, and two uniformed officers stood watch as we quietly ate.
I kept watching Nicky for some reaction to the shooting of Arnold, but if he was troubled by it, he didn’t make it apparent. Star would look at him and then back at me. I looked at her worriedly and then shrugged my shoulders.
“Nicky,” She asked softly. “Are you okay?”
“Sure, Aunt Star,” he replied. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I was afraid that you might be upset with what you just saw on television.” He looked at her blankly and shook his head.
“Why would seeing that son of a bitch get shot bother me?” Star flinched with his cold words. “I hope he’s dead.” He got up, pushed his chair back and knocked it to the floor. He began running from the cafeteria. One of the police officers reached out and grabbed him. He fought to break free, but the other officer grabbed him and they were able to subdue him.
“You’re hurting him!” I shouted. I then ran up and grabbed him, tearing him from the grasp of the officers. “He’s just a boy.”
“Why, Uncle Gene?” Nicky screamed. “Why did he have to shoot my Dad?” I held him tightly and tried to find an answer to his plea.
“I don’t know, Nicky,” I replied. “Sometimes bad things happen to good people.” He continued to sob into my chest. Star and Ticker stepped up beside us and we clung to each other for support. The events of the past two days were beginning to get to us.
“We have to stay strong,” I said. “Joey needs us to stay strong.”
Suddenly, I was aware of the irony of the situation. For the past twenty years I had always turned my back and run from difficult situations. I had found solace in a lonely bar as I held a drink in my hand.
Now I found myself in a situation I had never experienced before. I was facing a crisis in my life; and for the first time. I was facing it with determination. I hadn’t even thought of having a drink since Joey got shot.
Before, when I had stayed in a hotel room, I would head downstairs and get a drink even before I bothered to unpack. But I had spent last night comforting Nicky, and I hadn’t even thought of numbing my senses with a bottle of liquor.
Perhaps Star was right. All I had to do was trust someone in order to find my way back to that bridge to yesterday. Now, however, it wasn’t the bridge to the past that mattered. I had spent a lifetime thinking that my life would be better if I went back and dug up old memories and troubled events.
Embracing Nicky, Star and Ticker made me realize that rebuilding my life didn’t depend on opening up twenty year old wounds. It meant starting over and crossing a bridge that headed forward. It meant realizing that life existed in the present, not in the past. Nicky needed me. Joey needed me. Maybe things wouldn’t work out the way I wanted them, but at least I was moving forward for the first time in my life; and the people I was now holding was the reason for that. I could depend on them to build my bridge to the future.
Everything around me seems so fuzzy. It’s like my brain is alive but my body is shut down. I can hear things around me briefly, then nothing.
I know something bad has happened to me. I’m getting small flashbacks. I’m having trouble deducing what is real and what is a dream. There are moments I think I am alive, then there are times that I feel that everything may be an illusion.
Nicky. Did he come to me? I don’t know. I think I remember hearing his voice, but I’m not sure. I also think that Star came to me, but again I don’t know. I’m not sure of anything.
And Gene. I float in and out of this dream state I’m in, and it seems he’s always here. But why Gene?
I did see Allen last night, though. He came to me and told me everything would be all right. He also said he’d understand. I don’t know what that means. Understand what?
I wish I could wake up from this dream I’m in.
When we returned to the waiting area, the room was abuzz with conversation. I looked at the television, but it was showing pictures of a flood somewhere.
“He deserved what he got.” I heard someone to my right exclaim.
“But did he have to do what he did?” Someone responded.
“What happened?” I stopped and asked a young girl.
“You haven’t heard?” She asked. I shook my head. “Coach Arnold shot it out with the police. He’s dead.”
“They think he was trying to commit suicide,” the other girl explained. “He wanted the police to kill him.” I shook my head and walked away.
I walked over to a vacant couch, sat down and rested my head. I was exhausted. Sitting in the waiting area of a hospital can be tortuous. You watch a door, hoping that someone will emerge and give you a glimmer of hope.
I looked around the room, and everyone seemed to be in a similar state of boredom. Some were chatting idly, and others were absentmindedly watching television. However, we still shared a same interest- Joey.
And I guess we were all determined, because of our love for him, to remain steadfast until we did get some good word about his condition. I was positive that he would survive this. He had squeezed my hand, and I knew he’d somehow find the strength he needed. He was a survivor, after all. The more I began to see him as a real individual instead of some fantasy I’d concocted in my head years ago, the more I admired him.
The people sitting quietly in the waiting room were a testimony to his goodness. They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t care. He had somehow touched each person. Some were his colleagues who trusted his judgment. Others were students who he had mentored and helped through different trying situations. Others were just people who cared about him because he was who he was- a gentle and caring individual.
I was startled from my reverie when someone sat down beside me. It was Nicky. He curled up beside me, placed his head in my lap and fell asleep.
As I gently stroked his hair while he snored softly, I realized one thing- my life had been changed. For the first time in my life I really felt love- real love. It wasn’t the kind that I had manufactured in some drunken stupor.
And I would never again be the same.