The Dilemma of Living
“Helena, have you seen Matthew?” asked Charles. “He needs to go to the doctor.”
“I haven’t seen him, dear, but he can’t be too far off,” said Helena, sitting on a recliner reading from her tablet. “Check the back sitting room.”
“I’ll give that a look then.”
Charles sluggishly stepped through the house on his way to the back sitting room. His mind furiously raced with each step, when an item in his son’s room caught his eye.
“Matthew?” he said. He looked meekly around Matthew’s room. Many crudely painted tractors sat sporadically on a wooden desk. He walked up to the desk and put his hand on the tractors, moving one slowly. Each tractor held a different base color than the next, but all were incomplete in their paint job. He pushed a different tractor back and forth, testing the smoothness of its wheels.
His eyes turned towards some shiny blue ribbons hanging on a hook jutting out from the side of the desk. He grasped them in his hands and slowly rubbed them as if they would grant him any sort of solace. Charles grabbed the front most ribbon and stuck it in his pants pocket.
“Matthew?” he said again.
“I’m out here, dad,” said a voice. “What do you want?”
Charles briskly made his way to the back sitting room. He took a deep breath before stepping foot in the room.
“You need to go to the doctor now, Matthew. It’s very important. I’ve got most of your things ready so we can leave in the next ten minutes, or so. Let’s get going.”
“Doctor? What for?” Matthew sat in his wheelchair and turned his head as far as he could to meet his father’s eyes. “Dr. Canova said I was fine, just like he’s always said since my accident. I’m fine, dad, really. I’m healthy and fine; please cancel that appointment.” Matthew’s gaze returned to the backyard: several acres of neighboring cattle grazing and relaxing under trees as the sun began to already beat down on them well before noon.
“Matthew, we are going to the doctor now, whether you like it or not.” Tears began to well in Charles’ eyes, but Matthew kept looking outside. “You need to do this.”
“Why? I’m perfectly fine; I mean, I’m not fine, but I’m more than resigned to the fact that my body is what it is. There’s nothing that can be done to help me out. I’m stuck in this chair for the rest of my life and, unfortunately, you and mom are stuck taking care of me. I’m sorry for that, truly I am, but I don’t think anything will be able to change that, barring a rich relative dying and giving us all the money so we can hire a permanent caretaker for me.”
Charles looked down at his feet and then back up at his son. “This is a stem-cell doctor and they’ve made great strides in research. You could potentially walk again someday with help from this doctor. At the very least, you could get feeling back in your hands, fingers. Don’t you at least want that?”
“Unless it’s a surefire thing, I don’t want to do it. I’ve been through years of physical therapy and nothing happened, but disappointment and misery. I don’t want to go through all of that, again. And I don’t want to be a financial sinkhole, again.”
Matthew kept his eye on a particular heifer in view and the few days old calf accompanying it. The calf, awkward and lovely, struggled to have the same gait as the other cows. The cows didn’t move often, but when they did the young calf struggled to keep up. It tripped and fell every time the group moved twenty feet or three hundred feet. Each time it fell, however, it shot up and tried its damnedest to keep up with the group, despite the gangly legs it had been cursed with. Each time its mother noticed it fall, she helped nudge it up gently and licked mud off the calf’s eyes.
“Please, Matthew, this is something we need and, especially, something that you need. We have to try, we can’t just give up. That’s not the type of people we are, or should ever become. I love you, but I want you to be happy, and you’re not going to be happy being stuck…stuck like this.”
Matthew stared intently at the young calf as his father’s words sank into his ears. The calf, awkward and lovely and gangly, stayed determined to walk no matter how many times it fell and hit the ground. After each stumble, teeter and totter, the calf stood with more strength and resolve than ever before. Cuts and nicks lit up the the calf’s face and knees, but it didn’t matter to the calf — it just wanted to walk like the rest of its kind.
“Okay,” said Matthew, “I suppose I’ll go.”
Tears welled again in Charles’ eyes and he gave his son a monstrous hug.
“But if it starts to feel like a never-ending, fruitless journey, I’m not going to keep at it. I’ll ask for it to end.”
“Of course — yes — of course! Thank you, Matthew, thank you so much.”
“You caught me at a good time. Let’s move along before I change my mind.”
Charles began to leave the room and said, “We’ll leave in ten minutes. I’ll let your mother know and load up the van.”
Matthew smiled briefly and returned his attention to watch the cattle roam and graze.
“Helena?” said Charles, making his way back through the house to the front living room. “Matthew and I will be leaving soon for the doctor! Where are his travel bags?”
Helena, still engrossed in reading from her tablet, said, “They’re, uh, in our room, I think. Maybe try the garage?” She swiped her fingers across her tablet then snapped her fingers. “No — wait! They’re in the hall closet. I put them there after our trip to the city last month.”
She put the tablet down on her lap and looked up at her strikingly joyous husband. “Wow, Charles, you’re very happy about Matthew wanting to go to this doctor’s appointment. That’s odd for a check-up… Wait, is this that stem-cell doctor you’ve been badgering me about the past few months?”
Charles’ happy disposition quickly dropped into a defensive puckering of lips. “Well, yes, I — well, yes it’s the stem-cell doctor! You knew I was inquiring around about it — and you’re okay with it, right?” His forehead began to sweat slightly and he clasped his hands behind his head. “It’s not like it isn’t worth a shot. We have to try everything.”
Helena set her tablet on the end table. She closed her eyes and gently rubbed them. “We’ve already tried so much. How are we going to pay for all of this? Is Matthew on board with this, or did you beg him to go?” She opened her eyes and stared directly at Charles, still sweating and clasping his hands behind his head. He didn’t make a sound. “This is going to be like the homeopathy crap, Charles. We can’t just rub random oils on our son and expect anything substantial to come out of it.”
Charles looked down at his feet. Waiting for his wife to continue undressing his idea.
“I’m not sure about this stem cell business: one, because of the damage it could do to Matthew’s emotions; and two, because I just know we can’t afford something like this, this experimental nonsense. Our insurance is garbage and we had to fight for so long for them to pay for Matthew’s post-surgery medical bills! Those monsters were barely willing to pay for Matthew’s surgeries that saved his life…” Helena rubbed her temples. “Not to mention, you unloaded most of our retirement so we could pay for that special van too.”
Charles released his hands from behind his head and said, “Helena, the cost of this will be covered by our insurance — I swear it! From the calls I made with them, they are willing to pay for the bulk of whatever the bill ends up being. The agent was very sympathetic. And, if they don’t want to pay for it, I’ll just work more hours and do odd-jobs around the neighborhood. I’m plenty capable.”
“You’re sixty-one years old, Charles. You can’t physically tax yourself like that — or I’m going to be the one taking you and Matthew to the doctors.”
“So selfish, Helena, Jesus Christ.”
“Oh for God’s sake, Charles! You’re the one wanting to put our son through hell by getting his hopes up again with this stem-cell crap!”
“I swear to you I am not getting his hopes up here, it’s very real! The amount of research done on stem cells helping body functionality has grown dramatically in the years since Matthew’s accident. They’re seeing very real results in all sorts of patients. I can only imagine that they can help Matthew.”
“So you don’t actually know if they can help Matthew? Did you read this on one of your loony websites?”
“God damn it, Helena, they can fucking help him if we ask.”
The two kept bickering as Matthew rolled into the room. Despite being a quadriplegic, Matthew’s wheelchair is advanced enough to be able to move and pivot whenever he moved his head in certain, distinct directions. “I want to do this, mom,” said Matthew, ending his parents’ bickering. “I know it may end up hurting my heart and my mind, but dad’s right — we have got to try something. I can’t live like this, and you two can’t live with me like this either.”
Helena, her face now flush, had tears shoot forth from her worn eyes. “But honey, it’s still experimental and expensive. I just don’t think we should be pushing you into this, I don’t want you to be hurt again.”
“I truly appreciate how you feel, mom, I really do, but I have to do something about…about this body I have. I want to free myself from this prison and be able to help you both in some way. I want to be able to wash myself. I want to be able to put a spoon to my mouth. I want to be able to flip through books. I want to end my time being a burden and this is a way I can potentially stop being one, even if the chances are slim.”
Helena, still flush, stood up and walked over to her son. Tears no longer flowed from her eyes, but sat rigidly in her tear ducts. She placed her hand on his arm. “Is this really what you want? I’ll support you, but only if it’s what you want. Not someone else.” She gingerly turned her eyes to Charles and returned them back to Matthew.
“Yes, mom, it is.” Matthew gave a half smile. “I want to do this to help you, to help dad, and to help me.”
Helena removed her hand from Matthew’s arm and placed it on his face, “I love you so much, my brave boy.”
Charles, now relieved by his son swaying Helena, left the room and went in search of the travel bags.
“I love you too, mom, more than anything you could fathom,” said Matthew. “Whether this works or not, I love you and dad so much.”
Helena hugged her son tightly. “To the moon and back.”
- — -
“How much longer, Dad?” said Matthew. “We’ve been driving for hours. My laptop is about to die.”
“Not too much longer, Matthew!” said Charles. “We may have to stay at a hotel in the city, however, because, from my understanding and research, the stem cell doctor may have to do a large number of evaluations on you… But don’t be scared!”
“Oh, I’m not scared. I’m more worried about you plugging in my laptop, right now, than some doctor drawing blood or putting me in some machine to look at my spine.”
Charles laughed. “I’ll stop at the next rest area, whenever I see it.”
- — -
Charles pulled the van into the doctor’s office parking lot. The office had a large sign in the parking lot entrance that read Doctor Maximov and Associates: Stem Cell Research Group.
“We’re here!” said Charles. His eyes gleamed. “Give me a second to stretch out my old bones then I’ll start the lift to get you out.”
“Sounds good,” said Matthew. He blinked his eyes quickly and the laptop screen turned black. “What sort of wait lines are we looking at?”
“Unsure.” Charles bent down and touched his toes. “According to their receptionist, they don’t often do personal appointments. They’re more about research.”
“Wait, so how’d you get an appointment?” Matthew made his wheelchair move onto the chairlift.
Charles reached into the van and pushed a red button that began the chair lift’s slow, short descent. “I sort of emailed and called them often… They eventually relented and said they’d see us.” He went to the back of the van, opened another door, and grabbed one of Matthew’s bags.
“Really, dad?” Matthew rolled his eyes. “Please tell me you actually set an appointment and we aren’t just brute forcing our way into meeting a doctor again.”
“Oh, Matthew, of course not.” The chair lift hit the ground and Matthew wheeled off of it. “I got us an appointment. I promise you.” Charles hit the chair lift button again and it rose slowly back into the van.
Charles laughed and shut the van door. With Matthew’s bag in hand, he looked down at his son and smiled. “Well, are you ready?”
Matthew smiled then slowly moved his head forward to force his wheelchair forward. He had that lovely and awkward and gangly calf on his mind.
Charles followed directly behind, beaming with pride about the potential of this doctor’s appointment he had set into motion. He looked around and took in the environment unfolding in front of Matthew and him. Benches where Matthew may one day sit on again, beautiful flowers that Matthew may one day lean down and smell, and stairs where Matthew may one day be able to use. Charles walked ahead and slapped the steel door opener to the entrance of the office.
“Hi folks,” said the receptionist. Her brown eyes radiated friendliness. “What can we do for you today?”
“Hey, uh,” said Charles. He looked closely at the name placard on the receptionist’s desk. “Sofia! That name sounds familiar from our email exchanges. Well, we are here to meet with Dr. Maximov! The man behind this… this great place of research into stem cells and such.”
“You must be Mr. Eckhard! I have a forty-five minute bloc of time arranged for a meeting with Dr. Maximov discussing your son — hello there, Matthew, I presume. Unfortunately, Dr. Maximov is tied up for another hour or so — they’re nearing a breakthrough! I can’t say too much, but let’s just say, if we get the proper funding, there may be a new market for real anti-aging products!”
Charles looked over his shoulder to gauge Matthew’s reaction.
“Well, I mean, if they’re nearing a breakthrough… Matthew, it’s all right if we wait just a bit, right?”
Matthew, already moving himself next to a table in the lobby, said, “Yeah, of course. I expected a wait since this place doesn’t normally get walk-in patients.” He rolled his eyes.
Charles faced back to the receptionist, “Yes, we will wait! Thank you.”
“Are there any forms we need to fill out?”
Sofia looked up from her desk, “Oh, no, Mr. Eckhard. That won’t be necessary here.”
Charles nodded and took a seat next to Matthew at the table. He placed the travel bag on the table and began to slowly pull items out: baby wipes, graham crackers, sun tan lotion, Allen wrenches, and a small tablet. The tablet was placed in front of Matthew and a movie began to play after Charles tapped the tablet a handful of times.
“Is Shawshank Redemption okay?” said Charles.
“Can you put on A Knight’s Tale instead?” said Matthew. “I want to keep riding this wave of enthusiasm.”
Charles obliged and tapped the tablet a handful more times. “There you go.”
“Thank you,” said Matthew. “You want to watch it with me?”
“I will after I finish cleaning you up, and make a few repairs.” Charles grabbed the baby wipes and began the process of cleaning his son. He started at Matthew’s fingers, hands, and up his arms. Each stroke and rub made with delicate precision, as any filth buildup could potentially be detrimental to Matthew’s health.
Before continuing to Matthew’s face and neck, Charles pulled out fingernail clippers. He dug out all the dirt from under Matthew’s fingernails then made quick, robotic work of clipping Matthew’s long fingernails. He used the baby wipes on Matthew’s fingers and fingernails one last time, and then began to rub Matthew’s neck and cheeks.
“That tickles,” said Matthew. He giggled faintly.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Charles. He stopped and examined Matthew. “That’s the first time I’ve heard you laugh in months.”
“I laugh every day. Maybe not out loud, but I laugh all the time.”
Charles smiled and continued to working to clean his son.
“Mr. Eckhard!” said Sofia. She came out from behind her desk. “If you would gather your things, and son, please follow me to Dr. Maximov’s office! They got out of their research meeting rather early.”
“Oh, that was quick!” said Charles. “One moment please!” He placed the used baby wipes in an empty grocery bag and began to hurriedly place the rest of the items back in Matthew’s bag.
“Sure!” said Sofia.
Charles pulled out headphones and placed them in Matthew’s ears. “Here,” said Charles as he placed the tablet on Matthew’s limp lap, “continue to listen to the movie, I doubt Dr. Maximov is completely ready.”
Matthew smiled and nodded.
“Where to?” said Charles. He stood behind Matthew’s wheelchair ready to push.
“Down this hall,” said Sofia.
Charles pushed Matthew behind Sofia as they ventured down the hall. Each door the trio passed held a sign at its midsection. Charles read each sign, looking for a name he may recognize from his own research online: Dr. Morales. Dr. Steinbach. Dr. Sorenson. Dr. Thaker. Dr. Obelis. Dr. Vijeh. Dr. Sedgwick. He didn’t recognize a single name.
“Here we are,” said Sofia. She opened a door on the right near the end of the hallway. “Please wait here and Dr. Maximov will be with you any moment now!”
Charles wheeled Matthew in and turned to shake Sofia’s hand. “Thank you so much for making this meeting happen.”
Sofia, blushing, said, “Oh, no problem Mr. Eckhard! You are very welcome.” She shut the door gently behind her.
Matthew kept his eyes forward, listening intently to his movie, while a seated Charles inspected the medical posters affixed on the walls.
The Potential of Stem Cells read one poster with a tiny diagram of a fetus and medical jargon lumped all over. Charles didn’t understand many of the words or theories but loved the idea of the potential the stem cells may provide Matthew, and humanity. His eyes flittered down to the bottom of the poster to small words that were accessible to the layman.
“Radical thinking and procedures were necessary to get us this far,” read the poster, “but to continue the work of our predecessors we must strive to be ethical and self-regulated in our work. We cannot achieve an ultimate success by continuing to be barbarians in our work. Focusing research in more acceptable avenues will make it possible for us to keep researching into the coming decades, centuries without reproach.”
Charles became perplexed by those words. It didn’t make much sense to him for the doctors to kowtow to what is seen as ethical if it meant striving for the greater good. His annoyance quickly faded as he looked back at his son.
“Hello, may I come in?” said a voice from behind the door.
“Of course, come on in!” said Charles loudly. He tapped Matthew’s cheek and motioned that he was going to turn off the tablet. “The time is here!”
Dr. Maximov entered the room with a quaint smile and a white, curly mustache. “How do you do, Mr. Eckhard?”
Charles stood up and shook Dr. Maxmov’s head. “I’m doing wonderful now, doctor!” said Charles.
“And you must be Matthew, how do you do?” Dr. Maximov made his way over to Matthew and patted his knee.
“I’m fine,” said Matthew. “Ready to get this over with.”
“I’m sure, I’m sure,” said Dr. Maximov with the slightest of grins. “Now, should we get started?” Dr. Maxmiov sat down in leather chair across from Charles and Matthew.
“Yes, let’s get this started,” said Charles. He smiled at Matthew and Matthew gave a short grin back.
“Well, what seems to be the primary issue?”
Charles and Matthew slowly looked at one another. “My son, uh, my son is paralyzed from the neck down, doctor,” said Charles. “I think that it’s pretty obvious he is a quadriplegic.”
“Yes, I can see that, but what’s the primary issue for seeing me today?”
Charles placed his hands behind his head. “Well, I, um, I figured that you, you would be able to help do something about my son’s paralysis. Isn’t that the type of research you all do here? That’s what I gleaned from your website at least.”
Dr. Maximov rolled closer to Charles and Matthew, “I’m sorry, Mr. Eckhard, but that’s not the type of research we do anymore. I have a background in dealing with radical procedures, yes, but I no longer dabble in such controversial areas. We focus more on superficial products…like anti-aging products or non-invasive plastic surgery supplements.”
“What? What do you mean?” said Charles. He let go of his head and placed his hands on his now sweating face. “It said on your website — the website for this office — that you have experience using stem cells to help alleviate symptoms and disorders regarding paralysis!”
“And that is true, Mr. Eckhard, but I no longer, and this firm no longer, do that sort of research or procedures.”
“Jesus Christ, how come?”
“It’s more financially beneficial to do research and develop products that we can sell and it’s easier to develop these products by using synthetic stem cells. Not to mention, we don’t get any busybodies outside of our office anymore: tearing up our signs, egging our doors, and even threatening to blow us up. It was miserable and I can’t in good faith go back to those days. Those days we had to use authentic stem cells, which became the main ire as to why many of those busybodies were angry in the first place.”
“But you’re still doing research in stem cells? You can’t use any of that synthetic fetal crap to help my son walk again?”
“No, Mr. Eckhard, I can’t just use this fetal crap to help your son walk, and none of my peers can either. The synthetic stem cells aren’t nearly as medically powerful as the authentic ones. Not to mention that stem cells aren’t some medical miracle where I can just magically help your son walk again. You’ve read too much science fiction or something.”
Charles began to weep as he put his face fully into his hands. Matthew stared blankly at Dr. Maximov.
Dr. Maximov pulled out a purple hanky and handed it to Charles. “I’m sorry, Mr. Eckhard, and I’m sorry to you, Matthew. This isn’t something I wanted to have to say to either of you in person, but I thought that since you more than demanded a meeting with me that I should oblige. For your troubles of coming all this way into the city, I’ll give you some of our newest products — no charge.”
- — -
“Dad, it’s going to be okay,” said Matthew from inside the van.
Charles had stopped at a car wash. He wanted to clear his head, and give the van a nice shine. “I feel so bad for you, Matthew,” Charles said. “I couldn’t even get them to evaluate you… I’ve failed you.”
“You didn’t fail me, dad,” said Matthew. “I’m the one that terribly ruined our lives.” Charles stopped washing the car to listen in to his son. “I’m the asshole that decided to drive home drunk, completely out of my gourd, and wrap my car around a telephone pole.”
“Matthew, you don’t have to bring this up. Accidents happen.”
“Yes, dad, yes, I do have to bring it up. I am the reason you and mom have very little money left to retire. I am the reason you have run yourself ragged trying to keep me healthy and happy. I am the reason mom cried herself to sleep for six years before she finally began to forgive herself. I have ruined your lives, and I’m stuck like this for the rest of my natural life because I was a god damned idiot.”
“Do not say that, Matthew! Do not say that! You haven’t ruined anyone’s lives — it was an accident and a setback to our lives. We will overcome this, somehow. Nothing more can be said about it, enough.” Charles returned to cleaning the van, but something caught his eye.
There was an advertisement for a local motel: Cheap rates, cable TV, and handicap accessible. He had told Matthew that they would stay at a hotel, so he thought he should at least fulfill something he told his son in the past ten hours.
“Matthew, we’re going to stay at a local motel, it’s starting to get late. Is that fine with you? It’s about twenty miles away, off the highway and such.”
“Yeah, whatever works for you,” said Matthew. He had turned his laptop on with the proper blinking and had begun watching a television show.
Charles nodded and finished cleaning up the van.
- — -
The drive to the motel took over an hour as Charles’ phone had taken them on the scenic route to the hotel. The sun had set and as they pulled into motel. The car was shut off. Charles noticed Matthew had fallen asleep and wanted to avoid waking him.
He turned his head around to get a full look at his son. Once a man nearly six foot in height and a soon to be college graduate, Matthew was nothing more than a lump of flesh placed upon a wheelchair. He had his entire life ahead of him and had it all stolen from him after a night of drinking too much and driving too fast. Charles reached towards Matthew, straining his body, and brushed back some hair that had fallen in front of Matthew’s eyes. He quietly nestled back into the driver’s seat and began to think about how he would explain this failure to Helena, and everyone else in town that he had told. A fit of rage erupted in Charles, and then something darker emerged.
Charles, always the optimist, suddenly became struck by a morbid idea. He knew that Matthew hadn’t been happy for some time, and knew that Matthew would never be able to be even a semi-functioning adult, especially after this latest setback. He also knew about the immense self-debt he had accumulated by trying to help Matthew in any way imaginable. Charles thought that he could rid the world of two birds with one stone, and, at the very least, let Helena live the rest of her life without worriment.
Though clearly mad, Charles turned the car back on and leapt out of the vehicle. He went to the back end of the van and opened it to find a basket full of Matthew’s clothes that were to be used in the case of an emergency. He grabbed as furiously at the clothes and began shoving them into the tailpipe of the van. Inch by inch, he shoved the clothes up the tailpipe to positively make sure none of the exhaust would escape.
Charles threw the remaining clothes on the ground and shut the backdoor of the van. He entered the van, but not through the driver’s door. He entered the passenger side door and sat himself in the seat next to the sleeping Matthew. He grabbed Matthew’s hand and leaned back in his seat, waiting for all the pain to draw to a close.