The Thawing of the Human Body
I don’t know how I feel about the task I’ve undertaken. I’m about to tell you the story of Michael, a 62-year-old man who was cryogenically frozen at the beginning of the 21st Century and thawed at the end of the same century. He had been diagnosed with what was then an incurable form of blood cancer. It would have ravaged him within a year, so he decided that his best course of action was to be frozen and awakened when they found a cure. His cancer had been cured, but the thawing process proved to be more complicated than the cryo-researchers had realized. Michael was not the only person to be awoken to a cure and then given another incurable disease. To date, over 2500 people have been thawed and died within a year. Tens of thousands more are frozen and await the same fate.
I was the nurse who cared for him at the hospice where he died nine months after being thawed. Michael told me his story on his deathbed. He made me promise to tell it to as many people as possible to show everyone how big of a fraud Cryovive was. I have to say, though, that the problem was not with Cryovive — other cryogenic facilities experienced the same death rate as Cryovive — but with the process itself. Michael was unconvinced, though, up until the day he died.
Now that I’ve given you this background — and before I really start to tell Michael’s story — I need to explain my ambivalence about the task I promised to complete. It is not because I don’t think that there was a major boondoogle by the cryogenic community a hundred years ago. It is not because I don’t care about my patients and feel that every single one of them has a story worth telling — including Michael. It’s because Michael was an unpleasant human being, to say the least. He berated me constantly for being a male nurse and his anachronistic homophobia was on display at all times. When my husband and children came to visit me at work, the visit ended with me feeling I needed to explain to my crying children why someone would shout such mean things from his hospital bed into the hallway. I thought to explain to them that Michael was from a different time that had different thoughts and struggles with what is now commonplace and extraordinarily (even boringly) normal. But, I thought better of it. I didn’t want to make excuses for him, because he had truly hurt the feelings of every member of my family.
Michael was also a misogynist and racist towards Latinos. Strangely, given the history of this country, he had no problems with Blacks. But, he called women “pieces of ass” with the modifier “hot” or “ugly” in front of the phrase depending on the woman. Seeing just how many Latino politicians and media personalities we’ve had sent him into a rage about “illegals” and how the English language was “American”. He ignored that many of the Latinos he was exposed to since his thaw were native-born citizens and spoke English as their first language. His views were abhorrent to me.
So why did I spend so much time with him listening to his story and why did I agree to tell it? My motives are different from his. His is a cautionary tale. As a hospice nurse, I deal with death daily. You can accept it and die with some kind of peace. Or, you can go out kicking and screaming, try to cheat it, and miss what little time you have left. I’m telling Michael’s story — despite how he treated me — because he was the latter and realized his mistake too late.
When Michael first regained consciousness after the thawing process was completed, he told me that the extent to which he felt cold surprised him. It made sense, he later realized, but he had never thought about how he would feel immediately after being thawed. He only thought about how it would feel to have beaten cancer, how the free market had pushed scientists to “stop with all the evolution bullshit and get to work making money by curing diseases.” He did feel heroic and triumphant when, a week after the thaw process and reintegration protocols were complete, and he was officially released from the Thaw Center at the Cryovive facility, he visited the recommended oncologist and was injected with a cloudy liquid. It was over. His cancer was cured. He high-fived the doctor, the nurses, and all the patients in the waiting room and said, “Fuck you, cancer. Fuck you to hell.” The patients gave him a standing ovation.
He told me nothing about how it felt to wake up 75 years after falling asleep. He did not wonder at the technological advances. But when I think about what it would be like to wake up decades later, I wonder about how society would have progressed. I would read history files and interface with info-bases every waking moment in order to learn. But as I got to know Michael, I realized that he was the least intellectually curious person I had ever met. He just didn’t want to know. He turned a blind eye to everything.
He filled his first day cancer-free with food and beer. He had woken from his cryogenic sleep craving burger and fries, pizza, hot wings, Budweiser, and cake. That day was what can only be described as a food and alcohol bender. He tipped widely wherever he ate, happy to be alive and experiencing some of his favorite things. The seed money he placed with the cryogenic facility when he was frozen was invested on his behalf and, after decades of unparalleled, world-wide economic growth, Michael woke up a wealthy man. He intended to enjoy being the kind of person who had more money than he could spend in a lifetime.
The second day free of cancer was filled with what he crudely called “tits and pussy all over the place.” I suspected that he tipped widely on the second day, as well, but was so disgusted at the whole scenario, I changed the topic as quickly as I could. After all, it was what he found out on the third day that changed everything for him.
He awoke early that day. Always an early-bird-catches-the-worm kind of guy, some things didn’t change with temperature or time. His “welcome counselor” at Cryovive gave him the number to a support group and therapist who specialized in the psychological ramifications of the thawing process. Of course, what the Cryovive counselor didn’t tell Michael at the time was that the ramifications were fatal. No person survived for more than a year after being thawed. The therapist was there to break the news, the support group a place to meet other angry unfrozen people.
Michael was suspicious of therapy and support groups, which he routinely called “quacks” and “snake oil salesman.” However, his thrifty side urged him to get his money’s worth from Cryovive so he decided to visit the therapist, Dr. Mildred Turner-Snerkowsky-Davis. He termed her an “ugly piece of ass,” but I suspect his derision of her was more likely because they were the same age rather than her looks. She welcomed him into her office which was lined on one wall with certificates and diplomas (“bullshit degrees from elitist institutions of mutual masturbators,” in his words), two walls with books, and another of floor-to-ceiling windows looking south over the New York Bay from the 209th floor of the Google-Time Warner building.
“How are you . . . um . . . Michael?” she asked, pushing her hair out of her face with her manicured pinkies.
“Warmer,” he said with a smile. He liked playing with people and he was at Dr. Turner-Snerkowsky-Davis’s office for entertainment more than anything else.
“Ha! So, you were a comedian back then?” she asked, feigning a search through his file.
“No, but I shoulda been!”
“Certainly.” She exhaled. “Michael, the process of re-entering life can be a bit traumatic and I saw in your file that . . . well . . . none of your family has survived. You had no children and were an only child yourself.” The bit about being an only child, I would later find out, was a lie. He did have a sister.
He scoffed. “Didn’t need family in the beginning of the century. Don’t need them at the end.
“Really?” She sat back in her chair.
“Really.” The smile slowly came off his face, and he stared her down.
“Have you been able to connect with the descendants of any of your friends or acquaintances from your — I mean, back then?”
“I been too busy eating, drinking, and fucking, lady, to do any soul searching or reaching out. I’m a simple guy, and I know what I need.”
“I see.” She took off her glasses and turned her desk chair to face the wall of windows. Looking pensively, she crossed her legs and dangled her blue pump off her big toe. Michael liked her legs and reconsidered his earlier “ugly piece of ass” categorization. He decided that he would indeed sleep with her if she was up for it, and there were no better options.
“Michael, there’s important information that I need to relay to you. It’s difficult to say, especially when it seems you are so happy to be alive and cancer-free.”
“Shoot, doc. Nothing can bring me down.”
She turned her chair back to her desk and grabbed the edge to pull herself in closer. She put her glasses back on, put her elbows on the desk, and rested her chin on her intertwined fingers. “Michael, since the thawing processes began ten years ago, there have been unforeseen complications.”
“Well, my dick works good, and I’m shitting like a champion. Everything’s good from my perspective.”
“Michael,” she said in a soft voice leaning in closer to him. “These complications are very serious. Even fatal.”
“Oh,” he said. “Well . . .”
“Actually, let me rephrase. These complications are always fatal.”
Michael shifted in his chair and then shifted again. He opened his mouth, but couldn’t figure out what question to ask.
“Many people have survived a year.”
“A ye — ,” he thought, possibly said.
“We can’t know how this will progress for you,” she said. Quickly pushing her chair back and getting up in one swooping action, she was crouching down next to him, putting her hands on his before he knew it.
He pulled his hands away and laughed. “So, you’re just trying to give me worst case scenario. I might survive.”
She stood up, shook her head no, and took a step back. “You won’t.” Bowing her head in what resembled deference to a deity, she paused and then took a piece of paper off her desk. “This support group is meant to help you process this. The men and women in this group are going through exactly what you are going through. They understand what it’s like to be given a gift and then have it . . . have it . . . rescinded.”
He stood up quickly, took the paper from her, ripped it to shreds, and flung the pieces at her. “That’s what I think of your complications.”
As the paper fluttered to the ground, he noticed that a small piece had lodged itself in her bangs and another rather large piece stuck to her lips. She picked the larger piece off her face but was unaware of the smaller. “Anger is a natural reaction.”
“Ha ha,” he said. decidedly not laughing. He pointed at her. “You haven’t seen anger yet. When I find a lawyer, you and your Cryovive cronies will be aware of my anger.”
“Michael.” He was getting sick of her starting every utterance with his name. “In the past decade, no thawed individual has won a court case. You signed a pretty iron-clad agreement releasing Cryovive of any liability from the thawing process. You knew what you were getting into.”
He turned around a few times, running his hands through his hair. “That — that — that Cryovive sales guy told me that the had done studies. They had studied mice or some shit like that and that they came back just the same.”
“Mice don’t have our same brain structure. It’s actually quite interesting, really. The complex centers of the brain don’t thaw as well as the others. They don’t know why, though . . .” Her voice trailed off.
Michael squinted his eyes and shook his head. “That guy told me that there was no risk.”
“Well, he misspoke, obviously. But, you see Michael, there’s no way for us to prove any of that because two generations have passed. The sales representative — ” she looked at his file “ — Sam Wilcox is long dead, so we only have your word to go on. Well, we have this contract — ” she held out the brick of a contract that he barely remembered signing “ — and this contract clears Cryovive of any wrongdoing for unforeseen circumstances.”
Michael stormed over to her, grabbed the contract from her, and started to page through it looking for, what, he didn’t know. When he realized the frutility of his task, he took off the binder clip holding the contract together and slammed the whole thing against the wall of certificates and diplomas. The papers scattered a bit, but the force of the stack against the wall knocked several framed diplomas down, shattering the glass.
“Fuck you, lady. Fuck you and Cryovive.”
And then he left.
The first person to be thawed was Everett J. Cripes III, a billionaire real estate tycoon. Mr. Cripes suffered from a rare neurological disorder that was incurable at the time he was frozen. Ten years ago, a procedure which corrected the disorder was developed, Mr. Cripes was thawed, and he gained wide fame for being a pioneer. From a family with deep ties all over Texas, he had no problem adjusting to his new life. He was made honorary chairman of the Cripes organization. He picked up right where he left off.
Several books and a rather horrible, hastily put-together movie were made about Cripes. The world mourned when he died 8 months after being thawed and the public wanted revenge. The company that handled his cryogenic freezing and thawing, the unfortunately named FroZen Dreams, Inc., was brought in front of Congress and fell victim to many lawsuits — some on behalf of the still-frozen. But, FZD was supported by the cryogenic and mainstream medical communities. Congress did what Congress has always done: blew a lot of hot air but ultimately did nothing. Every single lawsuit was dropped or thrown out of court. The fatal ramifications of the thawing process were deemed unfortunate but unforeseen.
For almost a year before the next person was unfrozen, debate raged for about whether it was worth it to thaw any more individuals if they were just going to die anyway. They would awaken to a world changed, given a glimpse of the future, and then die what was, at that time, a very painful death. The human rights organizations were torn. They wanted to save human suffering but acknowledged that the frozen people had the right to be thawed. The thawing process continued with one of the few women who have been frozen, Priscilla Rosen, the debutante daughter of that Rosen family. At the age of 22, she was diagnosed with an incurable disease. It was never made public, but it was widely speculated that she was HIV-positive because after a cure for HIV/AIDS was found, she was thawed. Her death came just three months after she was thawed; her funeral televised.
After the cancer cures began developing, people were unfrozen — and dying shortly after — at a rate which ruined the novelty of the situation. The public quickly became bored with their outrage and moved onto the Three Years’ Baltic War which had just begun. Even without the public’s attention, people were thawed and died. A protocol was developed by the Association of Cryogenic Labs and Facilities on how to support the unfrozen. This is the protocol in which Michael and Dr. Turner-Snerkowsky-Davis were engaged when he stormed out of her office.
Michael told me that the next three days were a blur. I suspect, though, that he was merely ashamed to admit the immense grief and anger he was feeling at his predicament. During those three days, he accumulated all his negative feelings into a single mission — to bring down Cryovive.
He called several media outlets, but they were uninterested. Thawed Brain Syndrome (that’s what it was called, by the way — very imaginative) was old news and a prominent member of the English monarchy had just been assassinated by dissidents displeased with the peace treaty. Michael contacted several law firms, but never made it past the receptionist. He wrote letters, posted videos online, spoke with medical associations but was rebuffed by everyone. The public’s outrage was through.
Michael’s was not.
It did not occur to him at any point during this outrage to find out if what the therapist told him was true or not and, if it was, how much time he had left. I asked him one time in his hospice room when he actually went to the doctor.
“When I started tripping over myself and forgetting my own name,” he responded. That was the thing about TBS, it messed with every aspect of your life, and then you would be completely lucid. Right up until almost the end. This was one of his more lucid moments at the hospice.
“And, what did the doctor tell you?” I asked.
“Well, the nutjob said I should have come in earlier because they could have given me something to make it easier,” he replied, half scoffing, half near tears. “I told him, ‘Make it easier?’” He voice gave way.
Michael then fell into a silent mood that I figured out pretty early was of no use to try to get him out. He was done talking for the day. I never found out when exactly he had gone to the doctor — it could have been the day after he left the therapist’s office or a week before he entered the hospice. Whenever I began to broach the topic again, he would call me a “fairy” and change the topic. That was code for “I don’t want to talk about it.”
He was always in the mood to recount the story of how he “infiltrated” Cryovive and confronted the CEO, though. He told me the story numerous times and it hardly changed. Several aspects of the story were even told word-for-word. I could never tell if it was so repeatable because it was the truth or because he told the lie to himself so many times that he couldn’t tell the story any other way. Either way, this is the story:
Every unfrozen person was put on a list at the security desk of their associated cryogenic facility. This was part of the protocol. After being released from the Thaw Center, the unfrozen were never — under any circumstances — allowed back in the facility. Michael decided that the best way was to go into Cryovive HQ disguised as a refrigeration technician. It was a brilliant plan, really. Cryogenic facilities were based on refrigeration technology and, as such, were always hiring HVAC workers. Michael went to a supply distributer and purchased a generic uniform. He staked out Cryovive HQ for several days and identified a HVAC worker who made frequent trips. Following him to a local pub, Michael befriended the HVAC worker over the course of a few weeks. On the morning of the confrontation with the CEO, Michael asked the HVAC worker to meet him for coffee at a diner downtown. When the man wasn’t looking, Michael slipped laxatives into the worker’s coffee. A lot of laxatives, in fact. With the worker stuck in the bathroom at the diner suffering terrible cramps, Michael “borrowed” his van and and posed as the replacement for the sick worker. The plan was simple, old-fashioned, and successful.
In preparation for his confrontation, Michael taught himself how to use the info-bases to access the schematics of the Cryovive facility. He knew exactly how to get from the security desk in the lobby to the CEO’s office. In uniform and with a tablet he didn’t know how to use — also “borrowed” from the van — he was never stopped. Outside the CEO’s office, Michael took off the uniform and revealed his street clothes. He waited until the CEO, Marvin Haverstein-Noble-Fletcher, left his office to go to the executive bathroom down the hall. Michael followed him in, locked the door, and confronted him there and then.
“Hey, Marv,” he said.
Mr. Haverstein-Noble-Fletcher turned around and stared. As the CEO of a cryogenic facility, he spent the first couple of years after the initial thawings with tight security. Several attempts were made on his life. But, after public interest was lost, the threat level decreased and his security team was released. While this was not the first confrontation he fell victim to after that point, it was certainly not frequent enough to justify a full-time security detail. “Those fuckers downstairs,” he muttered to himself.
“Yup,” Michael said. “They were fooled by a uniform and my smile.”
Mr. Haverstein-Noble-Fletcher walked toward the sinks and began to wash his hands, looking at Michael in the mirror. “What’s your gripe?”
“My gripe? My gripe?” Michael rehearsed this confrontation, but it all went out the window when the situation was present.
“I assume you have a gripe. What? How long you got?”
“Not long enough, you dick.”
“Listen . . . What’s your name?”
“Michael. My name is Michael.”
“Michael, I wasn’t around when you signed up, when you got sick, when you were frozen. I probably wasn’t even born.” His speech sounded rehearsed, given every time he was confronted. Even the handwashing seemed a part of his spiel. “If I had known — if anyone had known, you can rest assured that none of this would have happened.”
“But — ”
“Not only are we free of any legal obligation, I would argue that we are also freed of any moral obligation. You knew that you were taking a gamble. You knew. You had to know. You took that gamble because you wanted to and for no other reason. Maybe you had nothing to live for at the time, so you thought, Why not see if life will be better for me in the future? Maybe you had no friends or family and thought the world would welcome you back with open arms and unconditional love. Maybe you had just fucked up every aspect of your life, and this was your chance to start anew. Who cares. We provided a service to you, and I’m sorry it didn’t work out the way you expected. The ramifications of the thawing process are unfortunate. They really are. You should spend your remaining time making peace with yourself and the decisions you’ve made.”
With that, he turned off the faucets and began to dry his hands with the cotton towels provided to the executives.
“That’s all nice enough for you to say, but you — you and your company, every single employee — stole my life from me. I trusted you and you pulled the rug right from under me. You have to be held accountable,” Michael said.
“No, we don’t, Michael,” Mr. Haverstein-Noble-Fletcher said. “We don’t. No one stole your life from you but you.” Then he started to walk out, but in order to do that he had to cross Michael’s path. The CEO and his confronter were about the same age, but Michael easily had 6 inches and 50 lbs on his opponent. Michael refused to move. The CEO danced around Michael, but couldn’t get past him. He stopped at one point, and they were standing within arm’s reach.
Michael hadn’t done much exercise since leaving the Thaw Center and even there, the movement regimen was simple, so he was surprised at how agile he was in throwing the punch at Mr. Haverstein-Noble-Fletcher’s face. The CEO was surprised, too, and was knocked out. Michael stood over the unconscious body and spat on it. After spending a few moments with his vanquished foe at his feet, he realized he needed to get out quickly. He put the uniform back on, grabbed his tablet, and sped out of the building. When he returned to the diner with the van, the real HVAC worker was still in the bathroom almost completely dehydrated. Michael took him home, gave him liquids and spent a few hours making sure that the man would be okay. Convinced of the recovery a few hours later, he raced home and congratulated himself for a successful incursion.
The incident was never reported. Cryovive would not want an official report filed. Michael believed that the CEO hired a security firm to find him and follow him around, but I was never certain whether this was him being paranoid and self-important or not.
I’ve always wondered if he ever questioned what he gained from doing this. I’m sure it temporarily felt good to clock the CEO, whether he was responsible or not. But, did relief last? Did it solve the problem?
When Michael was admitted to the hospice, he was definitely not in the lucid stages of the disease. He ranted and raved about spiders or zombies or something like that. The worst stage of TBS is the disconnection from reality. The orderlies had to restrain him so he wouldn’t hurt himself or others. When he came out of the hallucinations, he was angry at being restrained. It was the beginning of my shift.
“Get me out of this fucking thing! Now!” He flailed his arms, legs, head, and torso as much as he could.
“Sir,” I said gently. I checked his chart. “Michael.” I put my hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eyes. “The quickest way to get out of these restraints is to demonstrate to me . . . to no one else . . . to me . . . that you are not going to hurt yourself or anyone else.”
Michael exhaled. Suffering from hallucinations and the associated ranting and raving must have been exhausting. He was tired and scared. I could see it. His body relaxed, and it was clear it would do more harm than good to keep him restrained. I began to unhook the restraints.
“Thank you,” he said quietly. He turned his head to look out the window. I’ve seen this position in almost every case I’ve ever worked at the hospice. It’s a mixture of sadness, fear, and longing. Windows in hospices are tricky things. They can provide light to people when they feel most hopeless. But, they are also reminders of a world they will never reenter.
I updated his chart and told him my name and what days and times were my regular shifts. I asked him if there was anything we should know about him that would help us make his stay any easier and more comfortable.
Still looking out the window, pensive and quiet, he replied: “I don’t like fairies.”
“Well, no one around here has wings, so I think you’re safe,” I replied with a smile on my face. He looked at me strangely — adding confusion to the mix of sadness and hopelessness in his eyes — and it was only later, when I told the story to a friend, that I realized that I took his statement too literally. I had never heard “fairies” in reference to gays. There were still some epithets here and there against gays, but “fairies” was never one of them. When he said it, I assumed that it was a statement colored by some left-over hallucinations.
Michael remained silent for several days after entering the hospice. Depression among the newly admitted is not uncommon. It’s the last place they will ever be. It’s where they say goodbye to family. The relationship with the hospice nurses are the last new relationships they will build. It is all coming to end and patients begin to ask themselves the inevitable questions. What’s it all worth? Was mine a good life? What am I leaving behind? It’s sad to see someone like Michael, who you know is asking those questions quietly to themselves and coming up with answers that bring the kind of perspective that can only come too late. For most patients, my heart breaks for them. For Michael, my feelings were more complicated.
Michael started talking about a week later when I brought in his lunch. Of course, his first utterance was a complaint.
“What is this shit?”
I looked at the tray having to stop myself from saying, “Fuck if I know,” and instead said, “Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, and butterscotch pudding.”
“I’m not hungry.”
I opened the containers that needed opening and unwrapped the straw to put it in his glass of milk. “Just try, Michael. It’s not as bad as it looks.” I idly straightened up in the room, giving him the opportunity to continue engaging me in conversation. As I bent down to pick up an imaginary piece of garbage on the floor, I noticed that the television interface console underneath the bed. I picked it up and put it on his side table by his clock and the flowers that the hospice puts in the room to welcome guests (this particular batch was lasting longer than normal).
“What the heck is that thing?” he asked.
“Oh . . . It . . . It works the TV.”
“Where’s the TV?” he said, looking around.
I pressed the power-on switch on the side of the console and the screen, embedded in the wall across from his bed, lit up. It greeted him, “Good evening, Michael.” He looked startled and amazed.
“You can just tell it what you want or use the console to switch around.”
“How do I turn the blasted thing off?”
Before I could answer, the TV did: “Just tell me to turn off, Michael, and I will.” With that, the television flickered off.
He grunted, picked up his fork, and played with the mashed potatoes. “With all these advances, they still haven’t found a way to improve hospital food.” He scoffed. “Figures.”
I laughed, unsure whether it was because I found his remark funny or because I wanted to be polite and encourage him to talk more. “Some things never change.”
He looked me up and down. “Sometimes they do.”
I straightened up the pillows on the visitors’ chairs even though no visitors had misplaced them. “How are you feeling this evening?”
He tentatively brought mashed potatoes up to his mouth and took a taste. The look on his face betrayed a possible liking of the food. “Same.”
“And what is ‘same’?”
“Like shit and I’m going to die.”
I looked him directly in the face, but he was keeping himself occupied contemplating his food.
“Michael, would you like us to call anyone?”
“Is there anyone to call?”
He put his fork down, looked me straight in the eye. “Never was.” These were the last two words he uttered that evening. But, as the days passed, he became more talkative and began telling me his story. I was enthralled by his story, by his inability to see the real target of his anger, and by — and this pangs me to admit — his charisma. He was ballsy and said what was on his mind. I admired him for that and wished that perhaps I could be more like him in some way. I found myself spending more and more time in his room, conveniently ignoring his more prejudiced viewpoints. A few weeks passed, and I introduced him to my family when they came to visit me. After that, my desire to give him one more moment of my time than I was required was limited to say the least.
Michael went through lucid and non-lucid stages of the disease, but as time wore on the nonlucid stages became more frequent. It was hard to distinguish what was the truth and what wasn’t, what was the result of a warped mind, and what was the result of real experiences. His tales of “before” were particularly hard to dicepher and, if I had cared more at that point, I probably would have done research to investigate what was real. But, we received several new patients, and my anger from the incident with my family had yet to fade.
About ten days before he died, Michael got his first visitor. The man, Austin, told me that he was Michaels’ great-great-grand nephew (or perhaps it was just one great) and that Michael visited him sometime after his confrontation with the CEO of Cryovive.
Austin had never heard of his great-great-grand uncle nor his great-great-grandmother, so when Michael showed up at his door with a six-pack of beer, Austin was suspicious. Apparently, though, Michael did his research, going to the proper info-bases and courthouses to trace his sister’s lineage down to Austin who lived just outside the city in a standard, modern suburban home. Austin was young, not married and was really just starting out in life, so he didn’t feel that this stranger on the doorstep was trying to get anything out of him. He had nothing to be gotten, and Michael seemed harmless. They cracked open the beers and chatted on a warm, summer evening. Michael explained the cryogenic process but said nothing of his onset of TBS. He asked Austin how much he remembered of any of his relatives on that side of his family, but Austin had few memories of them. Most died at an earlier-than-normal age and the meaninglessness of “family” seemed to be an inherited trait.
When the sun began to set, Austin signaled wanting to go to bed, but Michael would not take the hint. Austin was finally forced to ask Michael to leave and, whether it was because of the disease (early onset of TBS, before the hallucinations, is marked with wild swings of emotions) or because of the perceived slight, Michael flew into a rage, breaking beer bottles, screaming obscenities, and waking neighbors. Austin managed to calm Michael down and then traisped around his neighborhood to convince his neighbors that the police were not necessary. When Austin returned to his house, he found Michael laying in the fetal position and crying on the back porch. Austin helped him up, set him down on the couch, and put a blanket on him. He stayed with Michael until he fell asleep and then went to bed himself.
The next morning he awoke to find Michael gone, the blanket neatly folded on the couch, and the mess in the backyard cleaned up. There was no note. Michael never told Austin where he was staying or how he could be reached. It was only after several months of searching that Austin was able to track Michael to the hospice where he stood, telling me the story.
“How is he?” he asked me.
I took a deep breath. “Not good. He has about a week.”
Austin looked down and exhaled. I couldn’t tell from his eyes, his posture, or how he spoke how he felt about Michael. “Why did you come?” I asked, probably not wisely, but I was curious. I wanted to know if someone else experienced Michael as I did — drawn to him despite all the reasons not to be drawn to him.
“I came to say goodbye,” he started. “Or maybe I just came because I was curious. He was a weird guy and that was before he went ape-shit crazy in my backyard. But, there was sadness in his eyes that I felt was lightened when we were talking, laughing, and drinking beer. It seemed like he needed me in some way, even though he didn’t know me and any blood relation was diluted at best.”
“I understand,” I said.
“Do you?” He seemed like he really wanted to know if I understood.
“I do. He’s — he’s not an easy man to get along with — ”
“At all,” Austin interrupted.
I chuckled. “At all. But, beneath that . . .” My voice trailed off. I didn’t know what was beneath that. I was only certain that there was something beneath that, some ounce of redeemable quality or humanity. The hate that led to the incident with my family and his general orneriness was just part of the story. It wasn’t wishful thinking; maybe it was how he looked out the window or how he calmed when I spoke with him the first day he came to the hospice.
“He woke up to find a world different than the one he left, and no one was there to welcome him. And, I didn’t get the impression that the world he left was treating him all that well, either.”
I realized that we had both been staring at Michael through the doorway.
“You should go in.”
“Will he know I’m there?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
Austin went into the hospice room and sat down in the visitor’s chair, displacing the pillow I put there months ago. He reached for Michael’s hand and, even though I was behind him and in the hallway, I could tell that he was talking to Michael.
Austin stayed with Michael for about thirty minutes that night and came back once more before Michael died. Most dying patients experience one moment of lucid wakefulness before they die. No one can explain it, but it usually happens when family and friends are around. I’ve always believed — despite my atheism and rational, scientific view of life — that the consciousness knows. At that moment, every artifice the person has developed over a lifetime, whether it was a short life or long one, drops and they are bare for just a moment. Michael’s lucid wakefulness ocurred when I was sitting in his room before my shift began. I was startled to see his movements and knew what was happening. Leaning forward, I asked, “Michael, is there anything you want to say before you go? Anyone you want me to call?”
He coughed. “No. Don’t call anyone.”
I put my hand on his forearm, half fearing that he would pull away in one last moment of disgust. He didn’t. He turned up his hand, which had been lying flat on the bed beside his thigh, and I moved my hand down to grab it.
“It was a mistake,” he said.
“The whole thing. I should’ve — I should’ve — ” He started to sob.
“I know. I’m sorry, Michael. I’m really sorry.” He squeezed my hand tighter. “But you have to make peace with it all now. Before it is too late.”
With his other hand, he wiped the tears from his eyes and turned his head away from me to look out the window. I heard him mumbling, “. . . Fool . . . Not their fault . . . Mine . . . All mine . . .” And then the moment was over.
Michael died later that day. I looked at his chart and the contact person was a generic number at Cryovive. Typically, the newly awoken reconnect with their relatives with the help of CryoVive and a family member becomes their contact person for medical reasons. For whatever reason, this didn’t happen with Michael.
Cryovive came the next day to take the body. I never found out how or where he was buried.
The night they took Michael’s body away, I went home to my family and we sat down for our usual family dinner. As my children talked of an upcoming birthday party and their favorite teacher at school, I looked at my husband whose facial expressions sent the message to them that there was nothing he’d rather be doing. I ate my dinner and watched and listened, but never spoke. My husband later asked me if everything was okay, and I told him that it was. I had never told him anything about Michael after they came for the visit and were insulted. I never told him that Michael and I had grown close — strangely enough, I would describe it that way.
“I’m fine,” I said. “I’m just happy to be home with you and the kids.”
Originally published as “Thawed” in Circa, 2013.