Updated: Nov 20, 2020
It was in March 2010, when I got the call late one evening after 11 P.M. My blue RAZR flip phone was vibrating with my sister’s name displayed on the cracked screen: Lee. She hardly ever called me, so she either needed something or something was wrong. Lee’s voice was shaky, and she spoke too fast for me to digest the news. Lee’s oldest son was in the ICU and the doctor said that he might not have much time left. It could be tomorrow, it could be next week, but the medical experts were certain that he was dying. At the time I lived four hours away or three and a half hours without traffic and if I exceeded the speed limit. I quickly packed a bag and was on the road within 10 minutes after the call. I vaguely recall the moon that night, it was just a flicker of light among the stars as I passed a short range of mountains into the valley. The empty, long highway stretched on for over two hundred miles. It seemed like I was the only soul on the road for nearly the entire drive. The dancing fog added to the unsettling feeling in my stomach. I have always been deadly afraid of the dark and the horrifying thoughts that come with it. My fear of the dark was nothing compared to fear of losing my nephew. I remember praying for more time with him and for my unreliable 88’ Oldsmobile to not break down until after I reached my destination.
By the time I arrived at the hospital, it was nearly 2 A.M. My thirteen-year-old niece, May, had demanded that she come with my sister and I. May openly displayed the panic and distress that everyone was going through, but as adults, my sister and I suppressed our emotions in silence in the small rusty elevator and down the dim eerie hall towards the ICU department. We passed a waiting room. The lights were off and the doors were closed. There was a door with a bright red LED exit sign above it. I briefly caught the warning sign on the face of the door:
EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY
DOOR IS OPEN
Past the door were two hallways, similar to a fork in the road. Both hallways were on the ICU floor and they lacked light. A dull yellow lamp was mounted on the walls every ten feet. The three of us briskly walked down the path to the left and stopped at the very last double doors. I buzzed the staff and stated my nephew’s name and room number.
“There’s a strict two visitor per patient rule,” said the nurse over the mic.
May cried and instantly raised her hand in the air, demanding to see her brother first. So, they buzzed my sister and my niece through the double doors. As the doors swung open, the air hit my nose with the scent of sanitizer and a strange smell that only I could identify as a hospital smell. The weeping visitors in other rooms and loud beeping of monitors alarmed me, it was another world in there. As two staff members passed by the closing doors with their squeaking sneakers, I wanted to ask if I could just wait inside by the front desk. No one even noticed me. The double doors loudly folded together and the noise suddenly muted.
Maybe it was the two cans of energy drinks or the anxiety of the whole situation, but I couldn’t stand still. I kept glancing down the hall back to the way we came. I could clearly see the EXIT sign and door, which was about 500 feet away or the length of a normal neighborhood block. It was around the third or fourth glance that I saw two dark figures moving down the other hall. They approached the fork where the two halls met, and they were headed towards the EXIT door. One of them was taller than any person I’ve ever seen, his head could almost touch the ceiling. The other one was small, short, hunched, and moving slow like an elderly person. The tall one appeared to be helping the slow one along the way. I squinted, trying to see them better. Was it the poor lighting on the floor? They were like shadows or silhouettes, with no skin tone and no faces. No faces? I began to feel like I was watching something I wasn’t supposed to see, and my palms grew sweaty. Within a minute the two figures reached the exit door and then they were gone. Two solid figures vanished right before my eyes. My hands trembled. My heart pounded loudly against the bones in my chest. I felt all the hairs on my skin stand to attention. I launched at the buzzer. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.
The mic came on, “Yes?”
“Let me in.” I repeated louder, “Let me in!”
The nurse buzzed me through the double doors. Lee and May were just about done with their visit and they met me by the front desk. I wanted to tell my sister what happened, but then I saw my nephew lying in a bed and hooked up to machines. Everything else melted away. I spent three days with him, and it was the last time I ever saw him.
It was one month later, on a Monday morning, when I suddenly jolted awake from a nightmare and went straight to a sitting position, gasping for air as though I couldn’t breathe. I felt smothered, and I had forgotten my nightmare within seconds of knowing I was awake. I calmed down and looked at the time on my flip phone. It was a few minutes after 6:00 A.M. I had to be at work in two hours. Buzz. My phone vibrated. It was my sister, Lee’s, house number. I answered the call and got the news that my nephew had died that morning. The cries of my family in the background was alarming, and something I had never heard before. A wave of sadness washed over my entire body and shook me to the bones.
“What can I do?” I asked my sister.
“What do you mean? Come home, now!” said Lee, sobbing loudly.
Ten minutes later, I was back on the road driving home to my sister’s family. They celebrated his 20th birthday just two days before, and I wasn’t able to make it. I felt angry at myself and I cried. There was suddenly a void inside of me, someone important was taken from me; he had a laughter and jokes that I would never hear again. The left side of my face had become numb. Then everything on the left side of my body was numb and frozen, which frightened me. Am I having a stroke? I wasn’t able to lift my left arm, and I was still driving on the freeway. I had to stop myself from crying. After many deep breaths and praying, I saw a double rainbow in the blue-gray sky in front of my path. They arched over the brown mountains like perfect strokes of paint. For some unknown reason, the rainbows brought comfort to me. The numbness on my left side faded, and I could move my left hand again. I made it home by 8:30 A.M.
I didn’t speak of the experience with the exit door in the hospital to anyone until after my nephew’s funeral.
Art by G. S. Cheek