Their relationship had been on life support for some time now, their daughter only recently. But it was no secret that each of them was incomplete—that all three of them subsisted purely on artificial means and by extraordinary measures. That was how Sara and Sawyer Bennett had managed to stay together, and how their baby, Vonne, had managed to stay alive.
For the past eight days they had made Cottage Hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit their home. And for all three of them it was unlike any home they had ever known. But home was home. Home was migratory when it needed to be. And for all three of them home was there, at least for the time being.
For the baby home was there because it was where there was food and love and warmth. For Sara home was there because Sawyer was. And for Sawyer home was there because it was where he was needed most. Home was home was home...
It was three o'clock in the morning and he couldn't bring himself to sleep. There was far too much on his mind. He sat half-recumbent in one of the stiff, black chairs that seemed to impregnate the entire hospital, entombed in thought. Sara lay asleep next to him with her head perched trustfully on his shoulder, and Vonne had drifted off hours ago, eager casualty to the tranquilizing warmth of the Easter yellow blanket that had been knit for her. At this hour, there was only the steady hum of the incubators punctuated by the incessant beeping of the vital signs machines—life's metronomes. Every six minutes or so one of them would surge to the point of measured hysteria—beckoning a nurse or two—before tapering off (again) into its usual, tedious rhythm.
Sawyer would immerse himself in this existential symphony for hours before finally surrendering to sleep. On that first night, he had stayed up listening for eight straight hours, from nine until five the following morning. That had been right after he had spoken with Vonne's doctors.
And now, nearly 200 agonizing hours later, he found himself hopelessly, unbearably, impossibly, where he—they—had first begun. Where the next 200 hours would take him—them—he didn't know. Couldn't. But they would all be shoved inexorably forward just the same. He could count on that. They all could.
It was an impossible decision for anyone to make but especially for Sawyer Bennett: Sawyer Bennett who had successfully cultivated his own ant farm in the backyard at the tender age of three; Sawyer Bennett who had refused to kill—or eat one—ever since. Sawyer Bennett who had never left the homeless empty-handed or unfed; Sawyer Bennett who had snuck them into his bedroom, undeterred, on several occasions, only to retreat to the couch himself. Sawyer Bennett who had lived to bestow life in a world where far too many withheld it.
He sat up, gingerly, careful to replace Sara's former headrest with a new one—one of the pillows they had been given by the nurses—and planted a silent kiss on her forehead. He got to his feet, approached the incubator, and planted another on the narrow and only expanse of bare flesh he could find, careful to elude the contortion of IV's and wires that sustained her. And him. For now.
She had been waiting for the right time to die since taking her first, manufactured breaths eight days ago. But the right time had not yet presented itself to her, and she was confident that she would be able to recognize when it did. In the meantime, she had slept. For as long and as often as possible. It was the only way she could tolerate existing: brief, fitful bouts with consciousness emancipated by prolonged, persistent spells of blissfully ignorant sleep. For Vonne being awake felt like breathing which had always felt to her like dying—only the slow, merciless, forbearing variety normally reserved for burn victims and cancer patients. Of which she was neither.
Of course, she didn't know any of this—or really anything, for that matter. She wasn't able to reflect on her current state or current state of affairs with the deliberate comprehension of an adult. She was eight days old after just 26 weeks of gestational preparation, and all she could do was lie there and endure it all, the tragedy of her being. Thoughtless. Voiceless. But not senseless (if only).
She was shepherded not by thought but by sensation. Not by the formation of words and sentences in her mind but by the carefully-timed effusions of feeling throughout her body. To anyone but her it would have been ineffable, indefinable, incomprehensible. But to Vonne Bennett it was perfectly clear what was to be done: wait. It was what she did now and had done all her life. It was all she knew. And in that regard, she was all-knowing.
Then she felt her forehead touched by some unknown yet familiar external force, and stirred a moment, before returning herself to the asylum of sleep. It was a benevolent force.
In as many nights as Vonne had been enduring and Sawyer had been averting, Sara Bennett had been ruminating, investigating. She had been examining her wedding ring, turning it end over end in her fingers, in her heart, in her head, covering all her bases as if there were something she had still been missing. As if inscribed somewhere on the side of it in cipher were the blueprints to the perfect marriage. But of course there was nothing and no thing as a perfect marriage. So the most she could hope for was a better one.
It wasn't that their marriage was loveless or spiteful or cruel as so many others had been, it was that it felt obligatory. Necessary rather than voluntary. And a marriage simply had to be voluntary, and from both sides of the aisle. But this was not Sara and Sawyer Bennett, who had wed exactly three months after her pregnancy announcement. This was not voluntary from both sides of the aisle.
She had tried for months to conjure a proposal from him the normal way. The natural way. The healthy way. But nothing had come of it. And that was when she had become pregnant with Vonne, when she had exhausted all others but the drastic way. The desperate way. The crazy way, she had often thought. But she had felt as if she had had no other choice. And it had worked. Wonders it had worked. He had proposed to her the very next day. But out of propriety, was it not? Of course it was.
And now, suspended in that peculiar purgatory between wakefulness and sleep, all Sara wanted to do was to take it all back. To recall everything she had made happen by her greed. And that was what it had been: greed. Only it had been for love, or so she had thought. Sawyer William Bennett had been the only person she had ever loved, even now. Even still.
This thought drove her violently awake, all at once refuting the exhaustion and abeyance and sleep she had felt closing in not a moment before. But now all those things felt far away, and she made no attempt to arrest them. She would let things be for once in her life. She would let things go. She would try.
Embracing awakeness as best she could, Sara went to her, to Vonne, and studied her. She would remain there for as long as it took, she decided. She owed her that much. And so there she stayed, willing herself to feel. Something. Anything. Only...nothing. Sara felt as she had felt seeing any other child: warmth and tenderness at an arm's-length. But nothing more. Still, she kept her promise for as long as she could, standing there—waiting—in the erratic half-light, batting her tired eyelids, and sobbing bitter, empty tears for exactly two reasons: a love that was not there and one that had no right to be. She kissed her despite this. Despite all of it.
It had never been a matter of time but a matter of how much time: of when. Of how soon. Of how long. The general consensus was anywhere from five to ten years if things went well, from two to five or less if they did not. And they were not. He looked on idly as good news blossomed on the faces of the couple across the room, as they embraced each other and the bearer of this news, as they celebrated their precipitous good fortune. And that was how Sawyer Bennett became acquainted with ill will.
It had been Dr. Echt who had delivered the news. Their news all those days ago when inhabiting the hospital had still felt strange and new. He had come into view holding a clipboard strategically over his face and shuffling toward them climacticly, and immediately Sawyer had known. And he had been right: five to ten years if things went well, considerably less if they did not.
He glared at them. He had never glared at anyone before. But he did now.
They may as well have been divorce papers, but thinking of them in that way—and only in that way—made her hate herself all the more for not signing them. She had never been very good at disguising her ulterior motives, but she would try.
"No," she said, shaking her head potently and pushing the tidy stack back across the table toward him. "I won't do it. End of discussion."
They were seated in the hospital's modest downstairs cafeteria with their table, the forms, and two congruent helpings of meat loaf separating them. But it felt like there was more.
"Sara," he pleaded, "they need both of us. You know this is right. Please."
"It isn't right, Sawyer. It's murder. Or suicide. Whatever you want to call it. That's what this is. She's alive and if I sign these she won't be. What would you call that?" She brandished her fork at him.
"Mercy," he answered. "She's suffering."
"Life is suffering, Sawyer," she rebutted. "We're all suffering. But that doesn't mean you just give up." She caught his gaze and held it firmly to her own.
At first he answered only with his eyes. Then he spoke for them.
"Are you afraid to die?" He asked.
"Of course I am. What kind of question is that?"
"Why are you afraid to die?"
"Isn't it obvious?"
"Pretend it isn't," he said. "Explain it to me like it isn't."
At that she let out a small, macabre laugh, before hurrying to stifle it with the back of her hand.
"Are you serious?"
He didn't have to answer for her to know his answer.
"Why do you think, Sawyer?" She asked. "You tell me."
"I'm asking you," he said. "Why are you afraid to die?" This time it was Sawyer's gaze that held hers. But she had to look away. And when he knew she wouldn't speak, he did.
"Most people are afraid to die, Sara. Just like you. Not everyone, but most people. And if you ask them why they're afraid to die you'll never get the same answer twice depending on who you ask--if you get an answer. Why do you think that is?"
She refused his gaze but not his question—not answering it, at least.
"I don't know."
"Because nobody knows what happens," he said. "Nobody. Not you. Not me. Not any priest or scientist or philosopher. No one knows exactly what to expect. Am I right?"
"Yes," she agreed, still wresting her eyes from his, still forging on sightlessly. "But what's your point?"
"My point is...life is nothing like death."
And her death was everything that her life was not. And yet the two of them were no more different from each other than they were from anything else. And in more ways than not they were alike. But she could understand where one could go wrong. And she could forgive it. Because the only reason she knew now was because it was happening and only to her. Because she alone was consciously and keenly in its midst. It was time and she had known it was at once. All at once.
When it had started she could not tell where the life ended and the death began. And it stayed that way until the one became the other. And then she went—as swiftly and surely as she had once come. But not before she felt him one last time. And not before he felt her feel him. And that was that.
Tara Dasso is a poet and special educator from western Massachusetts. Her work is inspired by her personal experiences with her students, her family, and the world around her. She is a lover of all creative arts and enjoys collaborating across genres. Her work has appeared in Silkworm, The Poet's Haven, and GFT Press. She resides with her fiancé Keene and young son Alex.