Tom – a short story

My husband, Dan, hated my piece entitled ‘Foxy’. I think that he took it as a subliminal personal message to communicate what might happen if I were to come down with Alzheimer’s. He, therefore, challenged me to write another story in which the sufferer takes a different path. I’ve been so busy with family and architecture the last few weeks that this one has been a long time in gestation.

Tom opened his eyes at precisely 5 am. This was not unusual because, as long as anyone could remember, he had always woken up at this time. Early dawn, first light is the time that dairy farmers start their day’s work. It was several decades since Tom had milked cows but he still maintained the strict regime of rising early. It was second nature to him and a personal source of pride. What was unusual was that, when he looked around, he recognized nothing. He was in a strange bed in an even stranger room. He attempted to swing his legs over the side of the bed in order to stand up. This was when he realized that he was connected to several machines. He yanked the cuff off his finger, and a loud beep permeated the room. The noise annoyed him as he continued to disentangle himself. He roughly yanked the IV stent out of the vein in his wrist. The site began to bleed, but seeing his own blood didn’t worry him nearly as much as the strange room and the annoying beep.

Now that he was unencumbered by medical equipment, he again let his legs slide over the side of the bed and stood. He moved shakily towards the beeping machine. He thought that it looked rather like a television set and hoped that he would be able to tune it to the News. He couldn’t, but kept pressing buttons until it went silent. He opened the nearest door, pleased to find a bathroom. He used the facilities. When he had finished he turned and looked at himself in the mirror. At first he didn’t recognize the image facing him. Staring back were grey-blue eyes in the face a very thin elderly man, in need of a shave. The man wore a curious white head-dress. He turned and looked behind him, and then waived his hands in front of the reflection to verify that it was his own. His next thought was that, perhaps, he had died and gone to heaven and that this was heavenly garb. The belief that this might be so kept him from attempting to remove it.

Thoughts about heaven were not unusual to Tom. He had a staunch belief in its existence and knew that, one day, he would be there. However, the more he thought about it, the more, he realized that this strange room did not conform to his concept of heaven. There were no heavenly beings, there was no gold, and there was no sense of peace. He decided to try the room’s second door. It was large but opened with ease. He peeped out, a long hall greeted him: its floor, a gleaming polished vinyl; its lighting, fluorescent; its walls, punctuated by doors like his own. He began to walk, his bare feet slipping on the smooth floor; he grabbed the bumper rail on the wall to give himself additional support. Eventually the hall opened out into an area in which he could see more machines and one person in front of them. She seemed to be sleeping, and so he crept considerately past, anxious not to awake her. Beyond her he came to an elevator. He boarded, and selected the floor designated by a star.

When Tom emerged from the elevator he found himself in a large well illuminated space with floor to ceiling windows overlooking a small garden flanked by a road. By now the sun was beginning to rise and bathed the scene beyond the windows in a pink glow. Perhaps, thought Tom, this is what heaven looks like. Curiously, he didn’t go outside, but instead turned to one of the chairs in the space began to watch television. He listened to the monotonous voice of the reporter telling the same story that he thought that he had heard many times before. He loved to listen to the news but today he didn’t concentrate, or comprehend the story. By now it was almost 8 o’clock and he began to feel tired. On a normal day he would take his first nap at about this time. Unfortunately the teal and pink upholstered chairs had arms so that he could not lie down on them. As he sat there wondering what to do, he noticed a patch of sunlight on the carpeted floor. He lay down on it enjoying its warmth on his bare back, exposed by his flimsy hospital robe. He slept. Soon his loud snores resonated across the space.

When the volunteer who manned the reception desk arrived she was immediately drawn to the prostate figure sleeping noisily on the floor. She shook him. He awoke and stared blankly at her. She spoke:

“I don’t think that you should be here. Why don’t you come over to my desk and I’ll try to find where you ought to be.”

When they reached her desk, she gently questioned him:

“Tell me your name please. If I put it in the computer it should be able to tell me where your room is then I can get an orderly to assist you in returning there.”

Tom looked blank. She repeated the question, “Your name?”

“Tom Tschetter.”

“Thomas Tschetter”

‘No it is Tom, not Thomas.” Tom looked frustrated and began to move away from the desk. Yes there must be lots of people to keep track of in heaven but couldn’t God, or one of his angels, recognize him? Didn’t they know every hair on his head? He reached up and touched his bandaged head – perhaps the problem was that his hair was covered. Before he could start removing the bandage she slipped her hand over the desk and patted his arm reassuringly.

“But I need your full name that is how it always appears in the computer.”

“Tom C. Tschetter.”

“But you were baptized Thomas, right? And surely the C. stands for something?”

The mention of baptism reassured Tom, he thought that at least they were on the right track now. He spoke, “Baptized Tom C. That’s to differentiate from the other Tom Tschetters.”

“Oh, I see.” She nodded her head although she didn’t really understand. She entered his name into the computer, the telephone rang and she talked to a nurse on Tom’s floor. She nodded as she gathered their input. Yes they were looking for him, and his wife, Anna Katrina, was with them. The last time that he had gone AWOL he had been found several miles off walking along the edge of a freeway. Thank goodness he had only strayed into the lobby.

Back in his room, Tom moved towards Anna, and when she gave him an affectionate hug he responded with equal feeling. He found her presence reassuring and listened obediently to the soothing sound of her voice. He let her words wash over him and envelope him in their familiarity. His thoughts of heaven had now vanished; they were replaced by a burning desire to go home. The third time that she told him that they had to wait for a doctor he registered and sat, impatient, in a chair next to her. She held his hand and stroked his fingers. Together they gazed out of the window into a copse of trees filled with birds. Their chirping was so loud that Tom could hear it through the triple glazed windows.

When the surgeon and another doctor arrived he took a cue from Anna and allowed them to poke and peer at his body, his near nudity didn’t embarrass him. Their prognosis was that the surgery had been a success and they had been able to remove the cancer from the center of his brain. They recommended chemotherapy and tests to locate the origin of the cancer but Tom was impatient all he wanted to do was to go home. Anna discoursed at length with them as they talked about probabilities, a prognosis and quality of life. Tom didn’t follow their discourse; instead he let their chatter blend in with the sound of the birds outside the window. When pressed he brought his mind back into the room and made his one desire known.

“I wish to go home. I need to enjoy God’s creation, hear the birds,” he cupped his hand around an exposed ear, “hear the birds, they call.”

“But, Tom don’t you think that….” Anna’s voice trailed off as she looked at Tom’s resolute face,

“Home, I need home. Enough medicine is enough. I have no need; I have no pain.”

The hospital sent Tom home later that day. The staff were amazed by the speed of his recovery from the surgery and wished Anna all the best for the coming months which promised to deliver much for her to cope with.

Everything that the doctors had told them turned out as expected. Tom’s cognitive skills slowly deteriorated while the cancer in the rest of his body gradually sucked his energy. Daily he became more child-like and dependent while Anna nursed with love. It has been said that when dementia sets in a person adopts their “true” personality. If domineering they become overly demanding and critical descending into an unhappy state of anger. If kind and considerate they are happy and appreciative. Tom had never been known to say an unkind thing about anyone, except, perhaps embarking on an understandable session of politician bashing. He had always been very talkative and now he talked about crops, the weather and the ‘dirty thirties’. As time went on the ‘dirty thirties’ took precedence over other topics, but his words were always kind. Anna nodded and nursed. Later, as his life ebbed, he gradually became taciturn.

About a year later Tom’s cancer defeated him and he died peacefully in his home lying in a make-shift hospital bed in front of a picture window which commanded a view over the countryside. His funeral was well attended and many offered special condolences to Anna complimenting her on her dedication and querying her on how she had managed to remain so up-beat and apparently content through the trial of Tom’s decline. Their comments seemed to surprise her as she responded.

“Tom and I were very close this last year. It might seem strange to an outsider but I wouldn’t trade our last year together for anything! I know that he felt likewise.”

13 thoughts on “Tom – a short story

  1. I empathize with you and your father and the many others who experience similar sad moments. In my story I try to convey that both Tom and his wife found peace and even enjoyment in those last months of gradual descent into fog and finally death. It is a subject few like to address but which looms ahead of many.

  2. So many insightful, wonderful details in this story, Jane!…that hospital techno-beep that can drive you insane…the head-dress of heaven…selecting the elevator floor designated with a star…those loathsome teal and pink chairs…the impermanence of bureaucratic questioning…and, oh, I am so, so glad you let him go home! I did very much like “Foxy”, but of course my circumstance has become such that there is no longer anyone to care much if I chose that option. This story of Tom is lovely. I hope Dan likes it.

    • Cynthia, thank you for your insightful comments – you read with great depth to catch all the little details which I inserted. Yes, I am glad to be able to report that Dan liked this one. I can now move on to happier topics. I am sure that there are those who care – what about that unconventional nephew whose visit you recently enjoyed? Loved ones or no I think that most of us pray for a surprise and quick departure.

  3. Jane, I thought this was a lovely though sad story. Perhaps because I watched as both my parents declined in their later years, one with a loving spouse and one without I understood Anna and her response.

    Death does make so many of us uncomfortable, it is hard for us to view. It is though the inevitable outcome of life. Better to be loved into death though than the alternative.

    • Thank you for your visit and understanding. Yes, death is a topic which all must face from time to time but which most hate to acknowledge.

  4. I can’t say that I enjoyed this read, Jane – but perhaps ‘enjoy’ and any synonyms for ‘enjoy’ are inappropriate for this theme.

    Death and dying causes great discomfort for many – and yet, it’s inevitable.

    I much prefer the elephant’s approach – when it’s time comes, it pushes into the bushes and dies alone.

    Peace and blessings,

    • It astonishes me that you, who are so able to depict fearful cruelty and anguish, should shun the topic of death. However, I agree that it is a morbid subject and although inevitable is something which is best NOT dwelt upon. Let us be Elephants! I get your point and agree that my death stories are now concluded. I thank you for taking the time to comment.

      • Hello Jane,

        Actually I don’t shun discussing the topic of death as for me death to this world is merely another beginning. But not so for most people, and because of that I don’t discuss death in public – reserving it for in-depth discourse with a small selected group whom I know. The reason is obvious – lest I come across as frivolous to people who view death with all the awe, morbidity and pain – which are the norm.

        I’m uncomfortable attending funerals – because of all that outpouring of silent and even overt grief. Frankly, for me – such behaviour is laughable. Now, you know where that will get me in social circles. My sentiments are – Hey moron, why did you not appreciate her/him more when they were alive! Did you do everything you possibly could have to give them happiness; did you make amends for all your shortcomings; did you live as if it was the last day for you/them; did you, did you – so judgemental and brutal, I can be. Obviously, my answers to these questions are – yes and these last 5 years, I’ve been doing my best – every single day! Lisa and I discuss death openly and have been doing so for many decades.

        When my mother died, I didn’t shed a single tear. Neither did I, when my older sister passed away. My siblings are convinced that I’m heartless.

        I wish to die alone – without my loved ones crying over me. I’m afraid of the grief my death might cause for my loved ones. For myself – life beckons!

        I can go on, Jane – but this is not the forum nor the time 🙂


        • Good thoughts Eric, you explain yourself well and, as usual, you make sense. Almost fifty years ago when my Mum died I didn’t cry, although I did greave. Even Jesus, who presumably really understood the meaning of death, is reported to have cried when he got to Lazarus’s tomb. Tears come to some more readily than to others! But enough morbid thoughts, I agree let us celebrate life and do all those things that we might otherwise regret not doing if death intervened.

  5. I suppose this issue touches all families at one point of time. I remember how my Father lost his memory to the point where it was unsafe to leave him alone. There seems to be some inbuilt attribute that brings a person out of that fog at times and I can remember my brother telling me of an incident at their home where Dad let out a cry that brought the whole house to the bathroom where he was shaving. He was looking into the mirror, and exclaimed, “What happened to the great ……………! ” For a brief moment he’d remembered his business and political high point and realized he had lost it for good. Our family grieved with him over that experience.

    • I empathize with you and your father and the many others who experience similar sad moments. In my story I try to convey that both Tom and his wife found peace and even enjoyment in those last months of gradual descent into fog and finally death. It is a subject few like to address but which looms ahead of many.

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