Authors: Jodi Picoult
Finally, she stops stretching my arms and my legs. I collapse against the bed, wondering how I can be so exhausted from someone else doing the motions for me. “Okay, sunshine,” she says. “Time for you to sit up.”
I push myself upright, swinging my legs over the side of the bed. It takes a lot of effort and concentration, so at first I don’t notice Maggie sliding a recliner wheelchair closer. She takes off one arm, locks the wheels, and then puts a board as a bridge from the bed to the chair. I look at it, then down at my unfamiliar body. “Oh hell no,” I say.
“If you do it, I’ll get you a Popsicle. I know where the stash is.”
“Not even for a
” I mutter.
Maggie folds her arms. “If you can’t transfer to a chair, you can’t get to the bathroom. If you can’t get to the bathroom, you can’t leave rehab.”
“I can’t get in that chair,” I tell her.
“You can’t do it
” Maggie corrects.
She leans in front of me and uses all of her compact body for me to lean into as she slides my butt onto the edge of the board. Then she shifts my legs a bit, then leans forward again to help me amass the strength to creep sideways on the board. We do this a few more times until I am seated in the chair, and then she pops its arm back on.
I am sweating and red-faced, shaking. “Orange,” I grind out.
She laughs. “Double or nothing. Can you kick your leg out for me? Yeah, like that. Ten times.”
But ten times with the left leg leads to ten times with the right. And then come toe tapping and arm lifting. When Maggie asks me to grip the armrests and try to lift my body weight an inch, I can’t even budge a finger.
“Come on, Diana,” Maggie urges. “You got this.”
I can’t even raise my head from the back of the chair. I could sleep for a week. “Rehab,” I say, “is staffed by sadists.”
“True,” Maggie agrees. “But when you’re a dominatrix, the pay is shit.”
At that, I start to sob.
Immediately, her demeanor changes. “I’m sorry. I crossed a line. My mouth just doesn’t know when to stop—”
“I was on a vent for five days,” I wail. “Five
days. How could I get this bad this fast?”
Maggie crouches down in front of me. “First, it’s not as bad. Not compared to some others I’ve seen—people who’ve been on a vent or ECMO for months; people who have suffered through amputations. It may feel ridiculous to you to sit in a chair and tap your toes, but that’s how you’re eventually going to walk out of here. I promise you, these are small things, with exponential benefits.” She meets my gaze fiercely. “You can be pissed at your body, or you can celebrate it. Yes, it sucks that you got Covid. Yes, it sucks that you were on a vent. But a lot of people who did the same aren’t going home, and you are. You can look at this situation and feel bitter, or you can choose not to be negative. Most adults don’t have many firsts left to them—but you get to experience yours all over again.” She takes a deep breath. “Give me two weeks, and your body will belong to you again.”
I narrow my eyes. I look down at my lap and grit my teeth. Then I grab the sides of the chair, squeeze, and start to push myself up.
“Atta girl,” Maggie says.
It is after a session of occupational therapy—which involves me taking off and putting on clothes, and during which I decide that socks are the work of the devil—that I see the news story: a funeral director in Queens, talking about how backed up they are for cremations; how you can pick up the ashes of your loved one with contactless delivery.
It makes me think, again, that being sore from all this therapy is not the worst that could happen, but rather the best. The majority of people in the Covid ICU ward will only come out of it in a body bag.
Instead of ringing for help, I cantilever my body upright so that I can reach for my phone, which sits on the table hovering across my bed. After I’ve hauled my body weight around, the phone feels light as a feather—an improvement since yesterday.
I do not want to make this call, but I know I have to.
I dial the main switchboard of The Greens. “Hello,” I say, when I am connected to the business office. “I’m Diana O’Toole. My mother, Hannah, was one of your residents. I’ve been sick in the hospital, but I wanted you to know that once I’m discharged I can pick up her things. If you need to put someone else in the room, you can store—”
“Ms. O’Toole,” the director of the facility says. “Are you saying you want to move your mother from our facility?”
“I can assure you she’s being well taken care of. I know that there have been a lot of care facilities in the news recently because of Covid, but we have had zero cases here and we’re maintaining a level of vigilance—”
My heart starts galloping in my chest. “Zero cases,” I repeat.
“My mother is alive.”
The director hesitates. “Ms. O’Toole,” she says gently, “why would you think otherwise?”
The phone drops out of my hand, and I bury my face in my hands and burst into tears.
What else didn’t actually happen?
If my mother is alive, if I was never in the Galápagos, are there other things I believed as fact that aren’t necessarily true?
Like…do I still have a job?
I find myself logging in to my email, something I’ve avoided, because my eyes still have trouble focusing on a tiny screen and the number of unread messages is so high it makes me feel like I’m about to break out in hives.
But before I can even begin to do a specific search for work emails, a text pings from Finn, with a Zoom link and an emoji heart. It’s been two long, endless days that I haven’t seen him or talked to him, because he’s been at work, so I immediately log on. It is the first time I’ve seen him without a mask, and there are bruises along the bridge of his nose. His hair is wet; he is freshly showered. His face lights up when I join the call.
“Why didn’t you tell me my mother was alive?” I blurt out.
He blinks, confused. “Why
“Because when I was…sedated I thought she died.”
His breath gusts out. “Oh my God, Diana.”
“I saw her on a FaceTime call, fighting to breathe,” I tell him. “And then she…” I can’t say it. I feel like I’ll jinx this unexpected resurrection. “I asked you about her, when I first woke up. You said you’d take care of everything. So I assumed that meant you
what had happened. That you’d been talking to the memory care place and the funeral home and everything.”
“Well,” he says tentatively, “silver lining, right?”
“When I thought she’d died, I didn’t feel anything. I thought I was a monster.”
“Maybe you didn’t feel anything because on some unconscious level you knew it wasn’t real—”
“It felt real,”
I snap, and I swipe at my eyes. “I want to visit her.”
“Okay. We will.”
“I think I need to go by myself,” I say.
“Then that gives you even more incentive to get better,” Finn replies, gentling his voice. “How’s rehab?”
“Torture,” I say, still sniffling. “Every inch of me aches and my bed has plastic under the sheets so I’m sweating bullets.”
“You won’t be there that long,” he says confidently. “It usually takes three times as long to get back to where you were after you’re intubated. So that would be fifteen days for you.”
“My physical therapist said two weeks.”
“You’ve always been an A student,” Finn says.
I peer through the screen at his face. “Did someone punch you?” I brush my finger along the orbital bones of my own face, mirroring where his is bruised.
“They’re from the N95 mask,” Finn says. “That’s how tight they have to be fitted to keep us safe. I don’t even notice it anymore. Of course, that’s probably because I’m always wearing the damn mask.”
All of a sudden, I am ashamed. I jumped all over Finn the minute the call connected, all but accusing him of not being more clear that my mother was healthy. Of course he couldn’t have known that I’d be doubting this. Plus, given the limited exposure I’ve allowed my mother in my life, she would not be anywhere near Finn’s first, fifth, or even fiftieth topic of conversation after I awakened from a medically induced coma. “I haven’t asked about your day,” I say. “How was it?”
Something in Finn changes, like a shade being drawn down, not to keep me out but to protect him from having to see what he doesn’t want to revisit. “It’s over,” Finn says. “That’s about the best thing I can say about it.” He smiles at me, and his eyes light again. “I thought maybe both of us could use a little treat right now.”
I snuggle down further in bed, curling on my side so that the phone is propped on the pillow beside me. “Does it involve a bath? Please tell me it involves a bath.”
He laughs. “I was thinking more like…porn.”
My jaw drops. “What? No! Someone could walk in here any minute…”
Finn starts typing, sharing his screen, and a moment later the Zillow website loads. “I didn’t specify what
of porn,” he says.
I cannot help but grin. Finn and I have spent so many lazy Sunday mornings in bed with coffee and bagels and a laptop balanced between us, surfing through the real estate of our dreams. Most homes were out of our price range, but it was fun to fantasize. Some were just ridiculous—sprawling mansions in the Hamptons, a functional ranch in Wyoming, an actual treehouse in North Carolina. We would scroll through the pictures, scripting our future: This screened porch is where we’ll eat the saved piece of wedding cake on our first anniversary. This is the alcove room we’ll paint yellow when we find out we’re having a baby. This is the yard where we build her swing set when she’s old enough. The carpet in this room has to go, because our Bernese puppy will pee on it.
Finn loads a modest Victorian with an actual turret. “That’s cute,” I say. “Where is it?”
“White Plains,” he says. “Not a bad commute.”
The house is pink, with violet trim. “It’s a little Hansel and Gretel.”
“Exactly. Perfect for a fairy-tale ending.”
He is trying so hard, and I am dragging my feet. So I throw myself into the game of it. When Finn clicks to the interior, I say, “That Aga stove will take us months to figure out. We may starve.”
“That’s okay, because look, there’s a pantry the size of Rhode Island. We can stock it with ramen.” He clicks again. “Three bedrooms…one for us, one for our daughter…but what are we going to do with the twins?”
“If you want twins,
going to have to have them,” I say.
“Look, a claw-foot tub. You always wanted one.”
I nod, but all I can think about is that I cannot even stand in a shower; how on earth am I going to ever master climbing into a tub like that?
Finn is happily leading me on a virtual tour of the house, through the living room with the woodstove and the study that he can convert into a home office and the cute little hidden dumbwaiter that can be retrofitted as a liquor cabinet. Then he clicks on the basement, which has a dirt floor and feels uncomfortably ominous. The last room has an iron door and metal bars across it, like a jail cell. “This just took a turn,” I murmur.
Finn scrolls again, and we are inside the room, which is papered in red velvet, with a padded floor and walls sporting whips and iron manacles. “Look, our own sex dungeon!” he proclaims, and at the sight of my face, he bursts out laughing. “Wait, you know what’s the best part? This room is listed as the den.” He pauses. “Den of
I realize that, a few weeks ago, this real estate listing would have had me giggling for a full quarter of an hour. That I would have texted screenshots of it to Finn in the middle of the workday just to make him laugh. But right now, it doesn’t feel funny. All I can think of is that whoever is selling that house had a whole hidden, secret life.
“You know,” I say, forcing a smile. “I think physical therapy just caught up with me. I can’t keep my eyes open.”
Immediately, Finn pulls out of the screen share and looks at me with the assessing eyes of a physician. “Okay,” he says after a moment, apparently finding whatever answer he needed to in my face. Then his mouth curls on one side. “Although this one might be snapped up off the market if we don’t act soon.”
I look at his beautiful, familiar face. The shock of blond hair that never stays out of his eyes, the dimple that flirts in only one cheek. “Thank you,” I say quietly. “For trying to make it all feel normal.”
“It will,” he promises. “I know how hard it must be to have to relearn everything. I know it seems like you’ve lost a whole chunk of time. But one day, you’ll barely remember any of this.”
I nod. And think:
That’s what I’m afraid of
The next morning, after Maggie bullies me into standing with a walker in spite of my Jell-O legs, I call my best friend. Rodney picks up on the first ring. “My therapist says I shouldn’t talk to people who ghost me,” he says.
“I’m in the hospital,” I tell him. “Well, rehab. I
in the hospital. With Covid. On a ventilator.”
Rodney is silent for a beat. “The
” he breathes. “You are officially forgiven for not answering any of my texts and just ignore the part where I called you a faithless bitch. Jesus, Diana. How did you get it?”
“I don’t know. I don’t even remember getting sick.”
I walk him through every detail Finn has given me, but it feels like trying on clothes that don’t quite fit. Then I hesitantly ask, “Rodney? Did we really get furloughed?”
He snorts. “Yup. You should have seen that bloodbath—Eva and all the other senior staff bargaining to save their salaries. There was never any question that the rest of us were expendable. And let me tell you, an apartment in Dumbo isn’t cheap. Not all of us have sexy surgeons pitching in to pay the rent.”
“What am I supposed to do without a job?” I ask.
“The same thing everyone else in the United States is doing. You sign up for unemployment and bake banana bread and hope Congress gets its shit together to pass a stimulus plan.”