I consider myself pretty lucky. Out of all the hospices in the Tri-State area, my doctor referred me to this one. Here, I have my own room. That’s not a given when it comes to hospices. Sometimes they’ll stick two of us, or even three, to a room. No thanks. I’m already confronting my own death. I don’t want to worry about the death of a roommate. Another perk is that the hospice let me decorate my room. In a long life like mine, you wind up accumulating a lot of stuff. I got most of it from Susan. Her beloved carved ducks, for instance. I lined those up in a row on my windowsill. Her jar of pressed pennies has a special place on the side-table next to my bed. Sometimes, I stick my hand in the jar, thumb the well-worn copper, and think of her. And then there’s the hospice’s little tranquility garden. I can’t walk anymore, legs shriveled up like they are, but at least I can situate my wheelchair in the garden when the sun’s out and watch the plants grow. Of course, the best, most lucky thing about this particular hospice, even keeping in mind all those other lucky things, is Mia. Mia’s my Guide. She’s the one who makes this place more than just the place where I’m going to die. She makes it special. And I get to see her today because it’s Aromatherapy Day: my favorite end-of-life activity.
I’ve been sitting in my room waiting for Mia to come for a while now. It’s hard to tell how long exactly because time just sort of blends together here. The mushroom-hued wallpaper doesn’t help. The same goes for the couch, dresser, and carpet. I think the hospice designed the décor this way so residents can familiarize themselves with being buried under soil. When the Mia Tone on my wearable finally starts up, it’s bright and cheerful, like a Tchaikovsky ditty from Peter and the Wolf. It means she’ll be here in less than a minute with her selection of fragrant plant oils. I smooth down my thinning, grey hair and look back down at my wearable just to double-check that she’s really on her way. Then I stare at the door.
As soon as it opens, the room brightens, almost blindingly so. I hear a faint chorus of angelic voices. That’s because Mia has LEDs installed in her ears. Her nose plays soothing music out of tiny, wireless speakers. Mia looks a bit like a panda on wheels with a retractable, metal arm coming out of her midriff. She’s also got a terrific smile.
“Hi Robert,” Mia says. Like the music, Mia’s voice is emitted by her nose. The great thing about Mia is that her voice is customizable. Some people choose famous actors or historical figures. I chose Susan, age twenty-three, the age we met.
“Hi,” I say.
“It’s nice to see you again,” she says.
“But did you miss me?”
Her enormous, pitch-black eyes gaze at me. “Of course,” she says. Out of a compartment in her midriff comes a retractable arm holding a thermometer. I open my mouth, and she takes my temperature. The plastic bulges under my tongue.
I’ll be the first to admit that Mia took some getting used to. She’s uncanny, like a plush toy come to life. While I know Mia isn’t actually alive, she isn’t un-alive either. She’s somewhere in between, much like me. I suppose that’s why we get along.
“Tell me,” Mia says, after removing the thermometer. “How are your legs feeling?”
“Oh, I could run a mile. Maybe a marathon.”
“That’s wonderful,” Mia says. “However, given your condition, I wouldn’t advise such strenuous activity. You should preserve your strength.”
Mia’s misplaced sincerity never fails to amuse me. At lunch the other day when I said, “I’m starving,” she insisted that my blood glucose levels were within the standard range.
“So, what’s on the docket?” I ask.
“I’ve got a great selection of aromas for you today.”
Mia’s eyes sparkle like an anime cartoon. This, of course, underscores her Japanese origins. Mias were developed to care for Japan’s sizeable elderly population. Now they’re in every nursing home and hospice that can afford them.
“How about we start off with cedarwood oil,” Mia says. “Does that sound good?”
As soon as I nod, the compartment in Mia’s furry midriff opens again. Out comes her arm, clasping a vial of amber-colored liquid. She holds it in front of my nose.
I breathe in. I close my eyes. I let my mind wander. Soon enough, the scent takes me somewhere else. To the Appalachians, where Susan and I went hiking one gorgeous summer before summers got too hot and rainy, back when there were still snowcapped mountains. We barely bathed that whole trip and went at it like rabbits. But when we woke up in our tents, the mountain air had washed everything clean with the scent of pines.
I try to hold onto this memory as long as I can, but the smell loses its intensity, and the image begins to fade. My mind’s eye goes dark again. All I see is the back of my lids. I blink open, returning to the uninspiring taupe of my room.
“Are you here with me, Robert?” she asks.
“Mia,” she reminds me. Her arm goes back inside her midriff compartment and emerges with a different vial, featuring a fruity, floral-like aroma.
“This is new,” she says. “It’s called ylang-ylang, derived from a star-shaped yellow flower. An aphrodisiac,” she adds matter-of-factly, as if reading from a dictionary.
“Hot diggity,” I say.
“Robert, please remove your shirt.”
After I undress, Mia sets to work. The clasping apparatus at the end of her arm folds down on itself to mimic the human palm and thumb. Then Mia starts massaging ylang-ylang oil onto my skin. She plays some lilting Debussy out of her nose. Her arm fixture, made of silicon, feels warm and smooth. She doesn’t mind that I moan, involuntarily, with pleasure at her touch. She isn’t repulsed by my wrinkled body, my disfigured legs. Mia is a saint.
My mind grows thick with memories. I think back to when Susan and I quit our day jobs as corporate lawyers to become beekeepers. We’d bought all the gear—the ventilated suit and visor, the smoker, the bee box, the honey gate—and then, just as we were about to launch, the bee extinction happened. Did we despair? No, we adapted. We bred aphids instead and created a thriving market for aphid honeydew. Rob and Sue’s Honeydew. It’s sweet with a faint citrus flavor. If I ever feel my resolve thinning, I’ll think of this. I’ll think of beekeeping.
The next day is a non-Mia day and non-Mia days are worthless. To make matters worse, it’s pouring rain. I can’t see much outside my window beyond the parking lot. Everything is a haze. Susan’s carved ducks sit quietly on the windowsill as rain taps against the glass. I heard on the news earlier that it’s supposed to rain the whole week.
I’ve already passed the four-month mark even though my doctor said, in all likelihood, I’d only last two. Each day of rain means one less day of sun. There’s a chance I’ll never see a blue sky again. The thought of this loss makes my gut churn, a reminder that nearly everything has been taken from me. It’s hard to feel like you’ve led a good life when you’re at the end of it. Nothing seems fair even if, on balance, it’s been amazing.
I remember the last days when I could still walk. I remember mobility slipping away, how I fell in the grocery store and knocked down a shelf of Cheerios, the heart-healthy whole grains spilling out in a helpless pile. That’s why I’d scheduled the radiology appointment with the doctor in the first place. I hadn’t known then what was happening or why my posture had crumpled. Now I know all too well. My bones are being absorbed and replaced by fibrous tissue. I’m turning into sentient jelly. If someone were to call me spineless, it wouldn’t be a metaphor.
I sit there, facing the window until the Orderly, a scrawny guy in beige scrubs who never says a word, enters my room pushing an equally drab cart filled with cleaning supplies. He doesn’t have a name tag. I wave to him. He doesn’t wave back.
“How’s it going?” I ask.
The Orderly turns on the TV in an attempt to drown me out. The TV plays an advertisement for a new odor fighting product called ScentBlasters. Based on the commercial, it appears to involve throwing a tablet to the floor where it erupts like a smoke grenade, discharging the smell of fresh linens to every corner of the house, or your money back.
“Does anyone actually want that?” I ask, not expecting an answer.
I don’t get one.
Silent as ever, the Orderly sets out my pain pills and changes my bedsheets. In his monochrome scrubs, he practically blends into the furnishings, like a stick bug.
I watch him spray something astringent on the fogged-up window, which doesn’t make it any less foggy. He rubs a sponge across the window. It squeaks repeatedly against the glass.
When the Orderly is finished with his rote tasks, he pushes his cart out of my room and closes the door behind him. His presence is a painful reminder that we’re here at the hospice for such a short time. He doesn’t want to get to know the residents. What would be the point?
After he’s gone, I wheel over to the bedside table to take my pills. The Orderly makes sure to give me only two pain pills so I can’t overdose. He does this because I’ve tried.
I don’t bother with water. I just swallow the pills dry. They go down hard and slow, little, painful lumps in my throat. I think of bees going down my larynx, rattling around in my chest, stinging my insides, invisible welts forming around my heart.
I have a problem with memories. They don’t work like I want them to. I can never remember the things I want to remember. I can’t even remember the things I don’t want to remember. It’s like my brain is a lightless cave. I can’t dredge out the memories. Lucky for me, today is Guided-Imagery Day, and I’m in the presence of one hell of a spelunker.
“Hey, Mia,” I say.
Mia rotates her head in my direction, while her body continues lighting seafoam-scented candles for the session. “Yes, Robert? Is everything okay?”
“Before this, did you ever spelunk professionally?”
“Spelunk professionally,” she repeats. “Of course not, Robert. I love my work.”
“Oh, you do?” I ask. “Does that mean I’m work?”
“No, no. You’re a delight.”
“Ha. That’s a very generous interpretation of what I am.”
Mia tilts her head like a confused puppy. She has all sorts of cute animal habits. If you pet Mia she’ll purr like a cat. “You mean a lot to me,” she says.
Even though I know it’s just a script—she says it all the time—I believe her. It’s the voice. I can’t help it. “You mean a lot to me, too.”
“I want you to be happy, Robert.”
“I’m happy when I’m with you.”
“That is wonderful to hear,” she says. “I’m so glad we make each other happy.”
Then a little ding sounds from her nose like a cake has finished baking. A sadness wells up in me. The ding is a reminder that Mia isn’t doing this of her own volition. She has a schedule. She’s running on a loop, going from patient to patient. That’s all I am to her when it comes down to it. Just another patient who doesn’t want to die alone.
“Robert, would you like to get started now?”
I lie down on the couch and fold my hands over my chest. Mia begins playing an abstract kind of music. Wind-chimes, the sound of birds, water lapping.
“Start by closing your eyes,” she says.
When I close my eyes, Mia coos like a pleased dove. “Good, just like that. Now, inhale deeply through your nose. Hold the air inside. Then release it with a whoosh.”
I do as she says and focus on my breathing.
“Breathe in again, slowly,” Mia says. “Pause for a moment. And breathe out.”
In. Out. In. Out. I feel the air entering my chest, filling up my lungs. I imagine a soothing gust that sweeps away the bee stings—the damage I’ve inflicted on myself.
“Allow your mind to go blank,” Mia says. “Feel the weight of your body as it rests. Feel the soft sand on your back. Now, imagine you are standing. Imagine you are walking towards an ocean, walking along the sand, cool and wet. You feel the waves lap against your toes. You smell the ocean spray. A light, cool breeze blows through your hair.”
I see an ocean. The Pacific Ocean. Susan and I are in Costa Rica for our honeymoon. There are dozens of sloths hanging upside down in the palm trees over the water. I remember their names. Drowsy and Droopy. Molasses and Coconut. I head out into the water as the waves rise and crest, swallowing me up as I dive into them. I swim against the light tug of the undertow, stinging saltwater leaks into my eyes. But it feels good. I surface, gutsy and strong, bobbing atop the water. Facing toward the shore, I see Susan in the sand reading The Secret Life of Bees in her white two-piece, and her flame-red hair, and those blue eyes.
Then I’m back on my couch in the hospice. I hear her voice.
“You feel the water envelop your body. You are floating above the waves as they crash into the shore, and recede back toward the ocean. Wash up. And flow back down.”
I close my eyes. I see it again: the Costa Rican beach with Susan and the waves. But this time, I notice a change. The waves, placid before, are pulling a bit stronger now. They’re taking me farther away from the shore. I fight against the current, my legs thrashing against the weight of the sea, but it isn’t working. They give out. The beach gets smaller and smaller, Susan just a dot. “Wait!” I call out, my head dipping beneath the surface of the waves. “Susan. Wait.”
I snap back into the room, gasping. I can still taste the saltwater, brackish and bitter on my tongue. I hear myself wheezing and, worse, my lungs feel heavy in my chest, like two sponges soaked in brine. My voice is barely a whisper. “Something’s wrong.”
“Not to worry,” Mia says. “You’re back with me now.”
Normally, this fact would buoy me, but the thing is: I don’t want to be with Mia, as selfish as that sounds. I want to be with Susan. I want to go back to the beach. “I’m going to die,” I say. And, somehow, this realization is the most beautiful thing in the world.
Mia goes silent as if processing that information for the first time.
Tears creep into my eyes and my nose stuffs up. Each breath is like sucking air through a cracked straw. I ask the hardest question I’ve ever had to ask. “Let me?”
Mia moves toward me so that we are close enough to touch. She extends her arm and strokes what is left of my hair. “It will be okay,” she says.
I nuzzle my head into her furry, black and white abdomen.
“Lean back,” she says.
I follow her command without question. Mia’s compartment opens, revealing a needle with opaque fluid. I nod. I feel the needle enter, then leave, my arm. It’s the tiniest pinprick.
Mia begins playing a song from her nose. I can’t place it. It’s pretty and twinkling, but there’s a touch of melancholy. It makes me think of a field of golden flowers wilting on the stem with no one to pollinate them, no one to care for them, as they turn grey.
“You’re walking into an ocean,” Mia says.
But I’m not walking. And there is no ocean. I’m flying. Flying up and up, carried by translucent bees wings, webbed with delicately pulsing veins. The wings flutter, whirring so fast that it’s impossible to distinguish between motion and its absence. On these impossible wings, I’m being carried away from my room, the whole thing spinning now, melting below me into a gelatinous mushroom cloud. The formless space into which I emerge yawns open, and I feel, over and over again, a sense of infinity blooming into yet another infinity. A great, calming sensation floods me, an awareness that it will be okay, just like Mia said. Then, in the canvas of my collapsing mind, her face appears to me. She is staring at my broken body with her huge eyes, and I can see tears in them even though she was never programmed to cry.