Twenty-five-year-old Harry Becker slowly rose with the dawning sun. The rays filtering though the window provided the needed incentive to heave himself out of his bed. As he stood he was seized by a painful twinge in his chest. He flumped down on his bed and grabbed his left arm as he struggled to get his erratic respiration under control. He sat with his eyes closed in deep concentration. He was alone in his apartment and couldn’t afford another coronary.
He was living on borrowed time. His doctor had given him only six months lo live without a heart transplant. The list was long for a donor and Harold didn’t give much stock in his striking the mother lode. He couldn’t afford to buy his way to the top of the list. He had resigned to his fate long ago and didn’t expect to hit the jackpot.
Once the crisis had passed, he slowly raised himself up and shuffled to the bathroom to splash cold water onto his face. He stared at his haggard reflection in the mirror, searing into his mind every facial feature as if to remember when he would be no more.
“Don’t Harold. You’ll only make it worse. Just enjoy what you have now,” he berated himself. He reached for a towel and dabbed at the drops of water pearling down his cheeks. He then tossed it aside and undressed to take a shower.
Later that morning he drove to the Elgins farm where he was to work on the corral fence with Jim. He smiled as he reminisced on the first day Jim Elgin hired him to perform odd jobs on his property. He’d been studying animal husbandry at college and working part-time at the local shoe store when, one day, Jim offered him the opportunity to get some field experience on the farm. As the months wore on Harold had come to consider Jim and Helen more like parents than employers. In turn the Elgins had welcomed the young man into their home and in their hearts. Many were the times they had offered him to move in with them but Harold always declined, reason being that he didn’t want them to discover his medical condition.
“Harold! Good morning,” Helen greeted with a large beam as she clenched him into a warm embrace. “I just baked some muffins. Would you like some before you start working on the fence with Jim?”
“You know I can’t say no to those luscious muffins of yours, Helen,” he teased, kissing her on the cheek as they walked hand in hand towards the house.
They made their way to the living room where Jim was busy on the phone. “It’s Steve,” Jim announced excitedly to his wife who hurried to pick up the receiver.
“Steve? My baby. How are you?”
“I’m fine mom,” Steve replied weakly. “Just exhausted. Oscar is giving me some time off and I thought I would spend it with you.”
“That’s wonderful!” she exulted, turning to Jim with a grin that hung on her ears. “When can you be here?”
“Is tomorrow soon enough?” he cracked with a light chuckle.
“You big teaser, you! It’s not nearly soon enough. When is your flight? Jim will drive to the airport to pick you up.”
“No need, mom. I’ll take a taxi.”
“Nonsense Steve! When is your flight?”
“It’ll land around ten in the morning. Flight number eight one four.”
Helen jogged down the information on a piece of paper. “Got it. We’ll be waiting for you, Sweetie.”
“I can hardly wait to get there. Bye now.”
“Bye” Helen hung up the phone and stared worriedly at her husband.” Oh Jim, he sounds awful.”
“I noticed. But a few days on the farm and he’ll be like a new man.” He held her close, rubbing a hand on her back to soothe her anguish.
“I hope so.”
“I guess this means you won’t be needing my help this week?” Harold asked, somewhat embarrassed at having to disturb this tender moment. “I imagine your son would want to be the one to help you around the farm.”
“Don’t believe that. Steve is coming here to rest; not to work,” Jim specified.
“I don’t think you’ve met Steve, have you?” Helen asked.
“Never had that pleasure yet. I sure am looking forward to it, though.”
“Okay let’s eat those muffins and head out to work on those fences,” Jim urged, winking at Harold while he led his wife by the waist to the kitchen.
The next day, Harold drove to the Elgins earlier than usual to lend Helen a hand with the household chores in order to make everything ready for Steve’s arrival, while Jim drove to the airport to meet with Steve’s flight. The father was appalled at the sight of his son’s drawn features but kept a straight face and an undisturbed inflection about his voice as he spoke, “Steve! Good to see you, son.” he exulted, flinging his arms around the bone-weary man to give him a warm fatherly hug. “It’s been too long.” He pulled back and grabbed Steve’s suitcases. “Let me carry that for you.”
“Dad, don’t be silly.” Steve pulled at the loads in his father’s hands. “I’m bionic, remember?”
“Yes but you look like you could use some assistance. Son, you look so drawn.”
“I know,” Steve sighed heavily. “Oscar noticed I was about to drop so he granted me a month’s vacation. And I intend to sleep most of it.”
“You’ve come to the right place.” Jim clapped Steve on the back and squeezed his shoulder. “Let’s go home, son.”
“Home. Music to my ears.”
The car had yet to reach the house that Helen dashed outside to hurry down the driveway. “Steve!” she cried hysterically with arms outstretched. Barely had Steve stepped out of the car that his mother fell into his arms. “Welcome home, son. I’ve missed you so much.” When she disengaged the embrace she was taken aback by the lividness of his face. “Steve, are you feeling okay?”
“I just have a tiny headache. I took something for it. It should dissipate within the hour.”
“What you need is some rest. Come,” she laced her arm with his and they ambled up to the house, “your room is all ready for you. We’ll talk some more later. Right now it’s off to bed.”
“I won’t argue with you. I’m about to drop,” Steve croaked out in a yawn with eyes at half-mast.
Helen glanced back at her husband who wore the same worried expression.
The next morning, Helen nudged Steve’s bedroom door open to bring him his breakfast in bed. She set the tray on the night table and turned to gaze at her son’s peaceful face. She placed a kiss on his forehead and padded out of the room. She cast one last glance at Steve before closing the door and returning downstairs.
“What’s the matter?” Jim asked, puzzled by his wife’s worried frown.
“Steve’s still asleep.”
“Is that what’s bothering you? The boy is exhausted. I expect he’ll sleep until noon.” He took a sip of his orange juice and ambled to the living room to sit on the couch.
“I hope you’re right, Jim. I’ve never seen him so drawn before.”
“Don’t worry about it. He’ll…” The phone ring interrupted Jim’s thought. He picked up the receiver. “Hello?”
“Hi Jim. It’s Harold.”
“Harold? Something wrong?” he asked, concerned.
“No it’s nothing to worry about. I forgot to tell you I had a doctor’s appointment this morning. I might be a little late today.”
“Say, why don’t you take the day off. It’s Friday and you’ve been working like a draught horse for the past week. I’ll pay you a day’s work.”
“No need to do that.”
“I know but I want to. Consider it a bonus for a job well done.”
“Thanks Jim. By the way how’s Steve doing?”
Jim glanced at Helen who was nervously pacing the floor. “He’s fine. Just needs plenty of sleep.”
“Well say hi for me and I’ll try to catch him on Monday.”
“Will do. And take care.” He placed the receiver back in its cradle and shook his head in disbelief at his wife’s anguish. “Helen, please, stop that pacing. Steve is all right.”
“Mother intuition, Jim. There’s something wrong with him. I’m going up there.”
Jim stood from the sofa and grabbed her arm. With a warning glare he chided amicably, “Helen, you are mothering him.”
“I can’t help it Jim. Maybe we should call Rudy.” She reached for the phone but Jim held her back.
“You do and he’ll be furious. Does he have a fever?”
“I checked. He doesn’t.”
“Then what are you worried about?”
She flashed him an embarrassing smile and rolled her eyes. “You’re right. I’m too protective. It’s just that I hate seeing him so weak.”
“And it’s only natural. You’re his mother. And I love you for it.” He gave her a light kiss on the cheek and squeezed her waist.
A pounding migraine kept Steve in bed most of the day. In early evening he decided to stretch his legs and went downstairs to chat with his folks, but the deafening throbbing prompted him to cut his visit short, this triggering Helen’s inner alarm. Without consulting with her husband she picked up the phone and called Rudy Wells in Washington. His secretary informed her that the good doctor was returning from Europe this evening and that she would make sure to convey the message.
In the wee hours of the morning, Helen was sleeping with one eye open when she heard noises coming from her son’s bedroom. Without bothering to yawn or stretch she flung the covers aside and hurried across the hall to Steve’s room. She nudged the door open to poke her head inside.
“Steve, are you okay son?”
“Oh mom! Sorry, did I wake you?”
“No you didn’t. I couldn’t sleep. I heard noises so I got up to check.” She perched herself on the edge of the mattress and ran a soothing hand across her son’s forehead. “What’s wrong, Steve?”
“I can’t get rid of this pounding headache,” he bemoaned, grabbing his head in pain while tossing and turning to find a comfortable position.
“Helen, is everything all right?” Jim asked worriedly from the doorway. As he made his way to the bed, the phone rang. “Who could be calling at this hour?” he wondered with a puzzling look.
“Maybe it’s Rudy. Linda said he’d call as soon as he returned to Washington.”
“I’ll get it.” He retraced his steps to his bedroom and picked up the receiver on the night table. “Hello?”
“Jim? It’s Rudy Wells. Your wife left a message concerning Steve.”
“Yes. He got home two days ago and can’t seem to get rid of a throbbing migraine. He tried every known medication and it didn’t work.”
“Does he have a fever? Chills?”
“Helen says no. He’s just exhausted. He can hardly keep his eyes open. I thought my wife was over-reacting at first but I have to admit I’m getting worried myself.”
“I’ll call Oscar and ask that he make his private jet available. If everything goes well I should be in Ojai in the morning.”
“Thanks Rudy. It might be nothing but…”
“We want to be on the safe side, yea I know. I do too. It’s been a while since I gave Steve a thorough examination, what with all my travelling and his missions abroad. Tell him to hang on. I’m on my way.”
“Will do.” A relieved smile crossed the concerned father’s face at the news of Rudy’s arrival. He let out a grateful sigh before returning to Steve’s bedroom where Helen was busy applying cold compresses onto her son’s forehead. “That was Rudy on the phone. Says he’s flying in tonight in Oscar’s private jet and should be here in the morning.”
“Thank goodness,” she exhaled.
“Mom, you called Rudy?”
“Yes I did. You are definitely not well and I want him to check you over.”
“Ah mom” Steve moaned disapprovingly. “It’s just a killer headache. I’ve had them before. There’s no need to work yourself into a lather.”
“I’m your mother. It’s my job to worry,” she replied bluntly as she dunk the towel into the bowl and wrung it dry of its excess water before re-applying it to Steve’s forehead.
“Some vacation,” Steve deplored in a heavy sigh, obviously losing a fighting battle with his drooping eyelids.
“You still have a whole month. I’m looking forward to having you work with me on the farm.”
“Now Jim, Steve is here to relax, not to work,” she reminded on a chiding tone.
“Mom, believe me, this will be relaxing. I can hardly wait.”
Air turbulence and bad weather kept Rudy’s plane from landing on schedule. He hailed a taxi at the airport and drove straight to the Elgins. No sooner had he rung the doorbell that Jim yanked him inside and hastily led him up the stairs.
“He’s in a bad way, Rudy. His headache’s worse.”
Rudy hurried into Steve’s bedroom and went straight to his patient, thrashing about in bed, trying to allay some of the agonizing pain invading his mind.
“Steve! Steve, it’s me, Rudy. Stop squirming and look at me.” Steve mustered all of his strength to roll onto his back. “Can you hear me?”
Steve breathed in deeply to quell the pain long enough to nod his answer.
“Head hurts like hell?”
“That’s an understatement,” the patient mumbled. “It just won’t go away.”
“Had it long?”
“It came and went in the last month but for the past week it’s been non stop,” he finished with a painful hiss.
“Okay. I’m going to admit you to the hospital for some tests. I want to rule out the possibility of an aneurysm.”
“A what?” Steve exclaimed in shock.
“I’m not sure but all the signs are there. I’m going to schedule an angiogram to be sure.”
“And what then?”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. In the meantime I can administer you a bit of morphine to allay the pain?”
“If you have some?”
Rudy prepared the syringe and injected a few miligrams of the drug into Steve’s left arm. The soothing effect was instant. Steve was soon plunged into a drunken stupor, much to his parents’ relief.
Steve was subjected to a battery of tests, none as painful as the spinal tap that revealed a significant amount of blood in the fluid. Rudy consulted with a cerebral vascular specialist who, after noticing the 7 mm aneurysm located in the middle cerebral artery, recommended surgery instead of waiting for the pressure to subside and risk having him bleed out. Meanwhile, the patient was maintained on a slim dose of morphine, thought enough to keep the pain at bay.
Jim and Helen returned to the hospital in early afternoon to find Rudy in Steve’s room. They padded up to the bed and seeing how Steve’s eyes were closed, Helen asked in a soft voice, “How is he?”
“He’s the same. No pain, though. We’ve scheduled him for surgery in the morning.”
“Rudy, tell me.” Helen placed a hand on his arm to will his eyes to hers. “How is he, really?”
“I can’t lie to you. It’s serious,” he informed grimly. “But Dr. Micheals is the best in his field. And I will be assisting given Steve’s special nature. He is getting two doctors for the price of one,” he ended on a light-hearted tone.
“We’re talking brain surgery, here,” Jim pointed out, uneasy at the thought of being shielded. “Can we expect him to be the same again?”
“Ninety-nine per cent positive, Jim,” Rudy reassured with a strain smile. “You are aware that all surgeries involve risks to a certain extent. In Steve’s case I wouldn’t worry too much. He’s seen worse.”
“We have every confidence in your skills, Rudy,” Helen assured, though a doubt lingered on Doctor Michaels’s competence. She cast that grim thought aside in a long exhale, aware that Rudy would be present to supervise the procedure.
Later that evening, Jim and Helen made one last visit to their son’s room before returning to their home.
“Steve, we’ll be back in the morning before you go in for surgery,” Helen assured while brushing a soothing hand though this hair. She waited for a nod of acknowledgement before leaning forward to place a light kiss on his cheek. “Are you in pain?”
“No. I’m fine,” Steve whispered with his eyes closed. “I’ll see you in the morning and don’t worry. I’m in good hands.”
“We know you are, son,” Jim said, placing his hand over Steve’s. “Sleep well.”
They crossed path with Rudy entering the room. “We’ll be back in the morning.”
“That’s fine. We’ll be waiting. Surgery’s at nine.” After an exchanged of hugs and handshakes, Rudy padded up to Steve’s bed to check his vital signs.
“I was waiting for you. I have a favour to ask.”
Steve blinked heavily and drew in a draught of air to summon the courage to make his request. ”You are aware of my living will?”
“Yes,” Rudy replied with an edge of annoyance. “Why are you bringing it up now?”
“You know why,” Steve answered icily with a weak glare. “I want you to make sure Oscar doesn’t let my parents talk him into keeping me alive should something happen.”
“It won’t come to that, Steve,” Rudy tried to sound reassuring, but Steve had learnt to read the truth behind his lying eyes.
“I hope it doesn’t but just in case it does…” Steve stared at Rudy imploringly.
“I’ll make sure that your last wish is honoured.”
“Thanks Rudy,” Steve breathed out with a grateful smile before he allowed sleep to claim him.
Rudy laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. “I’m going to sleep in my office tonight. If there’s anything you need, just ring the nurse. She’ll notify me right away.”
Steve nodded his understanding with a small curl of the lip.
“Don’t you worry about anything. You’re in good hands.” Rudy glanced back at the monitor one last time before making him way out of the room. He was powerfully disturbed by his friend’s sense of doom but vowed not to let it affect his own optimism of a successful surgery.
In the hush of the night all was quiet at the Elgins house when suddenly “Steeeeeeeeeeeeve!” Helen cried out in her sleep. Starled by her scream, Jim shot up in bed and turned to his thrashing wife.
“Helen!” He took her by the shoulders and tried to shake her awake. “HELEN! WAKE UP!”
“Jim?” she asked groggily, her eyes trying to make focus on the blurry figure hovering over her. “What? What’s wrong?”
“That’s my question. You were thrashing about and screaming Steve’s name.”
“My baby,” she sobbed. “I dreamt he died on the operating table.”
“Oh Helen.” Jim eased himself beside his wife and wrapped a consoling arm around her. She nuzzled close to him in the crook of his shoulders to seek shelter from the raw memories of her nightmare. “Rest easy, dear. It was only a nightmare.”
“But what if it’s a foreboding of things to come?”
“I don’t think it is. Steve has an aneurysm. Easily operable. Rudy and Dr. Micheals are both authorities in this type of surgery. I wouldn’t worry too much.” He pulled her closer to him and kissed the top of her head. “Now try to get some sleep. We have to be at the hospital early tomorrow.”
She nodded and closed her eyes, though sleep was long forthcoming.
Early in the morning, the Elgins arrived at the hospital to wish Steve luck with the surgery. They were both startled at the sight of the empty bed. Panic swept over as they scramble to locate Rudy. The nurse at the desk informed that Rudy and Dr. Michaels had to rush Steve into surgery as they suspected the aneurysm to have grown in size despite the blood pressure titrated at 120 systolic.
“Oh my God, it’s happening, Jim,” Helen cried out hysterically. “My dream…it was a premonition.”
Jim clenched his distraught wife in his arms and then led her to the waiting room. “Helen, remember he’s in good hands. Rudy said this surgeon was the best in his field.” He sat beside her on the couch and rubbed a soothing hand over her arm while she sobbed. She was inconsolable as her mother instincts told her that a tragedy was about to occur.
Three hours later, still clad in his surgical gown a drained Rudy dragged his weary body to waiting room; his step faltering as he neared the two anguished parents. His eyes dropped like lead at the grim news he was about to deliver. He inhaled a deep breath to perk himself up and continued the rest of the way.
Helen leapt to her feet. “Rudy? How is he?”
“I’m sorry,” he quavered in a rueful sigh. “He’s dead.”
Both parents stood agape at the bombshell, unable to breathe.
“No, this isn’t true,” Helen shuddered. “I’m dreaming this.” She looked away, hugging her body. Her teary eyes took on a hunted look; a terrorized gaze that foretold an imminent outburst of insanity.
“H…how? Rudy you told us this doctor was the best.” Jim scowled as he reached for his distraught wife.
“The aneurysm burst before we could reach it. Despite Doctor Michael’s quick intervention to repair the artery Steve had already lost too much blood. When he went into cardiac arrest we tried to revive him but at this point he was already in a vegetative state, given the oxygen depravation to the brain. We thought it best to let him die. He wouldn’t have wanted to live this way.”
“I can’t believe it. My baby’s dead. Oh please let me rouse from this nightmare.” In a complete daze, she wriggled herself free from her husband’s arms and wandered a few feet away.
Rudy pulled Jim aside to discuss a delicate matter that needed to be urgently addressed. “Jim I hate to bring the subject up at a time like this but we must proceed fast.”
“What is it?”
“Did Steve mention that he was an organ donor?”
“Yes he did. And yes, you have our consent,” Jim stated matter-of-factly without hesitation. He, Helen and Steve had engaged in lengthy discussions about the subject and if and when the time would present itself there would be no arguments.
Rudy laid a comforting hand on Jim’s shoulder; the pain of losing his friend etched on his face as he flashed a sympathetic smile. “Thank you. There’s a boy in this hospital who’s in desperately need of a heart. Steve’s likely a perfect match.”
“Do it, Rudy.”
“If the transplant is a success I’ll let you meet this young man.”
“We would be much obliged and Rudy…thanks.” Jim said with a genuineness that shook Rudy to the very core. He needed to hear Steve’s parents didn’t hold him liable for their son’s death.
Oscar was flabbergasted to hear of Steve’s sudden death. The next day he cancelled all of his appointments and flew to Ojai to be with Jim and Helen. He fought tooth and nail to convince the NSB to respect the parents’ wish to leave their son’s body intact so they could bury him with dignity.
Following a heart-wrenching funeral with dozens of Steve’s close personal friends and acquaintances, the Elgins got word that the heart transplant had succeeded. After a few days the young man’s condition was deemed satisfactory enough to receive visitors.
Jim and Helen drove the hospital, anxious to meet the recipient of their son’s heart. Though they had no intention to insinuate themselves into this stranger’s life they were nonetheless hoping to forge a friendship.
Their surprise could hardly be contained when, upon entering the room, they realized the young patient was Harold. They stopped at the door, dithering over whether they should disturb him. Their answer came in the form of a groggy ‘hello’.
“Harold. Why didn’t you tell us you had a serious heart problem? My Gosh I made you work like a draught horse,” Jim lamented apologetically.
“I didn’t want to tell you because you never would have hired me in the first place. If I was going to die I wanted to go while working in something I took to heart and not in my bed idling the time away.”
Helen perched herself on the edge of the bed and cradled Harold’s hand in hers. “Dr. Wells tells us that the operation was a success and that you should be discharged in a few days.”
“I hope so. I thank my lucky star for this heart. I was last on the list of heart transplant. I didn’t hold out much hope of getting one before the inevitable happened. I had made my peace with God and was prepared to die. Then this.” Tears began flooding his eyes at the thought of this fortunate turn of event, but conversely he felt sad for the man whose heart provided him with a second chance at life.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you. Is Steve okay? I mean has his headache gone?” Jim and Helen’s exchange of mournful looks puzzled Harold. “Something wrong?”
Helen swallowed hard to suppress her emotions threatening to overwhelm her. “Our son died.”
“Oh my God, no! But he seemed healthy. I mean apart from the headache he was…oh God. I’m so sorry.” Harold sank his head deeper into his pillow as if to escape the reality of the moment.
“When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window,” Helen mused to herself, drawing Harold’s attention to her words that both soothed and puzzled him. She smiled and laid her soft hand on his chest. “Our son is not dead. He’s right here with you.”
Harold shot her a quizzical look behind which hues of fear could be perceived. “You mean? His heart?”
“It was a perfect match.”
Harold placed a hand on his chest and closed his eyes in a silent prayer for the life lost to save his. Instead of rejoicing for his fate he began to cry. Now that his condition was known he had hoped of taking the Elgins up on their offer to move in on the farm, but now he feared that his presence would only widen the void left by this incredible soul that was Steve Austin. In all good conscience he could not put the grieving parents through this emotional trial.
“There’s a guest room at the house all ready for you when you leave here.”
“No Jim, I can’t,” Harold croaked.
“Why not?” Helen asked indignantly.
“You know perfectly well, why not,” Harold replied with a tinge of insolence. He then pointed at is chest. “This!”
“This heart is your new chance at life. You don’t want it?”
“It’s not that. It’s just that…,” his voice faltered as his train of thoughts came to an abrupt halt.
“What is it, Harold?” Helen probed.
“Me. I’ll be a constant reminder of your dead son. I can’t do this to you, folks.”
“Nothing would please us more if you would accept to live permanently on the farm. This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” Jim goaded teasingly. “The reason that stopped you was because you didn’t want to let on how sick you were?”
Harold cracked an embarrassing smile. “I guess I’m not a very good liar.”
“Not with us. Please,” Helen beseeched, reaching for the young man’s hand, “say you’ll stay.”
Harold’s eyes shifted between the two eagerly expectant expressions before him. Then finally he yielded and accepted.
God had bestowed upon him the gift of a second wind while calling Steve to his side. Harold vowed not to question HIS reasons for choosing to deal this hand and pledged to enjoy the remainder of his years with his ‘adoptive’ parents.
Note: I’m aware that Steve sustained several injuries following his plane crash, including one to his heart valve, but for the purpose of my story Steve had a natural healthy heart.