August 17, 2027
Denise’s glass is mid-air, in the midst of a toast, when Francie has the stroke. A prism of light, glancing off the raised glass, shocks Francie’s eye, and she loses sight. For a moment, she can see nothing at all. She drops her own glass, but she only knows that she’s dropped it because the sound of it breaking is deafening. She doesn’t feel it slip from her fingers. In fact, she soon realizes she doesn’t feel anything at all on her right side.
Before Francie knows she’s falling, Denise catches her. It’s an awkward embrace. Francie’s body is elderly now, and its frailty is foreign to her. She is unaccustomed to accepting physical assistance.
Everything is out of whack. They’re toasting Francie’s son, whose own son has just had a son. They got the call from Ohio, only moments ago. It was a revelation. Dean had never had a child, much less a grandchild, in Francie’s memory.
Francie knows she has been visiting Denise, permanently, for the last four years. She likes Washington, DC, and now in her 80s, she doesn’t like the idea of living alone. In her own peripatetic way, Francie has lived dozens of random days in this brownstone, but it still surprised her to wake up here today, comfortably settled in this home.
She reaches blindly for the familiar cool stone kitchen counter, but she’s flailing, and she kicks over her bar stool. She cries out and discovers she can’t speak words.
“Francie! Look at me.” Denise is using her nurse voice. Even at 71, her deep alto voice commands respect.
“Eye bird,” Francie hears herself say. Her own voice is too loud, and those aren’t the words she wants to use. “Eye shot,” she tries again.
“Can you see me?”
“Can’t.” That’s at least a useful word. It’s not as good as ‘no,’ but it’s direct.
“Francie, we’re going to the hospital now.”
Denise scoops her up into her arms, as though she’s as light as a child. Denise’s bosom feels warm and safe and wrong, all at once, against Francie’s cheek.
They’re out the door and into the car before Francie can find another word. The word she wants is still a firm ‘no,’ but the words that occur to her are not that, so she bites her tongue.
Francie recovers before they reach the hospital. First, her vision returns. That’s an enormous relief. She turns to look squarely at Denise. “No,” comes to her now, and in a rush of determination, she uses it several times. “No. No. No. No. No.”
Denise doesn’t slow the car at all. She continues to speed toward the hospital.
To Francie, it feels as though her whole life is speeding around a racetrack today. In one short phone call with Dean and a brief conversation with Denise, Francie has learned that her son adopted a teenaged boy in 2019. Eliseo, a Guatemalan refugee, was one of the snatched kids of the zero tolerance days of 2018. Dean, a civil rights attorney, had taken him in after the 2018 election, when the Democratic majority in Congress released the un-reunited children from detention. Dean fostered Eliseo at first, while they searched for his deported parents. They exhausted every avenue, but they failed to find them. They did succeed in locating Eliseo’s younger sister, Flor, in a group home in Texas, where she’d been suicidally depressed. So, during the winter holidays in 2019, Dean, Eliseo, and Flor had decided to become a family. Now the boy is a man, married, and a new father. And Francie’s son is not only a dad, but a granddad. Denise has shown her the family pictures on Francie’s own cellphone.
The rush of all this news had been somber, bewildering, and wondrous for Francie.
When Francie’s hands are her own again, she puts a strong grip on Denise’s elbow. “Stop the car, Denise. Listen to me. I’m fine now.” She’s delighted to hear the words she’s thinking become the words she’s saying. She says it again, because she believes it more when she hears herself say it. “I’m fine.”
Francie is determined not to go to the hospital today, because she knows it would be terrifying to wake up in a hospital bed someday when it’s tomorrow.
Denise turns to look at her when they reach a stop sign. “Francie, you need to be checked out. We’re almost there. Don’t be frightened, but I think you had a stroke.”
The car startles Francie by speaking. It says, “You may safely proceed through the intersection.”
Denise speaks back to it, as though it’s a habit. “Shut up. I’m not ready.” Then, she asks Francie, “Do you understand?”
Francie draws a deep breath and sits back to think before she tries another tack. “Denise, I will be okay. I can tell you for an absolute fact that I will be okay. I will not die today. I will not die tomorrow. I will live to be at least 98. I promise you.” She’s almost entirely sure that’s true, because she’s lived it.
Denise looks away, far away into the night, and she says, “You know that for a fact.” She’s not asking a question. She is stating something that she apparently knows, but she has never said.
“You believe me,” Francie says, covering her mouth with her hand.
Changing gears to move through the intersection, Denise says, “Of course I do.” Then she drives the last block to the hospital, anyway.
Francie is in tears. She’s spent all her energy on all the days of all her life in a constant effort to appear normal. Even as Denise was dying, in 2038, Francie had not had this conversation with her. Yet here they are, having it now, in 2027.
Denise parks in the emergency room parking lot. The car says, “Shutting down now,” and its lights go out. Then Denise turns to Francie in the darkened car. Her face is weirdly glowing in the blue-white security lighting of the hospital as she says, “You have visions. You forget things. You see the world differently than anybody else I know. And I’m not going to sit by and let blood vessels explode in that beautiful, bizarre brain of yours. We’re going inside, Francie.”
So, she doesn’t really understand.
Francie silently watches her dear old friend get out of the car and go fetch a wheelchair for her. This is happening, then. Francie relents and allows Denise to help her into the chair and wheel her through the emergency room doors.
Inside, Francie faces a high reception counter, where she must look straight up to see the tall intake nurse standing behind it. She wishes her legs weren’t so wobbly. She’d dearly love to stand to look this young woman in the eye.
The nurse smiles broadly at Denise. “Congresswoman Culpepper! How can I help you?” She spares a quick glance at Francie.
Denise has apparently grabbed Francie’s wallet on the way out the door. She slides Francie’s ID into a scanner.
“I am not going to be admitted,” Francie says, with as much authority in her voice as she can muster.
Denise says, “Likely stroke. Needs an MRI stat.”
“And released,” says Francie.
“And monitored,” says Denise. Then she lists the symptoms she observed, ticking them off on her fingers. “Right side. Face fell. Lost function. Apparent blindness. Slurring. Garbled speech. Weakness. Apparent spontaneous recovery of function within 10 minutes. No treatment administered.”
The intake nurse says, “Through the doors. First right to Radiology.”
There has been no discussion of insurance.
As Denise wheels her to Radiology, Francie says, “I’m not sure my insurance is up to date.” Francie is never sure that her business affairs are in order.
Denise stops for a minute to say, “Francie, you have All-Access Healthcare, just like everybody else in America. Nobody has insurance anymore.” Then she swings Francie’s wheelchair through the doors to the Radiology unit. “I was a sponsor of that bill. You and Dean marched in the streets for it. A million people flooded DC to demand that Congress pass it. How could you forget that?”
The radiology receptionist says, “Denise Culpepper. Cool.” He isn’t even looking at Francie. He already has an electronic order for the scan. He says, “Your intake video has been reviewed by the doctor, and an MRI has been approved.” Then he points them into a changing room, with instructions for Francie to strip down and put on a paper gown before joining the others in the waiting room.
As Denise helps her undress, Francie mutters, “Video diagnosis. No insurance. All-Access Healthcare. Cool, the kid says. Cool. But some things never change. Old lady in a wheelchair? Invisible. Paper gown humiliation? You bet.”
Denise says, “You’re welcome.” Then she wheels Francie into the waiting room, where three other patients are sitting in paper gowns.
Francie closes her eyes and nods her head to nap while she waits. She’s exhausted.
Denise taps her shoulder and says, “Stay alert, Francie.”
Francie feels she has never been anything but alert. Still, she props her face up with her hand, and she opens her eyes wide. She’s thinking about that new little baby now. He’s in a hospital, too.
She wonders if she’ll meet him soon, and how old he’ll be when she does.
Denise was 56 the first time Francie met her. They were both staying at Mom’s house, visiting her during her final days. Francie had lived just 103 days then, when she woke to find her very elderly mother was on her deathbed in a hospital.
People die in hospitals. People are also born in them.
Angels must fly the halls, directing soul traffic.
Francie tells Denise, “After this, we’re getting ice cream.”
Denise stretches and seems to relax a little. She grimaces and rubs her bad shoulder, as she says, “Nope. I’m predicting your future tonight, and I predict you’re staying.”
Francie ignores her. “Cherry vanilla. Two scoops.”