Home > If I Stay (If I Stay #1)(5)

If I Stay (If I Stay #1)(5)
Author: Gayle Forman

The anesthesiologist has gentle fingers. She sits at my head, keeping an eye on all my vitals, adjusting the amounts of the fluids and gases and drugs they’re giving me. She must be doing a good job because I don’t appear to feel anything, even though they are yanking at my body. It’s rough and messy work, nothing like that game Operation we used to play as kids where you had to be careful not touch the sides as you removed a bone, or the buzzer would go off.

The anesthesiologist absentmindedly strokes my temples through her latex gloves. This is what Mom used to do when I came down with the flu or got one of those headaches that hurt so bad I used to imagine cutting open a vein in my temple just to relieve the pressure.

The Wagner CD has repeated twice now. The doctors decide it’s time for a new genre. Jazz wins. People always assume that because I am into classical music, I’m a jazz aficionado. I’m not. Dad is. He loves it, especially the wild, latter-day Coltrane stuff. He says that jazz is punk for old people. I guess that explains it, because I don’t like punk, either.

The operation goes on and on. I’m exhausted by it. I don’t know how the doctors have the stamina to keep up. They’re standing still, but it seems harder than running a marathon.

I start to zone out. And then I start to wonder about this state I’m in. If I’m not dead—and the heart monitor is bleeping along, so I assume I’m not—but I’m not in my body, either, can I go anywhere? Am I a ghost? Could I transport myself to a beach in Hawaii? Can I pop over to Carnegie Hall in New York City? Can I go to Teddy?

Just for the sake of experiment, I wiggle my nose like Samantha on Bewitched. Nothing happens. I snap my fingers. Click my heels. I’m still here.

I decide to try a simpler maneuver. I walk into the wall, imagining that I’ll float through it and come out the other side. Except that what happens when I walk into the wall is that I hit a wall.

A nurse bustles in with a bag of blood, and before the door shuts behind her, I slip through it. Now I’m in the hospital corridor. There are lots of doctors and nurses in blue and green scrubs hustling around. A woman on a gurney, her hair in a gauzy blue shower cap, an IV in her arm, calls out, “William, William.” I walk a little farther. There are rows of operating rooms, all full of sleeping people. If the patients inside these rooms are like me, why then can’t I see the people outside the people? Is everyone else loitering about like I seem to be? I’d really like to meet someone in my condition. I have some questions, like, what is this state I’m in exactly and how do I get out of it? How do I get back to my body? Do I have to wait for the doctors to wake me up? But there’s no one else like me around. Maybe the rest of them figured out how to get to Hawaii.

I follow a nurse through a set of automatic double doors. I’m in a small waiting room now. My grandparents are here.

Gran is chattering away to Gramps, or maybe just to the air. It’s her way of not letting emotion get the best of her. I’ve seen her do it before, when Gramps had a heart attack. She is wearing her Wellies and her gardening smock, which is smudged with mud. She must have been working in her greenhouse when she heard about us. Gran’s hair is short and curly and gray; she’s been wearing it in a permanent wave, Dad says, since the 1970s. “It’s easy,” Gran says. “No muss, no fuss.” This is so typical of her. No nonsense. She’s so quintessentially practical that most people would never guess she has a thing for angels. She keeps a collection of ceramic angels, yarn-doll angels, blown-glass angels, you-name-it angels, in a special china hutch in her sewing room. And she doesn’t just collect angels; she believes in them. She thinks that they’re everywhere. Once, a pair of loons nested in the pond in the woods behind their house. Gran was convinced that it was her long-dead parents, come to watch over her.

Another time, we were sitting outside on her porch and I saw a red bird. “Is that a red crossbill?” I’d asked Gran.

She’d shaken her head. “My sister Gloria is a crossbill,” Gran had said, referring to my recently deceased great-aunt Glo, with whom Gran had never gotten along. “She wouldn’t be coming around here.”

Gramps is staring into the dregs of his Styrofoam cup, peeling away the top of it so that little white balls collect in his lap. I can tell it’s the worst kind of swill, the kind that looks like it was brewed in 1997 and has been sitting on a burner ever since. Even so, I wouldn’t mind a cup.

You can draw a straight line from Gramps to Dad to Teddy, although Gramps’s wavy hair has gone from blond to gray and he is stockier than Teddy, who is a stick, and Dad, who is wiry and muscular from afternoon weight-lifting sessions at the Y. But they all have the same watery gray-blue eyes, the color of the ocean on a cloudy day.

Maybe this is why I now find it hard to look at Gramps.

Juilliard was Gran’s idea. She’s from Massachusetts originally, but she moved to Oregon in 1955, on her own. Now that would be no big deal, but I guess fifty-two years ago it was kind of scandalous for a twenty-two-year-old unmarried woman to do that kind of thing. Gran claimed she was drawn to wild open wilderness and it didn’t get more wild than the endless forests and craggy beaches of Oregon. She got a job as a secretary working for the Forest Service. Gramps was working there as a biologist.

We go back to Massachusetts sometimes in the summers, to a lodge in the western part of the state that for one week is taken over by Gran’s extended family. That’s when I see the second cousins and great aunts and uncles whose names I barely recognize. I have lots of family in Oregon, but they’re all from Gramps’s side.

Last summer at the Massachusetts retreat, I brought my cello so I could keep up my practicing for an upcoming chamber-music concert. The flight wasn’t full, so the stewardesses let it travel in a seat next to me, just like the pros do it. Teddy thought this was hilarious and kept trying to feed it pretzels.

At the lodge, I gave a little concert one night, in the main room, with my relatives and the dead game animals mounted on the wall as my audience. It was after that that someone mentioned Juilliard, and Gran became taken with the idea.

At first, it seemed far-fetched. There was a perfectly good music program at the university near us. And, if I wanted to stretch, there was a conservatory in Seattle, which was only a few hours’ drive. Juilliard was across the country. And expensive. Mom and Dad were intrigued with the idea of it, but I could tell neither one of them really wanted to relinquish me to New York City or go into hock so that I could maybe become a cellist for some second-rate small-town orchestra. They had no idea whether I was good enough. In fact, neither did I. Professor Christie told me that I was one of the most promising students she’d ever taught, but she’d never mentioned Juilliard to me. Juilliard was for virtuoso musicians, and it seemed arrogant to even think that they’d give me a second glance.

But after the retreat, when someone else, someone impartial and from the East Coast, deemed me Juilliard-worthy, the idea burrowed into Gran’s brain. She took it upon herself to speak to Professor Christie about it, and my teacher took hold of the idea like a terrier to a bone.

So, I filled out my application, collected my letters of recommendation, and sent in a recording of my playing. I didn’t tell Adam about any of this. I had told myself that it was because there was no point advertising it when even getting an audition was such a long shot. But even then I’d recognized that for the lie that it was. A small part of me felt like even applying was some kind of betrayal. Juilliard was in New York. Adam was here.

But not at high school anymore. He was a year ahead of me, and this past year, my senior year, he’d started at the university in town. He only went to school part-time now because Shooting Star was starting to get popular. There was a record deal with a Seattle-based label, and a lot of traveling to gigs. So only after I got the creamy envelope embossed with The Juilliard School and a letter inviting me to audition did I tell Adam that I’d applied. I explained how many people didn’t get that far. At first he looked a little awestruck, like he couldn’t quite believe it. Then he gave a sad little smile. “Yo Mama better watch his back,” he said.

The auditions were held in San Francisco. Dad had some big conference at the school that week and couldn’t get away, and Mom had just started a new job at the travel agency, so Gran volunteered to accompany me. “We’ll make a girls’ weekend of it. Take high tea at the Fairmont. Go window-shopping in Union Square. Ride the ferry to Alcatraz. We’ll be tourists.”

But a week before we were due to leave, Gran tripped over a tree root and sprained her ankle. She had to wear one of those clunky boots and wasn’t supposed to walk. Minor panic ensued. I said I could just go by myself—drive, or take the train, and come right back.

It was Gramps who insisted on taking me. We drove down together in his pickup truck. We didn’t talk much, which was fine by me because I was so nervous. I kept fingering the Popsicle-stick good-luck talisman Teddy had presented me with before we left. “Break an arm,” he’d told me.

Gramps and I listened to classical music and farm reports on the radio when we could pick up a station. Otherwise, we sat in silence. But it was such a calming silence; it made me relax and feel closer to him than any heart-to-heart would have.

Gran had booked us in a really frilly inn, and it was funny to see Gramps in his work boots and plaid flannel amid all the lacy doilies and potpourri. But he took it all in stride.

The audition was grueling. I had to play five pieces: a Shostakovich concerto, two Bach suites, all Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo capriccioso, which was next to impossible, and a movement from Ennio Morricone’s The Mission, a fun but risky choice because Yo-Yo Ma had covered this and everyone would compare. I walked out with my legs wobbly and my underarms wet with sweat. But my endorphins were surging and that, combined with the huge sense of relief, left me totally giddy.

“Shall we see the town?” Gramps asked, his lips twitching into a smile.


We did all the things Gran had promised we would do. Gramps took me to high tea and shopping, although for dinner, we skipped out on the reservations Gran had made at some fancy place on Fisherman’s Wharf and instead wandered into Chinatown, looking for the restaurant with the longest line of people waiting outside, and ate there.

When we got back home, Gramps dropped me off and enveloped me in a hug. Normally, he was a handshaker, maybe a back-patter on really special occasions. His hug was strong and tight, and I knew it was his way of telling me that he’d had a wonderful time.

“Me, too, Gramps,” I whispered.

3:47 P.M.

They just moved me out of the recovery room into the trauma intensive-care unit, or ICU. It’s a horseshoe-shaped room with about a dozen beds and a cadre of nurses, who constantly bustle around, reading the computer printouts that churn out from the feet of our beds recording our vital signs. In the middle of the room are more computers and a big desk, where another nurse sits.

I have two nurses who check in on me, along with the endless round of doctors. One is a taciturn doughy man with blond hair and a mustache, who I don’t much like. And the other is a woman with skin so black it’s blue and a lilt in her voice. She calls me “sweetheart” and perpetually straightens the blankets around me, even though it’s not like I’m kicking them off.

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