The Six-Day Week of the Sick Man

By Elizabeth Flynn

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5. ‘Twenty Questions’ day

The sky is—?


The grass is—?


How many days are there in a week?


The son laughs in attempt to lighten the mood, gangling arms scratching coarse hair that is faded and gray.  “Sunday doesn’t count, apparently.”  The daughter does not smile as she looks at the muted television, which has been on the same five minute loop for who knows how long.

There is no day of rest for the sick.

3. ‘Sleep a little more’ day

The daughter tentatively approaches the door, peeking around the privacy curtain to check on the situation.

It had not been great so far.  Today is a new day, however, and today will be better.  It must be. It is the last chance before she goes back to the other world—the one with seven days.  That world has more expectations, and doesn’t understand how time works for the sick man.  It is too busy, too full—it will check back later, will call tomorrow.  Nothing can wait except for what can.

It thinks this can.

The man is sleeping—so peacefully even that it sends an instant wave of relief through her, and the anxiety slowly subsides. The son, the daughter, and the mother enter as a unit.

“Are you awake, sweetheart?” the mother asks, placing a hand on the man’s shoulder. He rouses some as he turns toward her, eyes still mostly closed.

“Mmhm.” It is not a real word, but the daughter counts it as one.  She takes every word she can get and holds it close to her heart.

“Guess who’s here? Your baby girl came all this way.”

“Really?” The man sounds almost like himself, happiness working its way back into his voice. The daughter moves to sit by his bed, carefully taking his hand into hers.  His skin is spotted with purple, the browned, paper-thin surface bulging with pools of leaked blood.  She can see it sitting in the cord of his IV, in the corners of his mouth.  The man’s eyes are glassy and clouded with blindness, his glasses awaiting orders by his bedside once he has the energy to try and see.

“Hi Daddy,” she says, smiling and blinking back sadness as he looks in her direction, “your hand is nice and warm.”

“Oh good,” he says, drifting back towards sleep.  The man holds her fingers hostage for quite a while; she takes the time to think about her four new treasures, and acquiesces.

1. ‘Kill’em all and let God sort’em out’ day

It is no one’s fault it’s a bad day.  The sick man’s nurse is kind and hard-working.  She is the first impression the daughter has of the hospital, and it means perhaps it’s better than originally thought: the man’s condition, the situation—all of it.  The nurse’s head is red like the mother’s—perhaps this is the Irish good luck coming through.

It isn’t.

The sick man is sour and angry.  He is slowed with medication, senses dulled to the barest point of consciousness.  He curses and hums as he tries to turn over, and his face creases with pain as he does so.  The mother tries to assist—shifts blankets, moves sheets, touches shoulders—but is pushed away.  He growls as he spits out half a mouthful of blood and green phlegm, a testament to the infection that curdles in his lungs.

The daughter touches his arm, trying to smile, to show him she’s there, and he jumps, startled. “What is it?” he asks, eyes glazed, “What?”

She draws her hand back and shoves it between her legs, as if it might jump back out, and quickly apologizes.  The sick man does not see or recognize, but it is not his fault.

But she’s afraid.

A different nurse comes in to help with his labored breathing, the rib-weakening cough, but the man fights with the oxygen mask and the mother.  The daughter quietly moves to stand outside his room and cries into her hands as the arguments flare behind her. 

The kindly nurse offers her a small box of tissues, offers pleasantries and signs of hopeful progress.  The sick man’s words aren’t so garbled now—he could say things clearly now, say whole sentences. He was doing better, really.

When the son arrives, the daughter weeps openly into his side.

“Do you remember your daughter?” tries the nurse, “She’s here with you.  Your son is here, too.”


“Don’t you want to say hello?  Open your eyes?”

“Mm-mm. Mmhm.”

“Please,” the daughter manages through her tears, “don’t bother him. It’s okay.”

The sick man slips back into sleep, and they file out.

Once they arrive back home, the mother hears the daughter cry her way through the remainder of the box.

2. ‘Sleep’ day

The mother sits across from the daughter, hands wrapped around the largest coffee available.  Her hair is rumpled and curled with poor sleep, eyes lined with dark, set-in shadows.  The café is extremely cold, AC blasting back the heat that encroaches from the door.  The daughter’s hands hurt from holding her frozen treat, but she does not move; she stares somewhere past the mother’s left shoulder.

“He’s doing a little better every day,” the mother says, fingers twitching against the paper cup, “you should have been here when he was first there.  It was bad, sweetheart—it wasn’t good at all.”

“I don’t think I could have been here, if that’s the case,” comes the quiet reply; the daughter watches a child pick at a wicker basket filled with pre-packaged coffee beans, scattering bits of wood and paper onto the floor.  She looks farther into the somewhere, eyes glazing as her thoughts wander.

“I’m determined to find that piece of property for your Daddy,” continues the Mother, unheeded, “because he needs to be out in the country, like he’s always said.”

Her voice cracks.

The daughter comes back in an instant, eyes re-focusing as the Mother places her face into her hands, shaking her head and removing her glasses.  The other patrons are either too kind or too oblivious to take notice.

“We have to get it—because that’s what he would want.”

Crumpled napkins are offered and accepted, the daughter taking the other’s hand from across the table and squeezing tightly. 

“Don’t worry,” she says, unable to mean it.

They wait until the mother’s coffee goes cold.

6. ‘Then, and…’ day

The daughter sneaks glances at her phone throughout the day, smiling her way through meetings and crying through muted conference calls, where privacy allows.

It is a clot in the foot now—not from the heart.

It is a mass in his lung now.

It is his body attacking himself now.

It is he won’t eat now.

It is ‘he needs more comprehensive care’ now.

It is ‘triage the issues’ now.

The daughter’s back is hunched as she arrives home, slowly taking each step as her strength wanes and ebbs.  She calls the mother and cries, curled against the wall in her stamp-sized kitchen, so burdened with guilt her spine feels a hair from snapping.

“I feel so bad,” she sobs, shoes still half on as she slides to the floor, “I don’t have any more vacation—do you need me?  Do you need me for the weekend?”  The weekend is not enough and she knows it.

“There’s nothing you can do,” the mother says, choking on her own tears, “I know you have to work—Daddy wouldn’t want you getting in trouble.  You know how excited he was to know you were working on that account.  You can come over labor day.”

The sounds of the city tap at the daughter’s window; she does not enjoy them as she once did.

“I’ll let you know if you need to come down any sooner, okay?  I can always call your brother.”

The daughter shakes as she desperately holds the phone to her ear, looking up to the ceiling.

It feels like a death sentence.

4. ‘Until you see the whites of their eyes’ day

The son comes in late, as he is prone to do, seeing the mother, the daughter, but no man.  They quickly look up upon his entry, twitchy from having the cage rattled one too many times.  He scratches at his side, flipping his sunglasses off of his face.

“Is he—?”

“They were running some more tests,” the Mother says, exhaustion oozing from her words, “but he should be back up soon.”


They stew in the purposeful silence for quite some time, only released when a white coat knocks on the door frame, alluding to some sense of privacy.  She comes in without waiting for a response, smiling as she introduces herself and her specialty.  She is White Coat Neurology.

“It’s nice to finally meet you; this is my daughter,” the mother gestures, “and my—son.”  The White Coat doesn’t catch the pause, one purposefully pushed past because this is not the time or place for ‘step-‘s or explanations.

“I heard you had some questions for me?”

They all have a thousand questions, though many are the same; the daughter looks down at the chair and begins to tug at a loose thread on the cushion.

“Well, of course we have questions,” the son says, aggression creeping into his tone, “Dad was ambulatory when he first came in, and now he can barely walk.  Why don’t you answer that one first?”

“Your father is very sick,” White Coat Neurology says with a forced smile; her heeled foot slowly begins to pivot, as if to excuse herself.

“Please,” the mother interjects, rubbing at her eyes underneath her glasses, “you’ll have to excuse him, we’re all a little worn thin.”

“Of course.”

The daughter doesn’t like White Coat Neurology or what she has to say.  She describes the stroke as a ‘splatter,’ as if explaining a way to throw paint on canvas rather than plaque on brain tissue.  She punctuates the explanation with the hard clap of the back of her hand against her palm, ‘and it hit the back of the left side,’ and the daughter bites her lip to keep calm.

“We just want to make sure all of you guys are communicating,” the mother says, more determined than before.

“Of course, of course.”

She disagrees with White Coat Pulmonary, just to make it known; the clots are most certainly coming from the plaque in the man’s heart, and it’s important that they prioritize the imaging procedure to get that back angle.  It’s just a camera down his throat—routine procedure.

“As long as everyone is on the same page,” the mother repeats again.

“Of course.”

The man is returned asleep and nearly bloodless.

The sick man opens his eyes to dim light.

There is the beep of a monitor in his ear—chitter-chatter outside.


hurts to see

and be.

There is

a pain in his chest.

He remembers

that someone held his hand,

but not who.


seems okay.

He will



But at least

his hand



The sick man closes his eyes.

And rests from all his work.

– Elizabeth Flynn