FIXED AND DILATED • by Alison Bullock

By the time I arrive at the cardiac intensive care unit, he is almost gone. Head wrapped in gauze. Neck brace affixed. Tube down throat. It’s hard to find a piece of him that I can recognize. His eyes are eerily open, the pupils fixed and dilated.

He blinks rhythmically–once, twice, and again. “They’re mini seizures,” my mother explains.

I run to his bedside. “I’m here, Daddy,” I say, kissing the small patch of cheek not covered in gauze. His face feels warm and scratchy. It occurs to me that his beard is still growing.

“I love you,” I say, and wait for his magical transformation into consciousness. He blinks and blinks and blinks, like a digital clock that has been momentarily unplugged.

“Your eyelashes are thick,” I tell him later, and it’s true. They are not the eyelashes of an eighty year old man. If only it were all up to the eyelashes, I think, with complete seriousness.

I hold one hand, then the other. He cannot move them, cannot respond to stimuli of any kind, but they’re warm and if I fold his fingers around mine, it’s almost right. I notice a scratch on one of his knuckles. Maybe from the pavement where he collapsed? I find I am upset about the scratch, even amidst all of the blinking.

Then the larger seizures come and his body arches up off the bed again and again, at five second intervals.

“We’ve ordered some anti-seizure meds from the pharmacy,” says the dull-eyed nurse checking his IV line.

We ask her the obvious question. “When, oh please when will he get these drugs?”

“About an hour,” she says, no sense of urgency in her voice. She moves methodically around the room while my father jerks and spasms, the mattress thumping loudly all the while. I find that I want to smack her. She thinks he’s brain dead, I can tell, but the neurologists have told us they’re not sure. They’ve told us to wait for the EEG results. So we wait for the results, just like we wait for the meds.

I look for the homeopathic remedy. Talking seems all wrong now. Like a woman in labor, he needs a quiet, respectful place, while his body contracts against its will. I try loud, rhythmic breathing, an attempt to lure him away from the menacing pattern of seizure. Come with me, I’m saying. Over this way. Then I try a rapid, shushing chant that worked with my colicky babies. Finally I hum in a low, vibrating pitch that sounds almost like a Buddhist intonation. But it’s no use. I cannot hum my father well.

On the next day, the larger convulsions have abated and my father’s left pupil is reactive. I hover at his left side, looking for a way in. For a while he appears to follow my movements. “He can hear me!” I shout, but my brother seems unconvinced. I tell my father that I love him and it seems as though tears begin to well. I tell a funny story, and I think I see him squint. Then his eyes roll back, still open. “He’s asleep,” I say knowingly.

Later, while my mother and I are debating the use of a respirator, the green lines on my father’s EEG monitor become erratic, his breathing labored. I run to the left side and he is watching me again, seemingly agitated. He’s moving his lips around the tube and I imagine he wants to offer his opinion. I think of the living will that he has signed. If he is trying to speak, I can guess what he is saying.

“We’re waiting to hear from the neurologists,” I tell him. He mouths the tubing anxiously.    

“We’ll take you off the respirator if they tell us you’re too sick to recover.”

His lips part in the shape of an “I”.

“I love you too,” I soothe. A good guess, but later I wonder. “I want to die” is another viable option.   Shortly afterwards he enters a deep coma, and I never see his left pupil move again.

The next morning we take him off of the respirator. For thirty minutes he draws breath through flooded lungs, sounding like a percolator. Finally, mercifully, he dies. Head turned to one side, mouth agape; he looks like a fish out of water. The neurologists say he was not in any pain, that he had no awareness, but I wonder. Why did he wince when he drew that last breathe? And why, several seconds after the last beat of his heart, did his left arm rise up, as if in alarm?

Now I’m left pondering what he heard or didn’t hear, Googling phrases like “post-mortem movements”, and “pupils fixed and dilated”.


Alison Bullock was an accountant and then an elementary school teacher before pursuing her interest in writing. She has had one other story published in the 2005 Momaya Annual Review and was a finalist in one of Glimmertrain’s short fiction contests. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and three children.

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