A Purple Heart
“Patrick McMahon died two months ago, defending his country,” Father Cunningham intones. Most of us in the church look over at Patrick, where he sways in the first pew, to see if he reacts. He doesn’t.
Patrick has not spoken a word since the two army nurses led him, with a tight grip on each bicep, through our front door and into our living room. “Oh, honey, welcome home,” my mother exclaimed. She didn’t touch him. The nurses let go and Patrick tottered on the dingy carpet. They explained that he’d only been dead a short while, so his brain damage wasn’t as bad as most. They told us he couldn’t eat more than a handful of living people’s food each day, and they gave us a drum of blue pellets that he should eat instead. They told us to bathe him and walk him. And then they left. Mom fled to the kitchen.
“Hey,” I said then. His skin had a gray sheen. I touched him. He was cold. “It’s me. Your little bro.”
His eyes flickered. His hand twitched. The skin under his nails was dark purple, almost dead black. “Uh,” he grunted.
Now Father Cunningham frowns at Patrick. “My friends, we all here loved Patrick. Let us remember him alive and vibrant. Let us celebrate his life.”
We tried to celebrate. We had a party. People brought casseroles. Patrick stood, swaying, and looked no one in the eye. Mom forced a smile through the whole thing but when Patrick had his piece of cake he couldn’t chew with his mouth closed and gooey bits of frosting mushed off his purple tongue and fell out over his gray lips. It made Mom flee again to the kitchen to weep. I took a party napkin and wiped his cold face. He didn’t even blink.
“God asks us to bear our burden,” Cunningham continues, “and to take comfort in knowing that He awaits us after death. We must not forget this.”
Father Cunningham argued against signing the forms. My mother had been against it too, I think. But after Patrick got his orders, she sat with him at the kitchen table and read the paperwork from the thick folders. Then she handed Patrick a pen to sign the in-case-of-death authorizations: the green sheet for a plastic heart transplant, and the blue for the purple serum that would replace his coagulated dead blood. She understood that, before he went to war, Patrick needed to believe that if he were killed, it wouldn’t be permanent.
Father Cunningham smiles sadly at my mother. “What can we say of this son of ours?”
That he had not been a good son. That he had failed at school, never excelled at sports, disobeyed all the best advice, gotten at least one girl pregnant who later had an abortion, and joined the army not for college money but because violent computer games infested him with a desire to become a sniper. Yet my mother had been so proud to see him in uniform, burstingly erect. He seemed another man. Transformed with purpose — even if a purpose not his own.
The Priest nods, and answers his own question. “We can say he was one of us. A child of God. Today we remember him, but let us also remember Christ’s sacrifice for us so that we may have a true eternal life.”
I think the smell finally pushed my mother beyond endurance. When the dank hint of putrefaction overwhelmed the kitchen and then our bedrooms, she called Father Cunningham and told him he was right: this abomination was not Patrick. This Patrick sat on the couch all day, motionless but for, perhaps once an hour, slowly lifting a blue pellet to his mouth from the bowl mom had set on the table. His eyes were turning black. Only the changing of a TV station could make him blink.
“Amen,” Father Cunningham finishes. Music starts. I lead Patrick to the hearse.
At the graveyard, we set the empty coffin in the mud beside the pit and lift the lid. Rain spots the white silk interior. My brother doesn’t even grunt. We wait a moment, unsure who should try to lead him. But then, unbidden, Patrick shuffles through mire to the coffin and climbs inside.
His eyes stare wide at the padded cover as it drops over him. Then we slide the coffin onto the bed of straps. The winch lowers him into the muddy hole.
I vow that if he hits the door once, if he just taps on it, I’ll leap into the grave and bust him out. Though he could lift the lid himself, if he wanted. But the coffin is silent and still.
The water makes the dirt heavy. It falls into the grave as if thrown. There is no sound but the rain on umbrellas, and the chunk of the shovels, and my mother grieving her son’s final end.
When we get home I pour the last of his blue pellets into the trash out behind the garage. Then I lay on my bed and wait for the neighbors to arrive with a second batch of casseroles.
Patrick won’t last long. A week, maybe. His purple heart, pushing each day more sluggishly at his congealing blood, starved of oxygen and the warmth of living cells, will eventually stop. That is some comfort to Mom. To know that all the pains and the mess of this uncertain end will be forgotten, and what will remain is what a passerby might take from a veteran’s grave stone: here lies a hero.
History will set everything aright, with a story of how many good men fought evil and then died. The kind of story that could only be told after the dead were bound under the heavy Earth that keeps them silent and unseen.
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About the Author
Craig DeLancey is a writer and philosopher. His fiction has appeared in Analog, Cosmos, Nature Physics, The Mississippi Review Online, and other magazines. Craig also writes plays, and his plays have received staged readings and performances in New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Melbourne, and elsewhere. He teaches philosophy at the State University of New York at Oswego.
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Copyright © 2011, Craig DeLancey. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives (cc-by-nc-nd) license.