Short Story: Cadence

27 02 2011

Inspiration comes from the oddest places and circumstances. The following short story was started sitting in the ICU area of my hometown hospital, spending time at the bedside of my dying grandmother. One afternoon, a family came in and sang to their relative and it was as beautiful as it was painful to behold. Before the last note even faded from the air, I had my notebook open and the pen laying trails across the page. I haven’t found a home for it yet and it may be that it’s only home will be here.

© D.M. Grace 2009, with exception of lyrics by John Newton



The swish and hiss kept rhythmic cadence, as regular as a metronome. The stuttering scrapes of wooden chair legs over linoleum punctuated a backbeat, while the soft murmur of desperate, pleading, and resigned voices hummed through the air.


Walking through the hallway, eyes carefully trained forward, but seeing the glass doors as they passed by in the periphery. Automatically, you mentally catalogue which were occupied yesterday and empty today. Years may pass between visits, but always the same human symphony. Every now and again, there may be a guest soloist whose anguish rises above the others, but never for long.


Except for today.


Today, a voice starts slowly, steadily climbing above the others. At first it echoes though the corridor, the first pure, keening note. It raises a wash of goosebumps in its wake as it trembles in the air and then tumbles down into the familiar hymn


Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me….

All other sounds are subdued as the voice rises around the words. In each of the other rooms, you can hear the stillness, the shared knowledge of the reason for the songs presence resonating; commanding respect, even from the machines artificially breathing life into loved ones.


One by one, other voices are added, providing harmony. It makes you close your eyes and grip the armrests of your chair, torn between covering your ears to block out the horrible beauty unfolding around you, and wanting to escape.


You know that the escape would be temporary and only physical as the melody has had time to sink below your skin, making its way deeper, into a place that made you think of sunlight through stained glass and the thin vellum pages of hymnals between your fingers.


Even though it’s been decades since you’ve stepped into a church, you swear you smell incense, but by the next breath it’s gone. The cloying astringency of rubbing alcohol and disinfectant rushes back in to take its place and you’re not sure which nauseates you more.


The song continues one voice clear and strong above the others. You know the room it comes from, always filled with family, from your previous circuits of the corridor. Today the curtain was drawn, spilling shadows of the vague shapes behind it onto the floor as the sunlight filtered through.


Every day you fear that the curtain will be drawn in front of your destination, but you’ve learned in the rhythms of this place, that the rustle of fabric being drawn is a random note that can never be anticipated. Today you and yours are merely part of the accompanying hum; relieved as someone else was shoved centre stage today.


As the song goes on, you hear voices fade in and out of the melody; some coming back more tremulous than others, one voice never wavering as it lead the way. The harmony of the other voices followed in its wake just strong enough to hear throughout the rooms, notes carrying an extra beat as they waited.


You know the moment it happens. There is a pause that drags a split second too long, and then only one voice returns.


T’was grace that brought you safe thus far,

And grace has led you home.


The lull that falls after that last note is filled with quiet grace as everyone seems to shake off the spell that has enchanted them and gradually you begin to hear the familiar swish and hiss of air forced into lungs and the muted footfalls of the soft soled shoes of the nurses.


You raise your hands out to grasp a slowly warming, hopefully healing, hand as you lean closer, talking softly, not wanting to be the one to shatter the calm. “Did you hear that?” Letting the awe you were feeling shine through in your voice. The only answer was the swish and hiss, as you knew it would be.


Sitting in the quiet, the cadence of the ventilator fills the room again and again until you hear the slow roll of rubber wheels and the measured footfalls of people walking come closer. You raise your head to see the slow procession of a sheet draped gurney and behind it walked the family, their faces laid barren in their grief, but their heads held high.


Rising from your chair, you are guided by an instinctual knowledge of respect, turning to face them, meeting their eyes and exchanging nods of recognition as they passed.


Taking your seat again, you squeeze the hand still inside yours.


And wait.