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Excerpts from Chapters One and Two of Pieces of You

The Swiss version of an Amtrak train raced past the lovely villages set in a postcard view with layers of mountains, valleys, and quaint cottages, but Kirk was oblivious to its enchantment. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate the romantic appeal of his second home; he was just tired. He was also lonely.

In the compartment where he alternated reading a business magazine and speculating about the disadvantages of retiring, an invisible companion observed Kirk, a look of compassion making the stranger’s nondescript face almost shine. A slight sound that simulated a whisper caused Kirk to look up. Seeing no one, he decided it must have been wishful thinking. I can’t remember the last time I had a female traveling companion for flights across the Atlantic or even on the train from Zurich to Geneva.

His son, Martin, waited at the Geneva station while his dad grabbed a travel-worn overnight bag and came over to him, giving a customary vigorous hug. Martin readily accepted the public display of affection, even though he was a husband now and soon to be a father. His dad was still the one person he idolized.

“Dad, you look a little drained. Am I the only one thinking that you should take more time off, maybe even quit this constant traipsing between here and Chicago? Your clients don’t need your presence to get advice. They can call. Long distance calls are easy to make and don’t even have much static interference these days.”

“Ok, son, I got your point. You don’t have to equate your dad’s use of technology with the Father Knows Best era. I would like to take some time off. Maybe you and I and your lovely wife could take a long weekend with me in the Florida house and do some sailing and scuba diving. What do you say?”

“Let’s ask Claire over dinner. If she feels up to it and if I can get a few days off work, I’m game. Her morning sickness seems to have subsided so she may be ready for a little diversion from decorating the nursery.”

Every time he walked up to Martin’s front door, Kirk blessed his employer. If he had not been with the United Bank of Switzerland and if Martin had not been a resident, the wait for permission to purchase a home in the canton of Geneva could have been 18 months or more. Instead, the young couple took possession of their dream house three weeks before their wedding, only a little over a year ago.

Kirk followed Martin through the front hall into the open design living area glowing with sunlight that flowed through the wall of windows and dropped from dual skylights. Aromas from the lunch-in-progress beckoned both men to the table, although they had strong competition from the overstuffed leather recliner that beckoned Kirk to its lap. Claire was an abnormally good cook and the food won.

“Dad, we’re worried about you spending so much time alone since I left. Claire and I would like you stay with us, at least until the baby is born.”

“My dear ones, I know you mean well, and I’m grateful that my caring son has found himself a generous and kindhearted wife, but, no, I have always been self-sufficient and don’t expect to change anytime soon.”

Martin looked at Claire, and Claire took it as a signal to speak up. “If you won’t share our home, then please let us help you find someone to share yours.”

“Even though I have ample space, I don’t think I’d be a very good landlord.”

“Come on, Dad,” Claire said, “You know what we’re getting at. We want you to find a good woman. And we have some ideas about how to do it.”

“Now that’s a new dilemma. My children don’t think I can attract members of the opposite sex anymore. Actually, I haven’t had a date in a few years….only because I didn’t take the time to pursue a relationship.”

“We know that, Dad. We also believe that you are the best man any woman could find! Because you travel so much, we think you should try an online dating service. Several of our friends have used them very successfully.” As she said this, Claire gave her father-in-law a big hug, accompanied by a kiss on the cheek.

Succumbing to her feminine charm, Kirk agreed to look into it. Before he left for home the next day, a subscription to Seniorfriendfinder and a detailed profile were waiting for his approval.

[A few pages later]

Kirk and Franz, his long-time neighbor, sat in Schobers, their favorite village café waiting for their kaffee. The mountains on the other side of the valley shimmered in misty blue on this lovely day in late October, but Kirk’s countenance did not mirror the gloriously tranquil landscape; instead, his face seemed to reflect the pallid color of the weathered rooftops.

“I won’t admit it to Janine, but I’m really worried,” he said, hardly even tasting the sweet fruit and filo dough generously brushed with real butter melting in his mouth.  As he ate the kirschen-strudel, a Swiss delicacy much loved by the natives and expats like himself, he shared with Franz what was eating him up inside.

“I can’t believe my good fortune to find her now—seven months after Martin got married and moved out, and the loneliness was really beginning to take its toll on my state-of-mind. I don’t want my health issues to frustrate her and cause her to give up on our relationship.

[A bit later in the discussion between Kirk and his Swiss neighbor]

“My Swiss doctors say some infection might have been introduced into my body as far back as 1968 during my surgery in Vietnam when they removed my spleen.  It was not performed under the most ideal circumstances.”

Franz read in his companion’s eyes the fierce memory of physical pain and abject fear. He left other probing questions on the table with the few remaining crumbs he couldn’t shove into his mouth without seeming ill-mannered.

Kirk continued, “If I understood their explanation, cysts sometimes form to surround and contain the infection.  Then as the infection expands, more cysts are needed to keep it in check,” Kirk shrugged. “It seems a likely theory.  So, yes, this could indeed resolve some of the questions, and maybe even put an end to their constant probing.”

“That all seems to be rather positive news, Kirk.  Now what about the surgery to remove your kidney…how risky is that?”

“Other than the infection, I’m told I’m in pretty good shape.  The doctors say my other kidney is very healthy, and barring any tremendous strain on my heart, I should be on the road to complete recovery two or three weeks after the doctors do their thing.”

“From what you’ve just shared, I would prescribe removing a few kilos of that worry I see etched in your forehead by having a little faith and a glass or two of good Swiss wine.  And next week, if your heart muscles can bear it, go visit the lady you can’t stop talking about.”

CHAPTER TWO: THE STRANGE GUEST

Kirk didn’t recognize his environment. It certainly was not his bedroom. The bed wasn’t a king size and didn’t have the turquoise blue and tan comforter that Martin and Claire had given him for his birthday last July.  This bed sat right in the middle of what might have passed for a luxury hotel except that it sprouted wires and tubes reminiscent of a hospital. In the background the bleeps and beeps of life support machines filled Kirk’s ears and the medicinal smells besieged his nostrils. The shocking realization soon hit him that these wires and tubes were attached to his body; this must be his bed in this hospital room.

Why do I feel so strange?  What have they done to me? Even though he could see people moving about—men and women dressed in what had to be medical uniforms, no one responded, not even his son, Martin, whom he heard reading aloud somewhere nearby. Hearing Martin articulate the words to one of Kirk’s favorite books, Carl Sagan’s Contact, had a slightly calming effect…until he tried to move.

I’ve dreamed these dreams before where I tried to move but could not. A harrowing feeling until I willed myself to wake up. OK, wake up now. If this was a dream, the characters seemed eerily real and familiar but blurry, almost like scenes from the Super 8 home movies he and his ex-wife had made when Martin was a toddler.

Scenes from the hospital room rotated and spun like a kaleidoscope, bouncing the views around in his head, much like the time years ago when he had tried pot. The rotating became dizzying, defying his will to remain lodged in two-dimensional time. Whether these episodes had just begun or had been occurring for much longer, he could not tell. And then everything stopped. All activity was interrupted as if all actors had been jerked from the stage in mid-sentence. Now he appeared to be in a void–no noise, no one in the room, only whiteness all around enveloping his body…

Am I in a grave? But if I’m dead, why can I think?  Am I in hell? But everything is light. Shouldn’t it be fire and darkness? Wherever I am, my worst nightmare has come to pass. I’m utterly alone.

I’d rather be dead than isolated from all human interaction and unable to do anything useful. What good is it to have the capacity to think but not to talk and not to act? I am like a moth in a cocoon. The difference between a moth and a butterfly— I won’t be transformed into some winged creature—for certain I won’t be an angel.

Deep within his spirit, Kirk knew that without a swift rescue, his sanity would be at stake. His brain already felt close to exploding. How could he, or any human being for that matter, retreat unscathed from the desolation of such complete, yet conscious isolation!

Even with the intensity of his inner turmoil, Kirk knew his body revealed none of it. No one could possibly know the terror in his mind…

Someone was coming his way…Hallelujah!

Into the whiteness walked a male figure. Dressed in white, almost blending into the detectable space, only the tone of his face and hands made him stand out from his surroundings. Stopping at the side of the bed, he seated himself in a chair that became distinct from the background only as his body dropped into it. He looked directly at Kirk with an extraordinarily charming smile.

Kirk responded immediately, “Who…who are you?” Before the mysterious person could answer, Kirk went on. “Whoever you are, I’m so grateful for your visit. You are more welcome than you can possibly imagine. I don’t believe I could have endured one more minute in this limbo state between existence and nonexistence. You seem to be someone I ought to know, but I’m embarrassed to say that I can’t come up with a name.”

The smile remained in the stranger’s eyes as he began to speak to Kirk. “In my community, we do not have personalized last names; we all take the family name of our Leader. You may call me Zachri.” The voice was soft but not weak. In fact, everything about this man implied an authority born of authenticity rather than superiority—in contrast to most leaders Kirk could identify with.

“Yes, we have met, but it was a very long time ago. You wouldn’t remember me,” Zachri said. “I came now because someone who loves you pleaded for you to be healed.”

“Was it my son or my Janie?”  Kirk’s mind was racing. His thoughts continued to discharge like drips from a very leaky faucet.  “I hope it was one of them because that would mean you know how to get in touch with them. Could you please help me get a message to them that I am still very much alive, just imprisoned for the time being inside my own body?”

“Yes, we were contacted by Janine but some things must happen before you and she can be together.”

“Well, are you a new specialist at the clinic?”

“No, I am not a medical doctor, but I am associated with a team of healers who are often called in to support desperate patients and their families.”

“Why are you the only one I can talk to? Can you please tell me what is happening to me?” Kirk fired off the questions in six seconds flat, but then realized he must seem rather belligerent “I’m sorry for the inquisition but I’m desperate for some answers.  Since you’re the first person to respond to my plea, I’m afraid you are my target. I guess it must be rather apparent to you that I am afraid. But that is an understatement. I am altogether terrified, so much so that it seems my brain could explode at any minute.”

Kirk looked down at his hands that wouldn’t make a fist or even lift one finger to help in expressing his feelings, then thought about how his face would look to this doctor—healer was the term he used—if he were able to stretch his mouth into a sheepish grin.

Knowing the facial maneuver was impossible, Kirk struggled to formulate a second request that might not be interpreted as scheming. “Could you tell my son that he will hear from me soon?” He knew it sounded too much like begging…but he was.

“Kirk, what I have to say about your condition may initially be difficult for you to comprehend but I assure you the benefits will become clear, both for yourself and for the people you love. Before I explain, I want you to think back to some of the greatest times of your life.  What made them defining moments?”

“Hmm, I guess my list would include fulfilling a worthy, incredible challenge; receiving a desirable reward; and sharing the experience with family or true friends. Oh, and occasionally enjoying an unexpected thrill like navigating a particularly tough terrain and finding at the most difficult point a flower in full bloom, something that should not have been there but through some unseen force, managed to thrive.”

Zachri smiled pensively and nodded his understanding. “The adventure that has been prepared for you will include and outshine all of the features you listed and is offered to only a few humans. But I must make it clear that this journey will challenge you beyond anything you’ve experienced. In fact, you couldn’t succeed without a guide. I am offering to be your guide. If you choose to reject this adventure—and you have the right to make that choice—I will leave without any further intervention in your life.

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