Borrowed Time by RE Harper

My eyes flicker open and I’m surrounded by bright angry glaring lights and strange looking blurry people in white coats. I’m confused at first, where am I? What’s going on? Then I remember everything and suddenly I want to scream. I want to scream so loud that the people will stop prodding and poking me, so loud that I might shatter the painfully glaring lights, so loud that I will drown out the pain in my head that is a constant reminder that I’m defective.  Five years I’ve been living like this, five years of drifting in and out of consciousness, of waking up on random hospital beds, not knowing how I’ve got there. At first it wasn’t so bad, as I thought I’d get better, but now I know the truth and it’s completely unfair, unworkable and I have no choice, but to accept it.

I open my eyes again to see there is a woman sitting next to me, she has red hair, black framed glasses and a worried look upon her face, my mother. She looks like she’s been crying, I’m not surprised, she cries a lot lately, but the funny thing is I haven’t. I haven’t shed one single tear since I got my final diagnosis a month ago, it’s like my anger, the fire inside me has consumed all the tears and now there are none to cry.

“Hello sweetie” she says, “How are you feeling?” I slowly sit up trying to ignore that every bone in my body feels heavy and painful.

“Like I’ve been hit by a bulldozer” I reply, but then I see my mother cringe and I quickly try to hide me discomfort with a disarming smile. “I’m only joking” I mutter, but she cringes even more. Damn, I forgot she can tell when I’m lying. I feel guilty as I watch a small lone tear sneak out of the corner of her eye and roll down her left cheek. It makes me feel incredibly guilty and pissed off at the same time because I can’t do anything about it.  Then suddenly I feel my blood begin to boil in my veins, I’m the one who’s ill, it shouldn’t be my job to make her feel better; it should be the other way around. Abruptly  I throw the covers off and slowly swing my legs around the side of the bed, then I cringe in agony! Dang, I forget how painful moving actually is. I sit still for a few moments in the hope the pain will cease, secretly making a mental note to tell the nurse to increase my morphine doses.

“What are you doing?” my mother asks, looking completely startled.

“I think I’ll go and sit in the cleansing room” I reply, as casually as possible, but I realise there is little point as my mums head bobs up and down like a pigeon on steroids.

“Are you sure you’re well enough for that?” she says anxiously “The doctors told me you need as much rest as possible” Trying as hard as possible to mask my frustration with the stupid medical advice, I make a sound like a strangled cat. It is sheer temper  that enables me to stand up, grab my walking peg and propel myself towards the door.

“And what differences will that make?” I snap.  Feeling thoroughly ashamed I gradually walk out leaving my mother looking as if she is about to collapse in an overwhelming sheer terror, but I just can’t deal with that right now.  As I stroll down the corridor, it suddenly dawns on me how painful walking has become now that I’ve got no one to be angry with. I try to distract myself from the pain by looking around for something interesting to observe, but I just end up making myself even more depressed since everywhere I look there are rooms full of sick people. I’m so happy my mum went private as I think sharing a room with a few other sick people might have tipped me over the edge. Life just isn’t fair; why did I have to get one of the only form of cancers that’s hasn’t been cured yet? Death is at an all-time low and here I am dying!

Finally, after what feels like a life time of slow burning agony from moving down the corridors, I come to a small quiet room with a white door and a glass window in the wall.  Inside it is filled with black comfortable sofas, there a fish tank in the corner filled with all different coloured fish and a large silver screen TV on the wall that repeatedly plays the news channel. I hesitantly open the door and look around cautiously. The room is empty apart from an elderly man who sits in the corner. He has white thinning hair, blue sparkling eyes, and a moustache, he looks vaguely familiar, but I can’t quite place him, have I seen him in the hospital before?  The old man suddenly catches sight of me staring at him and smiles.

“Hey” he says. The man holds up a frail looking hand in what appears to be his attempt at a friendly gesture.

“Hi” I reply, then purposely look the other way, I don’t want a conversation right now, so I go and sit down on the other side of the room. I am lost in thought when suddenly I become aware that there is someone standing to my left and I turn to see it is the old man.

“I’m Ronald, or Ron if you like” he states, holding out his hand for me to shake.  “And you are?” he adds. I begrudgingly reach out and shake his hand.

“Dying” I answer bitterly. Ok, it’s a childish thing to say, but it’s the harsh reality of my situation so why pretend it’s anything else. Ronald doesn’t seem the slightest bit put out by my response.

“Me too” he explains “looks like we’re in the same boat” I turn towards him and observe him curiously, wondering what kind of illness he has.

“What have you got?” I inquire bluntly. Maybe his illness is worse, perhaps he’s got some hideous disease then I can feel better about my situation, but then I feel a sharp pang of guilt; what kind of monster am I turning into where I’m comparing what manner of death is worse? He sits down next to me and I groan inwardly; I don’t particularly want to endure a conversation; can’t I just be left to die in peace.

“I haven’t got an illness” Ron confirms “Although I suppose people now a days most would call it as such” I look at him like he’s crazy; what an earth is going on about.

“Either you’re sick or you’re not” I retort harshly. Ron leans in towards me with a sly smile on his face.

“I’m dying of old age” he whispers. I blink at him in shock, he must think I’m stupid, but then it suddenly dawns on me where I’ve seen him before.

“You’re that guy” I say in surprise, “That guy who gave that TV interview about having the right to die of old age” Ron nods and looks like he is about to say something when the door swings open and in walks a young man who looks to be in his mid-twenties wearing a business suit. He has dark hair, blue eyes and may have been extremely handsome if it were for the angry look upon his face. He’s scowling at the nurse next to him who has a short blonde bob and is looking rather unhappy.

“I thought you said it was a simple procedure” snaps the man “I’ve had this booked for months; someone’s head is going to roll for this”

“Please sir” says the nurse, looking like she is about to burst into tears at any moment/ “We couldn’t account for this,” she continues “nobody expected the bus to explode, people’s lives are on the line, staff are working overtime and there is no one spare” The man scowls at her and shrugs her shoulders, and I think he mustn’t understand the sanctity of human life.

“I haven’t got time for this, I need it doing today” he snaps, waggling a finger in her face, “I’m holding you personally responsible if not” The nurse gives a small gasp and then lowers her head as if she is going to cry. I jump up out of my chair forgetting that my body is weak and fragile, and I turn on the man.

“Hey, she’s doing her best ok” I say kindly, “There is no need to be such a grade A douchebag” The man looks like me up and down as if I am nothing more than dirt on his shoes.

“Who the hell are you?” spits the guy, as he glares at me. Ok, so he needs someone to be bunt with him; I can do that too.  

“I’m a girl who has only got two months left to live” I snarl cagily, “So I’d back off if I were you” The man opens and closes her mouth but cannot seem to use whatever brain cells he possess’ to form any coherent words. Instead, he throws himself down into the chair by the door, folds his arms and sits there sulking like a five-year-old child. The nurse looks at me gratefully, she looks like she is going to say something, but then gives a small smile in my direction and quickly exits the room.

Choosing to ignore the sulking man on the chair across from me, I turn my attention back to Ronald.

“So why did you choose to grow old then?” I ask curiously. Everyone knows that growing old is not a thing anymore, not since they invented the Aeternum vaccine 30 years ago. Ronald doesn’t have to die from old age, which means he is choosing to, and I just can’t understand it. If he has the choice between life and death; why is he choosing death? Why would anyone choose death? I just wish I could make that choice, but I can’t…I won’t…I’m going to die.

“I thought you saw my interview” states Ronald accusingly. I give him a sheepish smile and raise my shoulders.

“I got bored and turned over the channel” I state bluntly,

“Thanks so much” replies Ron sarcastically. For one moment I feel guilty, but then I remember I’m dying, and I don’t give a monkey, life isn’t fair, get over it!

“You still haven’t answered me” I remind him.

“I believe that aging is a privilege and an achievement. ” states Ron proudly.  

My mouth drops open in surprise and then I force a bitter harsh laugh; this man is plain nuts! Aging isn’t a privilege or achievement; it’s a consequence of being alive and not having the vaccine. The vaccine wouldn’t work for me, not that I’d be allowed to have it as you have to be at least 18. Then suddenly I have a sobering thought; if aging is an achievement, then I’ve failed. After all 17 is hardly old.

“Excuse me” says the sulky in the corner sitting up ,“but did I just hear you say that you’ve chosen to grow old? That you’re going to die naturally?”

“That’s right” says Ronald proudly.

“You’re crazy” replies the man in a matter-of-fact manner. I would punch him square in the face if I had the energy; I know that I think Ronald is crazy, but at least I’m not rude enough to say it straight to his face. Ronald also looks rather annoyed, but he simply turns away as if he can’t be bothered to continue the conversation. The man realised that he make have caused Ronald some offence and suddenly looks rather sheepish.

“Look I’m sorry man”  he says “I don’t mean anything by it, but I’ve never met anyone whose aged before. Everyone I know chooses the immortality procedure. My names Dominic Westchester: my family have been expecting me to have the treatment all my life in fact they think I should have had it before now” Ron turns back to look at Dominic and appraises him carefully.

“You always do that?” he asks finally. Dominic looks confused and shrugs his shoulders.

“Do what?” asks Dominic.

“What you’re told?” states Ron. Dominic chooses to ignores Ronald’s sly dig and instead continues to try to pick his argument apart. I can’t say I blame him, as rude and horrible as Dominic appears to be, I whole heartedly agree with him on this one; who would choose death over life?

“Even now man it’s not too late” says Dominic “You could have the procedure and you’d stay alive for as long as you want. I mean I know you’d be older which isn’t ideal, but it’s better than snuffing it” Ronald scowls at him, which is understandable; Dominic is being very baize about dying and it’s starting to irritate me.  

“Young man I am trying my best to be a dignified gentleman” snarls Ron grinding his teeth “but if you continue to talk to me in such a disrespectful manner I’m going to end up giving you a cliff round the ear hole” Dominic opens and closes his mouth like a goldfish and I bust out laughing, it’s not a forced laugh like it was when Ron told me why he chose to age, but a genuine chuckle, I’ve not laughed in the longest time and now I can’t remember why. Ron sighs and places his head in his hands for a moment as if he has given up all hope of making either Dominic or I understand, but then he looks up wearily and smiles what appears to be a sad smile.

 “When did aging become a sign of weakness?” he inquires “It used to be a rite of passage; an inevitable conclusion that reminded us that time is limited” I blink and consider his words carefully, but Dominic just scoffs.

“Oh come on old man” says Dominic “Stop with the rite of passage nonsense, bottom line is people have a choice now, they don’t have to rush around at 100 miles an hour or feel like they’ve missed out on anything. Regret has become a thing of the past. The only one who seems to have any regret is you, so what are you waiting for, go and have the procedure”

“I don’t regret aging you idiot” snaps Ron , looking like he wants to punch Dominic, “I regret ever having to have these kinds of conversations with people like you” I can’t argue with him on that one, I’d rather be anywhere else than in Dominic’s company, but I still can’t help feeling like it’s not fair.

“I don’t have a choice” I say suddenly “I wish I did, I don’t want to die” There is an eerie silence in the room for a few moments, Ron looks at me sympathetically and Dominic is trying his very best to look everywhere else in the room except in my direction.

“But do you want to live forever?” asks Ron quietly, raising his eyebrows. Doesn’t he get that anything is better than dying?

“Well if it’s a choice between living forever or dying then yes I do” I state, as if the answer is obvious.

“That’s not the choice though is it” explains Ron “If you were not dying, would you want to stop aging?” I am about to tell him that yes, I would stop aging; why wouldn’t I? but then I realise that I’m not actually sure what I’d do. I’ve been far too ill for far too long to ever have seriously considered the immortality vaccine I’ve never had a choice and that’s the thing that really hurts. That’s why I can’t wrap my head around Ron’s decision although it might also have something to do with the morphine, I’m on too.

“Why would you choose death over life?” I question. Ron smiles at me. It’s as if he is enjoying having someone to talk to and then it dawns on me. Ron must be quite lonely, I’m guessing many other people, like me can’t understand his choice, so they stay from him.

“I am not choosing death” Ron affirms, shrugging his shoulders, “Death is choosing me. I’ve loved my life and I have had a relatively good one, but the thing that has always made it previous is that time is not guaranteed. These wrinkles are proof of time, of a life lived. Once you take time out of the equation then life has less value.”

I’m not sure I understand what Ronald’s just said, but I try to contemplate the idea of getting old, try to imagine myself with grey hair and wrinkles, would I  choose that if I could?  Suddenly the door to the room opens and in walks the blonde-haired nurse from earlier; she smiles at Dominic.

“We can fit you in for your procedure now Mr Westchester” she says. Dominic jumps up like a spring chicken looking gleefully.

“Well it’s been nice talking to you two” say Dominic, and I can tell he’s lying. “but immortality awaits” he states arrogantly. He’s about to walk through the door when he stops and turns back to look directly at me, his face now full of sympathy. “Sorry you’re dying kid” he states bluntly. I roll my eyes; he is a stranger; his sympathy means nothing; it doesn’t mean I won’t die then I remember Ron.

“What about Ronald?” I begin, “He’s dying too” Dominic’s expression turns away from compassion and takes on a resolute look of resolve.

“Yeah, but he has a choice, doesn’t he?” he replies. With that Dominic swaggers from the room leaving me to my thoughts, my brain is whirling at a hundred miles an hour trying to form coherent ideas about life, death, and age. In the end I decide that perhaps some debates are not meant to be resolved. Even if this debate were not resolved it still boils to one simple fact; death for me is a forgone conclusion. I turn to Ronald with the intention of telling him this when I notice that he is slumped in his chair at an unusual angle and his head is tilted to the side. I jump up in shock which I then realise is an incredibly stupid thing to do because I’m now in intense discomfort, but I don’t care. I grab his shoulders and shake him, gently at first and then harder and harder.

 “RON” I say “RON…WAKE UP” He does not move; he doesn’t respond, and I know he has a gone. I can do nothing for a few moments except to stare at him in shock. I’ve never seen a dead body before; I’ve never needed to! I guess now, I’ll never know what Ron was trying to tell me,  but maybe that’s the whole point, maybe there is no answer.

 I collapse back into the seat next to him unable to stand any longer, then I  rock back and forth as tears cascade down my cheeks; I didn’t know him that well so why do I care? It’s as if every emotion I have ever felt in the past few months is coming to the surface. Maybe it’s been drowning me for far too long and suddenly the dam has burst. I never cried when they told me I would die, I just felt angry and bitter, but now the fundamental truth hits me like an ice-cold avalanche; I don’t want to die!

Then as I glance over at Ron again, I  notice something, although he now looks pale, though his eyes are closed and it’s as if something is missing, there is a peaceful knowing smile on his face, I guess he got his wish. Slowly I wipe the tears from my eyes, and I smile down at Ron “It was nice knowing you Ron” I state quietly “Though only for a brief time” then I go to fetch help wondering if anybody will care. It seems because Ron doesn’t want to take the Aeternum vaccine, he has forfeited his right to compassion. Is that what we have become as a society? People who think that death is just a meaningless avoidable conclusion. If that’s what we think about death, what does it say about life?

An hour later, I am back in my bed, lay in the darkness going over and over my conversation with Ron and Dominic. Was it right to choose to live forever when some people do not get to live at all? Dominic didn’t have the vaccine; he was about to have it when he heard of Ron dying, then he walked straight out of the procedure room, not saying another word. Had the conversation with Ron affected him more than he had left on?  Is there even any life after death? What’s the point when there are a few hundred people dying around the world each year? Perhaps I shall find out  for myself soon.

Would I want to live forever if I had the choice? Or would I want to limit my life like Ron had done? Would it even make any difference? Then suddenly it dawns on me like a quick sharp blow to the chest, I’m not upset that I can’t live forever, I’m upset because I can’t live at all.  Starting now, I’m going to make myself a promise, even if I cant live forever, I can live right now I will not go out angry and bitter, crying in a hospital bed with people waiting for me to die. I’m going to make every single second count; I don’t think I would have appreciated that if not for the dying part . I think I finally understand what Ron meant when he said that aging in an achievement and the  facade that society feeds up like a deep festering wound, we have no idea that is there, has suddenly been exposed to me.

Time is a gift that we should all be able to loan but it should never be unlimited because it devalues the emphasis of a moment and a lifetime.  Yes, it’s not fair that people can loan more time than others, but it doesn’t decrease the value of a human life.  Aging is proof of a life lived, of time that has been borrowed, but one day we must give back. Although I cannot pretend to be ok about dying, I feel like I know more what it is to be human in this moment than the majority of society who are obsessed with having no regrets and experiencing everything, but in reality, know nothing about what it means to live. In the absence of death and borrowed time, life has no meaning at all!