The initial image of Michael is that of a man lumbering over a sea of worn saxony carpet. He appeared to be around the cusp of forty, yet the pallor of an irreparable sickness clung to his body. The rusty wheels of the saline stand from which his iv hung emitted a piercing tone, lacerating the din of uniformly clad patients speckled throughout the cancer treatment facility. Beyond this figure proceeding cautiously over the threshold, was a row of four bay windows overlooking a cobbled patio. A group of men in hospital gowns huddled together in the snow, cigarette cherries blinking off and on, perforating the winter twilight.
Michael stopped in front of us, halting both himself and his shrill accompaniment. Though visibly ill, he exhibited voluminous features; rivulets of coiled hair unfurled into a pair of bulbous sea foam eyes, which Michael would brush away by a hand bound in rosary beads. Placing his hands upon my mothers shoulders, he gently posed the question:
"And how does this evening find Marie?"
My eyes darted up and down the unknown figure, backlit by flickering fluorescent light, suspicious that the warmth I was witness to was intentionally feigned. Otherwise static, his eyes shifted to mine:
"Pardon me, I'm Michael. I'm also a patient here, I mean...obviously", he pinched a piece of green gown between his thumb and forefinger, "and that's how I know your mother. Isn't that right Marie?" My mother placed both her hands over his, nodding, prayer beads faintly clacking beneath her grip.
My mother, Marie, was admitted to the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre the week prior, after a Cat scan had revealed a tumour had manifested behind her left eye. Her days were spent receiving intermittent blasts of intraocular radiotherapy, while our evenings were spent huddled quietly together in the common room of the facility, amongst several others traversing varying degrees of either deterioration or recuperation. The area itself was a lacklustre one; dated magazines were strewn over wood panelled tv trays, ferns hung in plastic potters from frayed macrame hangers. Hope and hopelessness permeated each face in equal measure, vying for emotional dominance. My anger towards the circumstances that delivered us into this environment quickly manifested into distrust, a distrust which would not spare even Michael's careful, solicitous mannerisms. His outstretched hand wavered in front of my face, patiently awaiting a friendly reciprocation. Content to wrap myself in my own bitterness, I remained motionless. Michael retracted his hand, but not his sense of calm:
"Have it your way, young man, have it your way. Let's just hope you don't end up in here one day like the two of us". He nodded towards my mother. "Let's just hope that one day, dear God, you don't find yourself like I did, strung up by cabling to the rock face of a mountain, only to look down and find blood flowing out of your backside, crippled by uncertainty and fear. Your blood and chemicals are no different from mine, I assure you of that, my friend. We are all equally susceptible to a not so dissimilar fate".
I was to learn later that Michael, in his previous, extremely dissimilar life, had been the proprietor of a film company, whose sole undertaking was filming nature in its raw, uninhabited state from vertiginous perspectives; anything from sweeping shots of bucolic terrain, to aerial views of avalanches, shot from mountain peaks, such as those which subsist in the dizzying elevation of the alps. Since the discovery of his illness and subsequent admission to Princess Margaret, Michael spent his days in a saintly manner, slowly wandering the halls, offering his comforts, an attempt at weaving an elusive joy back into the fabric of the dire reality of others.
It took no more than those words spoken to dismantle the partition I had so childishly built between us. I sat up and immediately extended my hand, and with an apologetic air, pronounced that we shared a namesake. At this, he tapped his pursed lips with his index finger and hummed. It seemed as though stating my name had unearthed a fragment, a missing shard belonging to a larger perplexity.
He continued tapping his lips, threading together previous events until they formed one observable mass.
"This explains Marie feeling around for my eyes".
I looked to my mother for a semblance of clarity, yet, unsurprisingly, she sat with her eyes tightly closed, hands folded over her lap, lulled to sleep from the exhausting onslaught of radiation. Michael pulled a chair over, speaking in even more hushed tones than before:
"I met your mother, Marie, three evenings ago, as I was doing my rounds with the other patients, dragging this goddamn metal appendage around behind me". (At this, Michael shook the saline stand) "The front doors burst open and a horde of men in lab coats, orbiting around your mother, knocked me off my feet as they rushed past. One of the doctors, recognizing me, yelled my name, 'Michael!', as I landed in the midst of all that commotion. It must have been Marie's first or second treatment, because she was under the impression that she had gone blind due to the radiotherapy. She held her palms over her eyes and it looked as through she were crying. The doctors were escorting her back to her room, coddling her, reiterating 'not to worry, her vision would return after a short time' and so on. So there I am, sprawled out over the carpet, snow blowing all over me, and two or three of the doctors stay around Marie, while two others thankfully came to my aid, first gathering up the saline. Lying on my back, stunned, I watched as Marie felt around at nothing in particular, arms outstretched, repeating the name, 'Michael', over and over. Her eyes were so red and so swollen, but I couldn't look away."
Out past the threshold of the waiting area, I noticed that most patients had returned to their rooms for the night. A single lantern in the patio illumined the snow which fell over its frosty glass.
"When I regained my balance Marie was facing me. It makes so much sense now that in her confusion she thought that 'Michael' was not in fact me, a complete stranger, but her own Michael, you. She had removed her hands from her eyes and was pawing softly up my chest until she came to my face, where she in turn placed both open palms over my eyes. I think she was trying to see if someone else's eyes felt like hers in that moment, seeing if she could find a physical symmetry between two bodies. After a moment she began reciting, almost methodically, this prayer".
Michael unearthed a crumpled piece of looseleaf, and began reading what was scribbled upon it:
"Saint Michael, Archangel,
defend us in battle,
be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil;
may God rebuke him, we humbly pray;
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host,
by the power of God, cast into hell
Satan and all the evil spirits
who prowl through the world seeking the ruin of souls.
As he read I closed my eyes. I recognized it from my childhood. It was the 'Prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel'. I recalled a blue leather bound book with gilded edges and bound bookmark containing this prayer, along with a silver pendant, which read 'Saint Michael The Archangel' above an image of a winged man triumphing over a defeated devil, a sword piercing his throat, under which was engraved, 'Pray For Us'.
"I think what Marie was seeking, in that instant, was purification".
I looked at him confusedly, the image of the pendant suspended in my mind.
"What I mean is, an attempt at ocular purification. She could not see in that instant, but sought a physical connectivity to eyes that possess the privilege of sight. When she heard the word 'Michael', she thought that I were you, and, in her delirium, recited this prayer, one that is thankful for protection against evil, and from which your namesake was taken, finding refuge in your presence just as a follower of catholicism finds refuge in the conjured image of the archangel. Those of us who familiarize ourselves with the lives of the Saints are well aware of at least some of Michael's celestial duties; he was to combat evil, as he was the first to do so against satan, and, to escort the faithful to heaven at the hour of death. Whether Marie had thought she had lost her vision due to an 'evil', which in this case manifested itself as a sickness, or that she understood the temporary blindness as a symptom indicative of her final moments, either way, she turned to 'Michael', capable of either possibility. By blessing you with this name, Marie reserved for herself two 'Michaels', one whose presence would fill her earthly days, and another, one that guides her to heaven".