The sheer audaciousness of the mission Matthew Murray Grayken was about to embark upon exceeded the thrill of riding Chile’s white-water roller coaster—The Terminator—and loomed more soul-satisfying than skydiving over Dubai’s man-made archipelago, Palm Jumeirah.
Matt Grayken was about to ask a total stranger to marry him.
He pulled the pocket square from his Brooks Brothers jacket and wiped his sweaty palms, staining the unforgiving silk. It and the nerve-soaked suit would need to go to the cleaners now. He pulled his phone out to add that task to his packed schedule, then stopped, chagrined, and put the device away. The task could wait.
The cause of the day’s mission amplified the ever-present lump in his throat. He returned his focus to the woman with the nametag that read Mikaela Compton. She was the embodiment of compassion that served those on the other end of the room. Her peace washed over him again as it always did when he watched her from afar. He loved the way she leaned in when speaking to someone, beginning and ending each encounter with a caring smile and a touch. Compassion beamed from brown eyes that crinkled when she turned a sober moment to laughter, as she did nearly every minute as she joked with patients and cheered their progress at each station.
From the first day that chance allowed him to see her, only recalling her soft brown eyes, that smile, and those gentle hands could calm him as he lie awake, shivering from night sweats, staring at the ceiling. In order to see her, he moved all his future appointments to the last slot when it was easier to linger, soaking up more of her optimism and hope. And then he decided to shoot for the moon and propose to her, a total stranger.
Matt waited for her to check on the patient nearest to him, and then he cleared his throat and said, “May I ask you a question?”
She moved to him with a dancer’s grace, her brown hair bouncing within a tousled lump atop her head, as if she had gathered it while turning a somersault. Somehow the way the stray pieces fell seemed elegant, perfect, stylish around her delicate, unadorned face. He waited for it, and then it came, the caring lean-in followed by a gentle hand on his shoulder and that smile that warmed his chills away.
“I’m not your oncologist’s nurse, but I’ll try.”
Matt imagined what it would be like to hold her close, to fill his arms with her comfort, and then he realized how long he’d paused, soaking in the humanity she offered in a place of plastic and poison.
He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Actually, I . . . uh . . . I have a . . . uh . . . a proposition for you.”
He cringed. His smooth, well-practiced proposal fled from his mind leaving that crude string of words in its place. He waited for her to slap him or, worse, to turn on her heel and leave.
“A proposition, eh?” A momentary show of skepticism erupted into a sunburst of pleasure that illuminated her face. She placed her hands on her hips, tipped her head askew, and offered him a wondering scowl. “You’re the third one today, and I have to warn you, you’re up against some tough competition.” She pointed down the row of chemo stations to a bald older man and his smiling wife, who were intently listening to the exchange. “Mr. and Mrs. Davenport keep me stocked in fresh vegetables from their garden on the chance I’ll let them adopt me. Isn’t that right?” The Davenports supported her claim enthusiastically.
“And Mr. Fitzhugh whistles, ‘I Love You Truly’ to me every appointment, and calls me his best girl.”
A rail-thin arm raised and waved to her.
Nurse Compton shot the man a smile and turned back to Matt with a playful shrug. “What can I say? They’ve set the bar pretty high.” She gave Matt’s shoulders a pat, followed by another of her thousand-watt smiles, dismissing with grace and caring what he assumed was another of a hundred daily come-ons.
She turned to go, and Matt reached for her hand, brushing his fingers over her skin. She turned, as if sensing something different in this exchange which likewise restored feelings long dormant in Matt. “Dinner then?” he asked.
Their eyes locked as she studied him, weighing the invitation. “It's not allowed. Nurses can't date patients."
He was prepared for that response. “The administrators agreed to . . . bend the rules . . . for a substantial donation. We could go after your six o'clock class—”
She jerked her hand back. “How’d you—”
Guilt flooded Matt at being the cause of the sun’s eclipse. He knew she was not a woman who would enjoy being scoped out and studied. He wanted to kick himself. “I’m sorry . . . I . . . I overheard you telling the other nurses.”
The tension in her face and shoulders eased, but did not disperse. From behind her he heard two of the other nurses whistling a tune he couldn’t immediately identify. It clearly had meaning for Nurse Compton. She shot a scathing glance over her shoulder at them, but the volume only increased, and her scolding slipped into a smile before stiffening again, giving Matt’s hope renewed footing.
“What are they whistling?” He chuckled as her face burned with embarrassment.
“WDM, Baby!” cheered a nurse with a Jamaican accent.
Matt’s hands spread wide in surrender as he pled with the sheepish nurse. “Oh, come on. You’ve got to tell me now.”
Nurse Compton capitulated after one last glance back at the encouraging twosome. “Well-Dressed Man.” When nothing registered on his face, she added. “By ZZ-Top? Surely you’ve heard it before.” Her head bobbled back and forth as she sang an off-key rendition of “‘Cause every girl crazy ‘bout a sharp-dressed man?”
Matt leaned back and tipped a salute to Nurse Compton’s backup singers. “Thank you, ladies.” He returned his attention to the only one whose opinion of him mattered and found her twisting a loose lock of hair. “It appears I have their vote. What do you say?”
A slow nod began. “Are you sure you’re up to it? After treatment, food is the last thing on most of our patients’ minds.”
“I could do something light.”
“All right. Something quick. Before class. I know a place down the block—Meriwether’s. I’ll meet you there at five.”
It wasn’t the romantic dinner he’d hoped for, but Matt nodded and said, “Perfect. I’ll get us a table.”
* * *
The moisture from the harbor added to Maryland’s already oppressive August humidity that left everyone sweat soaked and limp after a few minutes outdoors. His limited tolerance for hot weather was further diminished since his treatments had begun, rendering the adventurer an AC-loving indoor dweller who spent less and less time outdoors.
Four blocks from Prospect’s campus, Meriwether’s was Baltimore’s food equivalent of a NYC subway station. Their staff of short-order cooks slaved away over a visible twenty-foot grill serving a constant stream of pre-pay call-ahead clients zooming in and out for their pink-and-brown-bagged sandwich orders. The girl at the register tagged Matt’s deer-in-the-headlights shock and awe and shouted over the din, “Carry-out or dine-in?”
“In!” he shouted back, following her finger-point to the rear where the narrow hall broke into a chic little dining room where music played in the rock-concert decibel range. It was decorated like a walk-in version of their take-out bags.
He grabbed two paper menus, found a small table near a corner, and hailed the waitress. After a few minutes of perusing sandwich listings named after musicians, he looked up and found Nurse Compton leaning against the door jam, covering her mouth as she laughed. Her chin dropped and came back up apologetically. She wriggled her finger his way, beckoning him, and he gladly followed.
“Sorry. I really didn’t think you’d show.”
“So, this was a test?” She shrugged, and he tried his best to read her lips.
“You sounded like a potential chainsaw murderer back at the clinic. I figured you could've picked up another murder victim in here if that was your intention. Instead, you stayed. I also ran your wild claim by my administrator." She tilted her head to the side. "It checks out, but I'm not sure if that makes me feel better or more leery. As far as the administration is concerned, all your donation bought you is the right to make your case to me. Whatever happens from there is up to me, and any agreement we come to must remain on a need-to-know basis with the hospital. So, you've got my attention. Would you like to go somewhere a little quieter?"
His shoulders slumped in gratitude. “Please!”
Two doors down sat a rustic Italian bistro. The owner greeted Mikaela by name. As she led the couple to a table, Mikaela said, “We won’t need menus, Carmen. Just two bowls of Wedding Soup with extra spinach and meatballs, please.”
“Got it,” said the middle-aged woman who gave Matt an approving glance that he caught and that Mikaela brushed away with a wide-eyed glance.
Once they were seated in a quiet corner and gave their drink orders, the nervousness began again. Matt toyed with the salt shaker. “Thanks for coming.”
“Let’s begin at the beginning. I suppose we should formally introduce ourselves.” She extended her hand. “I’m Mikaela Compton.”
He wanted to tell her that he already knew her well, every curve of her face, the little curls at the corners of her mouth, the slim straight shape of her elegant nose. But he opted instead to simply say, “Lovely to meet you, Mikaela. Matt Grayken.”
“Nice to meet you, Matt. Do I detect a bit of an Irish accent?”
Matt felt his own cheeks warm. “We emigrated here when I was three, when my folks moved their import/export business here. You’d enjoy my parents. They still have very prominent brogues. Mine generally only returns when I’m nervous.” He smiled.
“You? Nervous?” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “I don’t think this is your first pick-up, cowboy.”
Her candor disarmed him. For all her sweetness, there was also a strength there that added to her complexity. “Seriously, I can’t tell you the last time I asked a woman out.”
“Oh, I see,” she said, wagging a finger his way. “They ask you.” She shook her head as if incredulous. “Of course, they do. Curly dark hair. Killer eyes.”
“And don’t forget, I’m a WDM.”
He enjoyed how easily she blushed. His gaze dropped to the table top. “There’s a difference between asking an attractive woman to accompany you to a social function and going out on a date just for the fun of it. Hmm . . . Yep. Sadly, it’s been a while.”
“I can relate.”
“I figured as much.” And when she seemed offended by his response, he quickly countered with, “I didn’t mean you wouldn’t have a string of willing suitors, it’s just that . . . when you care for ailing parents, work full-time, and go to school, it doesn’t leave much time for a social life.”
The explanation made things worse as the stalker alert returned to her face.
“You probably don’t realize how much you reveal about yourself to your patients. I’ve listened. It’s what made me want to meet you.”
Mikaela leaned back into the booth and crossed her arms over her chest as one brown eyebrow rose. Matt rushed in to calm the rising storm. “Let me explain.”
He was grateful their order arrived in time for him to gather his thoughts. When Carmen left, he slipped the straw from its case and began stirring his Coke. “A patient’s wife looked especially tired one day. You pulled her aside near my chair and explained that you understood how demanding being a caregiver was because you were the surprise baby born to older parents who you cared for until they passed.”
Her expression went limp, and her hands dropped into her lap. “I didn’t know anyone else heard me.”
Matt leaned in. “Don’t be embarrassed. It’s refreshing to find that level of selfless caring in someone, especially someone so bright and beautiful and young.”
Her head dipped slightly. “Thank you.”
“You’re already an RN, so I assume the classes are for your bachelor’s in nursing, or beyond. Are you leaning towards medical school?”
She smiled and nervously folded the wrapper to her straw. “Yes, med school was the dream. Still is, but I moved into nursing to help keep my family afloat when my parents took ill. I still need to work full-time, so I can only take a few classes per semester.” A melancholy smile crossed her lips. “I’m already twenty-six. At this rate, I’ll be seventy when I graduate, and I’ll probably just do my residency in the assisted living center where I’ll be living.”
“Very efficient.” They both chuckled, but Matt sensed the worry behind her laughter. He leaned forward and drew a deep breath. “I might be able to help with that.” Before her defenses moved back into place, he abruptly added, “As you probably guessed, I’m dying, and I’d like you to consider marrying me.”
A panorama of humor and perplexity moved in waves across her face, settling into shock. “Are you serious?”
“Dead serious.” He smiled to lighten the sting, but Mikaela wasn’t having it.
“That’s not funny.” She pulled her napkin from her lap and threw it on the table as if preparing to leave. Matt placed his hand over hers, his eyes pleading with her to stay.
“Please. Hear me out. Then, if you want to leave, I’ll never contact you again.”
He found it oddly comforting that she didn’t pull her hand back from his for several seconds, and when she did, it was a slow, gentle withdrawal. He moved the dishes to the side and cleared the table between them.
“The ending of a life is never funny, and I shouldn’t have treated mine so irreverently. I’m not sure what the appropriate attitude is for such a situation. My impending death was not unexpected. I’ve been a draining hourglass since my second battle with leukemia. It hit me during college. I didn’t put my life on hold, waiting for the next bout of cancer to come. I’ve done the things I wanted to do—some dangerous, some professionally successful, some soul satisfying.” He closed his eyes and shook his head. “I have great parents, but their first inclination will be to pull me from the Prospect Cancer Treatment Center and drag me across the earth to see every traditional doctor who has a new theory on treatment. I’ve made my choice. I like Prospect’s approach, and I don’t want to be a medical vagabond again.”
“Do they even know you’re sick again?”
“Not yet. I’ll tell them in time to make some final memories together.”
Opposition to his plan was evident in her pinched lips and furrowed brows.
“If you don’t want to turn to your parents, then what of friends? Extended family?”
“Choosing a caregiver from extended family would be a slap to my parents. So would turning to a friend. Besides, the last thing I want is to feel like a burden to someone.”
“And there’s no one else? No special someone you’d want to share these last months with?”
“Is that as pitiful as it sounds?”
She looked away. “It’s . . . sad.”
“If you were in my place, who would you turn to?”
Mikaela’s expression was filled with rebuttals that were never given voice. Resignation washed over her. “I don’t know. I really don’t know.” Her hand pressed over her mouth. “I have seven brothers, but they’re married with kids. I guess I’m as alone as you.”
Matt took her hand, realizing he had planted a new worry in her already-burdened heart. “You’re not alone, Mikaela. You are well loved by so many people. I’m sure any one of them would be there for you. But for me, the question is more about who I’m comfortable being so vulnerable with. I just didn’t make time, or perhaps I never wanted to be that vulnerable with anyone before.” He blew out a rush of air and shook his head. “What I most want in my life right now is someone to wake up to in the morning, share meals with, and count on when I need help. I want to spend my last days in the company of someone who can laugh at my lousy jokes, keep me well as long as possible, ease my pain when it comes, and still make my days meaningful and joyful.” His eyes never left hers. “As soon as I saw you I thought ‘now there’s a woman I would enjoy seeing every morning, breaking bread with, and talking about the news or the weather.’ Plus, you’re a great nurse. You’re everything I need right now.”
He looked at her, studying her response to his confessions, and found sadness there.
Mikaela swallowed hard and leaned forward. “So why marry me? Why not just hire me?”
“Because I don’t want to be the pitiful soul with only an attorney, billing hourly, as his voice. I want a wife with the legal power to speak for me when I can’t speak for myself and the personal connection no one else will challenge.”
“Like your parents when they come to take control of your care.”
“As well-intentioned as they’d be, yes. And I trust you.”
“You’d be pitting me against them.”
She leaned back, but he was impressed that she wasn’t discounting everything he had said. “No. I would make my wishes clear. You would just enforce them when I no longer can.” He leaned farther forward, to close the distance between them, and looked straight into her eyes. “I know you’re alone, and I know money’s an issue. I can fix that. I have a lovely home that will be yours when I’m gone. And I’ll pay off your debts and provide tuition to medical school. You’ll be a doctor, Mikaela.”
She stirred her soup silently until her head came back up, refusal written in her expression. “But we’re strangers.”
“You’re not a stranger to me. I’ve watched you serve your patients. I feel I understand you better than I understand people I’ve known for years.” He sat back against the booth and relaxed. “As for me, let’s take a little time to get comfortable with one another. I’m actually a pretty funny guy on topics other than death.” He raised his eyebrows, offering her his most dazzling smile. “I love to dance. In fact, I’ve been told I’m not bad. And I can provide references to prove I’m a man of good moral character. I have a Sunday School certificate from fifth-grade to prove it.”
Mikaela dipped her head, but her shoulders wriggled, and he knew she was laughing.
“Eat,” she said, pointing to his bowl. She likewise dipped her spoon as a thoughtful silence settled in between them.
Matt breathed in deeply and closed his eyes. “This feels good on my stomach. See, you already know what I need.”
Mikaela pointed back to the soup. “More eating.”
They continued on with small talk about the restaurant and its owners, who had become her go-to between work and class. Matt’s eating slowed and he sat back.
“How far are you into treatment?” Mikaela asked.
“I’ve almost completed this round of immunotherapy. What happens next will depend on the results of the next tests. Maybe chemo. Maybe radiation.”
“And always nutrition.” Her head dipped toward his bowl and he took a final spoonful.
“See, you’re good for me. You have a kindness about you that gives me peace. When I die, I’d like to be in my own home, feeling those things. Not fearful in some sterile room. That’s just not how I want to go.”
Her mouth fell slightly open, and she nodded. “I understand that. I would feel the same way.” Her eyebrows rose as if she were preparing to discuss something delicate. “So how exactly do you see this marriage?”
“Whatever you want it to be. A quiet legal ceremony before a justice of the peace or a church wedding with bells and a big reception. It’s your wedding. It’s your call.”
“What if you get another remission?” Her voice trailed off.
“Now that would be the best outcome of all. We could place a clause in our agreement that unless our arrangement was so amiable that we each agree to continue, you could leave without the divorce or our financial terms being contested. Unfortunately, my doctors don’t give me reason to think that’s going to be necessary.”
She slipped her hand back again and sat upright with her elbows on the table. “You’ve spelled out the financial terms, and the wedding plans. So far, this is just a lucrative long-term nursing job with companion care, but what are your expectations for—” her voice lowered to a whisper, “—the marriage?”
Of course, he knew this delicate issue would arise, but it was the most painful part of the equation. “I hope we’ll be great companions, enjoying friendship, respect, humor. But that’s not what you’re asking, is it?” He played with his spoon as he gathered the right words. “You want to know if a dying man would play on your sympathies to lure you into his bedroom?”
She didn’t flinch. “The thought crossed my mind.”
Try as he might to remain even, he knew his disappointment showed on his face. “Fair enough. No, Mikaela, I am not asking for a full marriage in that way, nor am I looking to fall in love. I want to avoid that, as much to protect me as to protect you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t want to grieve for anyone else as I pass, nor do I want to leave someone else grieving for me.”
“So just friendship and companionship?”
“Yes, but neither is a small thing. I’m embarrassed to admit that I find myself feeling a little anxious. I would be a bit possessive of your time and company.”
“Would I need to quit my job?”
“Not at first. I intend to work a while longer. When I quit, I’d like you to do the same. That’s when I’ll need you the most.”
Mikaela nodded quietly as she stared down at the table. Matt couldn’t read her expression, and his heart clutched.
“So what do you think?”
She looked up, tilted her head to the side, and studied his face. “I’m up for a second date.”