Awakening, slowly extricating myself from my sleep’s grasp, I heard the door bell ring again and then again. Someone insisted on getting me out of bed even on this holiday, a rare day off for me, now that I was a third year resident at St. Peter’s Hospital. Throwing blankets away always helped me shake off last remnants of dreams or nightmares. Grabbing a robe from a chair, I looked back at Lily and noticed how her red curls laced the white of the pillow, no door bell could wake my Lily, not even a fire alarm or an ambulance siren, not even if it sounded near the bed.
I opened the apartment door without checking who was on the other side.
“ Hi, Mr. Fine? I’m from Golub, Krants, and Golub, a Princeton law firm. Please, sign here.” A young man, nauseatingly sober for the first day of a new year, produced a brown wrapped package and a clipboard.
“What is this? Am I in trouble? Is someone suing me? Do I need a lawyer?” Scary thoughts crowded in my tired brain. I could almost see myself a defendant in an overpopulated courtroom with the prosecutor at my throat threatening twenty to life for medical malpractice.
The man held out the clipboard and waited for me to sign.
“No, no, Mr. Fine. This is for you. Your name turned up in Dr. Rubin’s will. I’m here to deliver this package into your hands.”
“Dr. Rubin? He’s dead? I haven’t heard anything.” With my crazy schedule I must’ve missed the obituary.
It was hard to believe Dr. Rubin is gone. How long has it been since the last time we saw each other?
I liked him from the opening sentence of his first biology lecture “You can free yourself from aging by reinterpreting your body and by grasping the link between belief and biology.” Later, working in his lab I learned the phrase belonged to Deepak Chopra, but the feeling of Rubin’s magnificent importance never left me. He became a second father to me even before I started graduate school. His being my advisor did not make it easy for me to defend my thesis, on the contrary, he gave me a harder time than his colleagues. When I chose medical school after all that hard work, his obvious disappointment hurt me. I loved biology and genetics, but always felt the need to follow in my dad’s footsteps. So, at least one of my fathers was happy with my choices.
“Happy New Year, Mr. Fine.” The messenger closed the door quietly.
Tearing the brown paper I walked to the kitchen and spilled the contents on the table. A smaller unsealed envelope, a thick file folder with a rubber band around it and a tiny box landed next to yesterday’s empty wine glasses, stale crackers, and half a mango.
“Dear Michael,” I read recognizing at once Dr. Rubin’s meticulously clear handwriting.
“If you are reading this letter, it means I am dead. I’ve tried several times to call you and apologize for my dim-witted behavior, but have never mastered the courage. Now that I’ve been ill for three years with no good prospects in sight, I feel I know why you chose to become a medical doctor. Knowing you, your nature, your dedication and commitment to everything you do, I wish we hadn’t parted ways on the day of your thesis defense. I hope you find it in your heart to forgive me.
Michael, I have a gift for you, but it comes with certain obligations. Please, take care of the enclosed file which records my work of the last five years. I know I can trust you to use it in good faith and for the good of mankind. Yes, such big pompous words, but you will understand what I mean.
Now, about the box. As you know, my wife and I had no children, and being the only family member to survive the War, I have no living relatives. I have bequeathed all my possessions to the university. Lucky to have had you as a student for six years, I have come to think of you as my son. And to you, my son, I want to give the result of my life’s work.
Please, be assured I am of sound mind when I write this.
The pill in the box is designed for you and you only. I used your DNA leftover from the tests you created for your thesis, so it will only work for you. If you take it, and I know you will, your life span will extend to five hundred years. I leave it to you to work out all the details and logistics. You’ll most likely want to know why I didn’t make a pill for myself. I can almost hear your questions. Well, you’ll know the answer soon enough, once you’ve had time to think clearly.
Michael, I wish you a long and happy life (as long as you want it to be).
I reread the letter twice and touched the box, a plain cardboard box. I lifted the cover and saw a small transparent Zip-Lock plastic bag with one green pill inside. No, this was not happening. How could he stick me with a gift like that? Suddenly, our long-forgotten conversations about life and longevity surfaced from the recess of my exhausted mind and I distinctly heard Dr. Rubin’s voice: “ I forget who said it, Michael, ‘There are two primary choices in life; to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.’ But we should be ready for the responsibility and honored by it.” I stood still breathing the crisp chilled air through my open kitchen window. To live that long, to survive the death of my lovely Lily, my yet-unborn children and grandchildren, to be alone for centuries. Impossible to imagine and impossible to refuse, because I could see the distant future.
Rubbing the tiny pill between my fingers, I moved to the sink, and with a wine glass in my other hand ran the cold water.
“Who was that, honey?” Lily’s sudden voice startled me. The glass flew out of my fingers and shattered in the sink into thousands of tiny pieces. I watched as the pill, swept by the water, went down the drain.