Vivian is in bed at the hospital late at night and tells the audience that she wanted Susie to come visit her so she “had to create a little emergency.” Vivian pinches her IV tube so that the pump alarm goes off, and Susie enters. Vivian admits that she’s fine and was awake. Susie addresses Vivian as “sweetheart” and asks her what’s wrong. Vivian tells the audience that no one ever calls her “sweetheart,” but she is allowing it this time.
In direct contrast to the last scene, here Edson shows Vivian at her most vulnerable and helpless, longing for some human contact and kindness to the point that she creates a false “emergency” and allows herself to be addressed in a way she once would have considered inappropriate.
Vivian tells Susie that she can’t figure things out this time—she’s in a “quandary”—and she feels scared and out of control. Vivian starts to cry, and Susie comforts her. Vivian says she doesn’t feel sure of herself anymore, and she “used to feel so sure.” Susie offers to get Vivian a popsicle and Vivian says (“like a child”) “Yes, please.” Susie leaves and Vivian tries to pull herself together, explaining in medical terms why the popsicle sounds appealing to her in her current state.
Vivian is facing the same “quandaries” Donne struggled with in his work, but Vivian can no longer hide behind wit and intellectual games as Donne did (in his poems at least). It was in that realm that she “felt so sure,” but in the face of real death she has no control or agency. Vivian has been abandoned by her academic achievements and analytical skill, and finds herself longing for simple human connection. Part of the arc of Vivian’s unlearning involves a kind of return to childlike simplicity, and this is symbolically reflected in her request for a popsicle. She then recovers slightly and tries to remain rational and detached, but only halfheartedly so.
Susie returns with a two-stick orange popsicle, and Vivian breaks it in half and offers Susie the other part. Susie sits by the bed and tells Vivian about how she used to eat popsicles as a kid. “Pretty profound, huh?” she asks, and Vivian responds, “It sounds nice.”
This tender scene shows Susie giving Vivian the kindness and comfort—almost like that of a loving mother to a child—that Vivian has never wanted or needed before, but that she finds herself needing now. Susie even acknowledges her own non-intellectual nature, perhaps feeling judged in Vivian’s presence, but Vivian is finally appreciating qualities like this, so she doesn’t retreat to her refuge of language. Her simple “it sounds nice” thus seems especially sincere.
Susie then says they need to talk about something—Vivian’s cancer isn’t going away. The treatment has made the tumor get smaller, but the cancer has started in new places, as well. She says “they’ve learned a lot for their research” with the treatment, but there still isn’t a cure for what Vivian has. Susie apologizes and says the doctors should have explained this, but Vivian tells her she already knew—she “read between the lines.”
As usual, the doctors have been speaking to Vivian in a detached manner, using medical terminology and careful phrases to avoid stating the fact of the matter: she is going to die. It’s then especially kind of Susie to deliver this news in such a personal and compassionate way, as Jason or Kelekian certainly wouldn’t have been so comforting. Vivian is still seeing the world through the lens of language, but no longer using language as an escape—she is returning to her simple love of words, and using her analytical skills to interact with the real world.
Susie says Vivian now has to think about her “code status”—what to do if her heart stops. If she’s “full code,” then a code team will come and resuscitate her, but if she’s “Do Not Resuscitate,” then they won’t try to restart her heart. Susie says she wanted to let Vivian know the choices before the doctors talk to her.
This conversation sets up the play’s climactic scene, and also further contrasts the compassionate and caring Susie with the more detached and impersonal doctors.
Susie seems to disapprove of the desire to keep someone alive at all costs for the sake of science—because the doctors “always…want to know more things.” Vivian says she too wants to know more things. Susie assumes she will be “full code” then, but Vivian contradicts her. If her heart stops, Vivian says, “let it stop.” Susie, surprised, says she’ll tell Kelekian this. As she goes to leave, Vivian asks Susie if she’ll still take care of her—“’Course, sweetheart,” Susie says. “Don’t you worry.”
Susie is once more set as a foil to Jason (or Vivian), in that she prioritizes human dignity over research. Vivian then makes a crucial and seemingly out-of-character decision—she wants to die with dignity, even if it means messing up the study and ruining her legacy as a “specimen.” Note that Vivian again seems childlike in her request for Susie to take care of her, and Susie kindly meets her needs.
Susie leaves and Vivian addresses the audience, remarking on how “corny” her life has become, with things like popsicles and “sweethearts.” But then she admits that they aren’t talking about abstract things anymore—they’re discussing her literal death. “Now is not the time for verbal swordplay…for wit,” she says. “Now is a time for simplicity. Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness.” She says she thought being smart enough would save her, but now she recognizes she was wrong. She’s scared and just wants to hide, and she climbs under the covers.
Vivian gives a sort of thesis statement for the play here, as she openly acknowledges the changes she has made and the lessons she has learned in the face of death. She admits that she now longs for kindness and connection, and in the face of real death she no longer finds fulfillment or security in wit or intellect. She finally accepts that just being smart enough was never going to work—death is not a puzzle that can be solved. Vivian then echoes Donne’s action within his poems, and “hides” from her encroaching mortality.