“Should I turn here?” asked my seventy-six-year-old sister Mae. My god, I thought, she has it too—that mental image of familiar places with their signs, colors, windows, even parking lots all hovering in front of a mist that obscures their locations and the routes to get there.
She was driving us to the Italian restaurant on Wrigley Street the second day of my annual visit, which I had begun to consider paring to a week. In only two days we’d covered our faraway children—one heading toward divorce—and our grandchildren whom we’d presented as doing well, although with private reservations on my part. And then we’d got on to how things we put in drawers were found in cupboards, the clicks we heard when we stretched to a closet shelf, the back stabs while bending to put on fresh sheets, the ankles, knees, and lungs and hearts that protested when we climbed a flight of stairs.
We hadn’t yet got to medical intervention—the urologists, orthopedists, dermatologists, ophthalmologists, radiologists, and other specialogists kept solvent by our generation—but I was convinced that they or assisted care or our late husbands would be mentioned next, and I didn’t want them, especially our husbands, to be subjects of conversation. Couldn’t bear it.
Rob and I had decided to cope with danger rather than surrender the rest of our lives to an overly scheduled ghetto or an elder warehouse. We dreaded being forced out of our impromptu agendas, wanted to play the piano or violin without an audience and to eat when hungry rather than at eight, twelve, and six. We winced at the thought of being surveyed by dismissive or contemptuous stares or assaulted by smiley wizened faces if we refused to participate in false, communal cheer. To escape that we installed handrails, more wattage over the stairs, and such precautions. We even hung a cane in one of the closets.
But cancer began its tentacular spread through Rob after chemo failed. Dr. Morton sent a nurse to instruct us about the medications, what to do, whom to call if this or that happened. We duly made notes, followed instructions, kept records. That was easy. We hadn’t anticipated the psychic toll and fell asleep whenever we sat down. But sleeping somehow restored us, and we struggled ahead together.
Then two months and three days ago, after a stroke transformed Rob’s six-foot body into a dead weight, I could no longer care for him alone. I glanced at the phone for hours but eventually called an ambulance rather than an LPN and followed it to the hospital, even though I cringed at opting out and knew I might be doing something dangerous. I stifled those thoughts by insisting his care would be sophisticated, more effective than at home. Yes, I told myself, strong arms would be there and always available.
He was assigned to the hospice unit rather than the ICU where he’d been before. Every day and every night until ten, I sat beside him in a slick brown chair knitting a lavender silk scarf. When soup or pudding was delivered and he was awake, I fed it to him, cleaned his face, gave him water. Mostly he slept. But every so often his eyes would open and he’d shift his head to look directly at me with recognition. We’d study each other with the same relieved message on our faces: You’re still here. And then we’d exchange reassuring smiles while I leaned to put my face against his cheek.
Three times a day a nurse named Takarod stepped through the doorway and flicked back the curtain shielding us from the hall. She’d grimly nod at me, count Rob’s pulse, inspect his eyes and the IV, listen to his chest, check his catheter, as if he were a mannequin. A timid young orderly named Kim would come with her on two of the visits to help turn Rob. Neither put on gloves. And neither washed their hands before they touched him. When I mentioned this to Dr. Morton on his mid-day visit, he said he’d take care of it.
The next day after Takarod flipped back the curtain on her morning rounds, she ostentatiously walked over to the sink, washed her hands, dried them on a paper towel and, with a slight “so there!” shimmy of her ample hips, tossed it in the wastebasket as if it were me.
Looking down at the floor to let her have her satisfaction, I felt suddenly exhilarated. I’d not had an implacable foe since striking out Nancy McAdams in eighth grade, and as I thought of Nancy’s dumbfounded face, a snicker escaped me. Takarod yanked the curtain closed and stalked out the doorway.
That afternoon while Rob was asleep, I walked over to the hospital gift shop and looked at the selection of notebooks. There were red, green, and black. I chose red.
The next morning when I settled next to Rob, I opened the notebook, put a pen in the fold, and sat with it in my lap. Takarod swanked in and I began writing the time, month, day, and year. As she performed her duties, I kept glancing at my watch and writing—about the elongated dark clouds, the changing color of the sky, the bare treetops I could see through the rain-spattered window, about how tenderly a lock of Rob’s hair rested over his left eyebrow.
When I heard Takarod approach me, I didn’t look up, and her footsteps retreated toward the hall. There was no close of the curtain.
As l sat analyzing my partial victory and considering what to do next, the notebook fell off my lap and slid under Rob’s bed. I crouched down, saw it near the far side, and crawled under the bed to retrieve it. I had almost touched it when I heard a cough from Rob and then the sound of his head moving on the pillow. When I backed out and stood to look at him, his face was turned toward my chair. His eyes were open but vacant. I hadn’t been there to say good-bye.