The home care pamphlets don’t tell her that as the end approaches, every distinctive feature changes.
One morning she looks at him, and the straight nose that he passed on to their daughters is no longer there. In its place, a J-shaped object, tilting to the side of his last stroke. The soft bits she expected to be worn down by disease and gravity, but she trusted the bone and hardened cartilage to last. The transformation makes everything harder. She has brief visions that someone has switched him out in the short intervals while she sleeps. There is no reason someone would go to all that trouble. But she writes a list of the evidence she has that it’s really him. The mole on his neck. An appendicitis scar. The half-moons of hair on his shoulder blades.
The nurses come by every day now, and then Anne or Heidi or someone is in charge for an hour while she, the wife, gets out of the house. Grocery shopping or a walk. She can’t fit in both. Time’s so precious it weighs her down. The one time she did leave him alone, he got tangled in his IV-tube and tore out the port, so she doesn’t do that anymore. Too much explaining afterwards to the care team. Too many half-truths to keep straight. She gets back when Annie or Heather or the one with the strange name is done, has checked their watch several times, wondering if the wife got lost. When she walks in, they exchange restrained glances, and for the next twenty-three hours, it’s her and him. The seconds are dripping away for both of them as she rereads the third chapter of her book and realizes she can’t remember what happened in the previous chapters, and he gestures as if he wants to say something important but when she brings her ear close to his mouth, there is nothing but wheezing and bad breath.
The pamphlets didn’t tell her summer is a bad time to die. The stench of urine grows into a monster when the sun enters his room in the late afternoon. A daily dose of Lysol barely puts a dent in it. The sheets revive every unwashable sin from the past. She closes the door to his room until sunset. Sits in front of the TV watching people die quickly by gunfire while she waits for the worst of it to dissipate. She can still sense it, the pungent tang, through the door, so the sandwich she’s made remains uneaten. Mustard and pastrami on rye, which she doesn’t even like that much, but keeps buying out of habit. He won’t devour another sandwich, so it’s up to her to finish his leftovers.
Later, after the sun has set and she’s aired out his room and changed his sheets again, she sits in the windowsill and eats her wilting sandwich, the whiff of mustard-drenched bread drifting in his direction. Maybe she wants to revive him, make him feel something through that bundle of tubes. Maybe it’s just spite.
The chapter on the final days doesn’t mention death’s like a baseball game. You know the number of innings but have no idea how long they’ll last. The daughters who inherited his nose have been there twice already because everybody thought the time had come. They call less frequently now—afraid they’ll be caught up in what’s happening. Or not happening. It’s like death took a break in the middle of the last inning.
‘He’s not looking any worse’ is the recurrent refrain. No hint of emotion when the nurses say it, so the wife can’t know if it’s good or bad. She’s stopped planning for what she’ll do once it’s over. She changes his position on the gel mattress every few hours and gauges how much weight there’s left in him. Some days he seems heavier than the day before, even though that’s not possible at this stage. Sometimes she thinks she hears a rattling sound, but when she turns down the TV his breath is the way it’s been since spring.
The pamphlet has a short blurb about pets, how they may comfort the dying person when it becomes more difficult to talk. It doesn’t mention how the cat remembers being kicked and cursed at and then comes back to watch him. It walks around him, purring as it weaves through the legs of the bed and the IV pole. Then a sudden jump on his bed, drawing blood from his defenseless arms. Revenge is a dish best served while the victim’s still warm. He opens his mouth and it breaks into a kind of grimace that may be a smile. She lets the tiny blood drop from the scratch make its way down his arm and onto the duvet cover. The red makes him look more alive. It’s intolerable. The cat’s already elsewhere. It comes and goes as it pleases.
They don’t warn you about the careless sloppiness that moves in with you. Sleeping on the couch with the TV on—and forgetting to shower until the nurse shows up. Neglecting to check the IV bag. Leaving a trail of breadcrumbs on the floor and watching it turn into an ant highway. Once she forgets to buy laundry detergent and washes his sheets with honey-scented hand soap. It works almost the same, but the smell attracts late summer wasps, desperate for another go at life before fall devours them.
They hover around him, land on his ever-drooping nose. If they both stay still, the wasps won’t sting, that’s something she knows. So she stands motionless and counts seconds, watching the wasp enter his nostril. Is he holding his breath, too? Soon there’s another wasp, pushing its way into the cavity. Somewhere inside, the wasps must know it’s too late for nesting, too late to go through another cycle. But they keep at it. All she can do is wait.