For better, for worse For richer, for poorer In sickness and in health ‘Til death do us part
She’d been thinking about those vows a lot lately. Lord knows they’d laughed, cried, slogged, and danced through the first six parts, and now here they were—toiling away on the seventh. It was a standard line of theirs at cocktail parties that they hoped to live long enough for a platinum anniversary.
Turns out we won’t even make gold.
The man—motionless on the bed—took a deep, ragged inhale, held it for about five seconds, then exhaled. It was more like deflation than exhalation, and there was a finality to it that made her think it might be his last. She leaned close to his throat and saw his carotid artery fluttering like the heart was unsure if it should continue.
The quivering lasted nearly half a minute; then the heart caught, the artery pulsed, and he hauled in another ratchety breath—a cross between wet snore and gasp. The woman, holding her own breath, released it on his inhale.
She’d been sitting, cradling his hand in hers, for much of the last three days—that hand gradually softening and cooling as the hours went by. His fingertips trended towards a slight bluish hue as his heart became weaker, and circulation failed.
The discoloration reminded her of his marathon running stage. He walked around complaining of black toenails for months until some guy he met at a trade show told him to get bigger shoes. As midlife crises go, marathon running seemed tame. She always thought it was slightly ridiculous, but not as ridiculous as a fling with a twenty-something or a Ferrari they couldn’t afford.
She wondered if running had gained him any longevity, but how could one know a thing like that? Who’d think a person could get lung cancer forty-five years after he quit smoking? He was healthy as a horse until three months ago, then wham. The sky fell.
The phone on the table beside her began vibrating. She glanced over, annoyed at the interruption, then snatched it up when she recognized the caller ID.
“Hey. Haven’t heard from you in a while.”
“Bangkok, huh? Just get back?”
“I guess you heard about your father, then.”
“He asked to come home last week, and the hospice people arranged it. The first few days he was in and out, but the pain became so terrible we had to up the morphine, and then he pretty much checked out. Now we just…I don’t know…wait.”
“Yeah, hospice comes every day. Just before lunch. Thank God. We could never manage without them.”
“Me? What can I say? We understood this was inevitable. No regrets. Nothing unsaid. Spoke our goodbyes before we upped the morphine.” Checking her watch, she sighed, “That was Monday. I think it was Monday. Can’t keep track of the days anymore.”
Leaning forward, elbow propped on her knee like Rodin’s Thinker with a phone at his ear, “No, you’re fine. No point in coming over now.”
“Right. I’ll let you know. Bye.”
She set the phone back on the table, stood, and stretched. The hospice man was a thorough cleaner; he took all the soiled pads with him in an aromatic trash bag. The room smelled of disinfectant with a slight undernote of bedpan.
Is this how death smells now?
She looked around the bedroom that was the stage for so much of their intimate life. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik sounded softly in the background. His favorite classical pieces on a ten-hour loop. Soundtrack to a death watch.
I don’t think I can ever sleep in this room again. I’ll have to move into the guest room. Or sell the house… No, I could never sell the house.
She looked down on the man again and marveled that as the muscle tone left his face, so did the wrinkles—his skin now smooth as a child’s. She went to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. The hospice person made a fresh pot before he left. She poured it quickly and headed back to the bedroom.
She heard that the dying often hang on if a loved one remains in the room. She wanted to be with him when he took his last breath; that’s why she didn’t close the door when she used the bathroom.
Coffee in hand, she resumed her vigil; his halting, gasping, breathing maintained a horrific rhythm. She scrutinized his throat to verify the artery was still trembling each time he stopped breathing and swabbed his mouth with morphine every hour. As the light outside the window failed, her arthritic hip began to bark.
She went to the kitchen to find some Advil. Washing down four tablets with a glass of water, she heard the theme song to Jeopardy and realized someone had left the TV on in the family room. She went to turn it off but saw one of the topics was Italian Dishes.
At the commercial, a bottle of bourbon on the bar top caught her eye. She poured two fingers in a crystal tumbler, then perched on the sofa arm as the host conducted the contestants through Double Jeopardy. By the time the librarian from Grand Forks prevailed with an $8,000 wager, the woman was on a refill.
Jeopardy’s closing theme followed her back to the bedroom, where she found the man dead under the sheet. Several times before, she’d thought he was gone, but this time there was no doubt. He didn’t even look like a person anymore—just a gray wax shell that once contained the beloved human who shared her life. Silent tears she could no longer check, soaked her face as she stroked his hair and took up his hand a final time, a single thought echoing in her head:
Had he welcomed the seclusion or despaired that I’d abandoned him?