24 March 2012

Zero Hour

It's 3am and my wife is dying.  Her breathing is slow and labored; the monitor keeps careful, implacable track of her hearbeats: blipblip...blipblip...blipblip.  That steady, electronic pulse has been the metronome of my existence for two months.  Up until now, it hasn't wavered, it has held steady, even as her breath stutters and stops, gasps and resumes, when she sleeps and wakes.

Now, the count is altered.  Blip...blipblip...blip...blip...blip...

It's 3am, and I know what is about to happen.  I have dreaded this moment for months, for a lifetime, for an eternity.  I have secretly longed for it, as well, deep down in the black, Stygian depths of my soul.  I've never told anyone,  but when she finally lets go, floats away, I know she'll be free.  And so will I.

I hate myself for wanting that.  For wondering, even for a moment, in the frail, fraught silence of the hospital room, what it will be like when she is gone.  I curse myself.  I have not left her side for more than a day, in all the time she has lain here, in that mechanical hospital bed, and I wish that dedication absolved me.  But it doesn't.

She would forgive me, I know, but I cannot forgive myself.

A nurse bustles in, checks her monitors, her IV drips.  This is to reassure me.  There is nothing for them to do.  They cannot make her more comfortable.  They cannot save her.  The cancer has spread throughout her lungs, and nothing will slow its appetite. 

My eyes burn, weigh a hundred tons, my brain spins and flits in abstract circles, feeds nonsense through my thoughts.  She moans, low in her throat, almost inaudible, her eyes flutter, see me, whisper to me across the silence.  I squeeze her hand, murmur the reassurances that I have uttered a thousand times before. 

I cannot look at her.  Her head is shorn bald, reflecting the light in dull glimmers; tubes slither into her nose, mouth, arm, [like a tangled knot plastic serpents], pumping venom into her once-lovely body.  The white sheets drape her skeletal form; all that is needed is to pull it over her face, and she will be at rest.  At rest.  No, that is a coating of sickly-sweet sugar: she will be dead.  I say it to myself, whisper it under my breath, trying to make it seem real.  She will be dead.  I cannot form the words out loud, as if doing so would speed the cancer, speed the end.

This hospital room haunts me.  I look around me, take in the features that I have long since memorized: the false-wood floor, easy to clean the blood from, the pastel painting of flowering vines and flittering birds, the machines by the bedside, inscrutable, squat, mechanical demons, blinking and beeping, measuring the spaces between now and death.  I have dreamed, at times, of rising from this hard plastic chair that is my bed and my watchpost, and taking those infernal machines in my sudden-claw hands and hurling them with godstrength through the wall, through the plaster that will fill the air in white snowdust, into the hallway to skid down the tile floors that squeak with nurse-step sneaker-sounds.
Doctors glide in with pure, spotless labcoats that mock mock mock, too clean, too bright, too inconsiderate in this dark, drowsing, sick-stained place; nurses with skin-deep smiles, practiced and perfect, thumbtacked on as they enter the room with purposeless busyness, oozing false sympathy; the well-wishers with their flowers, their horrid, brilliant, colorful, meaningless flowers, their cards full of vapid phrases, frail comfort.

I cannot be angry at her, nor at myself.  We didn't ask for this; we fought this, day in and day out, together, for three years, through remission and relapse, until it was undeniable, and she could no longer fight it.  I do not know who to be angry at.  God?  The gods?  Mother Nature?  [Do any of these things mean anything, in the face of death?]  Can anger at them, or myself, or anyone, mitigate this heavy sorrow weighing me down, bearing upon my shoulders as if I were a failed Atlas, unable to support the titanic weight of the world.  I have tried to let go the anger, but I cannot.  It comes back, arisen from some hidden place, like a spider skritching from a shadowed corner.

She squeezes my hand, oh so gently, almost imagined.  I look up, and she is awake, truly awake, looking at me intently.  I scrape the chair closer to her in a brief, blaring screech of noise that startles me; she struggles to touch my face with her emaciated fingers, a herculean effort.  I help her, lift her feather-light hand to the salt-and-pepper scruff on my face; she hiccups, and I cannot decipher if she is trying to cry, to laugh, or simply to breathe.  I lean over her, touch her cheeks, sunken and hollow, kiss her forehead, her chin, her lips, her dry, cracked, trembling lips.  She kisses back, barely.  Barely.
She draws a long breath, tremulous and tenuous, speaks: “love...you.”  Her voice is an ethereal whisper that barely breaches the space between us, a mere breath of air with delicate shreds of sound woven through.  I hear her, clearly.  Once more, she marshals her remaining strength to speak: “love...again...for me.”

I have to stifle back a choked gasp of disbelieving laughter.  The idea seems impossible, here, in this place.  Love again?  There is no one else, anywhere.  The doctors, the nurses, they are not people, not men or women.  They have no lives beyond the pallid glow of the oncology ward, no loves or desires.  Is there a world, beyond these walls?  I honestly wonder.  Sunlight, moonlight, winking numberless stars, these are vague memories; grass and trees, flowers and pollinating bees, buzzing mowers and spitting sprinklers, snow and ice, these too are residual notions from a past life. 

I have always been here, in room 317B.  I have always sat in this green plastic chair, the one with seven slits in the seat, three in the backplate, and a rusted dent in the front left leg.  I have always eaten cold chicken salad sandwiches from the cafeteria, always drunk burned coffee from Styrofoam cups, sugared with Sweet-n-Lo and powdered creamer.  I have always heard the blipblip...blipblip of the heart monitor, counting away the last hours of her life.

Now, it happens. 

Love?  No, this a portion of my self, slipping away.  Her hand is limp, her eyes drift away from mine, rise up above my head, gaze into nothingness.  She smiles, as if she sees something I cannot, something away in the distance, just this side of forever. 

The flatline tone rings in my ears.  It will always ring in my ears, even when this day is years behind me. 

I fold her hands on her stomach, close her eyes. 

The nurses rush in; they are weirdly silent, moving in syrup-slow motion, lips moving, but I hear nothing. 

I cannot weep, all I can do is sit, slouched and spineless, empty.  They are speaking to me, but I am not here. I am floating away with her.

I look at the clock: 4:01am.  

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