I remember walking into the house with my newborn daughter in my arms for the first time. My husband, tall and strong and handsome, hovered nearby in palpable fear that the baby would explode upon contact with the April air. I was sore and weary and full of uncertainty but mostly I remember the swell of relief in my heart. “Finally,” I thought to myself. “Finally I have done what I was supposed to do. Now all I have to do is not screw it up and all will be well.”
There was another baby, a boy this time, born at the perfect interval after the first, and we decided that this would be the last. Very soon after that I found myself suddenly, desperately ill and spent 4 terrifying weeks in a Chicago hospital waiting to see if I would beat the 50% odds that the doctors had given me. At 29 years old, with an 11-week old infant, I found myself staring down the barrel of mortality. Only a few memories from that time remain: my father calling from Oregon every morning at 3:00 a.m. Pacific Time so I could hear his voice before the residents came in to prod my painful belly and look askance at the noisy, humiliating electric double breast pump that sucked me dry so I could pour the sweet, creamy, narcotic uselessness down the drain day after day. The stack of old Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines that a dear friend stacked at my bedside and I devoured as I swabbed my dry mouth with damp cotton and watched the continuous bags of artificial nutrients drip into the tube that fed directly into the superior vena cava, the nearly-inch-thick vein that feeds the heart. My mother sitting next to the bed, still and pale and quick to smile and take my hand every time my eyes opened until the worst was over and she went to take care of my terrified husband and the children. Those were days whose ache has not faded, full of fear and loneliness and grim, bitter determination not to let despair close over my head. After my mother left, I was alone, 260 miles from home. I had almost no visitors and almost no calls beyond the lifeline of my father’s daily calls and the awkward, terrified attempts at conversation from my husband. I didn’t see him or my children for nearly a month. When they could finally come to see me, right before the surgery that freed me to go home, I was forever changed. In the 17 years since, not a day has passed that the cold hem of Death’s garment hasn’t brushed my cheek, taking me back for a moment to that completely neutral room with the window that let in light but no air.
Time passed, we moved and moved again, and the children grew and thrived. My husband seemed unable to find contentment at work, but he was able to find work when he needed it, and I was able to stay home and bury myself in domestic tranquility. But then we went out to visit my parents for Christmas one winter, and the bottom dropped out again; my father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer which had very nearly killed him before we even got there. Jaundiced, nearly immobilized by pain and painkillers, unable to eat or laugh or raise a glass, he had to tell his children that his race was run. The two of us sat alone together in the little living room filled with books and mementoes of 35 years of my parents’ love and life together, and he told me that he would never get better. And I sipped my coffee and looked at him, and he looked at me, and there were no words. I remember the tears rolling down my cheeks and the icy pain in my chest too deep for me even to sob. We celebrated Christmas two days later with my sister’s family, taking turns ducking into closets to weep, wiping our eyes on our sleeves and returning to the festivities, knowing we would never have another chance. I have not seen so much love or so much courage in one place before nor since. My mother had made him a photo album from the slides taken on their Irish honeymoon; they had come back from their latest trip to Ireland only a few months before; the trip that would now always be their last. We left before his first chemo treatment; within days I was called back across the country to sit vigil while we waited to see if it had been given too late. He lived—barely. For another 9 months, the chemo bought him time—time to see grandbabies born, time to sit in his velvet robes among the faculty one last time at graduation, time to attend a retirement party held years too soon, time to accept the overwhelming tributes from former students, family, colleagues and friends who had been touched by his enormous generosity of mind and spirit. I called him every day, in return for the calls that had been my lifeline less than 4 years earlier, I was able to fly out a couple of times, and we all went to see him at the very end, just before he refused further treatment. We picnicked in the park in July, and the children played on the playground while his eyes shone with love from under the layers of clothing that kept his tall, gaunt frame from shivering in the summer heat. At 61, he moved like a 90-year old man, cautious and faltering. There was no time to experience pain; it was swallowed up and redefined in the unspoken, ironclad compact that drove us to make every moment as sweet for him as it could be made. And after that there was only the last trip: the two-sentence phone call, the hurried trip to the airport, the friend who offered a bed and a meal between flights, someone (who?) picking me up at the airport and depositing me there, in that same room where he had warned me this would happen. He recognized me that night, but by the next he thought I was my mother, and by the next he was in his final coma. There was no sign of pain or consciousness, only his slow, breathing in the quiet room where my mother, my sister and I sat and talked and waited. His younger brother came in from across the country, to bid farewell to his childhood bed- and mischief-mate, his oldest friend. The last night, my mother left me alone with him while she went to shower. I knew she would not leave his side again. He had not responded to anything around him for more than a day. I climbed onto the bed beside him and wrapped my arms around him and told him there was no need to stay one minute longer than he wanted to, that we would manage somehow without him and that we would meet again. As I laid my cheek against his, he picked up his arm and flung it over me—in my years as a nurse since then, I have never seen or heard of such a thing, but there it is. I stayed in the house that night instead of with the friends who had offered their hospitality, and was awakened in the wee hours by my mother who asked me to come and listen to his breathing, which was far shallower than it had been. Phone calls were made, we gathered in the dark around endless cups of tea to see him through, telling stories and playing one after another of his favorite records. Last of all my mother put on his favorite Schubert trios. Somewhere in the midst of it his breathing changed again and we rose as one to stand around his bed, each of us touching him, offering our warmth, our love to help him on his way. And as the aching high violin note of the last movement of the B-flat piano trio peaked and held, his breath caught and held too—and there was no exhalation—and he was gone.
I remember walking back to my friends’ house through an impossibly clear and warm September midmorning. The air was heavy with the smell of apples rotting under a tree, and the hum of the yellow jackets fighting and feasting on the sweet juice was loud enough to compete with the birdsong. I felt entirely drained, untethered and curiously at peace. I had never known death intimately before, and was new to the wrenching relief that the pain was over, that the devious, futile window of hope was finally closed, that the time of helpless watching and waiting had finally given way. There is euphoria in that relief, and it carried me through the end of that day, through the meal garnished with sprigs of rosemary (for remembrance) and quietly laid out by the neighbor for us all.
After that loss, I was changed again. My world no longer contained my anchor, my keenest critic and my fiercest advocate. My armor was gone, my faith that I would weather the storms of the world was crushed. And I rebuilt myself anew with a thick protective layer—I knew that nothing would ever return me to the peace I’d known and I needed a cocoon in which to curl into myself and ripen into whatever I was going to become next. For there is no resting in grief like that. 13 years later, after a wild series of heartbreaks that are, cumulatively, only a shadow against that one, I am finally peeling that cocoon away and looking at what is left. It is still me, and that is enough for now.
©Mary Braden 2014