Shut Up. But Don’t Leave.
One night in late September Tim called at midnight “just to chat” and casually mentioned that his family was going to be gone the next day. His log house was in a remote place, and I could tell he was nervous about being alone that day. I’d been driving him into Portland for treatments, doctor appointments, and therapy regularly so this would be our first full day with nothing scheduled.
“Irene will do my carrot juice and set me up with my pills and snacks and a bottle of water. And I’ve got a catheter. And my phone. I guess I’ll be all right.”
“Do you want me to come up there, stay with you until she gets home?”
There was a long silent beat across the phone line.
“Would you?” he said. “This is the first day I’ve ever really been home alone, no doctor appointments, no hospital, nobody around. It’s pretty quiet.”
I let another beat go by. Quiet.
Then, “You scared?”
“I’ll be there about nine,” I said.
I drove up to the mountain, feeling like Mother Theresa (fantasizing) and imagining that we’d get to have some quality time and conversation about his state of mind, how he was feeling about his healing or lack of healing, his future, beliefs, magic and miracles…conversations we didn’t have when we were under the pressure of getting to and from treatments or dealing with the aftereffects, when pain, nausea, and weakness often rendered him unwilling or unable to talk. Maybe if we had one relaxed day together I could offer him wise counsel and comfort.
The drive gave me a chance to think about how I had to keep the faith that my healing team, me and Jesus, could make a miracle happen in spite of all appearances. Appearances were the big obstacle. Tim seemed to be getting worse, not better, with periods of respite and hope. Why did he ask me to come and be with him, if not to give him another healing treatment? Or maybe he was ready to talk, finally.
How we were together, how we had always been, was Tim not talking about things close to his heart, me prodding him to open up. His state of mind was a closed book to me. This time, maybe he wanted to pour out his fears and nightmares, and I’d be there to help him prepare emotionally for what was ahead. Having a miracle, that could be as big a challenge as facing death.
The five stages. Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. What was that other one? I could see his anger, his depression, but he wouldn’t talk about it, wouldn’t let anyone mention death or dying, declared that he was going to face down melanoma, never give in, never give up. And fiercely demanded that I never give up, either.
Oh. That was the missing stage, the first stage. Denial. Maybe the stages weren’t linear, maybe they recycled. Or overlapped.
Tim was in his recliner chair, his patchy dark hair sticking up at odd angles, his face white against the dark leather. On the table by his chair was a lamp turned on low, a collection of pill bottles, a bottle of Roxinol, a bottle of water, a glass half full of carrot juice, the morning Oregonian, the TV remote, a wax-wrapped tube of saltines. His leg was in a cast, propped up on the footrest. A brown plaid afghan covered his lap and the plastic bag from the catheter. Flames curled and leaped in the glass door of the Jotul wood stove behind his chair, chunks of wood stacked next to it.
I set my bag of needlework down on the couch next to him. “Cozy,” I said.
“’Tis,” he said. “Got everything I need, right here. Except something to eat.”
“What do you want to eat?” I said.
“Cream of Wheat,” he said. “Remember how to make that?”
“Mush,” I said. “Cream of Wheat, Malt O’ Meal, oatmeal, sure I remember. I’ll make you some.”
When we were kids it was “mush.” Mom cooked it slow on top of the stove, big soft bubbles forming and breaking with a fat plop.
In the microwave, Cream of Wheat takes one minute. “Want milk?” I called from the kitchen.
“Just brown sugar, maybe a couple of raisins,” Tim said.
I searched through the cupboards and found brown sugar and raisins. “Want some tea?” I said.
Tim’s answer was slow in coming. “How about some real coffee, not that instant crap. It’s in the freezer.”
There was no coffeemaker on the counter, just a tin of loose black tea and a jar of instant coffee. After searching all the cupboards, I found the four-cup Mr. Coffee under the sink with a box of filters on top. I plugged it in, measured the coffee from the bag in the freezer, filled the water reservoir and pushed the On switch.
The brown sugar melted into golden pools in the Cream of Wheat. I stuck a spoon in the bowl of Cream of Wheat brown sugar raisins no milk, and set the bowl in Tim’s lap. He glanced at me with a small smile.
“Thanks,” he said. The Cream of Wheat was gone in minutes.
Tim reached for the bottle of Roxinol. He filled the dropper with dark liquid and squeezed it under his tongue. Closed his eyes and leaned back in the recliner, his jaw tight with pain, his hands in tight fists in his lap.
“How’s your pain?” I said.
Tim opened his eyes. “Just dandy,” he said. “Peachy-keen. These are the kinds of days I always wanted to have. Home from work, nothing to do, legal drugs…”
His eyes went closed.
Coffee aroma drifted in from the kitchen.
“That coffee ready yet?” he said.
The fire was burning low. I stuffed a couple of chunks of wood in the firebox and turned down the damper. I took Tim’s empty bowl and set it in the sink, ran water in it, and poured a cup of coffee for Tim and one for me.
“When do you want me to give you a healing treatment?” I said, settling in to the couch with my coffee. It seemed like a good place to start.
Tim set his cup down on the table. “No thanks.”
Looked like he wasn’t in the mood.
We drank our coffee in silence.
Maybe he wanted to talk. Wanted me to just listen. I’d try that.
“So. How do you feel about what Dr. Chapman’s been telling you?”
“Judy,” Tim said. His little finger pulled his granny glasses toward the tip of his nose. He tilted his chin down and looked at me over the top of the glasses.
My face felt hot. I opened my mouth to speak, didn’t speak, closed my mouth.
“But don’t leave.”
I stayed. Tim lay back in his chair, shook open The Oregonian and began to read. I worked on an appliquéd quilt square. Tim read everything in the newspaper, took a nap. Between doses of Roxinol for pain, swallowed pills and more liquid Roxinol, finished his carrot juice, ate saltines, watched Oprah, watched the news. We didn’t talk.
Finally it was time for me to pick up his daughters at the school bus stop. After that, I was free to go. I had finished cross-stitching an angel on a cushion for a granddaughter. The angel looked more like Glinda, the Good Witch of the North in the Wizard of Oz, with large silver wings. My granddaughter still believed in magic, and angels. I was no longer sure.
It had been a long, lovely, quiet day, and a lesson I’ve not forgotten. Just being there was the gift, simply being present with him in his effort to have a normal day. I didn’t need to add anything more meaningful or magical or miraculous than that.