NOTE: The novelized portions of this memoir based on “emotional truth” rather than an actual scene and dialogue…will be in purple. The thoughts and emotions and actions expressed are my authorly versions of fragments of often unfinished conversations, taking place in various places at various times. Here, they are set in a single setting, with a scene and dialogue–as a novel should do. This is a novelized memoir. I’ve purpled up the facts. Purple prose.
Flower in the Snow
Irene called from her cell phone. We both had cell phones now, to coordinate Tim’s comings and goings. She wanted to stop by my house on her way home from work.
Her face, caught off-guard through the window in the front door, showed her deep weariness and grief. Everything sagged downward in her face and shoulders. Her summer tan had faded to gray.
My heart went out to her. A valentine heart with little white wings flapped through the front door before I got there and perched on her shoulder, wings trembling in compassion.
She tried to smile when I opened the door.
“Can I come in?” she said. “I really really need to talk to you.”
“Come in, sit down, you look beat.” I said. “I’ll make you a cup of tea. Earl Grey?”
“Earl Grey is fine,” she said. “Whatever. Just so it’s hot and caffeinated.”
She followed me into the kitchen and watched me fill the kettle.
“What’s up, Irene?”
I didn’t really want to know. There was always something up. And it was never good news.
“Judy, we need a huge favor from you.”
“The hugest,” she said. She opened the cupboard and got down two mugs.
The box of Earl Grey teabags was in the cupboard next to the mugs. I pointed.
She fished out two tea bags, put them in the mugs.
The teakettle whistled its harmonica sound. I filled the mugs. We carried them into the living room. She sat on the red couch, I sat next to it in the rocking chair.
“What kind of favor?” I said.
“Well, there’s always the daily back and forth, which you’re already doing,” she said. “There’s something every day, a chemo treatment or a doctor appointment, radiation for pain, surgical followup, another hospitalization.”
She blew on her tea, sipped it.
“And there’s always another operation.”
“How many has he had now?” I said. “I’ve lost track.”
“Eight.” She hadn’t lost track.
I closed my eyes and rubbed the back of my neck. Could there possibly by anything left to remove without leaving his body hollowed out and useless?
“And there’s more,” Irene went on. “Something bigger, something we’ll need your help on.”
But before I could take that in, Irene’s gasping sob popped my eyes open. Her arms were wrapped tight around her chest and she rocked forward and back on the red couch. Tears flooded out and down her face from all the edges of her squeezed-shut eyes.
“Last night was a night from hell,” she said. “Absolute hell. I can’t imagine how it could get any worse.”
“What happened last night?” I said. I moved a box of Kleenex over to the glass coffee table in front of her, pulled one out and tucked it into her hand.
“Thanks,” she said. She scrubbed at her eyes and blew her nose hard, tossed the tissue onto the coffee table and pulled out another one.
“Remember that Japanese Chrysanthemum bush from your farm—you gave us a cutting? It turned into an enormous bush!”
“I remember,” I said. “Small, bright yellow blooms in the summer.”
Tim coaxed it to bloom all summer.” she said. “And it never did. Not even one little blossom. He kept trying, even into the fall.”
“It’s too late now,” I said. “It’s January!” I looked out the windows at the remnants of a snowfall from a few days ago. The snow was several feet deep up near Mt. Hood, where Irene and Tim lived.
“He said this would be the last time he could try to make it bloom, so he wouldn’t give up on it.”
Fresh tears poured. I took a Kleenex for myself.
She hugged herself and rocked.
“It bloomed last night. One blossom. Bright yellow. It’s beautiful.”
“A winter-blooming Japanese chrysanthemum?” I said. “Never heard of it.”
Irene leaned back against the couch, weariness in her arms limp at her sides, in the lines carved deep into in her forehead and alongside her mouth, in her caved-in chest, her sprawled legs, even her normally shiny, springy hair was lank and listless. Her usual snappy dark blue sweat suit was faded, stretched and pouched out at the knees.
“Last night Tim was up every half hour with diarrhea,” she said. “Lord knows that’s a blessing, the morphine has him so constipated, but he was in such a morphine fog he couldn’t make it back and forth to the bathroom.”
“So you had to keep getting up to help him?”
“You know how he is, he wouldn’t be helped. Just pushed me away. ‘I can do it myself.’ Worse than a two-year-old. He grabbed the bedpost and the dresser and then the wall for support, lurched from one to the next. Then I’d hear him in the bathroom vomiting.”
“Sounds like hell.”
“Between trips, he’d ask for another dose of Roxinol.”
“He doesn’t take hydrocodone at night anymore?” I said.
“It stopped working. He can’t swallow the MSContin pills, either. So that leaves liquid Roxinol.”
She remembered her tea, took a long gulping drink. Set her cup down slow and leaned back.
“I’ve learned to gauge how much liquid to pull up into the dropper based on his pain—it could almost be a formula—writhing plus moaning divided by number of minutes of sleep.” Her own pain was all over her face, was in her hands, massaging each other mindlessly. “He’s hidden his pain from me for so long, I could only get an idea by the amount of morphine he asked for, but now he can’t control the writhing and the moaning any more, even with the morphine.”
I could barely stand to picture Tim like that. It made my insides writhe and moan. He’d managed to hide his pain from me too. I could only tell by his twitches and grimaces, and by how often he asked for morphine, or healing touch.
“And then the power went out,” Irene went on. “Not like that’s unusual out where we live, but it couldn’t have picked a worse time. I couldn’t find the lantern in the dark, but that was just as well, I didn’t know how to light it anyway. I found two red candles in the kitchen drawer, and my antique candle holders. I put one on each bedside table. Next time up, Tim took his candle with him to the bathroom.”
Yes, I could see that, the flame wavering as he staggered and tried to hold it upright so he wouldn’t drip hot, red wax on the white carpet.
Her voice went on with her story in her low monotone.
Tim left his candle in the bathroom. Irene lay next to him in the pale light from her candle, listened to his shallow, hoarse breaths, the involuntary moans. She turned to see his face, and smelled the pungent smell of something scorched.
“Tim…” she said, sitting upright. “What’s burning?”
“Oh,” Tim said. “That.”
“That what?” she said. “Is something burning?”
“It’s just my hair,” he mumbled. “I set my robe on fire, and it caught my hair on fire when I tried to put it out.”
Irene got up and went into the bathroom to check the candle. It was guttering, dripping red wax onto the white Formica. She blew it out, traded it for her candle on Tim’s table, and walked through the atrium, feeling her way around the wicker furniture in the dark, to the bank of living room windows
Irene leaned her forehead against the window in the French door, despair aching in her throat and stomach.
“Oh, please, please…” she said. It felt like a prayer. Maybe it was a prayer. She had never been very good at this, but this was the best she could do. Sobs shook her body, and she opened the door to move out onto the deck. It was then that she saw the glorious yellow bloom, bright as June against the snow-covered bush in the darkness, its face lifted slightly, turned to hers, a light of hope in the darkest of nights. She took it that way, and stopped sobbing and stopped praying. Maybe it was a sign from God. But she wasn’t sure that she believed in God.
The teakettle had enough hot water for two more mugs of tea. I carried our mugs to the kitchen, filled them again, used the same teabags. When I set Irene’s mug down in front of her she looked up, hitched herself up straight against the red couch, drew in a deep breath.
“Well, that’s the story.”
“It’s a great story, Irene. Hopeful. But you don’t seem very hopeful now.”
She dandled the tea bag in the mug.
“It was just a nice moment,” she said. “I couldn’t make it last.”
She looked up. “When I went back to the bedroom Tim was on the floor vomiting into his fuzzy duck slippers.”
His fuzzy duck slippers, the ones I gave him last Christmas, bright yellow University of Oregon ducks with orange bills.
“I got a pair of scissors and went back out to the deck. I was going to cut that damn yellow flower and bury it in the compost pile. But then I changed my mind.”
She sipped her tea. “I left it for Tim to see.”
We sat in silence for awhile. I rocked in my chair, she rocked on the red couch.
“So that’s why I need your help,” she finally said. “We’re about done in. And we’re considering other options…”
“You’ll still do nights, right?” I said. The flower story had distracted me.
“Of course I will,” she said. She laughed, one short bark. “I don’t think either one of you would enjoy sleeping together.”
“No. But I’m glad you’re still able to laugh. Do you see how funny that hair-on-fire story is? If Tim were in his right mind, he’d think so too.”
Her rueful grimace told me she wasn’t able to laugh at that one quite yet. Scorched hair smell still in her nostrils.
“I’ll be glad to help more, Irene, as much as is needed. But aren’t I already doing that? I want to do it. It gives me a chance to be with him. Hang out.” I was thinking, give him some more healing energy, while there’s still time.
“So what’s the big favor you want?”
When she looked up her eyes were filled with tears ready to spill. The sides of her mouth turned down and quivered.
“I don’t know how I’d ever do this without you guys, Judy.”
It seemed like a good time to find out where she was on healing touch.
“So it’s okay with you if I use healing touch with Tim?”
She pulled another Kleenex and mopped her eyes.
“I’ve never told anyone this before, but when I was a child I had some kind of psychic power. I haven’t allowed myself to think about it since, because I knew the President was going to be shot, in his car, the night before it happened. I was twelve. It terrified me, to predict such an awful thing so accurately. Those kinds of powers scare me, magic stuff. So you having healing touch scares me.”
She looked down at her hands shredding the damp Kleenex, and tossed it onto the coffee table. Pulled another one.
“But now…everything scares me. If you can heal Tim, more power to you. Tim told me you were doing hands-on lately, and he said it always helps with the pain.”
“You’ve learned a lot in all of this, haven’t you, Irene?”
“I’ve learned a lot about a lot of things,” she said. “I’ve learned about grief.”
She closed her eyes and breathed in, breathed out. “It starts immediately. Doesn’t wait until after someone dies. The doctor said he had one year, and I started grieving as soon as Tim told me that. It goes on night and day twenty-four/seven never lets up. Every setback, every loss, every new bad news brings on fresh grief.”
She was onto something.
“I grieve every loss, each one, even the hair. I grieved when he couldn’t run any more, or climb mountains, or work on his boat. Grieved when the kids started to be wary of him, he looks so different now. Geez, he’s lost so much, he’s the one should be grieving!”
She opened her eyes. “He’s even lost some of his friends, the weenies who can’t stand to go through this with him, it’s taking so long.”
Another flood of tears.
“I’m one of the weenies. It’s Chinese water torture. You just get to the point where…where…you get so you’d betray your own child to get it to stop.”
She stopped to take deep sobbing breaths, visibly tried to pull herself together. And failed.
“It’s never getting a full night’s sleep, trying to do my job at work, trying to keep the kids’ lives normal, trying to keep up all their activities…”
Irene hugged herself and rocked.
“It’s all too much, just too much. It’s been more than two years of this slow torture. I just want the torture to stop. Just want …”
She raised her exhausted, horror-filled eyes to mine.
“…just want it to be over.”
My own horror must have registered on my face. Both of her arms flew toward me, her face begged me to stay with her.
“I love Tim. I always have loved him. He’s the only real man I’ve ever known, even including my father. I can’t imagine my life without Tim in it. We have two kids to raise, I need him. I adore him.”
She tossed her Kleenex onto the growing pile of sodden tissue on the coffee table.
“The truth is, I get it now. I can’t control anything. Perfection isn’t possible, never was. If this could happen…”
She pulled another Kleenex and blew her nose.
“If Tim could get sick and die, leave me alone to raise the kids, then I’ve never been in control of anything that mattered.”
Again, she spoke the truth. I wanted to hug her, but resisted the temptation, didn’t want to break the flow.
Her eyes were back on me, looking for a response. Well, she was right. What could I possibly say? Control, who doesn’t want control? And who ever has it, for anything that matters. Dad died, Lee died, now I might be losing Tim, my only real family. It was true for Irene, too. Her real family was all about Tim being there in the middle of it.
Man plans, and God laughs. I started to say it, then didn’t say it.
“You must think I’m a monster,” she said.
“No, I don’t think you’re a monster,” I said. “You’re human. You’re learning something about grief that I guess I hadn’t figured out yet. When the grief gets so strung out, goes on so long, the human just wants it to end. It’s not selfish, it’s compassionte. Seeing him suffer, you just…” I didn’t finish my sentence.
I had to say the rest of it, what she hadn’t been able to say. “Want him to die and get it over with.”
Irene covered her face with her hands. Her whole body shook. The sounds coming out of her were excruciating, raked over me with the sharp-pointed prongs of her agony.
I got down on the floor near her and wrapped my arms around her legs. Leaned my head against her knees and cried with her.
My voice was thick with tears.
“Irene, I haven’t been through what you’ve been through, so I can’t know what it’s like to just want it to be over,” I said. “Right now I’m selfish, I still want him to hang in there even as horrible as it must be for him. I haven’t had the full water-torture treatment yet.”
“No.” She choked it out. “But you’ve been taking it on, too.”
“Yes,” I said. “I welcome it.”
I sat up. “We need a new box of Kleenex.”
“No. Let’s don’t be sorry. About anything. Especially not about Kleenex.”
There was another purple floral box of Kleenex in the hall linen closet. I got up off the floor and found it, pulled the plastic off the top and handed it to Irene.
“I won’t feel sorry if you won’t,” I said. “It’s the human condition. I guess grief is a strange thing, what it does to people. Maybe it’s like the fox with its leg caught in a trap—it will chew its own leg off to get free.”
“We’re going to get through this, Irene. We are. Think of me as your partner, we’re in this together.”
Irene stood up, the box of Kleenex tumbled off her lap, and she pulled me into her arms.
We held on to each other and cried for a long time. It was a massive relief.
Later, I wondered. What “other options” were they considering?
What options did they have, really? Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act had passed a few months ago. It allowed for physician assisted suicide, if one could find a physician willing to sign the papers, two witnesses not related to the patient, and another physician to independently verify the “six months terminal” diagnosis of the first physician. Neither Irene nor Tim had ever mentioned such a choice as a real option for them, and in any case they would have had to start the process months ago, and the law had only taken effect January 1. They had talked about an alternative clinic in Mexico that was said to have achieved some remarkable cures. It was expensive, but he could borrow against his life insurance.
What other options were there, really?