Wednesday, June 15, 2005

For Betty

Lying in bed mid-morning on a Tuesday, I listen to the rain assault the roof in sheets, then trickle sexily down the window. I make a mental note - treadmill today. Jason stands beside the bed. His hair is slick, his shirt is dotted and translucent from fat rain drops accumulated on his dash from the car to the house. Something's up. Jason should be at work for 11 more hours. I resent the imposition. He prods me and I pretend to still be sleeping.

I am angry at him for some infraction from the night before. Angrier still that he went to bed without apologizing. Angry that he values sleep above my feelings. I am not going to make this easy on him.

"Jamie, will you come to Ottawa with me?" he asks his angry, pretending-to-be-asleep wife, and my mind snaps to attention. There is a catch in his voice.

"What's wrong," I ask. Something's wrong. That's rain in his hair, on his shirt, but those are tears in his eyes. Jason does not cry.

"My dad called me at work." His dad never calls him at work. His dad never calls him. "Grandma is in the hospital. They don't think she's going to make it. He said I should get up there quick."

"Do I have time for a shower?" I ask, already going through a mental checklist: gas, directions, flowers, card. He tells me yes, but declines my offer to join me.

"I'll just slow you down," he says, and this is true. I only thought he might not want to be alone.

In the shower, I wash and rinse quickly. I don't want to arrive at the hospital 10 minutes too late, so I cut corners. Goodbye is more important than my apricot facial scrub.

As I am toweling off, Jason says "Visiting hours are 3pm-8pm, do you think they'll let me in?"

I think:Of course they'll let you in. They make exceptions in the ICU. You'll get to say goodbye before she dies.
I say: "I'm not sure. Maybe you should call." We are not using the word death yet.

On the drive up, Jason is nervous. I have no hope for him, no rosy affirmations. I offer him the only comfort I have: information. I tell him about the other-worldly experience of the ICU. I prepare him for the worst. I coach him on having a meaningful visit with an unconscious, unresponsive person. I suggest ways of dealing with the even more daunting task of consoling his grandfather. Jason takes this all in, and the 2 tears that spill on to this cheek tell me it is registering.

Briefly, something flares up inside me, and I realize that it is jealousy. I wish he had tears to spare for me. I wish that he showed traces of regret, or recognition for my hurt, and then I take this feeling that I am having on the 417, and I shove it back into the dusty recesses of my mind. I shelve it with other shameful secrets, and I am so overwhelmed with my failings as a compassionate human being that my own eyes overflow with sadness. Jason misinterprets my tears.

"We'll get there in time," he tells me, and all I can do is nod.

We meet with construction at the hospital. The parking garage is a concrete maze, and Jason eases the car through a complex series of obstacles before being rewarded with a narrow parking space in the last possible crevice, deep in the bowels of this monstrosity. I get out of the car and gulp down air greedily. I am feeling claustrophobic before I even step foot in the hospital, and for this harrowing pleasure, I pay $12.50.

A nurse must identify his grandmother for Jason; she is unrecognizable. She has so much equipment plugged into her it is hard to tell where machine ends and human begins - except they do not; they are inseparable. Her chart reads like a medical multiple choice: aneurysm (chest), open-chest surgery, artery replacement, aneurysm (brain), CAT scans, stroke, cardiac arrest, jaundice, dialysis, ventilator, paralysis. Jason is reeling with grief.

I try to focus him - I tell him to touch her, talk to her, and when he does, his face floods with relief.

His grandfather enters the room, and I am struck by how much these two men separated by 50 years can look alike. They both stick out a hand in greeting, but the handshake quickly dissolves into an embrace.

Neither grandson nor grandfather can bear to be by the bed for long, so they circle it, trapped in an anguished dance

His grandfather's voice is hoarse when he confesses "What bothers me most is that she can't see me. Her eyes will be open but empty. She doesn't even know that I'm here." I want to tell him that she does know, somewhere, but this is his wife, his grief, and my words are too small.

When it's time for Jason to go, he touches her hair, her cheek, and tries not to say "goodbye."

The thing about the dying is that they're living. Dead is dead, but the dying are still alive. Betty has 5 children and 9 grandchildren. She likes her cigarettes, her JD, and her convertible. She will celebrate her 54th wedding anniversary in a month and a half if she lives that long. The odds are against her. Her children are bracing themselves for The Call. They are making their peace. Her husband still clings to fractions of percentages of hope.

On the way home, the road looks gray and bleak. My mind wanders to the inevitable: I need to pick up pantyhose; I'll have to get Jason's black suit dry-cleaned; I can start freezing squares and casseroles now.

Jason catches me looking pensive and asks me what I'm thinking.

"Oh, just about how lucky we'd be to have such a long and happy marriage," I tell him, as I give his hand a squeeze. After all, these circumstances are what little white lies are made for.

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