By Carmelene Melanie Siani
One day my friend’s husband had a strange episode of numbness on the right side of his face.
The next day he was dead. At least it felt like it happened that fast.
“It doesn’t seem like they got a fair shake out of the whole thing,” my husband had said.
“What would a fair shake have been?” I asked.
“Being conscious enough before he died to say good-bye. That would’ve been a fair shake.”
“Ray” wasn’t conscious enough before he died to say good-bye though. He died unconsciously, with a respirator tube down his throat, morphine pumping into his veins and his wife of 25 years sitting by his side wondering how it had all come to this.
When I learned of Ray’s death I thought, “What if it had been me?” What if he died— my one, the one I have chosen to be with? The one to live out my days with, to call from my cell phone from the corner of Tangerine and First Avenues to find out which route was the best way home—the one I must have unconsciously picked, in fact, to help me find the final way home after all.
But I’ve decided I would never let my husband die—at least, never let him be dead to me.
I can pretend really well.
Even so, I know that if something happens to anyone that we love in any way, we are demolished in grief and sadness like wounded animals bleating in our narrow grottoes. Pain and sorrow make it really hard to pretend.
Ray’s wife said she knew about pretending; she’d done it when her first husband died and we agreed that denial wasn’t all bad, it helped you let things in slowly.
“The best medicine is not to dwell on it,” she said. “Not to ask any questions like why, or why me, and to get on with things. Immediately.”
“There is something I’d like to ask you, though,” she said.
“You’re a writer. Help me write Ray’s obituary. I’ve already done the draft.”
I had never told “Vicki” what Ray had said to me that afternoon when I went over there to bring him some soup for lunch. He’d had a turn for the worse and become too weak to even get from his chair in the living room to the breakfast room table without taking hold of my arm.
We walked into in the kitchen—this ex-marine and I—and as I took the soup out of the refrigerator, I turned to find him watching me.
He was leaning, face turned towards mine, with both hands on the cold white counter and gestured with his chin.
“I’ve really got something here,” he said in an uncomplicated way. “I don’t think I’m gonna beat it.”
His dark brown eyes looked steadily into mine.
“I know Ray,” I finally said evenly. “I know.”
So Ray knew what I’d had a presentiment of all along. About a month before, he’d had some slurred speech as he and I were sitting and chatting when he’d come in to visit me in my store. In a shock of intuition, when I saw the speech slur I said inside myself that there was something wrong with his brain.
About a week later, after he’d had an episode of dizziness and numbness and the doctors were checking for a stroke, I told my husband that the doctors thought that Ray had a stroke.
“But I don’t think it’s a stroke,” I said. “I think it’s a tumor and Ray doesn’t have long to live.”
After Ray died, when Vicki asked me to go over Ray’s obituary with her I suggested she come to the house for dinner. We could go over it together then.
She paused and finally said yes and asked what kind of wine could she bring. My inclination was to treat her as if she were the walking wounded, not someone who should be going out to buy a bottle of wine to bring over for dinner.
A mutual friend had commented to me, “Ray and Vicki were such a couple. How will she get along without him?” And there she was coming to my house alone. Writing the draft of her husband’s obituary alone.
Bringing a bottle of wine alone.
Vicki made it look easy, this losing your husband thing. But maybe it’s wasn’t that easy, maybe it was that Vicki didn’t have fear. She and Ray were a couple. Unlike many, she wasn’t ever hoping to be free of attachment to him. She wasn’t a woman who was afraid of losing her identity in marriage. Neither was she afraid of being able to survive the loss of someone she loved.
She’d already done it once. She’d survive this loss too. At least that’s what I told myself.
But I was wrong.
During dinner Vicki leaned over the table toward me while my husband was in the kitchen.
“I have a pain in my chest,” she whispered.
“Right in the middle of your chest?” I asked, pressing my fingers to my own breastbone.
“Yes. Right there.” She spoke quietly, dully. “When I saw my oncologist the day before Ray died he told me it was back.”
She had the same steady look in her eyes that her husband had that day in the kitchen.
“I didn’t have the pain then. I didn’t have it until Ray…”
“Maybe it’s grief,” I said, hoping that I was right. It was possible. Grief can lodge like a needle in the breastbone. “Maybe it’s not a recurrence of your cancer.”
Vicki stood up from the table.
“I have a pain, here, too,” she said, placing her hand against the side of her rib cage.
I wondered exactly what Vicki was telling me. I’ve read the phrase that “we ripen into death.”
Was that what Ray was doing that day when I was standing there in his kitchen with him. Was that what Vicki was doing now, ripening so as not to fall too far from that same tree?
I remembered a scene memoirist Carobeth Laird wrote about after nearly dying from giving birth to one of her children. Larid’s husband was weeping desperately at her bedside and as she tried to raise her head from her sweaty pillow he felt her slipping away.
“Don’t go!” he sobbed.
“You come too.” She answered fervently. “You come too.”
I walked around the patio table and went over to Vicki. She turned slightly and I put my hand on the sore place on her rib cage. Under my fingertips I could feel a lump about the size of a grape.
A year later, her own ripening into death done, Vicki died. Quietly. Peacefully. Alone in her bed.
A few days before, I’d suggested to her that I come to stay with her so that wouldn’t happen—so she wouldn’t be alone.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m fine. I’m not alone. Ray’s right here with me.”