Thursday, July 8, 2010

"Closing the Window" by Leta Marks

Sitting on the chair with my head resting on Alby’s chest, I squinted at my books on the study shelves, trying to recognize their titles. I wished the chatter from our children and grandchildren drifting in from the dining room and a Mozart quartet playing in the room could distract me from focusing on the shallow breathing of my husband, who lay inert in his hospital bed. In any case, I felt blessed having our children home from faraway places.

It seemed longer, but only days ago, I sat next to him like this in the E.R., waiting for test results before phoning our family. Following long consultations with doctors, I called our three younger kids in Seattle and Boston—easier to reach than Jonny in Bucharest where it was midnight. I’ve hated that as a foreign-service officer for fifteen years he’s lived abroad, not experiencing daily his dad’s deterioration. Like me he’s a denier, processes slowly, but mostly he fantasizes his dad’s mowing the lawn, chewing his corncob pipe, or trekking thirty mile on his bike. When finalizing my birthday family reunion, I was shocked that Jonny expected me to take Alby, became insistent even after I explained the twenty-four-hour skilled-nursing needs. Denying Alby’s illness, could he accept his death? I dialed his number.

“Oh, hi Mom, what’s up?” he said when he heard my voice.

“Well…I’m with Dad in the emergency room….He’s in a coma…has been all day….I’m so sorry, but the doctor and your sibs agree we…should take him home…let him…go peacefully.”

“Mom, NO,” he cried. “I don’t agree with this decision. You know how I feel.” Yes, I knew. I remember sitting at dinner when Jonny at six learned steak came from a dead cow. At sixteen he became a vegetarian, letting spiders and mosquitoes live rather than swat them. I recall his protesting as an adult, euthanizing his cat.

“But, Jonny, his system’s shut down. He’ll need…a feeding tube and dialysis...forever.”

“Don’t let him die. Give him a chance. He might get better.”

“I know this seems harsh, Jonny…please try to understand…” I was crying and trying to convince him simultaneously. “The doctor said treatment would prolong dying…be painful….” My legs felt like mush. I slid down the wall and sat on the cold tile.
“Mom, don’t give up on him.” he screamed.

“He can’t swallow…water spills from his mouth. He chokes, dribbles…needs a bib. He’d hate this indignity…if he knew....”

“Mom, I know it’s hard for you. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not about me. It’s about him. You haven’t seen what life’s dealt him.”

“Just try the feeding tube and dialysis. Maybe he’ll respond…give him time.”

I wanted to tell him the Talmudic parable about a dying man’s wife’s choice in closing the window if heartbeat-like sounds of a woodchopper splitting logs outside kept him alive.

Then, perhaps too abruptly, I said, “I’m taking him home, Jonny. I love you…I love your dad."

…Now our family was together. I’m glad they arrived home quickly, especially Jonny, who slowly realized treatment couldn’t revive his dad to any quality living. Since the ambulance brought him home, we’d held vigil nine days, turning him, moistening his mouth with green lollipop swabs, and dropped morphine into his cheek to ease his journey. Our daughter Cathy dragged in extra chairs, and like nineteenth century death-bed portraits, we gathered around his bed talking and reminiscing, wondering if he heard us. He lay limp without moving limbs or eyes. We invited friends to say goodbye. Each took his hand, whispered words, and silently departed.

On this tenth day, in the quiet room alone with Alby my cheek on his chest, I thought of years in this home, his mending everything with coat hangers, and laughing at his own corny jokes. Memories flashed of our children growing up and moving on, births of grandchildren, and trips we’ve taken—especially to Madras where I pushed his wheel chair through muddy streets, dodging sleeping sacred cows. How lucky we’ve been in spite of this demon disease. For twenty years I’ve watched him drifting away into the labyrinth of darkness, regressing into some stone figure not opening his eyes or speaking as that rapacious Parkinson’s disease attacked his brain, masked his once expressive face, and slowed his body until he couldn’t move, didn’t know me at all. This night, I tried not to dwell on that. I told myself to pack away the nightmare visions, not cloud our last days. I wanted to savor this unplanned family reunion. From the kitchen I heard dishes clattering as the kids finished their lasagna. I hadn’t wanted to join them, content to hear laughing from afar.

Then a strange event occurred: Cleo, our twelve-year-old Siamese cat appeared at the study door, stood momentarily, entered, and then silently marked all four walls of the room by circling the perimeter—just once—around the bed, under chairs, under tables in her final sweep before leaving, never to enter that room again. At that moment, I didn’t know what it meant.

Cathy entered the room, put her arm on mine and said, “Mom, get some sleep; I’ll sit with Dad.” How good the cool sheets felt on my burning face. I slept...

…Until Cathy’s soft voice announced from the doorway, “Mom…he’s gone,”

“My God,” I said throwing off the covers. “The cat knew the window was closing.”

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