By Don Noel
Harry looked frail when he came home in August. His wan cheeks sagged down his face; his drab gray hair was even thinner; the body Kate helped bathe and clothe the first mornings bore no resemblance to that of the ardent young man she’d married 68 years earlier.
Initially, they had both thought it a mistake to let the docs replace half his guts with tubing. They had long since agreed not to prolong life with artificial gadgetry, and celebrated that commitment by inviting friends to a party to watch them sign living wills. Both were firm enough in their faith that they did not fear death.
But the doctors insisted that replacing stricken flesh with plastic offered a new lease on life, more than enough for Harry to complete his memoir. He would then finish organizing family photographs that began with sparse black-and-white Kodak Brownies and ended with an inundation of vivid smartphone images. Both would be gifts to a tribe of progeny, and assurance that even great-grandkids might remember their forebears.
Buying a little time seemed worth the price, so he and Kate yielded to the blandishments of modern medicine. They kept him in hospital three interminable weeks, she unfailingly spending long hours visiting, after which they sent him, vastly diminished, home to her care.
The confident medical fraternity had it right, though: Her husband healed, and prospered. Within weeks, she dismissed the home health aide, whose visits had become brusquely efficient intrusions on revived self-sufficiency and intimacy. Harry could manage, it turned out, with hardly more ministration than he’d given her after her childbirths. He put on weight. The hair didn’t grow thicker again, but the rest of his body did.
Apart from the inconveniences of manipulating tubing and pouches and paraphernalia, which an occasionally-visiting nurse helped with, their lives regained the comfortable synchrony of seven decades’ domesticity. He completed the memoir and tackled the photographs.
The relapse came much sooner than the doctors had predicted. It was late April, the garden beds just beginning to promise renewed life, when the boxy, unrelentingly utilitarian ambulance took him back to the hospital.
This time the stay was only two nights. He was alert, buffered from pain, and badgered by extractions of blood and bile for laboratory examination. Kate stayed with him until their daughter Sharon insisted on spelling her to go home for sleep before she collapsed.
By design, the doctors arrived next morning just as Sharon was relinquishing the watch. They suggested going to another room; Harry insisted on participating, and Kate agreed. They could do nothing more, the doctors said; it would be pointless and cruel to keep him hospitalized when he could be with his family. They did not say aloud “for his final days,” but suggested that a hospice counselor might be helpful.
Sharon’s brother Lonnie was on the other side of the country; within a day, both were at their father’s bedside. At Lonnie’s suggestion, they took turns reading to him, books he chose from earlier years. When he dozed off, they played music, remembering his favorite string quartets. Sometimes he awoke to ask for hymns.
The hospice lady came by unobtrusively twice a day, urging them not to measure the quality of Harry’s day by how little he ate or drank: “The body is shutting down. Don’t force it.” She was available if anyone wanted consolation or consultation, but otherwise seemed content simply to make sure that the visiting nurse did not hold back on pain relief.
Morphine is not a brain stimulant. The corollary of ample pain remedy was that within a short time the readings and string quartets became something for the family to do to make the time pass, but inconsequential background noise for Harry.
Kate wanted to be with her husband when he died; it became her only wish. She sat with him through one night, after the kids left, trying not to doze, startled into wakefulness when his sleep apnea made it seem he’d stopped breathing, disappointed when at dawn he was still alive.
Disappointed? she asked herself. What kind of wife wishes the death of her lifelong husband?
What kind? she answered herself: Any compassionate wife. He deserved the peace of death; ending her painful and exhausting vigil was surely secondary.
Not yet, the visiting nurse and the hospice lady said. You can’t rush it. No machine is sustaining him. We have been through this; we are monitoring; we will know when it is imminent. Get some rest at night; let your son and daughter sit with him.
Harry lingered two more days, barely breathing, eating and drinking nothing. She let the kids be responsible for wetting his dry lips and half-open mouth with a tiny sponge on a stick.
“Tonight,” the visiting nurse said at the end of the second day. “Tonight,” the hospice lady said.
Sharon and Lonnie offered to sit up with her, but she sent them home. She had the visiting nurse lower the bed and find her a chair tall enough that she could rest a hand on Harry’s chest. She could feel the labored rise and fall of his breath; sometimes she thought she caught a bit of pulse. She hoped he would feel her hand, would know in the dim recesses of his mind that his wife was with him.
She must have dozed; the cessation of that fitful breathing woke her.
Without taking her hand away, she turned up the lamp, and waited, watched.
When she was sure, she got up stiffly from her chair, murmured a prayer, kissed him for the last time, and phoned Sharon to come, and to call the undertaker.
She would sleep alone now.
Don Noel is retired from four decades’ prizewinning print and broadcast journalism in Hartford CT. He took his MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University in 2013, and has since published more than five dozen short stories, all of which can be read at his website, https://dononoel.com