Cathy Adams’ novel, A Body’s Just as Dead, will be released from SFK Press in August. She is a Pushcart Prize nominated writer with stories published in AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review and Barely South, among others.
Driving Out The Silence
Most of my friends said I was nuts to agree to sit with my ex-husband while he was dying of cancer. “Until death do us part,” I joked, despite the fact that we’d been divorced for fourteen years. No one thought that was funny. I’d just retired and had time on my hands. When he got the diagnosis, “Stage 4 lung cancer. Maybe three months,” the first person he called was me. He wanted someone to sit with him during the day. Should be a short job, he joked.
“Do you mind?” he asked, as if it were a request to pick up his dry cleaning or get his mail while he was away on vacation. When It happened, he wanted to be at home. It. The end. He said he couldn’t stomach the thought of dying in some hospital bed, and Hospice would do all the at-home “heavy lifting.” Mostly, he just didn’t want to die alone. But he didn’t say that. He had no one else to ask. His friends, mostly fishing buddies, had drifted away. He didn’t say that either, but I heard it.
On the ninth day I sat immersed in a book while Fox News blared. I hate Fox News. I hate it deeply. I’d cited it as a contributing factor in our divorce, but he seemed to have long forgotten that, or he just didn’t care. Be compassionate. Be patient, my pastor had said. I gritted my teeth.
“Don’t you want me to turn off the TV? You don’t want to die with the TV on.”
“Braves’ game is about to come on. Baseball relaxes me.” He took a cigarette from the pack on the table next to his chair and lit it with a shaking hand. I would not light them for him, and he knew better to ask.
Slumped back in my chair, I let my book fall against my chest and gave him a side-eyed look. His face was thin and sunken. He’d lost forty pounds since I’d last seen him. He wore a gray death skin uniform that drooped like old linen from his skull, and the sight of him made me shudder. Compassion and patience.
Death isn’t just for the dying. Everybody gets in on the act of dying whether they’re doing it themselves or just a spectator. Unless you are actively dying, you are a spectator, no matter how involved you are in providing care or comfort. The family, medical personnel, the neighbor bringing over the eighth casserole, all spectators. Nobody gets to go with you when death comes. No matter how many people are by your side while you wait, the leaving is something you do alone.
A commercial came on, then another, and another. Hemorrhoid cream to cool that burning sensation. A car dealership with deals toooo hot. Corn chips that set your face on fire. Apparently baseball attracts product promotions that want to burn you to a crisp. I started to make a joke about this when I noticed that his hand had dropped onto his lap and his cigarette was burning a hole in the blanket over his legs. Jumping up, I snatched the burning cigarette from his hand and he was startled awake.
“If you’re going to burn the damn house down, wait until I’m gone to do it,” I snapped. His eyes opened wide and he appeared perplexed at my words. His face was a sack of blankness. In seconds he was wracked by a coughing spell. He reached, without speaking, for the pack of cigarettes once more, and I grabbed the lighter before he could get a hand on it. For a hot minute we both stared at one another. My eyes with hard determination and his with lost confusion, but the moment deflated quickly. Overcome with embarrassment and awkwardness, I shrugged and held the lighter out to him. “If you can light it, then I guess you can smoke it.”
He took the lighter and waved a hand at me to move. “Can’t see the TV,” he said, his voice a hoarse whisper. It took three tries for him to light his cigarette. He inhaled and another coughing fit overtook him. I handed him a box of tissues, and he took it but didn’t pull one out. He clutched the box in his left hand and continued to smoke and cough as if his brain didn’t know his other hand was occupied with holding something. When it finally registered, he looked for somewhere to put the box and settled on tucking it next to his side in the chair. All of this action was as much as his body and mind could now coordinate. This time I determined to keep an eye on him until the cigarette was extinguished. This routine is how the day ended: my ex-husband doing what was slowly killing him while I watched him do it with compassion and patience.
The next day I was there again, and it was as if yesterday never ended. The hospice nurse packed her medical equipment up from his morning check-up as I took the day shift from the night sitter who got paid to do what I do for nothing. The night sitter is a tall black man with beautiful, sad eyes who always says the same thing as he slowly slides his backpack over his shoulder to depart, “He had a pretty good night.”
The days passed until it was day twenty-one. We removed his lounge chair and replaced it with a hospital bed. Fox News still played but I wasn’t sure he could still follow it. Sometimes I tried to change the channel and he would open his eyes. I would change it back, take out my knitting, and settle in the chair I had moved as far across the room as compassion would permit.
Day twenty-three was the day I could finally turn the TV to NHK World, a Japanese culture channel, and he said nothing. It was an evil horror that I committed, making my ex-husband lie in front of a channel that features a tiny, soft-spoken woman in a lavender dress who carries a basket into her garden as she extolls all the benefits of ginger root and longanberry. It was not compassion. It was payback.
The neighbor came by at 11:30 with a plate of muffins for me and the medical personnel who were at the point of coming in without knocking and with more regularity. She placed the lightly steaming blueberry muffins on the kitchen table, and I thanked her with a whispering voice infused with genuine appreciation. Of all the neighbors who brought food, hers were the best baked goods. She wrinkled her nose at the show I was watching but said nothing as she waved goodbye and softly exited with the standard, “If there’s anything we can do.” I nodded and thanked her once more.
I had checked on him about ten minutes before the neighbor arrived, and his eyes were closed. He slept most all the time from the pain medication. He was still living, but death was overtaking him bit by bit. The days became monotonous, bordering on unendurable. For an instant I wanted to call the muffin-bearing neighbor back so we could sit and talk. I had no idea what we would talk about, but to have someone in the room so that I was not alone with my dying ex-husband suddenly seemed vitally important. The room smelled of the dying, and the commercial for elderly diapers made me want to throw something at the TV. I rushed to the front door and flung it open, but the woman was nowhere in sight. Standing there in the doorway, I realised I was being neither compassionate nor patient. Back in the bed, my ex-husband lay, a thin bundle of bones under bed clothes. He had stopped being able to light his cigarettes on day seventeen. He could no longer lift his hand at all on day nineteen.
He was too weak to protest the TV, and this was what made me change the channel. It seemed only right. I found the remote and flicked through the channels until I found a baseball game. Players with big A’s on their uniforms were parked on all the bases. I could make no sense of anything happening on the screen when a dog entered the front door. He stopped a few feet inside, a gray dog with white spots on his underbelly. His face was oddly calm. He made no attempt to come any closer, and he made no sound. He wasn’t even panting. He just watched me frozen in front of the TV. I wondered if he belonged to the woman who had brought the muffins, but she’d been here many times and I’d never seen a dog with her.
The dog brought to mind the Dickinson poem with the line, “I heard a fly buzz when I died.” It was my favorite poem when I was in college and I memorised it. It made me laugh to think of it, and the weight of the words made my knees weak and my breath caught in my throat. I looked over at my ex-husband and saw nothing but the flicker of a baseball pitcher on his face. Hurrying to his side, I saw the trembling of his neck with each exhale of air. He was alive, but I noticed one hand was drawn up claw-like over his chest.
“Are you in pain? Are you thirsty? Do you need more pain medication? Do you want me to call anyone?” The questions tumbled from my mouth uselessly like one of those trick silk scarves a magician pulls from his sleeve. We ask questions to show we care. We are engaged in the act of caring, but really we are driving out the silence. The Braves were driving out the silence, the unbearable silence of death entering the room.
I turned back to the dog. He hadn’t moved. He just stared at me with patient, unblinking eyes, and I wondered, was he the fly? Was he some kind of spirit dog there to take my ex-husband to the next world? Moving a step closer, I saw that he wore a red collar with a name etched on it and a rabies tag dangled from it, and I knew that spirit dogs don’t wear collars or get shots. Cautiously, I moved back to my chair and sat down. The dog lowered himself onto his haunches and then eased his front paws down onto the rug until he was comfortable. He glanced at the Braves game, and I found his scruffy form there in the room with us to be a comfort. For myself, I wanted to turn the TV off, but the idea of silence in all this waiting on death made my skin crawl. I left the door open behind the dog so that death could enter at its leisure, but it would have to enter over the sound of baseball and trip past the dog. Hearing the raspy breathing of my ex-husband lying on the hospital bed a few feet away, I felt it was the compassionate thing to do. The dog put his head down, closed his eyes, snuffled a few times, and fell asleep.