His room in the hospice, she thought, was their last motel room. It looked like one, anyway, and a pretty decent one. They had let her stay, they even let her squeeze at night into his hospital bed between his warm back and the flat wooden side rails so that she would wake up and hold him if he tried to get out. That was why they’d had to move here; she hadn’t wanted to, yet, but he couldn’t remember that he couldn’t walk. The firemen had come to lift him back into bed four times, and the next time, maybe he would really get hurt.
She simply stayed in this room all day, in the chair near his bed, playing music that they both loved, grading papers, e-mailing people who needed to know what was happening, being there in case he should wake, or in case he should somehow know she was there even if he was deep under the morphine. And because soon he would not be there any more, and she wanted all she could get of him; she would never have enough.
Since not long after they had gotten married, when she was in her forties and he was almost sixty, she had begun to feel the aching fear of being left without him. They’d had almost twenty years together, and as those years went by, the tenderness that she had felt for him from the beginning, because of the sadness that he had lived through, being widowed twice and all the rest of it, became huge. She wanted to wrap him in soft cotton and hold him, she wanted to make up for everything terrible that had ever happened to him. At night, she kissed the delicate skin over his temples with a gentleness that always seemed to amaze him. “I just love you” was all she could say in explanation. But under that was what she didn’t say: “And someday you will not be here any more, and I cannot bear the thought.”
Because they had, against odds, found each other. She hadn’t even been looking, being reasonably content with her partner; when she first realized he was attracted to her, she had kept some distance. But he had intrigued her, puzzled her. There was probably nothing unusual about how they had fallen in love. What was unusual was how it didn’t fade, how it got stronger, how passion never left either of them, even when he was past getting hard, with or without those blue pills.
He had told her, once, about a rajah in India who had a pleasure palace built, and around the inside of the roof of a garden pavilion had a calligrapher write: “If there be a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.” Two or three times over the years, after that, when they were eating dinner on their back porch on a summer evening, he would look at her, at the food she’d cooked, and around at the garden — it was her garden, though he tried to help a little — and say: “It is this, it is this, it is this.” In their last year, when she was sixty-four, getting quite gray and a bit plump, he had again called her “my beautiful bride” as he reached for her in bed. And there were the other things, the everyday things, all the smiles and touches she had lived on, feasted on. It had been very good.
Maybe they would have been like most other couples if it hadn’t been for the fear of loss that they both had — she because of their age difference, he because of having lost two young wives before — but she didn’t think so. She tried to explain to him, to her girlfriends: it was like finding the person who knew all the other lines in a play. When the science pages of the newspaper reported the discovery of a hormone that seemed to regulate pair bonding in animals, oxytocin, she thought, maybe that’s it. Maybe we both make lots of oxytocin when we make love. It certainly felt like something in her blood.
Friends came, brought food, stayed, left. She ate the food they brought and the food the staff brought for him; he would never eat again, this big man who loved good food so much.
The nurses took care of him; the hospice aides took care of them both. They asked if she wanted coffee, and brought it; they sat with him when she left the room on the fourth day long enough to wash her waist-length hair in the shower. One of them told her on the fifth day that she needed to take a walk and that they would stay by him until she came back.
By the time he died, on the sixth day, she knew that their quiet help was something she wanted to give, too, someday when being anywhere near there wouldn’t make her start to cry, because it would be the only way to repay the hospice. Like one of the volunteers, a young man who knew her from school; she had asked him why he was working there, and he said that it was because they had taken such good care of his stepfather a few years earlier.
She told her friends her plan, and the shrink that she started to see about a month after her husband died because it was clear that if she didn’t go on antidepressants she was going to get even sicker; she could barely eat and could only concentrate on her work in little bouts. She told the hospice volunteer coordinator to contact her in a year. Everybody thought it was an admirable idea.
After a year she still wasn’t ready; she still cried too easily. She’d do no good for people if she couldn’t keep herself steady for them.
“Maybe next year,” she told the coordinator. She filled out a form and mailed it back: Call me in a year.
The second year, she filled out another form: Yes, I’m ready, call me when the training sessions start. She returned the coordinator’s call; yes, she would come for a pre-training interview next week. It was well over two years; she was busy, her life was full of people; she even had a lover now, a nice man. She hadn’t cried in months, not really, though she still had dreams of him, the good ones where he was smiling and the bad ones where he was lost somewhere, and she had to find him and take care of him.
She imagined herself quietly offering tea or coffee, offering to sit with the patients while the people who loved them took walks or showers or went home to get fresh clothes or whatever they needed. She liked the idea of being a good person that way, of doing for someone else the same small helpful things that the volunteers had done for her. It would make her feel kind and generous; that was a good way to feel.
Then she went for a walk in the mild winter afternoon, a thaw day with a bright low sun. She saw other people out walking, many of them with dogs. Most of them were just walking in loops around the neighborhood as she was, so some of them she saw twice, some three times; it was kind of funny by the third time. But as she walked, she got sadder and sadder even though the sun was warm and her body felt strong and it was funny to see the same lady with the same dog the third time. By the time she got home, she was full of grief. She was drowning in it again. The grief was just there, it didn’t have his face or the sound of his voice in it, it was just this fluid that filled her and the house and the bright sunny neighborhood, and she couldn’t bear it.
She was going to have to back out. She was crying again, and she would be of no use to anyone if she couldn’t stop crying. Even if she could somehow stop crying, she couldn’t take this much grief. She was a person who kept promises, but she couldn’t keep this one.
She called the coordinator and apologized. “I’m not ready yet,” she said. “Maybe next year. Call me next year.”
LISE MENN is coeditor of The Widows’ Handbook: Poetic Reflections on Grief and Survival (Kent State University Press, 2014). She is professor emerita of linguistics at The University of Colorado, Boulder and has published a lifetime’s worth of research in language development, psycholinguistics, and neurolinguistics. In 2007, she began writing about the loss of her second husband, linguist William Bright, encouraged since 2008 by her new partner, poet and film historian Bruce Kawin.