— Mary Milstead
Double Jeopardy was about to start, and I was sitting at the little table with my feet up. I thought I might order Chinese for dinner. Beef and broccoli with extra rice because they never give you enough unless you ask for it. My apartment was freezing, but I didn’t want to turn off the AC, ’cause then it would get too hot. I leaned over to crack open the window, and with the little burst of warmer air, along came the sounds of the parking lot, the neighbor’s kids screaming, the growl of a truck engine.
Before I could pick up the phone to call in the order, it rang, and there was her voice saying, “Heart attack.” Just like that. Like Hello.
She was supposed to outlive me by at least a decade. Men die on average six years earlier than women, and I was four years older than her. Simple math.
I left the window open and drove over to the house without turning the radio on in my car. I pulled up and parked in the driveway, stopping on the wrong side of a garage door I no longer had an opener for. I got out of the car, checked the top button of my shirt, and walked all the way up to the door before I remembered that, of course, she was at the hospital, not the house. I threw the car in reverse and drove there in less time than it had taken me to get there when Emily was born.
I didn’t stop at the reception desk to check-in, just walked straight to the elevator and up to the third floor. She didn’t look up when I first walked into the room, but she smiled when she saw me. Told me she was glad I’d come. “Sorry I didn’t get fancy for you,” she said. An old joke.
“What about the kids?” I said. “Do you want me to call them?” I put my hand on her elbow, stood protectively at her bedside.
She smiled and pointed me toward a chair. “Emily’s on her way, and she said she’d pick up Robby.”
I sat. The vinyl chair cold against my slacks.
I wanted to say, “Well, where is he now? Your handsome younger man with all his hair pomade? Is this his fault?” But I kept my mouth shut for once.
From another room, I could hear that M*A*S*H was starting, but the television in Rose’s room was off—flat and grey. I never understood why she liked the quiet so much.
The doctor came in and introduced himself. “Your wife has suffered a major cardiac event,” he said.
He listed off a series of procedures that they had already tried, all of which had failed. I could hear Hawkeye laughing and then the sound of rapid-fire machine guns from the other room, and I began to wonder just exactly how long ago this cardiac event had occurred. She didn’t even seem groggy, the way she usually was after having any kind of anesthesia, even strong pain-killers, and then I heard the word hospice.
I listened, in the silence that followed, for the sound of her breathing, to see if it was different than I remembered; if there was anything new there to hear.
“Albert,” she said. “He means I’m dying.”
This wasn’t an emergency, exactly, but it was the end.
There were tiny blue veins beneath her soft skin. I didn’t remember them, and I didn’t know if they had anything to do with the heart attack. The last time I’d seen her had been at our granddaughter Lauren’s piano recital, and then only from the far end of the aisle. A quick wave like we were barely more than strangers.
She looked so flat, lying there, but when she reached up for me, I leaned down into her and gently rested my forehead on her collarbone. Her skin was like sun-baked sand next to the cold sea of the sheet. She traced the circle of my ear.
“Come here,” she said.
I took off my watch and set it on the empty food tray and then climbed into the bed beside her—curled up against the small body of my wife. We fit the same as always.
No one here but us. The doctor had closed the door on his way out, and the voices in the hallway were muffled.
To the back of her neck, I whispered, “Where’s Oliver?” and she said, “It was you I needed,” to the wall.
We lay together until the nurse came back, and with a small cough, said she needed to check Rose’s blood pressure. The kids showed up soon after that. They looked tired, and I wondered, again, when exactly the heart attack had happened. I’d seen Emily and the kids for lunch on Monday, and Robby had come by on Tuesday to borrow some tools. Everything had been normal as of Tuesday.
Rose told them what the doctor had said about hospice, and as she talked, she reached for my hand. She told them what to expect, and how they would be able to keep her completely comfortable, and as she talked, Robby kept stealing glances at our clasped hands until Emily finally slapped his arm and said, “Knock it off.”
“It’s okay,” Rose said, reaching out and putting her other hand on Robby’s knee. “You’ve gotten used to not seeing us together.”
I couldn’t look at Rose, so I looked at the kids instead—like I was waiting to see the news on their faces.
“I want Dad to come to the house with us,” Rose said. “Albert, will you?”
It took so long to finish the paperwork, that, by the time it was done, it was too late to process the discharge and instead we had to wait until morning. I sent the kids home and I slept on the little couch in Rose’s room. I should’ve gone home for at least a change of clothes, but she kept reaching for my hand.
In the morning, they drove Rose home in a slow ambulance. We followed in our own cars, the three of us like the rattle on the end of a snake’s tail. We sat together at a red light as the sun pulled behind a low cloud.
Around lunchtime, Mrs. Jacobson from next door came over with a tuna casserole. Her specialty. She raised her eyebrows at me gently and said, “Nice to see you, Albert.” Neither one of us mentioned what a hard winter it had been, what a wet spring.
Emily hugged her and thanked her for the dish.
“Call me if you need anything,” Mrs. Jacobson said. “I’m right next door.”
Our bedroom furniture was gone, nothing but a few dents left in the carpet. The new stuff was light wood covered with carvings of trees.
Her side of the bathroom counter looked exactly the same, with the little pink case for her glasses next to her ceramic toothbrush holder and her overflowing box of hairbands. The other side was empty, like a hotel bathroom, like it had never been mine, and no one had used it in the meantime.
I slept in the guest room, which used to be Robby’s room. It should’ve been neutral territory, but the walls were too close to my face, and the sound of the clock ticking made my head feel like it was full of rocks. Enough to drive a person crazy. I’d slept better on the hospital couch. I’d slept better on the lumpy mattress at my apartment. I thought about making a cup of tea but didn’t want to try to find my way around the kitchen in the dark, didn’t want to look to see what kind of tea was in the pantry. I checked on the kids instead, who were both asleep in Emily’s old room, which now had two twin beds in it. They looked like giants in those little beds, but if I squinted, I could see them as they’d once been, tiny chins tucked into the same soft blankets.
Rose was in the living room, in the hospital bed they’d set up for her.
The day I married her, she was eighteen, and I was twenty-two. She wore a blue pillbox hat and matching shirt dress, blue like the color of my eyes. We had gone to the courthouse with her mother and my aunt, and she had carried a small handful of white flowers. We promised until death do we part. She still had the same small nose, the same little dimple in her chin.
We had laughed at Oliver when he moved in down the street. Made jokes about his red convertible and his fake black hair, his silly way of walking—his chest puffed out and his hands in his back pockets, like a goddamn bird.
We settled back into the house like none of us had ever left. Robby took leave from work, but never stopped answering his phone. Emily brought the kids and sat with them at their grandmother’s bedside until they began to grow tired, and then she sent them home with Dan, who shook my hand with more formality than the first time we’d met.
The kids and I circled her bed, and we stayed there, close. They said it would be fast, so we couldn’t take any chances.
When she was awake, the kids leaned in and told stories about their childhood, stories of their first words and our road trip to California, and the time Grandpa Charlie lost his cat in the woods by Willow Creek. We did not talk about my apartment, about the fact that my good suit was in another closet across town.
Her lips were chapped and cracked at the edges.
“I was always supposed to be the first to go, Rose. We never planned for this.”
“So many years,” she said. “We’ve loved each other for so many years.”
“I was supposed to go first,” I said.
“I never took your name off anything,” she said.
I sat there and listened to her breathing, until the rise and fall of her chest had become steady with sleep.
On the fifth day, Rose went right back to sleep after refusing breakfast. That afternoon the phone began to ring. Word had spread.
I didn’t realize the hospice nurse with the long red hair was even there until she tapped me on the shoulder and leaned down and said in my ear, “Mr. Jansen. There’s someone on the phone for you.” Everything was blurry when I looked up. I’d been staring at Rose’s cheek for so long that it was like I had been staring at the sun, and everything I looked at now was washed out or black. Bright white flower petals and fluorescent grids.
The kitchen was twenty degrees warmer than the rest of the house; the bright red coils inside the oven, swirling on the bottom like snakes. The kids always left it on like that after they made snacks.
“Hello,” I said.
“Albert?” he said. Deep voice. Like an old smoker or a football coach.
“Might be weird for me to call, I know,” he said, “but I wanted to see how she was. I feel so bad about the way things ended, but I just couldn’t, you know. After Molly died, I just couldn’t go through all of that again.”
He coughed, and I just held the phone, dead silent.
“I heard they sent her home and wanted to see how she was.”
I unplugged the curly cord from the handset and let it drop to the floor.
I hadn’t smoked in more than twenty years, but there was a pack on the counter next to the nurse’s purse, and so I stole one. I jabbed the little metal lock down hard and went out the sliding glass door without bothering to close it all the way. It didn’t taste as good as I had expected, thick and heavy in my throat like soot. They’d finished the garden back here. Rose bushes planted along both sides of the fence, little rock borders placed around each of them. A cheesy, white bench underneath the apple tree. A new patio set: all grey plastic and fake glass.
I would just ask her if she’d actually made a choice. I would tell her it didn’t matter, I would still stay, but I wanted to know. I wanted to hear it from her. I took a long drag and exhaled.
I wasn’t even finished with that one cigarette. I hadn’t had time to make any kind of plan when the door behind me slid open. It was the red-haired nurse again. This time she said, “Mr. Jansen, you probably want to come back in now,” in the kind of voice that made me drop the cigarette without bothering to put it out or hide it from her.
The children made room for me at the side of her bed. Her breathing was garbled like she was underwater, and I knew I was never going to be able to talk to her about any of it. Her eyes were closed, a tiny crease between her brows. I held her hand instead and pressed it against my forehead and felt her pulse flutter in her wrist, and the last year didn’t matter at all. We were here, in the house we built, and we were a family again. After all these years, how had I never pictured a scene like this?
And then her next breath just didn’t come. The kids and I held our breath, waiting for hers to return. We sat frozen, leaning in toward her and aching in the quiet until we couldn’t anymore; until we were gasping; until we had no choice but to suck in the oxygen that would take us away from her, force us to figure out how any of this made any sense without her.
Emily called for the nurse in a panic but when the nurse came back into the room she just smiled in a sad way and said, “Okay, okay.” Not exactly an emergency. Just the end.
I pulled them both in toward me, and we wept.
I would be the man the priest nodded toward at the funeral, the one who would stand at the front and shake hands. A version of the way we always assumed it was meant to be. We had come back together for this, a family again when it counted.
The nurse offered us cans of soda she’d found in our fridge, and we stumbled out onto the back porch. Soon there would be paperwork, but it could wait. Without a word to each other, we dragged all of the new plastic furniture, even the little table, out from under the covered porch and out into the middle of the yard, and we sat down. Just us. Just three.
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