Writer’s Fourth Wednesday

I’m posting a piece that I wrote for a Memoirs class in November of 2011 for Victoria Slotto’s prompt, but before I do, I must post a joyful Happy Birthday message to my daughter, Emily!

Happy 23rd, Baby Eyes!

On the day she was born, it was pouring rain in California and CNN was reporting the end of the Gulf War.  Does that mean she’s special?  Well, of course!

Okay.  Now my memoir piece.  Not surprisingly, it is visual-heavy.

Sluggishly wiping the drool from the side of my face, I rose from the floor and went down the hall to look in on Jim. He was not in our king-sized bed. I found him in the master bathroom, weak and sweating. He was sitting on the mauve vanity chair, his massively swollen torso slumped over the toilet. He had been throwing up. I knew this meant another infection somewhere, and another trip to the E.R.

“Becca! Em! You kids are going to have to find a ride to the high school,” I called out. “Your dad’s got to go the hospital again.”

“Aw, Mom! Can’t you drive us on the way?”

I mustered that stern, guilt-inducing look that I imagined would silence them until their own anxiety took hold. Was there a better way to tell them that I needed them to grow up and parent themselves so that I could take care of their father? “Save it for therapy,” I told myself and bundled my shivering husband into the passenger’s side of his car.

My own remorse was beginning to gnaw on my conscience. I had spent the night hiding out in my college son’s empty room, Seagram’s gin in hand, crashed on a bare mattress, convulsing in tears and bitter anger, muttering aloud my rejection of the realities of my life.

“This is not right! This is not the life I deserve! Why have you failed me, God? Just make it all go away!”

In the master bedroom suite, Jim was already medicated with his 15 different evening prescriptions and hooked up to his nightly round of technological prophylactics: his insulin pump, his peritoneal dialysis machine, his CPAP (Continuous Positive Air Pressure) mask and the flat screen TV. His dark blonde head was propped up on several pillows, puffy blue eyes straining in a vain attempt to clear the haze of bleeding retinas. There was no way I could sleep with all that whirring and beeping and blinking of light. I wanted to slip into oblivion for just eight hours, escape the strain of appearing sane while chaos, stress and fear overwhelmed me. I figured that if I went into suspended animation and let time go by, things would have to be different when I surfaced. And different could be better. It could hardly be worse. I lay back and let the world spin.

We had arrived on the block 15 years earlier, The Golden Couple from California, high school sweethearts who married right out of college, refugees from the cinder block crack yards of Pomona, eager to raise our four above-average children in the economically stable Midwest. Our baby Emily had been hospitalized with bacterial spinal meningitis just a week before, but miraculously survived without a trace of brain damage. I unbuckled her from the car seat and held her up to see our new four-bedroom house. The moving van driver pulled up, squinted at the August sun, and looked around the neighborhood. “Good move,” he said wryly.

I thought we were finally safe, ready to live out our American dream unscathed. That winter while Jim was shoveling snow for the first time in his life, he felt pain radiating from his chest to his jaw. His doctor said “Mylanta”, but the cardiac stress test said total blockage in two main arteries. How does this happen to a 31-year old, tennis-golf-bowling athlete? We discovered he had diabetes and probably had had it for a decade or so. He had gained weight during our first year of marriage and during my pregnancies, but we never suspected anything. But again, we were saved from tragedy by open-heart, double-bypass graft surgery.

Jim had lived to see his children grow into troubled teenagers, and they had lived to see him grow sicker each day. Which was the cause and which the effect? And why had I failed to be able to pray another miracle into our life? Were we being afflicted for some extraordinary purpose? Driving to the hospital, I kept trying to make everything fit into a positive outlook suitable for our fairy tale life, but a nagging skepticism kept surfacing. We had lost our magic. We were no longer charmed. The dragons were winning, and I was mortally terrified.

Two days after my alcohol-induced escape, I rode the hospital elevator up to the fourth floor, cynically noting how routine the trip was becoming, how familiar and sad the décor seemed. I stepped into the room and saw Jim in the first bed with a tube sticking out of his neck. Betadyne colored the surrounding skin a bruise-like orange brown. Flakes of dried blood speckled the area. A dark-skinned male nurse was applying bandages to the wound.

“Oh, hi! You’re the wife, right?” he greeted me and began his instructions again. “Let me show you what we’ve got on him now. This is where he’s catheterized for hemodialysis. You can’t get this wet, so no showers while he’s using this port. Just sponge baths for a few weeks, okay? If the bandage gets wet or bloody, you’re gonna want to change it. Use gloves when you’re putting on the gauze, and cover it over completely with this plastic patch. These tubes can be taped together and then taped down on his chest like this. Careful of the caps. They unscrew to hook up to the catheter. If you take them off, you have to wear a surgical mask because, you know, this jugular vein goes directly into his heart. Any infection at this site is gonna travel swiftly in a life-threatening direction. Got that?”

I breathed deeply and felt as if I were still on the elevator, dangling by a cable. I then became aware that I had missed the last instruction.

“Um, hold on. I don’t think I heard that last bit. Actually, I’m suddenly not feeling too well. May I sit down?”

My semi-conscious brain was frantically sending warning messages. “This is not sustainable. You are not going to be able to keep him alive.” Jim’s ever-friendly and imperturbable countenance looked meekly on in an odd juxtaposition to this feeling of dread. It seemed like he could take any amount of medical abuse and be grateful for it. “Better living through technology,” he always said. I wanted to cry out, to interrupt this surreal charade, but I felt like I was under water. I realized we had no endgame and had avoided discussing it entirely. Platitudes and prayers were not addressing the issue adequately. Death. Mortality. It wasn’t supposed to be part of our story, and I was woefully unprepared. I blinked dumbly and swallowed.

“Okay. How do I do this?” I finally asked. The nurse blithely continued, never noticing that I wasn’t talking about the bandages.

© 2014, essay by Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved