Wednesday, June 15, 2011


I listened to the peppy, vivacious voice on the answering machine. A sweet high female voice spilled into my ear, promising she would call back, “just leave a message!” I stared out my window into the overgrown garden of weeds and bright red geranium, knowing she wouldn’t, that the voice could never call me back.
It was a voice I had never heard and I was startled slightly by its ring. I was familiar with the woman. I had been in her house and looked into her blue-gray eyes, had sung along while she played piano and forced a smile at her relentless jokes with punch lines I could never quite grasp.
But I had never heard that voice. It came from a time before, years before cancer had punched through her energy and taken parts of her brain and spine, before her potent sing-song voice turned scratchy, then hoarse, and then, when there were just a few days left, it was gone, leaving a wide hole where song had once been.
It had been a few weeks since I had last seen her. I called her phone on that partially cloudy day and heard the voice of a woman without cancer, a woman whose world was long and stretched for years, filled with music, dreams and dogs that didn’t stop barking, adding to the music with punctuated beats of their own.
I left a message for the woman who was now gone, who had changed, who was turning into something else. Her husband called me back a few minutes later.
“It’s been downhill since the last time you saw her. We have her in a hospital bed in the living room. Her sister is here now. She has a lot of experience with cancer patients.”
“Can I come over to see her? Do you have any idea when she might be up?”
I went over at four-thirty. She lay in her hospital bed with crisp white sheets and a thin pink blanket. She had turned skeletal. In just a few weeks she had transformed from a woman who looked sick to a corpse that was still breathing. Her mouth was agape, breathing loudly. I could see the silver fillings in her back molars. I reached under the pink cover to find her warm hand. She seemed to be asleep.
“She’s refused food and water since yesterday. The nurses say that we should just let nature run its course and I tend to agree. We don’t need to postpone the inevitable.”
I looked up at her husband with his hands gripping the metal rails of her bed. He looked into my eyes nervously, shallowly, with sadness, with a solemn understanding that there would be no more treatment, no hope for cure or remission, that his wife would soon waste away in his living room. It would be the natural end for a disease that had exhausted all his hope in miracles.
His blue eyes held onto flecks of pain, revealing themselves in the way he glanced nervously around the room, as though looking for a safe space to land. My eyes stung with tears and I looked back at her sallow, sunken cheeks, having no words of reassurance.
“We renewed our vows yesterday,” he said looking at me, a smile crossed his mouth for a moment. “It was good for us.”
He nodded to himself, his hands on the sides of his narrow hips.
The TV was on in the background, just a few feet away from where we were. The husband stood on the other side of Tomalynn’s bed. He told me the details of her care, the time shifts of the hospice nurses, the morphine patches that had released all her pain. He glanced every now and then to the TV and then back to me, telling me Tomalynn was not in pain, reassuring me though I did not ask.
I did my best to be polite, to nod in sympathy at his details. As the TV mumbled and as Cary exchanged a few words with his heavy-set sister-in-law, I silently repeated the words I had come to say.
Between the silences, when I saw Cary staring at his dying wife, holding onto her hand as though it were a rope to another life that they were soon leaving, I wanted to tell him how Tomalynn wished he could find peace, how she hoped that he and their daughter would live on, somehow coming to a sense of resolution with her death. I wanted to tell him what she had revealed to me, but I could feel tears riding on the edges of my eyes. So I kept quiet, remembering it was more important for me to be there for Tomalynn, to remain calm and soothing and repeat the words I had come to say.
“You can talk to her, she might be able to hear you,” Tomalynn’s sister said helpfully from the couch against the window.
“Hi, it’s Lydia,” I said awkwardly, “remember to relax.”
All I needed was a bit of quiet, a space to be with Tomalynn without noise or explanations. I wondered why there wasn’t music playing, something beautiful and soft the way Tomalynn had always loved it. But I kept my mouth closed, my eyes on her as much as I could.
Sometimes her hand would twitch or she would take a big gasping breath and then open her eyes, but that vital life force, that thing I recognized as conscious and cognizant, that thing seemed gone.
“I think she has one foot in the other world,” her sister said.
I nodded. Her daughter came out of the back room. A thick teenager with hair dyed into a rich auburn sheen and thin red lips in the middle of a wide moon face. She was pretty and hard, looking a little jaded as she tossed her hair around with a sweep of her hand.
“Hi momma,” she said. She gave Tomalynn a kiss on the protruding cheekbone and a hug. “Momma,” she said.
We all stared silently at the corpse-like body in front of us for a while, a woman who had lost all vigor. It was only the warmth of her hand and the thick, rhythmic breaths that indicated she was alive. I couldn’t bring myself to touch any other part of Tomalynn. I watched as her sister stroked her face, as her daughter kissed her cheek. I knew a part of me was afraid of it, of death, afraid of contamination, of cancer somehow spreading from her to me. I was scared of the finality just a few inches from me.
I wanted to say something to her husband, wished somehow I could ease his pain, perhaps stop death itself. But I refocused, remembering I needed to stay calm, and so I stayed quiet. Holding my words, holding my tears, keeping my energy inside. I got up to leave and saw the catheter bag half full laying on its side against the carpet beside the bed. The dark color burned itself into my mind and I realized, in one bright flash, how serious it all was, like its very presence was the ringing bell, its sound telling me the body was failing, soon she would be gone.
I stepped out of the house, feeling the cool breeze of a partially sunny day. Her sister, with her humpty dumpty figure, her worn skin and teeth, she was outside, twenty feet away from the house, smoking. “Thanks hon, thanks for coming. I know it means a lot to Cary, he’s been a nervous wreck.”
I nodded, smiled a bit, and got into my truck. I knew I needed to work harder, to remain calmer, to work more than I ever had. I drove away and the images flooded me. The hospital bed, the family, Tomalynn’s sunken cheeks and sallow skin. Thoughts turned into words, words into sentences and soon, at home, I began to write.