Tug of War

I felt the line go slack. It snapped in two and fell.

They can’t find her pulse.

I put a hand upon the rope and tugged. I could feel the fibers and the twine sliding through my fingertips, fraying. I gripped it, twisted it to pull her to me, or me to her. But it was only carpet. And I only lay there.

Sometimes I just want to get sick,to be sick because I miss you
Sometimes I catch myself picking up the phone to dial you
It’s unbelievable to me that you won’t be on the other end
Just a dial tone…

Sometimes I dream of you but I don’t get any sleep
Sometimes I remember what we said
sometimes I don’t
It’s inconceivable to me that I’m talking to myself
Just a dial tone…

Sometimes I think I’m going to be next
(How can I be here when you’re gone?)
Sometimes I think about the things I’m going to miss
It isn’t possible that this will all end with a dial tone.

My mouth opened (I felt my jaw move) but there was no sound. And then there was cacophony. I became a wild thing, a priestess of Cybele, my head was full of bees. I beat at the carpet, pounded it like earth and drums and felt the earth shake. And I cried, a motherless child.

I can’t find my pulse.

In this place, I was alone. I did not recognize this country, this room, this girl without her grip. Gravity abandoned me, and I drifted from my solar system into the open universe, kicked out of orbit with the dropping of the phone.

And all I could think to cry was: She’s dead.

I hovered more than walked, like some low-flying Fury. What happened? What happened? My roommates sang around me. And the chorus replied: I don’t know. I don’t know.

I had just come home. I hadn’t wanted to leave her. But she was talking, improving. She said she loved me, and she thanked me. And I left her.

I held your hand:
I have to go.
You kissed my hand:
Don’t go.
I smiled and said:
I don’t want to go.
You smiled and said:
Then don’t.
I kissed your forehead:
I have to go.
You smiled and said:
I know.
I cried in the taxi:
Let me out!
I waved to dad,
And said nothing.

I made my coffee. I got on the phone. Someone there was speaking for me, my voice, but my mind wasn’t in it. A bereavement fare, she said, if you please, from Portland to Dallas.

It was April Nineteenth. A month ago I had watched her wake up from the doctor’s coma. The first thing she did when she opened her eyes was smile. A month, and that is all it takes to make a smile turn into sand.

I made my coffee in the morning that was already her afternoon. It was Easter. It is hard to look at the world and bloom and feel Finality.

My dad was the only one at the hospital that day. We had all lived there for three months, never knowing whether the next minute, the next hour, would be the last minute or the hour when we would lose her. We galvanized our hope to steel, and moved in unison like a phalanx on her behalf. We carried her on our shoulders. We held each prognosis, each improvement and each setback, in tightly clasped hands. We held one another. I even prayed.

Her therapist had taught her how to speak to us through her tracheotomy tube. After three months of silence, and my many failed attempts to lip-read, we were gifted with breathy words of love, of admiration, of gratitude. “Thank you for taking care of me,” she said.

“Of course,” I had replied. “We love you. This is what love does.”

And in our armor of galvanized hope, taking a moment to catch our breath, we were caught unaware and unprepared for the ambush.

My sister and I had been at the hospital every day. We answered the phones in the ICU waiting room. We watched other families come and go, with happy endings and with sad. We came to know them, to care for them. We attended funerals like stand-ins for the Fates, balling Kleenex like yarn and trying to avoid the scissors. We provided comfort and were comforted. It could be our turn next.  This was admitted only in glances.

I wasn’t standing in the corridor to hold his hand. I was sitting downstairs having coffee, thinking about the set-back she had the day before, how her lungs must be like worn out sacks after all that time on the ventilators. One had collapsed and a tube kept it open. The tube had come out the day after I left. She wouldn’t be still; her little legs were always in motion. They had lifted her to move her back to the center of the bed when the tube came free.

All that work, all that effort, just to die on a technicality.

I wasn’t sitting in the waiting room, distracting myself with solitaire. I was walking from the living room with bare feet on a cold wood floor, thinking how the furnace always quits when it’s needed. The phone rang.

I wasn’t in the hospital, but I was there. I heard it on the phone, relayed with static sorrow.

They can’t find her pulse. She’s my life, my wife is my life. What am I going to do?


They can’t find her pulse. They’re working on her now. She’s my wife. She’s my life…

What are they saying? What are they doing?

They don’t know what happened. She won’t wake up.

Forty minutes. And I heard every word. I heard them tell him. He told me that the doctors cried, and her ventilator therapist was on his knees in the middle of the corridor.

All that work, all that effort…

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