“The heart wants what the heart wants—or else it doesn’t care.” -Emily Dickinson.
Generally I have two solutions to whatever ails me: Either I am dehydrated and thus need to drink more water, or I need affirmation and should get a dog. Right now what ails me is unhappiness. I don’t think my current malaise is related to liquid intake (though being on Day 6 without coffee or wine may certainly be part of it), but the unconditional love of a dog may be called for.
It’s astonishing to me that I have now been alone for nearly as long as Mike was sick. So many decisions to make; in some twisted way it was easier when the only consideration for any decision was what would alleviate his suffering best. In these last many months I have experienced so much gratitude, occasional moments of joy, and quite frequently that tickle in the pit of my stomach that indicates the internal battle between terror and bravery. I am supposed to do what will “make me happy.” But happiness has been fleeting and infrequent, showing up only often enough to make me crave it, long for it, crawl toward it. How am I supposed to know what will bring me happiness now? Couldn’t we start with some sort of easier question? Quadratic equations, maybe?
I keep thinking of those last few days with Mike. On the drive to the Emergency Room—a drive like so many others over the previous nine months—he took my hand and I noticed again how cold and frail his hands had become. He very matter-of-factly said to me, “This is the last time you’ll have to do this.” But I was so preoccupied with finding someone to help me extricate him from the car that it didn’t really register that he was trying to tell me that he knew he was dying. I spent that night on a hard plastic chair next to his bed in the ER, occasionally getting a few fitful minutes of sleep resting my head next to his legs on the bed. On that first full day in the Intensive Care Unit, he looked so scared and then whispered, “I love you” for what would turn out to be the last time. He must have said it a million times over the past 18 years, but that’s the instance that is branded into my mind. [Here’s some unsolicited advice: tell those you love that you love them every day, maybe multiple times a day, because someday those three words might be all they have to hang onto.] After that the only words he ever uttered were, “Help me.”
I think about his face—it was so pale it was almost translucent—and when his eyes were open over the rim of the oxygen mask they were huge and dark and unreadable. He’d lost his eyelashes to chemotherapy months earlier, so his eyes were unveiled yet inscrutable. The poor boy couldn’t wear his glasses, so I don’t know if he could even see the people around him. I think about wandering the halls of the ICU at 2 o’clock in the morning seeking help with one of the many many machines he was connected to, and I remember seeing a familiar face on one of the nurses and bursting into tears. I remember meeting with the hospice people about the fact that his ICU bed was needed for those the doctors had hope of helping, and I remember trying to tell him that was happening and asking, “I am taking you home from here, do you understand what I’m saying, Sweetheart?” I can only hope he didn’t register the ignominy of being lifted from the bed with a sling and then being carried up our front steps by the ambulance drivers, in full view of all the neighbors. He’d have hated that; my big, strong Michael being carried around like some sort of cargo. He’d be carried back out again just a couple of days later, but by then he was beyond caring anymore.
I remember sitting with Mike’s mom at his bedside that last night, the two of us calling the Dodgers game for him although he wasn’t really responsive at that point (it would have been really nice if they’d won for him that night). And I remember holding him in my arms as he died and was finally released from so much pain and so much fear. And then three days later I had to sit next to the cold steel table of a veterinarian’s office and put my hand on my beloved dog, Molly, and tell her she could go, too. Eight months without either of them. It’s like a goddamned lifetime.
So now it’s time for me to go…to move on, to do something—anything—to propel myself forward. I am supposed to be making myself happy. People tell me to listen to my heart, but I can’t hear what it’s telling me to do.
I don’t know how it would have gone had the roles been reversed, if I had been the one wasting away in the bed with Mike hovering above me. He always said that I was the strong one, the Sisyphus pushing our shared rock up the hill. And when I used to joke that surely I would die first due to my overwhelming clumsiness, he would say it wasn’t funny because he couldn’t live without me. But they weren’t reversed, even if sometimes I quietly wish they had been. I am the one left behind to sort through the feelings and the fears. I am the one facing choices I didn’t think I was supposed to have to make at this point in my life. And I don’t know how to do it. For so many years I was triangulating: what did he need, what could I do, what were our options, what should we do? I am not used to the question: “But what do you want in your heart of hearts, Anastasia?” And my answer is, “Fuck if I know.”
Maybe a dog is the first step, maybe I’ll just start there. Who can be unhappy with a puppy in the house? I’ll drink a glass of water, just in case, and then maybe a dog.