Well something’s lost but something’s gained
in living every day
By Nancy Sharp
I needed him to live. I wanted him to die.
At 37, the world as I knew it was tumbling apart. Brett, my husband of eleven years, lay in Calvary Hospice in Bronx, New York, cloaked in white bedding and captive now to the brain tumor that might have felled him seven years earlier, had he not fought so bravely and been so lucky. It was February 2004, the same month Facebook was launched, a sweet, unwitting tribute, I thought, since Brett had been involved in the Internet boom from the ground up. In better days.
Though only a short drive from Manhattan and set amidst its own cityscape of buildings and screeching cars, Calvary felt a place unto itself, far removed from life outside its red brick exterior. A private oasis of sad, crystalline grief.
Today was day ten and while it pains me to admit it, we were settling into this new routine. I left our twins, then two-and-a-half-years old, with our babysitter, a mother herself of two children, for whom nothing seemed beyond her ability to handle. No sooner did she arrive at our apartment each morning than she crouched down on the colorful rug to play beside the twins and hush their tears so that I could make my way to the hospice, warm coffee in hand and stomach full, but wanting, always, more food to sustain me. I’d arrive at Brett’s bedside, room 443, and find him dozing; his torso elevated, his head propped against a flattened pillow, and pale arms resting limp at his sides. It comforted me to see him upright, for he was a sunken man. Normally his eyes fluttered when I entered the room but sometimes, when he slept heavily, I’d lean over and whisper, “Brett, I’m here,” so that he wouldn’t startle.
I trusted such moments, when he felt my presence, even if he could not convey how he felt in words. By now, the demon tumor had rendered his speech unintelligible. Everything was mangled together for him, the doctor said, his brain a patchwork of crossed wires, and eventually he stopped trying. We communicated through gesture – the light stroking of hands and eyes held to one another’s. During those precious few hours of aloneness, before his parents and sister arrived, I’d creep onto the bed, still and gentle, with my head resting on his shoulder. It was only the night before that he’d smiled at me. It was only yesterday, it seemed, that his wavy chestnut hair dipped over his eyebrows, his green eyes brightened when he told a joke, and his midriff offered a generous inch to hold. He wasn’t that man today: he was bald and scarred and gaunt, his eyes muddy and lined with dark circles beneath.
Still…he was my world.
Which is why I was so unnerved when I came to him that morning, like all the days before, and couldn’t rouse him.
“Brett, I’m here,” I said. His eyes were closed, unflinching even as my breath brushed his lips. “Wake up, please.” Alarmed after a few minutes (that in their silence grew longer), I went to the nurse’s station for help. I wish I remembered the nurse’s name. Was it Mary? She followed me back to the room, took his pulse, and calmly told me he was slipping now into a coma.
“Are you sure?”
Yes, the coma was a certainty, the last certainty before death. We’d been forewarned, of course, but seeing him unresponsive like this was crushing. I wanted him back. I needed more time. The twins needed their father. We had a home and a life and a future, none of which could exist without him, today or four or eight or twenty years from now. “Please, not yet,” I said aloud, urgently, to myself and any higher being who might have heard. My eyes fixed on the circular clock above the door; it was 9:30 a.m., time slipping and frozen at once.
Control is little more than an illusion, yet in the midst of crisis, that thin line of reality blurs. Watching Brett sleep with a rhythmic snore, I imagined using my own life force to resurrect him in between semi-conscious breaths. But how?
I didn’t have to ponder this question long because the eerie stillness of the moment shifted. He began to moan—grotesque, loud, indistinguishable, snorting sounds. His eyes shuddered and he winced with what appeared to be pain (although the doctors assured us he felt none). As he struggled with whatever fury was taking hold of him, his body rose and fell with each jarring sound his mouth made, like an agitated infant or an elderly person. Except he was neither. He was thirty-nine.
Because of my love for him, I could not bear to watch him suffer. It tortured me to watch his battle of breath and life, and it tortured me to want him to stop.
Was it selfish, then, to wish he’d die?
Even now, seven years after this awful day and the two days thereafter that built to Brett’s death, I remember the conflict I felt watching him slip behind the veil of life. I am almost embarrassed to admit that I tried to feed him chocolate pudding before his eyes closed for the last time. He had stopped eating and his mother and I felt an urgent, almost primal need to nourish him. So that he wouldn’t die. Hungry. It must have seemed like some sort of absurd comedy, the title of which could have been: Distraught Wife Tries to Resuscitate Husband with Pudding.
Healing takes years. I know this—not only because it is my story—but because of what I’m finally accepting all this time after Brett’s death. Today, when I listen to Both Sides Now I hear so much more. Through the words of the song, I’ve found a way to collapse time. Strangely enough, it’s helped me to remember the better days. Like watching the twins splash in a beautiful mess of red, white and blue popsicle juice.