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The Day I Started Lying to Ruth


A few days later, on a cold Wednesday, Ruth needed to be rushed to her doctor. She was profoundly dehydrated, but when she was given fluids, she became delirious and unsteady instead of feeling more alert. Her doctor stayed with her for an awful six hours, after which I was barely able to get her into our friend’s car and home. But she gathered enough strength for it. And also enough to ask her doctor when she could get more treatment. Her doctor promised that he’d look at her lab tests and think about starting a new chemotherapy.

The next morning, I took the dog out. Like a cheating lover, I went just around the corner from our apartment building, took out my cell phone, and made a brief call.

“I can’t give her chemo, she’s too sick. I can’t do it. It would kill her,” her doctor said.

“Yes, I know,” I told him.

“Okay, thank goodness, you know.”

We both paused. A long caesura. “One of us has to be the grown-up,” I finally said.

He agreed. “But I don’t want to have to tell her there are no more treatments.”

“I know. Maybe we won’t have to.”

When we went to see him later that day, Ruth couldn’t get out of her wheelchair to sit on the exam table, so while I held her hand on one side, her doctor wheeled up next to her in his office chair. He told her he thought it was best to wait another day for chemo.

You might call it a lie, but it was really a feint, leaving open a possibility that was not possible, hinting at an avenue of hope, a glass vial of medicine out there that would come ashore in just a few days if the winds blew as we hoped they would. I sat there, a silent participant in the conspiracy.

Ruth wasn’t buying it. It had been a steep decline, from the photo I took in the fall, when she and our son engaged in their favorite contest of “who can make the ugliest face,” to her now, both gaunt and bloated, yellowed from liver failure, working to get out her words, which came slowly like a drunk drawl. A little slumped in her chair, propping herself up on its arms, she slowly asked those questions no one should have to ask. “How will I die?” “Will it hurt?” “Will my son remember me?”

Our house was full of friends that Saturday. Ruth spent the day on the couch, and in the evening, she told our boy that the doctors couldn’t make her better anymore and that she was going to die. But that he was going to be okay, and so was I. She told him where he would always be able to go to be with her, and that she would always be with him everywhere.

Sunday she slipped into sleep. Sunday night I held her, and I told her it was okay to go, and on Monday she died in my arms. Her last words were “I love you.”

No ghost rose from her body. No ethereal phosphorescent spirit. But it helped to realize that her departure from our lives and from humanity had no relation to what happened next, when the funeral home arrived. The methodical sequence of gurney unfolding and long white bag unzipping, or the physical steps of the zipping up, a pause, and then the nearly silent wheeling away on the large rubber tires. It had nothing to do with her or her vitality. That didn’t fit into any bag.

As her body was removed I reclined on my side of the bed next to her abandoned space, the emptiness of where she had been, my wife, a few hours ago and for many years. That still point at the center of a turning world, a world oblivious to her passing. The comforter was down a little, the sheets in mild disarray, like she had just arisen on any other morning.

Behind me I heard the metal apartment door open, squeak, and click shut. Sounded just like it always did, every time I’d hear the click, open, squeak, close, click as Ruth left for work before me.

The weeks passed, then the months. I don’t remember much of it.

Some days I was nearly paralyzed. Other times I felt this strange dissociative euphoria, like I was playing a game with house money. I had stopped seeing patients when Ruth became sick, and as the months went by after she died I just never put myself back on the schedule. Eventually other work filled in the gap. I think I could do it again some day, but I’m in no rush to be in those halls, looking at scans, reading over platelet counts.

Our life together was gone, and carrying on without her was exactly that, without her. I was reminded of our friend Liz’s insight after she lost her husband to melanoma. She told me she had plenty of people to do things with, but nobody to do nothing with.

It turns out that Hollywood has grief and loss all wrong. The waves and spikes don’t arrive predictably in time or severity. It’s not an anniversary that brings the loss to mind, or someone else’s reminiscences, nor being in a restaurant where you once were together. It’s in the grocery aisle passing the romaine lettuce and recalling how your spouse learned to make Caesar salad, with garlic-soaked croutons, because it was the only salad you’d agree to eat. Or when you glance at a rerun in an airport departure lounge and it’s one of the episodes that aired in the midst of a winter afternoon years earlier, an afternoon that you two had passed together. Or on the rise of a full moon, because your wife, from the day you met her, used to quote from The Sheltering Sky about how few you actually see in your entire life. It’s not sobbing, collapsing, moaning grief. It’s phantom-limb pain. It aches, it throbs, there’s nothing there, and yet you never want it to go away.


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