This story is by Alena Oosthuizen and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“I am so sorry,” he sobbed, snot and tears flowing in an endless stream of viscous liquid down his bloated face burrowing somewhere in the black kelp of his neck hair.
“For what? Trying or not succeeding?” I spat, standing frozen in loathing next to his hospital bed.
“Both.” The seams of the starched blue hospital gown stretched with each convulsion. A syringe, attached to an IV, pierced an anemic vein amidst a map of purple bruises. I clenched my fists and breathed in: one, two, three, four.
“It’s normal,” the nurse had said before I entered Room 4D on the 12th floor of Freeside County Hospital, “to feel angry. I don’t blame you,” she added, placing a hand on my forearm, her eyes soft with sympathy. A slight Irish lilt reminded me of his late mother, taken from us too young and too cruelly and appropriately reluctantly.
That morning, the third day after I had found him inert on our marital bed, the nurse called me on my cell. Apparently, his first waking words were, “Where’s my wife? Please tell her to come.”
“I don’t want to see him,” I told the nurse.
“That’s up to you,” she replied, “but I promised him I would call you.”
“How could you?” I hissed at him, repulsed by his tears, his fetid breath, his despair, his need. His face crumpled into a thousand stippled creases. I crossed my arms over my heaving chest. “How could you do this to me?”
“I love you, I am sorry. I am so sorry,” he sobbed and trembled like a junkie in detox. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“You should have thought of that earlier, Dan,” I snapped and turned my back on his betrayal and stomped out of Room 4D on the 12th floor of Freeside County Hospital.
The following day, with “for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health” grating in my ears, I plodded to my husband’s bedside. Fetal-like, he lay curled and cocooned in white sheets and a baby blue hospital blanket. His back rose and fell in tune with the deep exhalation of his snores. I dragged the vinyl visitor’s chair to the other side of his huddled form and watched drool form at the corner of his slack mouth and drip onto the white sheets, forming a puddle of tiny translucent bubbles. With a pneumatic snort, he woke himself up.
“You came. Thank you,” he whispered, clutching the blanket in his hands.
“I didn’t want to, but ….” I couldn’t finish the sentence.
“I thought it would be best if I was gone.”
“Best for whom? You? Me? The kids? Tell me, for whom?” My voice rose. “Why would it best? Did you think about how we would feel, all of us? Have you any idea?”
“I am sorry. I never wanted to hurt you. Or the kids.” They had always been an afterthought.
“Well, you got that wrong.” I glared at him. Maybe if we had been married shorter, had fewer kids together, had not been happy more often than not, I could have unleashed the vitriol bubbling inside my swirling head. Maybe then he would understand the bomb he had hurled at me, our kids, his few remaining friends. He is sick, I reminded myself, echoing the words of my dearest friend to whom I had fled after the doctor told me he would live.
“Did you read my note?” he asked, unfurling himself into a seated position, his head resting on the bars of the bed.
“I read the note,” I replied tonelessly. “So did the cops.” The policeman, no older than our oldest son, had sought permission to take the note. What do they do with notes such as these? File them in a secure basement storage facility where they fade and disintegrate like the love they proclaim? Or do they snicker over coffee and doughnuts at the hackneyed protestations of love?
“How long had you been planning this?” I asked, remembering the day a month earlier when, as if by primordial instinct, I opened the bottom drawer of his bedside table. Pill bottles lay scattered like corpses awaiting mass burial. I had left them there. A ticking bomb.
“A long time,” he replied, “I was waiting for Jamie to leave.” Four days previously, Jamie had flown across the country to cycle the Kettle Valley Rail Trail in British Columbia. I had yet to inform him of his father’s circumstances.
“Dinner time,” a young orderly in jade green scrubs chirruped as he clanked the meal trolley to a stop outside 4D. With the plastic smell of boiled pasta and processed cheese assailing my nostrils, I wheeled the faux wood over-bed table to the middle of the bed. The orderly, a flash of color in the drab beigeness of the room, sauntered in carrying a tray of Saran-wrapped mushroom soup, two slices of brown bread, a ramekin of red Jell-O, and a dish under cover. “Bon appetite,” the orderly sang, lifting the stainless steel lid off the macaroni and cheese with the self-satisfied flourish of a practiced magician. With a pirouette and flashy smile, he glided out of the room.
“I am not hungry,” Dan said, lying back. Although he had lost weight in the past month, his stomach still rose like an overripe watermelon under the sheets. Missing a meal or two would do him good.
Never one to waste food, I ate the soup and the mac and cheese. The only sound in the room, apart from hospital hum, emanated from the slurp of pasta going down my constricted throat. “Are you sure you don’t want any?” I asked.
“No,” he replied.
“I’ll leave you the Jell-O. I know how much you like dessert,” I said, stalking out with the last tube of penne cloying to the roof of my mouth.
Week after week, bound by vows I had blithely declared and guilt I couldn’t shake, I visited a faded facsimile of my husband. Day by day, he withdrew tortoise-like into an impenetrable shell. No amount of poking—gentle, angry or accusatory—brought him into focus. The “living dead” is how I described him to our children, both of whom had briefly visited Room 4D and then flown back to their respective lives. There was no point, I said, in their holding vigil. I would let them know when things changed.
“Let’s play cards,” I suggested one evening, weary of my penance and his interminable silence. He had taught me to play gin rummy decades before, in better years, in easier times, when winning and losing mattered.
“OK,” he slurred. His speech had thickened as his body had shrunk.
I shuffled and counted out eleven cards from a well-worn pack. We played three games, and I won them all. For the first time in four weeks, a laser thin light crept into his eyes and I glimpsed the missing soul of my husband.
Two days later in the middle of our first game of rummy, he told me that the doctors wanted to try electroconvulsive therapy.
“Do you want to do it?” I asked. The loop of Jack Nicholson’s final scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest surfaced for the tenth time that day. The shuffle, the deadpan face, the vacant eyes. A hairbreadth away from the emptiness seated before me.
“I don’t want to feel like this,” he replied.
“Before… I used to read obituaries and wish it was me.”
“Do you still feel like that?”
“I’ll speak to the doctor tomorrow,” I said, packing up the cards, my chest tight.
On the first day after the ECT, I walked into Room 4D boulders in the pit of my stomach. He lay curled in his customary fetal position. I watched the undulation of his shoulders and listened to the heavy, wheezy breath of drug-induced sleep.
“Dan,” I half-whispered. Nothing. I shook his shoulder with the touch of an anxious new mother. His mouth made faint guppy movements. “Dan!” His eyes fluttered open.
“How do you feel?” I asked.
“Do you feel any different?”
“No, why should I?” The doctor had warned me of the potential for memory loss. The mind, he had said, will not choose what to remember and what to forget.
“You had ECT.” He looked at me blankly. “Shall we play some cards?” I asked.
“Ok.” Two sets in, the same cheery orderly brought in dinner: vegetable soup, roasted chicken thigh with rice and peas, and a cookie. “Smells good,” Dan said, “I’m starving.”
On a bright July day, two weeks and five ECT treatments later, I led him out of Room 4D for an evening pass. I phoned the children.