There are pivotal points in life. Life is often compared to an hourglass, our days like the sand dropping one grain at a time until all the sand runs out. Maybe, but the sand does not trickle at a constant rate. Certain events speed things up. Like the pebbles in a rain stick, there is a point where the trickle that sounds like raindrops becomes a flow that sounds like a downpour.
The radiation treatments were coupled with a regimen of steroids. The steroids made Howard a little cranky. Then they made him easily annoyed. Then they gave him the kind of short fuse he’d had twenty years earlier and which he’d gotten over as age and life softened him. At first, I didn’t like the transformation. Then it scared me. He accused me of trying to control him when both of us knew that neither of us could actually control the other. That had been worked out years earlier. When he became instantly angry over something trivial and actually raised his arm, as if to strike, he frightened both of us. He didn’t know what was happening to him. Neither of us was sure it was the steroids, but I suspected as much. He called his doctor and quickly went off them. Within a couple of days, he returned to the kind of equanimity we were both more comfortable with.
In only a couple of weeks, the radiation treatment was complete. In a matter of speaking, Howard was fully cooked and he was weakening before my eyes. I had become proficient at determining when he needed a blood transfusion and I was sure he needed one. For a couple of weeks, I nudged. He wasn’t ready. Then I pushed. He still wasn’t ready. Finally, I asked him what was going on, why he seemed reluctant to call for an appointment to have his blood tested. He’d had blood transfusions when he needed them for months. Why was he dragging his feet now?
Something in my tone, combined with his weakening state, broke through the defenses. He admitted that he was putting off having his blood tested because his radiation doc had told him that if there was a reoccurrence of his symptoms, he should have his wife drive him to the hospital. I was certain that his doctor was referring to the symptoms related to the cancer having spread to the dura—the numbness in his face, for instance—and not the weakness associated with needing a blood transfusion. But it was the word “hospital” that had brought him up short. He feared that all of the doctors were giving up on him and he would now be consigned to hospitalization. And that was the last thing he wanted.
It took him a good minute or two, after dropping this bit of information, to add that he did not want to complicate his life—meaning the hospitals and everything that went with it. He was near tears. I bust out laughing.
“Complicate your life? Do you realize how ridiculous that sounds? Complicate your life? Could it get more complicated than it already is?”
And then I invoked the Gretchen Principle. Gretchen, meaning Gretchen Minney. The Gretchen Principle was a reference to something she had done when her husband, Bill, was dying of a brain tumor and found himself in the hospital. He wanted out. Gretchen understood the implications of doing so, but broke him out anyway. She commandeered a wheelchair and they escaped.
I told Howard that I would not allow anyone to keep him in the hospital against his wishes. I added that I was in agreement with him to stay out of hospitals if at all possible. I promised to break him out, as Gretchen had done for Bill, if necessary. He was relieved and seemed to relax a bit.
It was a good agreement. We would need it soon.
The morning he finally decided he needed that blood test, he slowly made his way from the upper level of the house to the lowest level and took a seat in my office, where I was busy editing.
“I need you to drive me,” he said.
I turned to face him, raised my eyebrows, and told him I would drop what I was doing and take him. “I need you to drive me” was code for a lot of things.
I had been concerned about his driving. His doctor had not forbidden him to drive because he hadn’t had a seizure, but driving seemed risky at best. He’d fallen more than once coming to or going from the truck when he felt particularly weak. He’d made it into Newsland on one occasion, only to fall once inside. An ambulance was called. He was mortified and talked his way out anything but a quick check. That he’d actually told me when he returned home was a surprise because he had been embarrassed and it was exactly the kind of thing he might have kept to himself. Apparently, he had come to the conclusion that he needed a confidant about such things and I had proven myself trustworthy. Not an easy decision for a former Marine and Chief of Police.
When I’d expressed my concerns about his continuing to drive, he had promised me that should the day ever come when he felt he could not drive himself somewhere, he would ask me to drive him. I hadn’t believed him, but he was doing just that—right in front of me. I was not so much surprised by the fact that he was too weak to drive as I was him admitting it.
He was so weak that I’d told him, wryly, that he’d be dead soon if he didn’t go for a transfusion. It was that critical. I had seen him in need of a blood transfusion before but I had never seen him this weak.
Slowly and with care, we got into my car and made our way to the cancer clinic. It was only my second time there. He had insisted on going alone for all the time he’d been treated there. I’d gone with him when we discussed the matter of radiation treatments, less than month earlier. When we arrived, the nurses immediately saw what I had seen. They took a blood sample and assured him that even without seeing the results, they could tell he needed a transfusion. I offered to place a bet with them on the number of units, knowing it would be at least three. That told them pretty much all they needed to know about the wife. They could see that I was neither naïve nor weak spirited. They could also see that I was not going to be placated or assured. I was calm, I wanted answers, and I wanted to know what we needed to do for my husband—right then, right there.
Three was an underestimate. He needed four units. The nurses were very concerned. He was used to having the blood work done one day and the transfusion the next. There wasn’t going to be a delay this time. He was going to get that transfusion as soon as we could get him to the outpatient unit at the hospital and he was going with an oxygen tank in tow. His blood oxygen level was 82-85%. No compromises, no leaving without the tank.
He objected. They persisted. He growled. They were adamant. He did not want to be seen as an invalid. Didn’t matter. They rigged him up with a tank while they made arrangements for the transfusion. Arrangements made, we left the clinic with an oxygen tank trailing us. I got him settled and the tank settled. Just as I was about to drive off, heading for home to grab a few things before continuing on to the hospital, he said, “Be careful,”—meaning that I should take care with my driving.
I left the car in “park,” turned to look at him, and said, “Are you kidding? Be careful? We can’t get into an accident. We have an oxygen tank in the care. If we’re hit, we’ll blow up.”
The absurdity of it was so funny that it was verging on Monty Pythonesque. It wasn’t quite . . . but we would be all the way there shortly.
At the hospital, I swung around to drop him off at the door. He was not going to let me help him in and he was not going to let me get him a wheelchair. The best I could do was drop him off, snag the closest parking spot I could, and sprint back to him. I found a spot very close and was away from him for less than sixty seconds. Too long. As I approached the hospital doors, I could see that he had never made it inside. He was on the ground with a flock of people around him. To make matters worse, the automatic doors kept opening and closing on a woman who was also on the ground. I soon found out that she was a nurse assistant who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was coming in as he was and when he began to go down, she tried to catch him. She was a small woman. Even ill, he was a large man. The doors thwamped and thwamped on her until someone finally stopped the beast.
Howard was on the ground, conscious and annoyed. Doctors and nurses were gathered around him. That part was good. Someone called for a neck brace and a board. That part was also good. But numerous people kept asking him the same questions, over and over. “Are you conscious? How long were you out? Did you lose consciousness? Can you move?” And on and on. One time would have done it as far as Howard was concerned. He wanted to answer the questions and get the heck out of there. He was embarrassed, unhappy at being prone, and becoming increasingly annoyed by the mantra being murmured by the medical staff in the form of questions.
If there was any chance that Howard might get a glimmer of understanding that he had waited just a tad too long to go in for a blood transfusion, it would happen right there as he lay on the cement in front of the hospital doors. It was alarming, but it was so . . . so . . . Howard. There was something just a bit funny about it. The thwamping doors. The fact that I knew some version of “Just shoot me” was being muttered just enough under his breath as to be imperceptible to anyone but me. The surreal quality of it all.
Not funny at all was my internal radar. It was on alert and sirens were going off inside. I knew that this was the beginning of the end.
Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall