The cancer took Mary on a Friday, just after three in the morning. She was laying in bed, sleeping. I sat in the chair near the window, reading something, I forget now what, trying not to think about the moment, only thinking about the moment. It had just finished raining, and I had the window to the room cracked, the scent of fresh condensation floating in from the garden outside. The air smelled pure and relaxed. It was lovely.
I was dozing slightly when the EKG started to beep. It took me several seconds to realize what exactly I was hearing, not that it mattered much. By the time I was out of the chair, the nurse had walked in. She moved down the corridor from the lobby to the room with calm purpose, her steps quick but not rushed. She kept a forced, tiny smile at the corners of her mouth, an expression I’m sure she had used hundreds of times, and nodded to me as I dropped the book. She went straight to the machine and silenced the godawful alarm.
She checked Mary’s pulse by hand, looked at the various monitors, and held her hand in front of my wife’s mouth and nose for a moment. The nurse closed her eyes, her lips moving with words, and then she took her hand away, and looked at me. Her eyes said it all.
“It’s almost time.” Her words carried sympathy, but conviction. Her tone told me that she knew what she was talking about, that there was no point arguing with her. The nurse had experienced this moment more times than anyone should ever have to, and she could say, with certainty, what was to come. In that, though, there was sympathy and comfort. I need not be afraid, or worried. All had been written that could be written, this was the final chapter..
I looked at her, this nurse whom I had seen for the last month; this stranger who had taken care of my sickly wife in her final weeks. I looked at her, and I tried to say something, what I’m not sure, but the words caught in my throat, and all I could do was swallow them down painfully, feeling them burn as the consonants dug themselves into my esophagus, not wanting to be carried away, dissolved and recycled.
Again, the nurse understood, and walked to the foot of my wife’s, of Mary’s, bed. She looked at me. “Do you want me to stay?” Her voice had a hint of southern charm to it, and I felt warm wrapped in her words.
I shook my head no, unable to speak, and she nodded. “If you need anything, press the white button on the wall,” she tilted her head, and I could see it, just to the left of Mary’s pale, shrunken head, “and someone will be here to help. I’ll be back in time.” And she left us alone.
For the longest time, maybe a minute, probably less, I couldn’t move. I had become a tree, my legs roots burying themselves into the earth at a rapid pace. Planted, I would stay in that spot until the end of the world.
I closed my eyes, pressing them shut so tight that I could see spots and colors and other things sometimes seen mostly unrealized. I fought back the sting of terms, and the continues burn of the words, now little more than jumbled sounds, still fighting their way against the swallow and up my throat. The world spun, shook, and shimmered around me, but my roots would not let go, and I was an oak in a hurricane, not fighting to stay upright, just unable to change my posistion.
Her breath pulled me out of the trance I had sunk into, and with a will beyond me, I moved to her bedside and held her hand. Her grip was weak, but her skin was warmer than I would have thought it to be. It nearly felt as if a cool fire were flowing through her veins.
Her breathing was slow, and becoming more swallow with each breath. I could hear the air pass through her dried lips, and I waited for her eyes to open, her breating to quicken, her skin to loosen, and her mouth to say hello. I wanted her to ask me what I was doing standing there, tears in my eyes, having not showered in two days, and desolate looking from lack of sleep. I wanted her to laugh about the scare, and tell me that I was a damned fool for worrying about her. She would tell me that I should’ve known she’d get better, that twenty-eight year olds don’t die from inoperable tumors. God, I wanted to hear her laugh.
But that didn’t happen. She just laid there, looking forty years older than either of us was, and slowly she slipped away, each breath become more swallow, and taking longer to arrive. I thought, for seven or eight, that each was her last. Then they were gone, and so was she, and I was left standing there, gripping her hand, never wanting to let go, as the machines stopped without sound, and lights began to flash. I watched as the wrinkles vanished, and the age of the radiation therapy and stress disappeared, and my Mary lay before me, sleeping silently and peacefully.
I looked to the white button and thought of pushing it for a moment, but didn’t. Instead, I didn’t let go of her hand, and I moved into the bed next to her. Carefully, I kissed her forehead, her hand, and her cheek, and I put my arm around her. It was then that I wept.