How The Living Continue

It seemed to take days to leave the hospital. Gather her things. Gather our things. Talk to the doctors, who will take good care of her – who is not her, goddamn it – but whatever, I want to go. Out the ICU, down a blank hall to the elevators, down from the fifth floor, out the doors to the snow and cold and into the minivan sitting in it’s spot I forget how many nights.

Sometimes I think I never made it out. I get down to the ground floor, the glass doors slide open and I walk out, not into the parking lot, but back into the ICU where the doctors are still talking about the arrangements.

I never dream about it. The memory is there in the daytime. That isn’t to say it hasn’t affected my dreams. The effect is just less clear. In my dreams, instead of visiting the hospital, I am always trying to get rehired at a job I quit years ago. Most often it’s on the production line at EDO corporation, mixing led and titanium to make ceramic components for sonar used in the Navy. Sometimes I dream about cleaning bookshelves at Barnes & Noble. Before her death, I used to have this recurring dream where I would look outside and see an airplane, it’s nose suddenly tipping down, disappearing behind trees or buildings and then a flash of yellow light and the plume of smoke. I don’t have that dream anymore. Now I dream about EDO. Mixing led in a full-face mask, or at Barnes & Noble, cleaning dust from books no one ever reads.

During the day, the dreams fade, and I find myself back in the ICU with Shirley. She is overweight. She fills the whole bed. Her head tilts to one side, her mouth drifting towards her pillow, saliva cradled in the crease of her lips. Her lungs crackle with fluid, eyes closed (or were they open?), skin sallow but still soft. I force myself to touch her cheek. I force myself to say “It’s okay to go,” more to convince myself than to encourage her, who is unconscious from the morphine.

I sit down in a chair. I stand up. I walk to the window. Others take turns saying things to her. I step outside and look down the row of glass enclosed rooms surrounding the nurse’s station. Quiet. The carpet is dim desert white. Back in the room, Shirley’s respiration and oxygen stats remain low but stable. My wife is there too. Forgive me, but she is just another person in the room. Another body, at times walking around, at times touching me. I feel now, if I had stood near the wall, she could have seen through me and through the wall out into the winter slick parking lot, past the highway to the Oquirrh Mountains in the not too distant west.

Then the plummet. Oxygen crashing from 80% to 60% to 30%. Respiration slowing. One breath. One breath. Heart rate. Blood pressure. The hospital floor. All falling. The monitor alarm was silenced long ago, but I know what the numbers mean. I’ve been hoping for that straight and narrow red line for hours, and now that it is here, and the attending physician looks at his watch to announce the time, and everything in me becomes speechless and silent and no matter what I do I can’t I won’t I refuse to touch her to look too long at her face still in that same posture the lips slipping down to the pillow still cradling that little gem of saliva.

I never dream about this. The memory is too real, too much a part of my consciousness. It sleeps when I sleep; it brews in my morning coffee; it tends to dislike my poetry, making most of life seem petty. In some ways I am lucky. I am fortunate to approach her death consciously. So what if her death dislikes my poetry; so what if it thinks life is filled with pettiness. As long as I can consciously sit by her bed in the ICU, as long as I am consciously caught in a loop that takes me from the hospital lobby back to the fifth floor ICU, as long as I am conscious, I can look her in the face and say: “Not everything is pettiness. Not everything is death.”

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