Crackle crackle, breath, crackle breath, pause.
When my mother-in-law called, I though she would ask something about Valerie, or about some Christmas present they were returning, and then say goodbye. Instead the conversation turned out to be a long, confusing explanation about why we should not tell Valerie anything, that we must wait until she got home, that she would not be able to drive, or work, or do anything since she really loved her Daddy.
I pulled a cigarette out of my pack and looked at the designer who held the printouts that had to go out that afternoon for client approval. I lit and inhaled and told her, while holding my hand over the mouth piece, that the client would have to wait. If only I could dissect what Valerie’s mother was talking about.
There was stress in Jeanette’s voice, with a slight quiver she seemed to try to suppress. Finally, after a long pause, she said that they had seen only a general practitioner, although he could have been an internist, she wasn’t sure; and that Valerie’s father, Howard, was diagnosed with lung cancer and had only three weeks to live.
“Three weeks,” I said, asking or repeating, not quite sure what to think. I asked Jeanette what kind of test they had performed. How could they be so sure that it was three weeks. Why not five, or six, or a year?
“No.” She paused, then saying matter-of-factly, “the doctor said three weeks.” As if, since it came from a doctor, the words could not be questioned. God had spoken and that was it. She paused again and switched the conversation to her concerns about Valerie.
“Valerie doesn’t take these things that well, Kyle. And you know that,” she said.
I finished my cigarette and pulled another one. I looked at the rest of the pack and said to myself that I had to quit. I had smoked for so long that I could be next, I could be the one receiving that news from some doctor. Yet even while talking to Valerie’s mother, there was that deep, deep voice that said to me in a cocky, reassuring way: “this only happens to other people.” Not me, not in a million years.
Yet Howard only had three weeks.
I had tried to quit before, but it had not been easy since most of my employees smoked. I went through the patch, the gum, the total abstinence, the two cigarettes a day, but nothing had worked. I could say that it was the pressure at work, the deadlines, but I don’t know if that was the truth. At one point I had a beer with the guys and on the way home I stopped at a convenience store, picked up a six-pack of beer, and for no apparent reason added a pack of cigarettes, not even my brand, but whatever was on the counter, not thinking or rationalizing, just feeling a buzzing sensation in my head that said, give me, give me, give me. And it had to be given. I inhaled that whole pack by the end of that evening.
“Just promise me you won’t tell Valerie until she gets home,” Jeanette said, pausing, then saying goodbye with a forced happiness. She added that she had to call the other daughters.
The designer came to my office again holding the printouts. She began to say something but stopped and asked me what was wrong, if I was okay. I crushed my cigarette into the ashtray and told her that this time I was quitting once and for all. She looked at me and rolled her eyes.
“Kyle, spare us. I don’t know if we can handle you quitting again,” she said, placing the printouts on my desk and going on to describe what she was attempting to do with each layout.
I looked at the designs, but in my head I could do nothing but repeat what Valerie’s mother had said. Three weeks kept coming up over and over again. How could someone develop cancer and die in three weeks? No, the doctor was nuts. Jeanette probably heard wrong. If nothing else, they could always consult a specialist. Someone else. Do something.
“Jeanette called me today…” I stopped, stood, and walked towards her.
“What is it?” she asked, pulling back.
“The doctors said he has three weeks. They think. No, they said it’s cancer. Well, your mother said so.”
To my surprise Valerie did not go ballistic. She bit her lower lip and asked me questions about whether her sisters had called, what had her mother exactly said—was she nuts, was she calm? I told her that she was calm, that she was worried about her.
“It figures,” she said with a sigh. “She’s always worrying about me.”
Because she was so calm, I asked her if she’d known this was coming. Valerie said she’d spoken with her sister Jane a few weeks before about how pissed off Jane was about Howard eating all those Alives as if they were candy, that they might be addictive or something.
Valerie called Jane in Knoxville. I could hear the little sound of Jane’s voice through the receiver. Valerie told her to calm down, that being mad would not solve anything. That yes, yes, who in the hell was this doctor they had talked to. Daddy hated doctors so they probably went to one of those Doc-in-the-box type of places and this doctor probably didn’t know his ass from his elbow.
“Has anyone talked to Annie?” Valerie asked, staring at the floor, then shaking her head and looking at me. Dear Annie, she was the youngest one of the sisters, the one that they all should have been worried about. Or so Valerie said to Jane.
Valerie called Annie, but nobody answered the phone, so she called her mother and found out that Annie had already left for Asheville. Valerie asked her mother for more details, but she danced around the issue as she had done with me.
“Mom, mother, but why hadn’t they found this earlier? When was the last time that he went to a doctor? Mom, I see. I see. Jesus. Mom, but.”
Valerie looked at me and shook her head. “Touch football? He hasn’t been to the doctor since then? Mom, that was what, eight years ago. How could he?”
“Valerie, I am not trying to get out of going. I just need to talk it over with you. I can’t put the business on hold. It’s not like I have a job and can take vacations or have somebody take over the Studio.”
“We’re talking about my Dad, Kyle.”
“We don’t even know if your mother has the facts straight. Jesus, three weeks? And you know how these things are these days. Doctors want to cover their asses now. They exaggerate, so when the patient lives a year, you can thank them and worship them instead of suing them.”
“Whatever time there is, I am spending it next to Daddy.”
“That’s fine, honey. But we can’t put absolutely everything on hold.”
“I don’t care.”
“Are you alright,” Valerie asked, opening her eyes. “Do you need some coffee?”
I shook my head and smiled at her, extending my hand. She embraced it and didn’t let go until we got to her parents.
“Let’s have some coffee,” Howard said the moment the coffee finished percolating, pulling two mugs from the cupboard and pointing at my shirt pocket where I kept my pack of cigarettes. He filled the cups with coffee and handed me one. We went outside.
“Jeanette threw away all the cigarettes I had in the house,” Howard said, lifting two fingers. I gave him a cigarette and placed one between my lips. He took a Zippo out of his shirt pocket and offered me a light.
“You should quit. These things will kill you,” he said with a smirk, lighting his cigarette and taking a quick drag.
“How’s Valerie taking it,” he asked, glancing at me. In no way, shape or form could I say that this was a man with only three weeks left to live. He was still stout, energetic, with that odd sense of humor of his. I was quite surprised at how he was taking it so far.
“You shouldn’t be out there in the cold,” Valerie said from the door, looking pale, tired and sleepy, wrapped in her robe.
“It’s good to see you too Val,” he responded, taking a sip of his coffee. “How was the trip?”
“It was okay. It’s good to see you too, Daddy. It’s cold out there so come in soon.”
We went into the warmth of the kitchen, where everyone congregated with puffy eyes, half asleep, holding mugs of tea, hot cocoa and coffee. Jeanette began to fry some bacon and make biscuits.
Valerie asked Jane about the kids, about Jack. They had remained in Knoxville, they didn’t know if Pop, as they called their grandfather, was really sick or what, so they didn’t want to traumatize them.
“Traumatize them? Is that what they tell you in those rearing books? I’d rather you’d brought the kids,” Howard said. “You guys all look so somber.”
“Do you have any pain?” Jane asked.
“Oh, I’m fine.”
“He’s high, that’s what it is,” Jeanette said.
“What have they given you?”
“Tylenol with codeine, I think.”
Jane frowned and looked at Valerie. “Strong stuff.”
We spent the rest of the day on the phone with several doctors and found out, first of all, that none wanted to agree or disagree with any of the findings. They all wanted to look at the existing tests and X-rays then do a thorough examination to determine what other tests would be necessary. They wouldn’t commit about timing either. He might actually live six months, or even a year. And depending on how bad it was, they needed to start him on treatment right away. But they were not too specific there either. They had to see him first, then talk about chemo, surgery, radiation—they were all options.
“I think I am going to puke,” Howard said.
Everyone looked at him, alarmed.
“No, I mean, good grief, all they want to do is poison me, slice me, nuke me. I don’t know if I can handle all that. People look like zombies, no hair, no color, no life. That’s not living. I don’t know Jane.”
“Daddy, It’s rough, but it beats the alternative. You can’t just give up. What if it goes into remission. What if you’re fine after that.”
“You see what I mean—remission. There’s no cure. They just put you through all that crap to make money, to see for how long they can squeeze a dollar out of you. No, I want out with dignity.”
“Dad, they’ve done some great things. So I think we should give it a try. We can’t just sit here and do nothing.”
“You city boys need to stop eating that fast food crap and get some good’ole country cooking,” he said.
Howard pointed at an area covered in rhododendron.
“That’s where Papaw’s still used to be.”
I looked for something in particular, a structure, a flat area, but all I could see was the confluence of two slopes, rocks, a stream bed, all under a canopy of towering tree trunks that gave me the feeling of an impenetrable wilderness.
“You see where the spring comes out of the ground. Revenuers were never able to find this spot.”
He smiled at us, and told us how his father, the Baptist Minister who had married Valerie and me, had kept the still until getting religion. Howard said that half the politicians in the area got their liquor from him because they knew it was good quality. He never, ever used car radiators for distilling. No sir. But best of all was the water from that spring—rich and clear. He could sell it now just for drinking, like they do with the foreign bottled water.
He paused and looked down the mountain. “I thought one day this was going to be the girls, you boys and your youngens. I reckon that’ll never happen. Now you might get nothing.”
Howard asked me for a cigarette.
We smoked. Shelby chewed his tobacco.
Howard found the spring. With a cupped hand he took a sip of the water.
“Taste it, you’ll know what I mean.”
Valerie called that night and told me that Annie and Shelby had announced their engagement and were planning to get married in a month. Then the following night she told me they had decided not to take any chances, that even though they felt that Howard would make it, he might by then be in the middle of chemotherapy and be too weak. And what if, and God forbid, he really only had three weeks. So they changed the wedding date for the following week since Annie wanted her Daddy to give her away, like he did Jane and Valerie. The next night, I had to work late, so I called Valerie instead. She told me that what was going to be a simple “only family” wedding had become a major event. The list had grown to over 200 guests. They even booked the First Baptist Church in town.
“Maybe them fuckers are right,” he said.
“Naw, they’re fucking wrong,” I said, thinking that I’d never heard him use that word before.
While the girls were shopping, Jack, Howard and I took the kids to McDonald’s. It was what Jack called his favorite baby-sitting place. Jake went up and down the colorful contraption with steps, slides, ladders and kids and more kids. Tabatha sat on Howard’s lap and kept playing with her French fries and some Happy Meal plastic toy that she’d already torn the head off of. Howard seemed rejuvenated and happy, sipping a cup of coffee, looking a little thinner. He asked me if I had quit smoking. I showed him my brand new patch. He smiled.
“I should have quit when I was your age,” he said, watching Jake slide down. “Next thing, they’ll find out that everything in here causes cancer.”
“Or makes you fat,” I said.
I drove back to Atlanta Sunday night.
Jesus, I’ll put up with the cancer, I thought, staring at the toilet. Not everybody gets cancer. Some people get it and they don’t even smoke. It’s God who decides, not us. I scurried throughout the house looking for places where I had in the past hidden cigarettes. I couldn’t find any. I went to the car. I hid them sometimes in the glove compartment. I checked. Nothing. I started the engine and pulled to the edge of the driveway and stopped. Fucking fool, I thought. I am going to trick myself into starting again. No fucking way. I went back to the house. Little voices chattered and whispered in my head.
“Damn it, Kyle, I don’t know what they are. Tests, more tests. I don’t know their names. They also gave him something stronger.”
“Darviset,” she replied.
“Where have you been?” Valerie said, pointing to my designated bathroom, reminding me that I also needed a shave and to hurry because we didn’t want to be late.
“I tried to leave as soon as I could. It’s just that we were swamped and I had to put out a lot of fires.”
Valerie gave me a look, as if no excuse was good enough right now. I had crossed some line and committed some ultimate offense.
“Did you get fitted?”
“Yes I did, Val,” I snapped back.
“Here.” She threw a towel at me and pointed again in the direction of the bathroom.
Unfortunately there was no hot water left. So in the middle of February, I had to shower and shave in cold water. While shaving, Valerie came in the bathroom and looked in the mirror, holding a tube of lipstick. She let out a sigh and looked at me.
“Mother is driving me nuts. I can’t believe she’s doing this.”
“Why can’t things be simple.”
“What are you talking about, what’s the problem?”
“You know Daddy is not right.”
“Val, he looks fine, for God’s sake.”
“No, Kyle. He’s drugged out on that stuff and, and…”
“What are you talking about? That’s a strong pain killer, Val. Let me finish shaving. Can you?” I leaned closer to the mirror and scraped more cream off my face. Several red dots formed and dripped around my neck.
“It’s about Papaw. Mother is using that. She has spent all her time reminding Daddy of how Papaw never helped them. Repeated that story from back when I was a baby and how they didn’t have insurance for the hospital, so Daddy had to pay all the bills. It took him years. So for a long time we didn’t have anything. And Papaw and MamaJoe never helped. They never brought in food or offered anything.”
“Your mother has to always be pissed at someone, Val.”
“But you see Daddy’s never held a grudge about it. Never. And now, out of the blue, he does? This is new. It’s not him.”
“But your mother does, that’s why she doesn’t go there with the rest of us on Christmas Eve. But Val, that’s nothing new, what else can you expect.”
“I don’t know.” Valerie leaned against the mirror, then looked at me. “Honey, you cut yourself.”
“So why do you think he has a grudge against them now? You think it has something to do with the medicine? I don’t know Kyle. I am so confused right now. I want to agree with him but all I see is Momma’s doing. And, and, she’s making such a big deal about it and doesn’t want them to be part of the wedding. What is everybody in the church going to think when they don’t see Papaw and MamaJoe? People talk in this town. You can’t do that. And she pitched a fit when I told her. Kyle, you’re bleeding all over.”
“Can you microwave me a wet towel. There’s no hot water. It will seal all the pores.”
“Are you sure about this?”
“I got a patch too,” Howard said leaning towards me. “I decided to quit anyway. Jeanette’s idea, actually. Even though that’s not what the doctor said. Do you know what that quack said? Do you?”
Howard looked at the TV and back at me holding the remote control.
“He said that quitting now would not help. That it might upset or shock my lungs or something. Could you believe that Kyle? Could you? He wants me to continue smoking for now. Isn’t that the craziest thing you’ve ever heard, Kyle? What kind of therapy is that?”
“Are you okay?” Valerie asked, rushing to him.
“I am fine, it’s just that I’m tired, that’s all.”
“Are you in pain? Did you give him his medicine?” Annie asked.
“Just a minute ago,” Jeanette said, pursing her lips.
“You all go! I’ll be fine. So don’t worry about me. Okay.”
“Can you get up? Are you dizzy?” Valerie asked.
“Could you all stop worrying about me. God damn it. I’m just tired. Okay?”
We all went outside to the cars. Then Jeanette and Valerie asked me if I would stay and watch over Howard, just to be on the safe side, not because he needed it, but so he would not be alone. They gave me the phone number of the doctor, the church and the restaurant—just in case. I obliged. I hugged and kissed and went back in the house.
The girls arrived with an entourage of relatives. They showed us the bridesmaids dresses, they talked about the different choices they had, about the problems fitting everyone. Valerie asked me to help her take the tuxes for Howard, Jack and me out of the car and told me that we needed to get ready soon.
Howard looked exhausted, ready to go to sleep. Jeanette made him some coffee. The girls helped dressing him. Then we waited in the den for the girls to get ready.
I flipped channels, unable to concentrate on anything, thinking about how bad I wanted a cigarette, feeling as if the whole house was under an indescribable tension. Yet everyone smiled, everyone was on their best behavior. Jeanette and Valerie had a little exchange in the kitchen about wanting to invite Papaw and MamaJoe to the wedding. They pretended to whisper to each other, but they were loud. I could hear everything from the den. I chose to stay out of it and not go into the kitchen. If I got into it, Jeanette would blame me for months, telling Valerie over and over what a bad husband I was, bringing up every possible defect I had. Howard remained sleeping in his tux, leaning back with his mouth wide open, taking deep gasps of air.
When it came time to leave, I had to help Howard to the car. He was exhausted, he said, and was having difficulty with his breathing. Still, by the car he asked me if I had a cigarette. I was so desperate for one, I would have smoked a cigarette with him right then.
Valerie and I took our car and on the way to the church she told me about the discussion with her mother. Valerie’s mother made sure that they had not invited Papaw and MamaJoe.
“Kyle, they are my grandparents, for God’s sake.”
I told Valerie where we had gone when we first had found out that he had cancer. About going behind the log cabin up the mountain and checking out the spring and the place where Papaw had kept his still and about Howard’s comment about the land.
“So that’s what it is. It’s got to be Momma’s doing, Kyle. But why? I thought that was in the past. Papaw promised Momma some of that land if she took care of Lewis. Remember, Poppa’s second cousin who lived in the log cabin? Well, he owned all that land. And for three years she fed the sweet old man, prepared his bath, went to buy his food and medicines, took him to the doctor, even suggested the cataract operation so he could at least see a little something. But Papaw kept the land when Lewis died. He said he wanted to consolidate all the family land, that in the past so much has been cut into little pieces and out of spite for one another, they had sold acres and acres for nothing. He was not going to let some stupid relative turn the cove, and all this land into a trailer park. Eventually it would be split between Daddy and Uncle Mark. And Daddy would get the log cabin because Uncle Mark didn’t want any land he couldn’t develop, and there was not much you could do with a historical site. I think Momma wants the land now. But this is a stupid way to go about it.”
“So what happens if your Daddy dies, Val?”
“Let’s not even think about that, Kyle.”
Jeanette arrived, and asked me if I could find a wheelchair, that Howard was so tired that he was unable to walk.
“Is he Okay?” I whispered to her.
Jeanette smiled at a couple of people and whispered back to me. “He looks so winded we had to stop the car and see if he could make it. He said he was fine. I told him not to stress himself out. That the moment that he doesn’t feel good, we’ll take him back home.”
Jack and I placed him in the wheelchair. I took him inside the church, down the isle and parked him to one side of the first set of pews. He pressed my arm and whispered “I want to stand when it’s time to give Annie away.” He grinned and winked at me.
To my amazement, Howard found his second wind and became lively with all the attention given to him. Still we did not allow him to get up from the wheelchair, and even though he asked to sneak outside so he could smoke a cigarette, Jeanette told me that she would personally dismember me if I did. I smiled at her and at that moment the photographer captured our image for posterity, both with huge grins.
We had to pry Howard away from the reception and take him home. He wanted to stay but he looked too weak, as if he were trying to hide his pain.
“I ain’t going to no hospital, you hear me,” he said between coughs.
Jane called the doctor and went off to pick up another prescription.
By mid-afternoon Howard looked much better. He even made a few jokes and told us stories of when he was a little kid. How they didn’t have electricity until the fifties, how the winters used to be stronger, with real snow blizzards instead of ice storms, and about them having to run to the out house that used to be between his house and Jeanette’s mother’s house, and how a good ole Sears catalog for the longest time was the best paper you could use. He would not stop, as if his whole life had to be told, and made sense of right away. As if by telling and re-telling what he had already told was going to keep some of him here among us, and without saying it, he knew that. So we would not forget how it had been, what they had to go through to get this far, to be able to put three girls through college, even marry them off. He’d done his job, Howard said, as if arriving at a conclusion, at the meaning of it all.
I stared at the blank screen of the TV unable to turn it on. I did not want it to numb my sense of loneliness, to give me a placebo effect, to make me feel at ease when all I had inside said that we were deceiving ourselves with the tube and our hurry, hurry, hurry, career, success, money, gadgets, work. And then, what?
Valerie called and told me that they were going to Knoxville the next day to see another oncologist. This was supposed to be some doctor that had practically performed miracles, that his techniques were bold and aggressive and had produced great results.
“I’ll come up tomorrow afternoon,” I told Valerie. She was silent for a while.
“Kyle, I don’t know if he’ll make it, he just doesn’t look right at all.”
“Valerie, your Dad is a strong man. Have a little faith in him.”
“Kyle, you don’t understand. You better come up today.”
On the way out of the office, I stole a cigarette from one of my designers. I touched the patch on my shoulder, wondering if it was still working. I couldn’t tell, my head buzzed anyway. I used the car’s cigarette lighter. I inhaled, I smoked, I blew rings. I inhaled deeper, feeling the smoke reach my lungs, tingle and caress them. The smoke felt good, my head cleared as if a veil was lifted from my mind. Yet I could only think that I had cheated and that pleasure soothing my lungs was indeed producing some chemical reaction, mutating some cells, one at the time, until there were enough of those little guys to gang up on me. And then POW!
I’m a goner.
I did not buy a pack of cigarettes on the way home. My suitcase was still unpacked on the bed. So I took dirty laundry out and put clean things in. I headed out of town.
Shelby and Annie came by and talked about who had been at the wedding, how they were going to wait and see before even thinking about a honeymoon. Jack came and went, alternating baby-sitting with Jane.
Valerie and I went to a small room close to the elevators with a couple of vending machines and two couches. She told me that a doctor came by and spoke to them. They still had no idea how long Howard would last, but based on the blood and the various other test, the prognosis was not what they had hoped. The cancer had already metastasized and invaded the liver and the MRI already showed another small tumor forming in his brain. Jane had asked, almost mad, why didn’t they find anything earlier. Lung cancer can be very swift, the doctor had said, you can look and not find a tumor and then very quickly it takes over.
“He’s lucky,” Valerie said, looking at one of the vending machines, putting her hands in her pockets, coming out with a piece of lint. “He said that if they had found the tumor, let’s say about a year ago, it would have only meant surgery and chemo and a year going in and out of hospitals and hell. And the outcome, give or take a couple of months would have been the same.”
“How long now?”
Valerie took a deep breath, frowned and threw a slow motion punch at the glass of the vending machine. “They still don’t know.”
Howard began to complain not about his pain or the oxygen, but that he wanted out of there, that he wanted to go home. He didn’t want to end up hooked to a bunch of machines to keep him living indefinitely. He was weak, but he was still feisty.
A nurse told us that we didn’t want to take him home. That if we did we’d never be able to sleep comfortably in that house ever again. Jeanette looked at the nurse like she was scum.
“Honey, I’m telling you. I don’t care what you do. But I know, I see it everyday. You won’t be able to stand your own house. You need to be in hospice, fifth floor. He’ll be comfy, uh-huh, just like home. And you’ll have your peace of mind and good memories of your house—if you know what I mean.”
They moved Howard to hospice on the fifth floor. It looked more like an office building with carpeting and pictures than the sterile hospital look and smell of the previous floor. Howard’s small room even had a couple of couches and some decent paintings. Instead of vending machines they had an antique table with complementary hot coffee.
Howard then took a turn for the better. As we sat around, he would lift his mask and tell jokes or ask about whether someone had come to visit or not. And even though the girls had explained to him his situation, and he knew how bad it was, he kept mentioning that he wanted to go home, that Jane could take her kids to the other end of the house because he was going to smoke one last cigarette while building a good fire, and goddamnit, he was the one dying so he had every right to do so. He then paused, looked around, took another deep breath into the mask, and asked “where are the kids, Jane?”
“They are with Jack.”
“Bring them over, I am not going to traumatize them or nothing.”
“Yes Daddy, we’ll do it in the morning,” Jane responded.
Valerie sent me home to take a shower and change. I came back before dark and sat next to Howard. He was out, so I napped for a while until Valerie woke me up when she brought in Papaw and MamaJoe in the room. They called out his name, but since he was still asleep they stood there looking at him. Jeanette came in the room and her eyes lit very big. Valerie took her by the arm and they went into the hall. I followed them to that small room with the complementary coffee. Jeanette screamed at Valerie, that she was a traitor, how could she go against her father’s wishes and allow them to come here.
A staff person passed by so both of them lowered their voices but continued exchanging loud whispers. I really felt like intervening, but Valerie looked at me as if saying to keep out. Jeanette said that she was going to tell them to leave, that they were not welcomed. Valerie told her mother that yes they were. She had invited Papaw and MamaJoe and they had every right to be there. Jeanette veered her eyes and walked into the hallway and stopped by the door of the room. She then headed down the hall towards the elevators, mad as hell, whispering words to herself. Valerie and I went into the room. Papaw and Mama Joe had already left. Howard was awake and grinned at us. He lifted his mask and said something in a low voice. He used Papaw and MamaJoe in his words but everything else was unintelligible. He held Valerie’s hand and then mine and pressed firm.
Jeanette arrived a few minutes later with Jane. She forced a smile at me but looked at Valerie as if she was something repugnant. My patch must have worn out, since my head began to buzz again. I was also out of gum. I just held tight to my senses, even though what I wanted to do was explode and tell Jeanette what I thought.
Howard smiled at everyone. And his happiness seemed contagious since everyone began to smile, to be content with each other. It was as if without words he was saying not to let our own tension, our own nerves, take the best of the moment.
I smiled at Jeanette and she gave what I guessed was the closest she could come to a true smile.
The next morning a lot of family showed up, but Howard remained unconscious, gasping for air. We all formed a circle and had a prayer.
A nurse came in and went away, other people came went. We all went in and out of the room. Waiting, not knowing if we should hope, not knowing if it would be another day, another hour, another minute, all punctuated by Howard’s deep desperate breathing, as if he was trying to remain here a minute longer.
I went outside of the room, feeling tired, dirty, with bad breath and still craving a cigarette and another patch. Then I noticed something—peace, silence. I turned and looked at the bed, at Howard. He lay motionless, breathless, quiet.
“Jeanette, Valerie, nurse, nurse,” I screamed and went in the room. I held his hand, still warm. A few seconds before, a man was fighting for his life, now all that was left was without motion. Had he just left?
The nurse arrived in the room. The relatives that had napped on the chairs got up and began to weep. Jeanette and Valerie and Annie and Shelby and Jane and everyone came in. Voices and weeping and screaming and talking and buzzing and thinking, three weeks, three fucking weeks, and buzzing and voices and weeping filled the room, but for once I did not crave. All I could do was hold his hand—hard—maybe yank him back to this side.