OUR LAST MONTHS
by Judith Helen Goode
My wife is dying of cancer.
We have been together thirty years and stayed in love for all of them. We share ideas, politics, world view, sex, fun, family. Have I left out anything? If so, we share it.
I fell in love with Charlotte’s voice first: she was a commentator on radio station WBAI in New York. Her voice had such a range: Intense, serious, saddened, amused. I listened intently to each iteration. I always listened to her commentary, of course, which I applauded. Often it had a feminist theme; always it was political (the political is personal). This was at the height of the Second Wave of Feminism, in the 1970s.
Then I met Charlotte in person and my authentic life began. She was with someone but she broke it off for me. Soon we moved in together. Our lives began to mesh. I still think her voice is the most wonderful thing about her. It’s low and perfectly modulated. Naturally, I love her body and have been on a years’ long effort with her to drop extra pounds, which she did. She is now at her ideal weight—or was before the cancer.
She saw me through my struggles with the politics of academia. Hers were less contentious because she teaches at a small, progressive college and I taught at a huge state university. I am retired now so I can write full time. Charlotte is still teaching, although she is on leave now. She is well known as a feminist scholar and writer. I am somewhat known as a fiction writer, especially in literary circles. We have always supported each other in our professions.
What I have been describing is, yes, the ideal marriage. (We only married because our tax accountant told us to; neither of us cared about marriage. In fact, Charlotte didn’t believe in marriage. I was neutral.)
My wife is dying of cancer.
We live in a loft in Soho. I would prefer a less trendy neighborhood but when we bought the loft, Soho was considered far downtown. We actually have two lofts across from each other, one for living and one for my writing studio. Charlotte has a trust fund and I have a generous pension so we pretty much did what we wanted when it came to the interior of the lofts.
We eat well, often out or take-out. Sometimes I cook a soup or a stew. Charlotte doesn’t really cook, except that she makes salads. We have many friends and many cousins on Charlotte’s side, also siblings, and grand nieces and nephews on both sides.
My wife is dying of cancer.
Charlotte and I just came home from her immunotherapy treatment. She has done chemo, which is nightmarish. Immunotherapy is easier. But just getting into a cab to go uptown is tiring. Her body has weakened. She went straight to bed. Later I’ll bring her a tray of something delicious to tease an appetite out of her. This becomes more and more difficult.
Sometimes we sit on our roof garden (ours is the top-floor loft) in summer, late spring, or early autumn. We have a gardener but we also like puttering around in the garden ourselves. Often we don’t talk. Sometimes we talk about the disastrous administration and our frustrations with it. Each of us knows the other’s history, going back to childhood. Instead, we talk about what our families are up to.
And we talk about what my life will be like after. Obviously, this is painful but it must be done. Just like my psychotherapy, which is mandatory according to Charlotte. I’m one of those lucky souls who never needed therapy…until now. I like it. It’s another view of life. And death. So I will be continuing therapy. I’ll see friends and family—a lot. There will always be someone with me to prevent suicidal impulses. And my life will be a requiem for Charlotte.
I’ll pay attention to diet and exercise. I’ll even go to the gym. I’ll take time to relax, just the way we have always done together. As I relax, I’ll think about her and all she’s given me. I’ll be grateful for the life we’ve shared.
My wife is dying of cancer.
We try for normalcy: it’s essential for our sanity. Charlotte often stays in bed in the morning in our upstairs sleeping loft. I come downstairs to the kitchen, which floats in the center of the large space that serves as dining room and living room. This space is the length of the loft. I nosh as I prepare breakfast, which is often only for me.
Once when my sister was visiting she tried to make sense of our refrigerator. She took everything out, including the spoiled take-out, and managed to make room for it on the island. Then she wiped down the inside of the frig, threw away the spoiled stuff, and arranged the good stuff as she thought we might like it. Within a few days, the frig went back to its normal state of chaos.
It isn’t that we weren’t grateful to my sister for the spic and span frig, our lifestyle doesn’t include many curated sit-down dinners. Between Charlotte’s teaching-meeting schedule and my readings schedule our daily lives were as chaotic as our frig. We thrived on that medium; we were engagé.
Naturally, as we got older, we haven’t quite kept up that pace but we’re busy. We often have company—friends, students, family—and Charlotte has a young assistant, Kim, who comes every morning “to organize my life,” as Charlotte says of herself. I myself am slightly less frenetic in style because I spend large swathes of time on my computer wrestling with a novel or a short story.
My wife is dying of cancer.
Always but even more now we put a premium on the time we spend together. It comes first. We used to go to bed at the same time so we could tell each other our day. Now our day is usually a trip to the oncologist for Charlotte’s immunotherapy session. Then Charlotte goes to bed and I sometimes nap with her. But I get up after an hour and go to my work. Immunotherapy is easier on the body than chemo but any exertion, even just taking a cab to the doctor’s office, is tiring for Charlotte.
She has made her will and signed a DNR. The book she has just written (her third) is in its final stage, and Charlotte’s assistant—bright young person that she is—has read the draft and made any corrections needed. Charlotte is slowly getting through the corrected draft to give her okay. Charlotte’s editor is very understanding about the missed deadlines and slow pace of the writing.
Just now, Charlotte surprised me by coming downstairs and into my writing loft. “Let’s go up to the roof,” she says. “I feel better.” I say, “Yes, of course—I’ll make the drinks.” I make a seltzer with just a dash of Campari for her and a gin martini for me. I follow her up the stairs, carrying the drinks and some nosh on a tray and let her hold the door for me. On the roof, just before six pm, the temperature is 75 degrees and breezy. We sit at the built-in table and circular bench and enjoy the late afternoon sun.
Charlotte’s book is a kind of memoir of her work as a feminist scholar and writer. She also writes about being Jewish. Susan Faludi was just here to give some commentary on the book, and I think this energized Charlotte. Susan has also become a good friend, and friends are especially important these days.
Charlotte has many friends. The number of visits we’ve had since she’s been sick has been almost overwhelming. Everyone wants to see her, to touch her. Besides friends, there are all those cousins of Charlotte’s. For the most part I like the cousins, among whom I prefer some over others. They’ve been surprisingly comforting in this period. Comfort has become a scarce commodity chez nous.
My wife is dying of cancer.
The wind blows gently as the sun goes down. I don’t think there’s any science to prove this but I’ve noticed that on windy days the wind seems to abate at sunset. We talk about Susan’s visit, her work as an activist, and her commentary on Charlotte’s book. On good days Charlotte gets quite a lot of work done. On bad days, not much at all. Today was a bad day but Charlotte seems to be rallying. Could she be going into remission?
We speculate. Charlotte says she feels lighter, less burdened by pain and nausea this evening. Would she like to go out to dinner? I ask. Maybe, she says. She would like to go down to Chinatown and go to our favorite restaurant there. Miso soup sounds good to her. Anything that pleases you, I say. But we make no move to get up. It’s so lovely out here on our roof garden.
I wonder how many people have wished what I’m about to wish: that we could push the stop button right here, stop time, stop the progression of our lives? Many, I would guess. But time is a bully…. Normally, we take a leisurely walk down to the restaurant. I assume we’re going to need a cab. But Charlotte says she wants to walk. Are you up to it? I ask. She tells me yes. So I grab the cap I wear since I’ve gotten bald and we’re off.
It’s a glorious evening—New York at its prime time; everyone is out. I can tell from her expression that like me Charlotte’s loving the city. I worry that the crowds will tire her but no, she’s enjoying herself. Seeing her this way, the old way, makes me feel almost giddy. I hold her arm more closely. We progress on the street.
At the restaurant, we order a selection of the dishes we used to get. Then we enjoy the hot fragrant miso soup the waitperson brings us. We’re so much in the moment, so spontaneous, so without a care this evening. We’ve not stopped time but instead nudged it just a hair back so we can treasure this good time. It’s apart from the bad days with two spaces in between—as in the old days when writers followed a period with two spaces….
My wife is dying of cancer.
Not wanting to spoil a good thing, we walk a couple of blocks, then hail a cab home. That night we make gentle love and sleep through the night. In the morning Charlotte gets up with me and takes her tea to her writing desk. I’ve urged her to type her work into her computer but she still insists on writing it longhand and giving it to Kim to type. I urge her to take a lunch break but instead she has Kim make her a sandwich and bring it to her desk.
“I want to take advantage of the day and get some work done,” Charlotte says.
I can’t argue with that. Over the next few weeks, Charlotte seems almost her old self, working part of the day and even eating a little more than before. As far as food goes, I’m always eating—every time I go into the kitchen I have a nosh. Although I wouldn’t mind losing a few pounds, my weight is pretty much stable.
Charlotte, of course, has lost weight during her illness. She is the thinnest I’ve ever seen her. It seems unfair that she gets to be thin only because of an illness that will kill her. But that is the grisly truth of cancer. During these halcyon weeks of remission, Charlotte goes to her favorite dress shop and buys a couple of dresses that fit her. I tell her that she looks ravishing and she smiles with sad eyes. It’s hard to be genuinely happy with the shadow of death hanging over us.
Yet we’re happy when the grandnieces and nephews arrive. We enjoy listening to their news, what’s happening in their lives. When they ask about how we’re doing, we always tell them the same thing: “We’re functional.” They smile at our choice of words. Over the past few weeks we’ve been able to upgrade that to “We’re well.” When they look quizzical, we explain “Charlotte’s in remission.”
In general, we don’t talk about Charlotte’s illness to anyone but the oncologist. Then we go into specifics: how she’s eating, how she’s sleeping, if the current medicine cocktail is working, etc. We like the oncologist. He’s clear and straight forward. When we asked him about how long Charlotte has, he said months, not years. We accepted that as the rules of engagement.
We take this opportunity of remission for a month in the Hamptons. The sea air is invigorating and the beaches are glorious. We go to the ocean side, then cross to the bay side, which is still water and not so cold. We float like blimps, luxuriating. On the way home, we stop at a farm stand and buy fresh vegetables and fruit. At home, we make a huge fruit salad and indulge our senses. Then we go to our writing.
My wife is dying of cancer.
Charlotte gets a lot done in the Hamptons, I less so. I’m somewhat stymied by our life prospects and tend to brood while Charlotte progresses at lightning speed. This is partially because she’s reading proofs but it moves quickly. At about three we take a nap and then head out to the beach for our afternoon swim. The water is delicious, not warm enough to be soupy and not so cold it takes your breath away. I make a foray into the ocean and ride some small waves in. Charlotte sits on the beach smiling at me.
By the time we go home we’re thoroughly satiated. We congratulate ourselves on our last-minute trip to the Hamptons and on our luck finding this airy house to rent. On the way home we stop in the village of South Hampton and buy swordfish for dinner, a treat for both of us. It’s wildly expensive but very fresh and absolutely mouthwatering. We make a salad of fresh greens, tomatoes, and vinaigrette. My eyes tear to see Charlotte eat.
Our days are blissfully the same and soon it’s time to go back to the city. Once we’re home, Charlotte begins to decline. I’m tempted to look for another house in the Hamptons but Charlotte really isn’t up to it. We lay low. We have a constant stream of visitors, however, as we did before we went away. Some of these visits are tearful goodbyes from people who live on the other side of the country or abroad.
We have a wonderful if occasionally sad visit with our Hungarian friends, whom we met in Budapest last winter. Milo is a sociologist and Magda is a novelist. We have politics and literature in common and it is a thoroughly satisfying visit. We all have a moment of tears when they leave. Then we watch a mystery on TV but Charlotte folds before it is over.
Charlotte’s friend Lizzie from Boston has been staying with us on and off and now her visit is prolonged. She helps Charlotte in the bath and combs her kinky curly Jewish hair. I sense that the time is approaching. I shut myself in the bathroom and bang my fists against the basin. Charlotte and Lizzie are in the kitchen and don’t hear me.
We have a cleaning woman but we also hire a home health aide. Lizzie can’t always be here to help Charlotte bathe and dress. The home health aide is a young vigorous woman who can hold Charlotte up in the bath and wash her. She is trained to do that kind of thing. I would help but I have a bad back. I once tried to put on blush and lipstick on Charlotte and made a mess out of it. We had a good laugh.
Luckily Charlotte finished her proofs in the Hamptons. She wouldn’t be up to it now…. Our days get shorter even though it is still summer. Charlotte can’t make it up the steep stairs to the roof so when she goes to bed I go up to the roof with a lonely sandwich.
I go to bed early and get up before Charlotte is awake (the pain pills make her sleep more than usual)). Then I can get in a few good writing hours before I go and visit Charlotte during her long morning in bed. I bring her herbal tea and toast with marmalade, which she may not be able to finish. She takes a stab at it because morning is when she typically feels best.
I lie down next to her and prop myself up on a pillow, of which there are several because Charlotte likes throw pillows on the bed. It took a little bit until I got used to it, all those many years ago when we moved in together. We had periods of adjustment to each other when we were each relatively young. And of course’s there are the stages of Charlotte’s’ illness.
We like to talk in the morning in bed when Charlotte wakes up. We talk about all the things we used to talk about: politics, our friends and family, our feelings, how I’ll wake up alone when she’s gone. I tell her that all I see is gray after. No color, no joy. You’ll heal, Charlotte says. Only enough to write your requiem, I say. And again I tell her: my life will be a requiem for you.
No, I want you to live again, she says. That won’t be possible, I say, because you’re my life. You have to look at things from another perspective, she says. What perspective? I say. My only perspective is that I’ll be without you. But friends and family—you’ll have to keep up, she says. I know, I know, I say. I’ll do my best. There’s a pause. Good, she says softly: she’s falling asleep again. That’s when I usually get up and go downstairs.
There’s a half a loaf of challah in a basket on the island. I pick at it mindlessly. I’m thinking about what to put on Charlotte’s tray when she wakes up at about eleven. That’s her pattern now at night. She falls asleep early, around seven, and wakes up again around eleven. The pain wakes her. I have her pills ready and a glass of water.
Sometimes I have to hold her until the pills take effect. Sometimes she cries from the pain. I sing to her then—Beatles songs, which are her favorites. “Will you still love me when I’m sixty-four?” We won’t make it together to sixty-four. Maybe you’ll meet someone special, she says on occasion. No, this is it, you’re it for me, I say.
She doesn’t argue—she knows better. She knows how it is with us. Like some animals we mate for life. When one mate dies, the other roams the forest alone. That’s what I’ll do; I’ll roam Soho but not alone. I’ll have the mandatory friend or relative with me. But it might as well be alone, considering my state of mind.
The pills have reached their full effect. Charlotte says she wants to play Scrabble. I get the board and set it up on the bed. It’s fun at first but she begins to fade fast. I put away the Scrabble and ask her if she wants to go downstairs. She tells me yes and that it’s time to make the pull-out sofa bed in the living room. The upstairs sleeping loft is no longer a reality for her.
I go down and make the sofa bed. Our cleaning person irons the sheets at my request. Wrinkles in the sheets are uncomfortable for Charlotte’s tender skin. When I go back to the sleeping loft I find Charlotte crumpled in a ball at the bottom of the steps. I call out her name and she says I’m all right—don’t worry. I help her to her feet. We walk slowly into the living room and I situate her on the soft sofa in an alcove of the loft.
I ask her why she was coming down from our sleeping loft. She said I wanted to do it one last time. Well I said it’s done and please no more experiments. No more experiments she repeated. I ask her if she wants anything and she says tea and toast. Oh you’re trembling! She says. I was scared I say. I’m so sorry she says. I’ll recover, I say.
I bring the tea and toast to her on a tray, tea properly brewed in a teapot and lightly buttered toast with the goose berry jelly Charlotte likes. We sit and crunch on the toast, talking about our work. I try to pretend that we haven’t reached a new stage in Charlotte’s illness. At least she’s eating something. But she barely makes a dent in the toast and says she wants to go to bed.
I pull the covers back for her and help her get into the bed. We talk for a while longer, me sitting beside her on the bed, then her eyes close. I go across to my writing loft. It’s basically for a few minutes of not thinking about Charlotte’s illness. I don’t expect to write. It’s after midnight. I sit, looking at my computer screen saver, which is a picture of Charlotte and me on the beach at the Hamptons a few years ago, before the cancer.
Those were days when our concerns were each other, our work, our activism, and our family and friends. Our health was a given. I have asthma, which is under control. Charlotte had a difficult menopause, with violent mood swings and crying depressions. When she emerged from that it was with a new peacefulness—at least on the personal side. Politically we were both in the fray, Charlotte especially in feminist politics.
Some years ago, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on prominent feminists, including Charlotte, Kate Millet, Vivian Gornick, and the late Ellen Willis. It was the first time that the mainstream media recognized the prominence of feminist activism and scholarship. The cover was a photo of the four looking determined and self-possessed. We were all proud of Charlotte and her compatriots. Remembering this recognition of Charlotte’s life’s work, I think about the loss Charlotte’s death will be to the movement.
I sit for a little longer and then go back and get into bed beside Charlotte. I’m just falling asleep when Charlotte puts her hand on my arm. I wake with a jolt and ask her what’s wrong. She says she can’t sleep. I check my watch and tell her it’s time for her pain pill. I get up and bring it to her with a glass of water. Now comes the twenty minutes until the drug takes effect. She begins to writhe. I stroke her hair.
Somehow the time passes and she becomes calm. I assume that the nights of sleeping through are over. I calculate what time it will be when the next pill is due: five am. I consider getting an alarm clock and putting it beside the bed. I decide that’s the plan and go up to the sleeping loft for the clock, which I bring down and set.
Charlotte is asleep but it takes me a little while to sleep again. Even before five Charlotte is awake and writhing. I tell her ten more minutes. I have the pills beside me and after ten minutes I give her one with water. Twenty minutes for the pill to work. I suggest a cup of herbal tea. She says yes and I get up to make it. I bring her the tea and hold the cup to her mouth. She sips, I put the cup down, then lift it again. We go on this way until she’s had enough.
I’m wide awake, she says. Shall I read to you? I say. Yes, please, she says. Her book is in the sleeping loft. I fetch it and open it to the book-marked page. The book is a novel by one of her former students. It’s good for up to forty pages, she says, citing the number of the page where we begin. I read, only mildly interested in what I’m reading. I typically read nonfiction.
Soon, Charlotte is asleep. I’m not, although I’m exhausted. I’m worrying—something I don’t often do—about this stage of Charlotte’s illness and what the next stage will be. Or if there will be a next stage. The oncologist could only estimate Charlotte’s remaining time. I was surprised that I had to hold the tea cup for her but assumed that it was because of the pain.
We have discussed hospice and Charlotte says she will only do it for the last week or so. She’ll know when it will become too much for me. We have everything planned, as well as you can plan for something like this.
The next morning, Charlotte throws up her tea and toast. So at least for today it’ll be seltzer and soda crackers. We have those items on hand. As I said, we have planned for everything. Today she sleeps later than usual and wakes up crying from the pain. I have her pill ready and sing to her for the twenty minutes it takes to work. It’s a rough twenty minutes but we get through it. She’s going to need a stronger pill. I call the oncologist and make the request. Then I call our pharmacy and ask them to notify me when the prescription is ready. At seven pm I walk the three blocks to the pharmacy and realize that I haven’t been on the street since our last visit to the oncologist. It’s jarring but also stimulating to be among the crowds.
I’m sequestered here with Charlotte in our lofts. But Soho is always popping, mainly with tourists. The nice thing about our roof garden is that we’re in the thick of things but above them where it’s peaceful. I could have waited for the pharmacy to deliver the stronger pill but I know Charlotte will need it for her next dose. I reflect that the time is getting near. Cancer doesn’t wait for people time. Soon when I go out I’ll be coming home to an empty loft. But no—I’ll fill it with visitors. I won’t want to be alone. Not for a long time.
Two weeks pass with Charlotte comfortable on the stronger pill. After that it’s injections but that’ll be at the hospice. It happens sooner than I expect: one morning Charlotte says, It’s time. I suppose the hospice stay will prepare me for the empty loft while Charlotte is still alive. She brings nothing with her—she says she’ll wear the nightgown they give her. That way, I won’t have to take anything back. Charlotte has already given away most of her clothes, which are high end and valuable. They don’t fit anymore. She’s kept only the two dresses she recently bought and her several pairs of house pajamas.
We both cry a little when I leave her at the hospice to go home for the night. It’ll be our first night apart since my last book came out and I went on a reading tour. That was when Charlotte was still teaching, before we knew about the cancer. The next book—a collection of short stories—will come out after she’s gone.
The empty loft is a shock even though I’ve prepared myself. As soon as I get in the door I turn on the radio, which is always set to National Public Radio. But I hardly listen to what the program is. I have called Lizzie and she is on her way. Tomorrow she’ll go with me to the hospice. For now, we’ve agreed that she’ll stay with me until the end. She talks a bit too much for my taste but I’m glad she’s here with me so the loft is empty only of Charlotte, which of course is everything.
At the hospice I get into bed with Charlotte and spend the day until they kick me out at nine pm. I read to her and sing to her and we talk. I spend every day like this with her. Then I go home to the loft and Lizzie, who has been at Charlotte’s side throughout. She comes with me to the hospice but leaves us alone for most of the day.
When I get home at night Lizzie has made a meal for us. I eat without appetite but with gratitude. Charlotte and Lizzie were college roommates at Cornell. She is devoted.
Charlotte is on a morphine drip that she can control. Depending on her pain level and consequently her morphine intake, she drifts in and out of a light doze. We talk around these lacunae. Mostly I hold her: I want to be her protector on this final journey she’s taking.
We have a week together this way. Then it’s over. At least I’m holding her when she goes.
My wife died of cancer.