By Edward Lee
She is unable to think of a different word to describe how she feels, a more sympathetic word, one that doesn’t sound so unkind, mercenary. So, solely to herself, silently, almost like a prayer, like she is speaking to a God she hasn’t believed in since she was a teenager, when cancer took both her parents in the same year, despite her endless visits to the church and her repeated prayers before the cross, a God her husband believed in deeply, even towards the end, she says it in the only way she can: she is relived. She is relieved he is dead. Relieved for him yes, all those years of pain over, but also relieved for herself, relieved that her life no longer has to suffer along with him, that her life need no longer be curtailed by his illness.
She feels sick thinking this thought, and there is a taste on her tongue as though she has vomited. Or, she had spoken the word aloud and it had stained her taste buds. Sick and, yes, relieved that she is able to think this thought, able to admit it to herself, that the thought she has guiltily considered for so long has finally become a reality.
She has freedom again. And yet, yet, the person she wants that freedom with, the person she always wanted that freedom with, even as he was the once keeping that freedom from her, is gone.
She thinks she might cry, sitting in her car outside the funeral home, preparing herself to enter and collect her husband’s ashes, if she were not already crying.
Because of clever investments they would be able to retire early. She was fifty-five, he was fifty-six. They were going to see the world. They had travelled before, of course, with one foreign holiday a year, and several trips to various counties around Ireland scattered through the winter and autumn months, but the foreign holidays were never more than two weeks, and the county trips were usually just weekend getaways, sometimes stretching to four days. The trips they would take in retirement would be a month long, two months, and they would cover every corner of the globe. The holiday wouldn’t be over before it had begun, and they wouldn’t have to return before they wanted to; she hated returning, the coming back, hated leaving wherever it was they had been when there was still so much to do, so much to see. She hated returning to the working life, though she did not need to work, her husband earning enough money to support both of them, especially with the children grown up and living their own lives. But she had to work, if for no other reason that she had to do something, especially since the children were all grown and living their own lives. She wasn’t someone who could do nothing, sit around the house, watching television while her husband was out all day at work. Yes, she could have volunteered in a charity store, but wasn’t that working for no money. If she was going to work for free she would rather it be something she enjoyed, and she didn’t think she’d enjoy working in such places, handling people’s secondhand clothes and unwanted ornaments.
No, she decided she would stay working where she was, secretary to an estate agent, right up until their retirement date, and then they would be busy traveling, sightseeing, climbing mountains, going on cruises, whatever they wanted to do whenever they wanted to do it. They deserved it. She deserved it. She had worked hard all her life, worked and raised three children, ensuring that that they were always fed, dressed, looked after; she had given so much of her life to her children, and while she did not regret one single minute of all that time, she was happy when the last one had moved out and she could stop being so directly responsible for them.
And then her husband had hurt his back.
It was, by all accounts, barely more than a stumble, a plank he was walking on slipping, his feet slipping with it, causing him to fall on his back, the point of a carelessly placed shovel piercing the skin just above the waistband of his trousers. He shouldn’t have been there, on that building site, but their eldest son was building his own home and had wanted them to see it in progress. She hadn’t wanted to see it, and not just because she didn’t get on with her son’s wife, how she seemed to always be looking down her nose at everyone, or not just because of that. She simply hadn’t wanted to go, traipsing through dirt and mud and dust.
The funny thing was, if any aspect of it could be classified as funny, beyond the piercing of his skin, there was no other damage. No nerve damage, no damaged spine, no slipped discs, no pierced organs. Just that one cut; three stitches and he was back home that night. There hadn’t even been that much pain. Some discomfort, he had said, but nothing worse than a stubbed toe, or a paper cut.
Their official retirement was a week later, and by that stage he was feeling no pain at all.
Of course, that changed. Then everything changed.
He woke her up in the middle of the night, grunting through clenched teeth. At first she thought he was having a heart-attack and instinctively reached for her phone, but he eventually managed to get the words out: “my back”.
She had helped him from the bed and as he slowly, carefully, stood the pain seemed to lessen, before disappearing completely as he tentatively took a few steps up and down the landing. Within half an hour he was back in bed and snoring, and she lay beside him, falling back into her own sleep, even though her heart had been racing only minutes before.
A week later, as they stood in line at a bookstore, their arms ladened with Lonely Planet guides to Greece, Paris and Spain, the first countries on their limitless itinerary, his back spammed so hard he had to be held up and led to a chair; when he tried to sit down the pain grew worse and he actually vomited, all over himself, and on her arm. She nearly got sick herself, from the smell of it, the feel of it on her skin.
“Like a hot poker being shoved up my spine,” he told her later as they waited in the waiting room to see their doctor, she sitting, he standing because he couldn’t sit, though the pain wasn’t as bad as it had been. It was an emergency appointment, though they still were not seen for an hour after their allocated time.
Every single test that followed, from x-rays and MRI scans to blood-tests and, horribly, urine and stool samples, stretched across five months, revealed nothing whatsoever except, despite that he was in pain, clearly in pain, there was no reason for him to be in pain.
After all these tests and the frustratingly unhelpful results, their doctor sent him to a psychiatrist, which infuriated her. Did they think it was all in his mind? If so, it was a cruel trick for a person’s mind to play. He took it in his normal stoic way, which infuriated her all the more, which again maddened her because his calmness no matter the situation was one of the many things which made her fall in love with him when they first met. The pain was now so great and regular, he couldn’t sit for longer than an hour, couldn’t walk distances farther than a few feet without needing to stop, couldn’t sleep for longer than two, three hours at a stretch. They couldn’t even go to the movies together, a weekly tradition they had had since they first started dating so many decades before, no matter the movie that was showing, the joy more in the sitting together, a popcorn between them, their hands gently held.
He was prescribed every painkiller imaginable, the names blurring together in her mind as one; when one did not work, it would be changed to another, the doctors trying to find the right combination, which meant he seemed to adjust to the side-effects of one tablet, only for it to be changed and he’d have to start all over again. He was also given several injections directly into his back, the doses so strong he would feel ill for days after. And it was all for nothing, because no matter the combination of tablets, or the frequency of the injections, the pain remained.
One time, sitting down, the pain was so bad he couldn’t stand up and he ended up wetting himself. She wasn’t sure which of them had been more mortified, especially when she had to help him stand up and get out of his soiled trousers and pants.
As she had led him to the shower he started to cry, the first time she had ever seen him shed tears. When he was in, curtain drawn, she had herself cried, silently. Later, she had thrown out the clothes he’d been wearing, even though they were expensive, unable to bring herself to clean them, the sight and smell of them turning her stomach. The sight of them alone had made her want to start crying again, though she was able to hold in the tears that time.
It felt like their life was over, the part of it which had yet to begin, the part where their responsibilities were limited to themselves only. In such a short time, their dream of travelling the world, going on their cruises, was simply that, a dream. Unattainable. Impossible.
He insisted she should go away herself, and though she was tempted, she wouldn’t deny that, she knew deep down she wouldn’t enjoy herself, not without him, and certainly not with the thought of him home alone, constantly in pain.
The children helped, of course, but there were some things he did want them to help with, or see. It wasn’t proper, he said, for them to help him shower, or go to the toilet, or clean up after him after he’d had an accident. It wasn’t right for her either to have to do those things, he would add, unable to look her in the eye, but she would shush him and tell him she loved him, which was true, which was always true, even during those times she had to wipe his behind; nothing to do with having accidents, there were just times when he couldn’t turn to wipe himself without his back exploding in pain, and she would hear him struggling, biting down on the pain, trying to battle though it so as not to disturb her, and she would sigh, stop whatever it was she was doing, and go and help him.
They talked of getting some home help, and eventually hired someone to help out a few days a week, but he wasn’t comfortable with a stranger doing all that he needed help doing, though he never said so. She just knew, as a wife knows her husband of thirty-six years. The help still came, but only to do some light housework, so it wouldn’t be left to her if they’d had a particularly hard day with his back – she was glad to say goodbye to the housework, never being that fond of doing it, but resigned to it as a duty, akin, but not necessarily similar, and certainly not as rewarding, to raising the children.
So, she did most of the work, taking some time to herself when the children came, but not to much time, because, as often as they did come, more since their father’s accident, they didn’t always bring their children, her grand children, and she never passed up an opportunity to spend time with them; they were all at that perfect age where they were out of nappies but still at stage when the slightest thing amused them, never getting bored, and never complaining about being bored, which, in her opinion, was the hardest age for the parents, with a dramatic slide down yet to come.
She had to delete her Facebook account. She’d only opened it a year previous, surprising her three children when she sent them all a friend request, all of them struck with that usual blindness children seem to have when it comes to looking at their parents; all three of them had texted her immediately to make sure it was her and not some identify thief. She’d enjoyed playing games on it, and rediscovering people she hadn’t seen in years. She especially liked looking at other people’s photographs of their holidays, all those foreign places she had yet to see. It was these photographs which had let her to delete the account; she couldn’t look at them now without feeling a hard sadness and, yes, a raw jealousy right in the centre of her chest.
Again and again her husband said you go, go somewhere. But she couldn’t. She was tempted, extremely tempted, catching herself plotting routes in her head before realising what she was doing and admonishing herself for it, then, unfortunately, taking her resultant bad mood out on her poor husband; it felt like an act of betrayal, both the plotting and her subsequent snapping at him.
Some nights as she lay in bed, listening to him walking up and down on the landing because the pain had woken him, whispering a combination of prayers to himself, she wondered why the doctors could find no cause for his pain. They’d been to see a pain specialist, someone whose only job was the management of pain, but he’d been unable to find anything. He said that her husband’s problem wasn’t as uncommon as it seemed. Several thousand people suffered from chronic pain syndrome a year.
Yes, but she was only married to one of them, and didn’t care about the rest.
It was on those night too that she wondered was he faking it. She instantly felt guilty thinking this, but that didn’t mean the thought went away. It would fester in her mind for days. What the doctor had not told her, but she had found out herself, searching online to see if there might be some alternative medicine solutions, was that there there were thousands of people who faked similar symptoms of pain to get out of everything from working to spending time with their children. Was her husband faking it? Did he not want to be travelling the world, going on cruises? Or he did, but just not with her? Wasn’t he insistent that she go without him? She had never had cause to doubt his love for her, but if there was no cause for the pain, then what else was there? Everything had to have a cause, didn’t it? Wasn’t there some famous expression about equal reactions?
Then, unable to move with the pain, he would either wet or soil himself, and she knew he wasn’t faking and she would feel all the more guilty for thinking such horrid thoughts about the man she had chosen to spend her life with, for better or worse, in sick and health, til death…
Three years passed like this. And over those three years the doctors continued with their x-rays and blood tests, continued prescribing him painkillers, even an anti-epilepsy pill, and continued giving him injections into his back, but they were all to no avail. It was clear that the pain was now part of him and he would never be free of it. They would never be free of it.
One night, five months before the end, he woke, though not from pain. He simply woke, and because she had grown so accustomed to him waking and possibly needing him in some way, she woke too; it had become a routine, just like when they use to go to the cinema once a week.
“I think it’d be better if I died,” he had said, almost to himself, as though he wasn’t aware she was awake, like those times he would be awake and would say his “Our Father” or “Hail Mary”, whispering least he wake her, not knowing that she had woken mere seconds after he had.
“Don’t say that,” she said, gripping his arm, before quickly loosening her grip, because, of late, even the lightest pressure on any part of his body could ignite the pain in his back.
“It’s true though, isn’t it?” he said, turning to her, and in the faint moonlight coming around the edges of the curtain she could see that he was smiling, and it was such a forced, unnatural smile, she felt like weeping, because it did not belong on his face, nor had the words he’d spoken, the defeatism in them and his tone of voice, so unlike her stoic husband. And also, yes, she wanted to weep because what he said was true. God yes, it was true.
Because of the severity of his pain, she had several vials of one of the painkillers with which she could inject him when the pain got too bad, its name, like all the others, one she could not pronounce, and felt no urge to learn how. The nurse, whose name, Linnea, she at first could not pronounce either, but learnt to do, seeing as she seemed to be their main point of contact when it came to the pain medication, had shown her how to administer it, how careful she needed to be, so as not to stick the needle in too far and hit bone, or damage some nerve, which could result in more pain, the possibility making her husband laugh like he used to do before the pain took his life over. “It can get in line,” he had said, shaking his head, his laughter continuing until it faded, like it was moving away from them.
The doctor had made a point of telling her never to give more than the recommended dosage. Too much and it could cause cardiac arrest. The nurse who showed her how to give it told her this too, almost word for word. She had even had to sign a form saying that she understand this.
There had been several times she had to give him the injection, without once causing him any injury. It made no difference to the pain, of course. If it had a voice, she could easily imagine it laughing at her, mocking her helplessness, her impotency.
Afterwards, they said it had been sudden, painless. His heart had simply stopped. He wouldn’t have been aware that it was happening, deep in sleep as he’d probably been.
But he’d couldn’t have been in a deep sleep. He hadn’t know a deep sleep for three long years. Neither had she. It just wasn’t possible.
When she’d woken that morning she was initially confused, seeing morning light coming through the curtains, with no memory of having woken in the middle of the night, as she surely must have, as she always did, usually for a few flickering seconds, her eyes opening long enough to see if he was still asleep, or waking fully because he was awake.
Unless she hadn’t woken, because he hadn’t woken.
She had turned to him with this thought in her mind, a smile on her face: he had slept through the whole night. Maybe all of this was coming to an end; the world was suddenly open to them again.
But his body was cold.
Several times over the previous five months, beginning, she was reasonably sure, after that night he woke and said he’d be better off dead, the thought of giving him an overdoes of the injection had crossed her mind. How could it not, the severity with which both the doctor and nurse had told her to be careful with the dosage seemingly emphasising it as an possible opinion? It was fleeting, yes, the thought, barely formed before she cast it aside as the vile thing that it was, but it would linger at the very edge of her perception, there, yet not there. She’d considered speaking to her husband about it, saying it in such a way that he would laugh at it, and in doing so, make her feel better for thinking it, but she was afraid that instead of finding it funny, he would see it as a viable option; she could even imagine his eyes, darkened with pain, lighting up like they used to light up every time she walked into the room, no matter how much time had passed since he’d last seen her.
What if he wanted to do it? Or worse, asked her to do it?
No, she said nothing, and each time the thought tried to rise in her head, she threw it aside, her body shuddering, as though someone had put a snow ball down her back, which their son had done when he was nine, and the shock had been so great, the coldness so sudden and severe, she had spun around and, without thinking, slapped him hard across his face – the first and last time she ever slapped any of her children, the confused fear in his eyes so much like the look in her husband’s eyes when he had said it would better if he died.
The night he died, it had come upon her, the thought of giving him the overdose. She had pushed it away, of course, but not immediately. That evening had been particularly bad, the pain starting at 5.00 in the evening and continuing relentlessly on until midnight, at which time he went to bed, finally able to lie down. He had cried with the pain, and standing beside him, wanting to touch him, hold him, but afraid to make the pain any worse, she had felt an almost burning heat coming of his body, and she could actually smell the sweat leaving his pores, the pain pushing it out as it burned him from the inside out. Barely a day passed without him shedding some tears with the pain, but that night he had cried for a solid hour, and needed her to give him the injection, a nearly impossible task for her to perform he was shaking so much. But she had managed it, and gave him the prescribed amount, no more than that. It hadn’t even crossed her mind to give him too much, that thought only coming later, when he was asleep, his body still radiating heat. It would be a relief to him, an end to his pain. So what if it meant that she would be arrested, maybe sent to prison; how different would prison be from the life she had now?
She had cried then, at his pain, his life, at the thought that her life was a prison, the reality of it, and the cruelty of thinking it, the selfishness of it. She had cried, silently, so as not to wake him, and there was something different in those tears than in all the tears she had shed over the past three years; they had seemed to empty her, hollowed her out, leaving nothing inside but a dull echo of her husband’s pain. When she stopped crying, such a tiredness came over her that her last thought was that if she didn’t sleep the whole night through after this, then she never would; she remembered smiling slightly at the thought.
She didn’t wake once, while beside her his heart stopped. He stopped. His three years of pain over.
And now this one last thing and then the rest of her life could begin. The life they both wanted, but only she can now enjoy. Which he would want her to do. Which he wanted her to do even while he was alive, even while he was in pain, even when it meant that she would go without him.
She feels cold, sitting in the car for so long. How long, she’s not sure. It’s 3.25 now, but she doesn’t know what time she got here at. An hour maybe, two? She’s not ready yet. Maybe another five minutes then she’ll go in. The children offered to collect them, but she said no. They offered to come with her, but again she said no. She wanted to do this alone. Wanted to be alone after the noise and hustle of the past few days, people coming and going, offering grief she didn’t want, barely able for what she already had, shaking her hand, hugging her, asking her was she was okay, offering their services if she needed anything, anything at all. She wanted silence. Wanted this last moment with him, this moment with him without pain.
She doesn’t know what she will do with his ashes; he wanted to be buried, but she did not like the thought of him been buried under ground, all that weight pressing down on him. And she doesn’t like graveyards. Never has. Not since her parents died. She doesn’t want to have to visit a graveyard every birthday, every Christmas, every anniversary. Every day she misses him, which will be every day. Ever day. She missed her parents every day, but hasn’t been to their graves in years.
She’s thought about keeping the ashes in the house, keep him near. Someone told her you can get special lockets in which you can keep a small amount of ashes; that way she could bring him with her when she travels. Her children thinks it’s too morbid, keeping the ashes in the house and around her neck.
She might do that, keep them in the house. Buy that locket and wear it. She can do whatever she likes, after all.
She looks at the time and see’s that twenty-eight minutes have passed instead of five. She’ll give it the full half hour then go in. Two more minutes. This one last thing and then anything she wants. Anything at all.
Again she feels like she might cry, but she’s already crying. She doesn’t think she has stopped, as a pain she knows there is no cure for burns in her chest.
About the Author:
Edward Lee‘s poetry, short stories, non-fiction and photography have been published in magazines in Ireland, England and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen and Smiths Knoll. He is currently working on a novel. He also makes musical noise under the names Ayahuasca Collective, Lewis Milne, Orson Carroll, Blinded Architect, Lego Figures Fighting, and Pale Blond Boy. His blog/website can be found at https://edwardmlee.wordpress.com