Sundays in the Russell household were usually quiet – relatively quiet, at least. There were no nurses or other hospice staff bustling about, taking Rob’s blood pressure, asking him how he feels, checking his skin for bed sores. In the near future, Mel knew, that would change. Soon, there would be nurses daily, and she would even have to hire private nurses to care for him at night.
She would feed Rob his breakfast, usually poached eggs on toast. She always let the yolks soak into the toast to soften it, and then she would cut the toast into small bites to make sure he did not choke. She would hold his coffee cup so he did not spill the hot liquid down the front of his pajamas. She had considered buying a Sippy cup for him, but she was afraid it would embarrass him and emphasize how helpless he had become. During the week, when she was expecting caretakers early in the morning, or when Rob slept especially late, she gave him cinnamon rolls or cheese Danish to save time.
When Rob had eaten all the breakfast he wanted, Mel would wheel him into the bathroom to brush his teeth and wash his face. She would do a quick sponge bath and then dress him in a clean sweatshirt and pants, all while he was still sitting in his wheelchair. It took some gymnastics to get his pajama bottoms down and the sweatpants on, but it was doable. Soon though, even changing his clothes would be impossible to do by herself .
Mel would pivot Rob from his wheelchair to a lift chair in the living room and tune the television to CNN so he could listen to the news while she cleared away the breakfast dishes and started a couple loads of laundry. Every few minutes she would look in on him to make sure he was comfortable or to see if he needed a drink.
One of the hospice nurses complimented Mel on how tidy she kept her house and how Rob was always dressed in fresh clothes and sleeping on crisp sheets.
“You wouldn’t believe what I see on my rounds,” she said. “Some of my patients live in absolute squalor.” Mel prided herself on her care of her husband.
As overwhelmed as Mel sometimes felt with the traffic in and out of her house during the week, she assumed Rob sometimes tired of everyone fussing over him, but on a Sunday morning, as she passed his chair, thinking he was asleep, he reached for her arm. “Sit with me a while, would you,” he said. “I get so lonely.” She was surprised that anyone could be lonely when he was constantly surrounded by warm bodies tending to his every need.
“Oh, Honey, of course.” She pulled a chair next to his recliner, close enough that she could rest her head on his chest.
“We need to get your strength up so we can go to the lake this summer. Would you like that?” Rob nodded. Both of them knew that would never happen.
She sat for a few minutes, snuggling with him, stroking his cheek, and then, noticing how rough his skin was, she got up and went into the bedroom for the cream the nurse had given her. She rubbed the cream on his arms and legs and face and then headed back to the kitchen to make lunch for them both.
On weekdays, someone was ringing their doorbell as early as 8:00 in the morning, the last visitor leaving as late as 5:00 or 6:00. Their daughter Jen and son-in-law Brian came almost every day for supper, but they didn’t count, since they either brought take-out or Jen whipped up a meal so Mel could relax. Sometimes there were three or four visitors a day carrying food, books and magazines, or zippered hold-alls full of medical supplies. Although she knew it was her problem, Mel felt obligated to offer coffee or cold drinks to each of them. (That last summer had been unusually hot. Even the coffee drinkers were asking for iced tea or canned sodas, which meant she had to provide them with glasses of ice and coasters so they wouldn’t set their wet glasses on her wood tables.) Each day left her feeling exhausted and resentful at the lack of privacy.
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, a hospice nurse did a brief exam. Usually, it was Gina, Rob’s favorite, although he like Cheryl, too. He loved to hear Gina’s stories. Plump and rosy, with a laugh like Christmas morning, Gina told Rob about her children and life on the small farm she and her husband owned just outside the city. She chattered nonstop as she took his blood pressure and checked him over for ulcers and rashes – – and “lumps and bumps,” as his oncologist called them — and grilled him about his symptoms, which he rarely admitted. His usual response to “How are you feeling today, Mr. Russell?” was “Old.” She would always reply: “Me, too!”
Rob was more interested in hearing about how her son was learning to collect the few eggs the foxes didn’t get and how her daughter was begging for a pony now that they had a barn and pasture rather than enumerating symptoms that were not going to go away, regardless of what medicines his doctor prescribed. He was dying. That was the plain and simple truth of it. He and Mel could make plans for their future, but they both knew it was just a way of denying the inevitable. A way of not having to discuss a difficult subject.
Gina told him about her dream of having fainting goats on her farm, and she showed him videos on her telephone of the little animals falling over for no reason in the pastures. No matter how many times Rob watched the videos, he reacted as if he could not believe that goats would faint, like Southern ladies swooning onto velvet couches in parlors.
On Wednesday, before she left, she managed to get Mel alone.
“How much did he sleep yesterday? His blood pressure is low. He must not have much energy.”
“He slept most of the day,” Mel said. “He woke up about 7:00, but he let me stay in bed until almost 9:00. He was back asleep by noon and slept until about 3:00. David came then to bathe him. That always wears him out, so he slept again until Jen had our supper ready at 7:00.”
“I’m concerned about you. Are you able to rest while he is asleep? If you burn out, he will have to go to a nursing home.”
“I don’t really sleep during the day unless someone else is here. I want to know when he’s awake and needs something. My neighbor JoAnn comes over most days. Sometimes, she relieves me so I can get some rest. Yesterday she stayed for about an hour, and I grabbed a quick nap then. And Jen is a godsend. She has dinner for us every night.”
Jen and Brian lived only a couple blocks away, so it was no big effort to go to her parents’ house each night after she got home from work. She and Brian had been doing it since Rob’s diagnosis. They had to eat anyway, didn’t they, and it was no more trouble to cook in Mel’s kitchen than in her own. This way, she could kill two birds with one stone, see her father and give Mel a break.
Brian sat in the front room where Rob lay in his recliner, but they seldom talked. Brian read the paper or watched the news on television. Sometimes he napped before supper. He had never had much patience with Rob’s stories, and he changed the subject quickly if he thought Rob was starting in on a long one.
On the six o’clock news, a reporter talked about the death of a local veteran, a Marine who had survived Iwo Jima. Brian was dosing, his head bobbing on his chest.
“Did I ever tell you about my buddy, who . . .?”
Brian snapped awake. “Yeah, I’m sure you did, Dad.”
“Oh, I forget who I’ve told. That’s what happens when you get old.” He lapsed into silence, and Brian started to nod off again.
Jen overheard the exchange and motioned Brian into the kitchen. “For Christsake, can you just talk to him. Like you would to anyone else. He’s not going to be around that much longer.”
“And I’m not either at this rate.”
“Don’t ask me at moment which one of you I’ll miss the most. You won’t like my answer.”
“ I just want some peace.” Brian sulked through dinner.
“Everything okay, Brian?” Mel asked. “You are very quiet tonight.”
“He had a bad day at work, that’s all,” Jen said.
Mel looked skeptical, but she did not pursue the matter. Fortunately, Rob, sitting in his wheelchair parked at the table, was oblivious. Mel sat next to him and cut up his food and lifted his glass to his mouth. In between giving Rob bites of his food, she took bites of her own food, which was often cold before she could finish it.
David came twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, to bathe Rob. He would sit Rob on a shower chair and lean in enough to keep him balanced on the seat while he sprayed him with the shower hose. Mel and Jen hated that Rob had to endure the indignity of having someone other than family bathe him, but they could no longer do it safely. David was a big guy, strong enough to hold Rob upright with one hand and rinse him with the other. After he dried him thoroughly and dressed him in clean clothes, he would help him back to his recliner, where Rob usually fell asleep, relaxed and tired from the effort to sit up.
David was all business. He wanted to get Rob bathed and move on to his next client. It was not that he was not gentle and compassionate. He was. But he was detached. He went about bathing Rob mechanically, his mind a million miles away. Mel was loathe to criticize any of Rob’s caregivers, especially since the hospice services were free to her, but her kindest description of David was that he was “efficient.” She couldn’t ever recall hearing David asking Rob how he was feeling or making any kind of small talk.
A social worker came weekly, more for Mel than for Rob. Her job was to make sure Mel had all the resources she needed to keep Rob at home. She arranged volunteers and aides to give Mel time out to go shopping or, something she only did once a month at the most, go out to lunch with a friend. Even then, Mel rushed through the meals and kept her cell phone by her plate in case she was needed at home. The social worker also offered to arrange for housekeeping, but Mel refused. What she didn’t want was even one more person invading her house.
Once or twice a month, Robin, an occupational therapist, visited to assess Rob’s needs. As time went on, she offered more and more equipment. When he could no longer propel himself in a wheel chair, she supplied a transport chair for Mel to push Rob in. She arranged for rails to be installed on Rob’s bed to keep him from falling off during the night and then for a sturdy potty chair when getting him onto the commode in the bathroom became too difficult for Mel. She helped Mel find a used lift chair, a big clunky eyesore that sat in the living room in front of the television. Mel hated that her home was beginning to look more like a hospital than a house, but she never complained in front of Rob.
A couple times a week, a minister, either Sarah or James, came to meet with Rob. Before he became housebound, Rob went to church when Mel asked him to go with her. If she didn’t ask, he was perfectly happy to sleep late, read the New York Times, work the crossword puzzle, and then catch the football or baseball game on T.V. If she had really thought about it, Mel would have been unable to think of a single time when Rob was the one who suggested going to church. Now when Sarah or James visited, he tried to be appreciative and attentive but more often than not, he was asleep by the time the minister packed up the Bible and left. Sometimes, Mel sat where she could listen to the minister read. Occasionally, she would ask questions she thought Rob should be asking. At Sarah’s last visit, Mel asked, mostly for Rob’s benefit:
“Do you think Rob and I will go to Heaven when we die?”
“The Bible tells us that God forgives us our sins when we ask for his absolution,” Sarah said.
“Did you hear that?” Mel asked Rob. “I don’t think either one of us has many sins to confess. You especially, but it couldn’t hurt to ask Him, right?”
Rob blinked into full consciousness. “Couldn’t hurt.”
Sarah led them both in prayer.
“God, please grant your forgiveness to your servants Rob and Mel for any sins they may have committed here on earth and give them the peace of knowing they will spend eternity in your loving arms. Shall we say The Lord’s Prayer?’ Mel joined her in the prayer and Rob in the “Amen.”
Mel found herself holding back tears so she would not upset her husband.
“What did I do that God would consider a sin?” Rob asked, sounding more curious than defensive.
“I don’t know. You seem like a good man to me, but that’s between you and God.” Sarah squeezed his hand. “Is there anything you would like to talk to God about?”
Mel walked into the kitchen to give Rob privacy, although she agreed that Rob had been a good man in his life. If he had some sins she did not know about, she was not sure she really wanted to hear them. Not at this point.
“Oh, I suppose there were things I had to do during the war that might be sins. I remember …”
“Let’s see what the Bible has to say.” Sarah paged through her Bible silently, looking for passages she thought would be comforting to Rob. When she finally settled on a few relevant passages, she looked up to find Rob had fallen asleep. She tiptoed away, said goodbye to Mel, and left to visit her next client.
James sometimes brought his dog with him in his visits to Rob. Mel was aghast when James asked at the end of his first visit if she would mind him bringing his dog Topper when came to meet with Rob. She did not like dog hair, especially as she was trying to keep Rob’s area as antiseptic as possible, but she said nothing. Maybe the dog would give Rob some new experiences, since his world was gradually shrinking to a couple rooms and mostly medical personnel.
James had been in the service, first in the Navy as a sailor aboard a ship during the Vietnam War and then as a chaplain. Rob seemed to enjoy his Navy stories but found they too quickly segued into religious lessons.
During a recent visit, James asked Rob if there was anything he would like to talk or pray about. “When did you get Topper?”
Mel smiled. “I think James meant what would you like to ask God, Honey.”
“That’s o.k. I see a manifestation of God in all creatures, especially good dogs like Topper.” James patted the dog’s head.
“What happens if there is a cat in the house?”
“Then the chase is on!” James laughed. He told Rob about Topper chasing a patient’s cat until it escaped to the top of a China cabinet and knocked over a vase. The cat owner was none too pleased, he said, and asked him not to bring Topper back. Mel would also have liked to ask James not to bring Topper back to her house, but if the dog gave Rob a moment’s pleasure, she would put up with him.
“Did you have a dog growing up? James asked one afternoon.
“We had a mutt we called ‘Pal,’” Rob said, warming to the memory. “He . . .”
“I bet he couldn’t do this. Topper, show Rob how you can kneel and pray.” The dog sat on his haunches, put his feet on the sofa, and bowed his head. “He learned this in one day. He’s such a smart boy.” From the kitchen, Mel frowned at the sight of Topper’s feet on her furniture.
Perhaps Rob’s favorite visitor was Carrie, one of the volunteers who came twice a week to relieve Mel so she could clean the house or go to the market. Best of all, Carrie laughed at Rob’s jokes, which were often pity laughs since he rushed the punch lines or forgot them entirely, but she acted as if the jokes were the funniest she had ever heard.
Today, as usual, she pulled up a chair next to Rob’s recliner and took his hand in hers. Mel had noticed that if Carrie didn’t seek out Rob’s hand, he would offer it to her, as if this were the part of the visit he looked forward to the most.
“How are you feeling today?”
“Nothing new. I’m getting weaker every day. I don’t want Mel to know, though.”
“She only wants to help.”
“I know, but there is no need to worry her.”
From the kitchen, Mel watched the two talking, Carrie holding Rob’s thin hand between her two fleshy hands, Rob looking more alert and engaged than she had seen for some time. She could catch snatches of their conversation and felt guilty for spying, but she wondered why Rob looked so contented. She had noticed that he never fell asleep while Carrie was sitting beside him.
“My mother took care of my Dad for a couple years. It aged her a lot.”
“What was wrong with your Dad?”
“Cancer. Same kind I have.”
“Tell me about your Dad.”
“He was a hard man. Demanding. Unforgiving. My mother’s life was miserable even before he got sick.” He told her about how his mother, who never learned to drive, would walk to the market and carry bags of groceries back home so she could fix her husband’s favorite meals after he became ill. She would roll noodles on the kitchen counter and add them along with fat dumplings to a pot of boiling chicken. She would make anything she thought might tempt him to eat, even when it was clear he was dying. Rob told her about how his mother bathed his father’s face with cool water and lavender when became feverish, all stories Mel had never heard.
Carrie never took her eyes off Rob’s face. Mel felt herself glued to the spot when she should be on her way to the market. The look on Rob’s face as he talked about his mother, a subject he didn’t talk about much with her and Jen lately, brought tears to her eyes. She sat down at the kitchen table, where she could watch Carrie and Rob and listen to them talk without being seen. The minutes ticked by when she should have been using her precious free time at the market stocking up on groceries and cleaning supplies, but she could not bring herself to leave her kitchen.
“My mother only lived a few months after Dad died,” Rob said. “She was worn out.”
Mel could hear Rob’s voice break, and she wanted to put her arms around him, but this seemed like such a private moment between him and Carrie, she stayed in her chair.
“Mom got so little out of life. She never asked for anything. My Dad was not a nice man, and she gave him everything. She sacrificed her life for him. I don’t want that for Mel. I want her to have a life after I’m gone – to find someone else to make her happy.”
“Have you told Mel this?”
“No. It’s hard to talk about me dying, for both of us. It’s like if we don’t talk about my dying, it won’t happen.”
“She’s stronger than you think, Rob.”
“I thought my Mom was strong, too, but my dad sapped the life right out of her.”
“Tell me about her. She sounds like a special woman.”
“Aren’t you tired of my stories? My family says I repeat myself a lot.”
“No, I love hearing about your family and about the Navy. We have lots of time. Tell me about your mother.”
Rob smiled and settled back while Carrie held on to his hand.
Mel sat quietly in the darkening kitchen, listening to Rob telling Carrie stories she had never heard or had forgotten. Now she was anxious for Carrie to leave so she could take her place next to Rob and hold his hand in hers – where it belonged. Then she would listen.
Nancy Lines: I worked for many years as a paralegal and taught composition part-time after earning an M.A. in English. Now that I have time to be more creative, I have been writing short stories and essays.