I just took a walk around the emergency floor. I don’t understand how someone can have the constitution to be an ER nurse. I don’t get it. But I’m glad they’re here.
I got some texts that scared the hell out of me so I raced here to St. Mary’s. Her immediate family and some friends were surrounding her bedside. I had just been watching The Roosevelts with Jamal and Tater Tot. I’d even dozed off a few times. But when I saw the number six, I knew the evening had changed. During my hurried drive to the hospital, I recalled that I’d recently taken a picture of a set of die displaying the number six on Marcella’s patio table. As I took the picture, I thought, “I bet six will mean something to me soon.”
Her aunt told me “this could be it.” I walked out of the house into a beautiful, late summer evening. Everything looked the same but somehow fake.
A priest came in to do last rites. I didn’t know who called him and I didn’t know if he knew anything I didn’t about her chances of making it through the night. I hugged her mom very tight while he prayed.
I started to wonder whether or not I could take the stress of the evening. My thoughts began to race. I tapped the brakes by telling myself, “just breathe.” I looked at the ground and focused on the rhythm of my breath.
Once I knew I was stable, I focused on trying to connect with her. I tried everything I could think of. Squeezing her hand, singing into her ear, looking into her eyes and smiling.
Suddenly, hours had passed. She was stable but not speaking. I looked into her eyes again and said, with blind optimism, “remember to wave at that priest on your way out of the hospital.”
Her Aunt Laura shared a story with me. That afternoon, she asked her where she would be if she could be anywhere in the world. She said she wanted to be in Chapel Hill with Laura and me. She said we’d probably “have to” go to a coffee shop first, as I’d demand it. She laughed, apparently for the first time in a while. “Then he would drag us to a vinyl store.” She smiled, apparently for the first time in a while.
I am loved. A lot.
It is the next day. I can feel that last night was full of moments that I will have with me for the rest of my life. Terror, sadness, but also another vivid reminder that the human animal is capable of so much strength. We can take on so much more than we’d think we can. Yes, a part of me started to panic. But we have the ability to pause and take control. Somehow, I experienced that evening, safely drove home (well, after getting lost in the hospital for twenty minutes), and allowed Jon Stewart’s humor to ease me to sleep.
The next day, I tried to tag along on a thrift store journey my mom and sister were undertaking, but I just couldn’t handle being out in the world. I needed to stay seated and limit my time talking to people. I was beginning to grieve and I instinctively gave myself the space to do it.
I can’t imagine what Marcella was thinking as a priest came in to pray for her soul. I probably won’t ask. It is terribly sad to contemplate, but it’s no less true that she is on better drugs than any of your college friends - 24/7 - and could conceivably be in less pain than anyone around her.
It is the next day. I am in a room labeled Quiet Room. It largely lives up to its name. I can hear Steve Harvey Steve Harveying down the hallway, but only a little bit. I’m pointing my exhausted stare at Center City Philadelphia’s big, blue skyscrapers. I can’t tell you the name of these buildings; I’m from out-of-town. I like them. They remind me of being a little kid and returning home from a trip.
I’d been staring at them for about ten minutes before I realized that the relatively small, concrete-colored high-rise in front of them has a team of two men dangling from it. I am trying to decide if they’re window washers, creeps from TMZ, or Spiderman’s understudies. I want to go to Marcella’s room and get my camera, but some part of my psyche needs me to be still and passively gaze at a huge city that needs nothing from me.
I’ve taken on a lot in the past forty-eight hours. Not nearly as much as her, though.
Every once in a while, even in the first month I knew her, she would break down and cry at the thought of her cancer returning. She feared I would leave if it did. After all, she’d met a guy who was looking to date casually, unprepared for a commitment, and not afraid to tell her so. My house had burned down the week before we met and my Dad had suffered a series of strokes just weeks before that. My goals in dating were not the most high-minded ones. I just wanted to let off some steam, not risk adding something new to my life that I might lose.
She mentioned cancer on the first date. It says a lot about her that she took the risk of immediately warning me that things could go terribly wrong. It must have been very difficult to let down her guard for me, but when she did, I think she was hooked. I didn’t fully comprehend how lucky that made me. We’d go to one of our favorite restaurants, walk around Newtown, get a cup of tea. Hand-in-hand. She made everything seem OK. I was the luckiest guy in the world.
We basically had one good year. We didn’t know it was a good year at the time. It was actually pretty damn hard. But we both had our health. Health is huge.
I emailed her on a dating website because she was creative, pretty, and she was wearing a white fedora. I think I kept it simple and said “nice hat.” Simple works. We met at the Starbucks near her house. She was curvy but concealed. Dressed exactly like herself. Enough hair to make a very comfortable pillow if you really needed to. Enough funky, layered fabrics to make some classy pillowcases and comforters if you really needed to.
Comforter. That was her. I thought I wanted fun minus love. I ended up getting both.
I said “that ‘was’ her.” That’s misleading. Over the past two days, the total amount of communication she gave me was one squeeze of the hand. That’s it. No words. I don’t even remember if she kissed me back when I was on my way out last night. But I still felt a warmth in my heart because I was with her. So, now you could say it’s love minus fun. The opposite of what I thought I wanted. No travel. No sex. No humor. Literally ONLY love. Love and only love.
She did kiss me back on Tuesday. It caught me by surprise. She seemed to become agitated when I said I was leaving. I stayed for a few more hours just in case that’s what she wanted. I drew a little post-it note doodle of us and left it at the foot of her bed. She, the little short-purple-haired lady, me the overgrown beatnik.
Prior to this week, all of the changes that occurred were gradual. One thing at a time. She CHOSE the moment to shave her hair off. She CHOSE to dye it purple. She decided she would spend her time painting. She started using a wheelchair, but SOME walking was possible. With Monday’s rapid succession of seizures, she lost her ability to communicate with ease. We’ve just gotten a few words all week. Over these seven months, I’ve cried my face off, I’ve had moments of shock, moments of grieving.
This is different. She’s in there but I can’t reach her. To imagine that she’s conscious of everyone’s presence but can’t access the ability to speak hurts me deeply. It might improve. I have to be ready for the possibility that it won’t. Either way, I imagine I will leave this chapter of my life with a radically changed appreciation for many easy-to-take-for-granted elements of the human condition. Certainly communication.
In the meantime, I decided I would sing and play for her. It is my superpower; the one thing I can do that no one else in her circle can. It’s also something I can do that doesn’t require her to be anything but a listener. I played her some of Robyn Hitchcock’s most beautiful songs - “Heliotrope,” “Full Moon In My Soul,” “Raymond Chandler Evening,” and “Alright, Yeah.” No applause but it’s OK - I already know she likes my voice.
This place is gorgeous. It’s a hospice facility and apparently the best one in the region. Two days ago, I was fascinated by the job of ER nurses, the idea that catastrophic medical events are a NORMAL part of your day. Today, I am fascinated by people who work in hospice facility, a place where death is the expected end result for every resident.
It is the next day. I keep saying that because it feels like it’s been the same day since Monday. On some level, I’m getting used to this new normal. Once I’m off Philadelphia’s horrendous highways, I enjoy being downtown on foot a lot. We are right across the street from OCF Coffee House, a café so progressive that I almost feel wrong being heterosexual. As I stopped in for a latte and a snack, I realized there were an equal amount of people and dogs there. Perfect. I try to read a little of the Leadbelly biography but I’m having trouble focusing.
I go back to the facility and see Stella The Dog, accompanied by Marcella’s sister and her friend Julia. The ever-restless Stella lets us know she wants to go outside again, so we walk back to Lombard Street. Stella moves down the sidewalk at about an inch per minute, apparently overwhelmed by the variety of piss on every tree, bush, sign post, and curb. The world is suddenly much bigger to Stella, but she’s still only seen about two roads in her life.
Stella was born in Wisconsin on Valentine’s Day 2014. Stella doesn’t know it, but she is a therapy dog. As she entered the world, Marcella and I were at Blue Sage, her favorite restaurant, and she was experiencing the beginning of the pain of her tumor. She was having trouble reading the menu. She ordered something, practically at random, and was ultimately unable to eat it. I was aggravated that we were having such a hard time connecting. I didn’t understand why I had to read the menu to her. I sometimes feel a twinge of guilt about that, but I remind myself that I had no way of knowing what was happening to her. When we were back at my home and we realized her pain wasn’t subsiding, I tried my best to massage the pain away. It didn’t work.
Now, it’s September. Seven months into “six to twelve months.” It’s an honor to be part of her life as she fights her final battle.
Aunt Laura said, “there are blessings we are given in life and this is one of them. It was shorter than we would have ever wanted, but it’s a blessing just the same.”