The Loathsome Promise
Just a little longer. This is the thought that fills my mind, lying under the thick plastic tarp of my oxygen tent. Just a little longer. A handful of tubes connect my body to a dozen machines, some pumping, some draining; fluids traveling on one-way streets, coloring their respective pipelines based on function: some red, some yellow, some clear, all nauseating. I’ve never enjoyed the smell of hospitals, and this room is the worst. I’ve lived the sterile smell of alcohol and the putrid smell of piss and death for months and I’m still sick lying in this bed.
I’ve been married to these machines for longer than I can remember, which isn’t saying much since I can’t remember yesterday, or last week, or even last year, with any clarity. It’s the little things that fade: what I ate for dinner last night, the name of the nurse who bathed me last week, that trip we took to the Grand Canyon – the evidence of which I see every morning in the photograph on my night stand. I like to remember you as you were in that photo: your cheeks flushed pink – I assume from the wind – your lustrous walnut-colored hair whipping in front of your face.
The big events are there, however fuzzy, like Kindergarten crayon drawings – half outside of the lines in distorted and unnatural colors. The most recent of which is watching your unconscious form being wheeled in on that hospital bed, your body mostly bones, your skin dry and thin like the peel of an onion, and your once-beautiful hair now thin, and flat, and grey. I planned it this way, you know – my master plan – that we would be together at the end. After all the years you spent by my side, insisting you would be there “just in case,” but knowing perfectly well I would recover, I would survive. I wasn’t about to let you get away with my not being there when it was your time.
I was not meant to survive. If the human body has an expiration date, mine would have been around age thirty. God, or fate, or nature singled me out to pass on and make room for others more worthy, and yet, here I am still breathing, still pumping blood, still producing waste, all thanks to the modern age of technology…and a promise not to die.
A promise I made to spare you the pain of life without me. (What a selfish thought.) A promise I would keep because I loved you too much to put you through that kind of pain, instead of letting you go to find love and happiness beyond me. Like the petals of a daisy, I can pluck at each of my tubes and count the ways in which you also love me.
This tube…the one to my cardiac pump…is most recent. What started as dysrhythmia escalated to embolism and infarction. At first we were content to lump me in with the rest of obese America. We even joked about the pacemaker being our world’s new rite of passage for men over fifty, but, when none of them were strong enough to keep me ticking, we had to move into the realm of experimental medicine. You sat by me for days while this machine pumped my blood back and forth, keeping me alive, but also keeping me cold – unable as they were to find a way to insulate the blood that ran, artificially, through my veins. You would pile on the blankets and beg to cuddle in my hospital bed – any way you could make me more comfortable. You’d have done it, too, if it weren’t for all of the other tubes you might have kinked or pulled from their sockets.
I had to send you home eventually. You were missing work; and sleeping in an upright chair, night after night, wasn’t doing anything for your personality. (I felt like I was living with a live version of Maxine from those Hallmark cards your sister would send you.) You were getting on my nerves, and I think my gallery of machines was getting on yours.
This one is dialysis. We sat in the basement and played Phase 10 or watched movies with the technician hovering over our shoulders, his long hair and patchouli smell gave us hours of groovy conversation, and I swear he was helping you cheat. The hum of the pump and the beep of the machine made an awkward added soundtrack to our films, but we shut it out and never spoke of it. We treated that machine and the technician like ghosts in the room, both of us too frightened to acknowledge the truth.
Oxygen was the beginning of the end, really. Having to lug that tank around put a dampening spirit on the outdoor adventures we liked to have. It’s difficult to go hiking through the redwoods with an oxygen tank. Sliding it in a stroller and pretending it was the child we could never had didn’t help hide the truth. I think we both knew that the radiation killed off more of my lungs than the doctors wanted to admit. Emphysema was just a convenient excuse to prescribe oxygen treatment. I hadn’t smoked for over a decade, and even a pack every two weeks can’t compare to years of L.A. smog or all that time in the sublimation factory.
I could barely drag in enough breath to satisfy walking from the bed to the sofa without sucking down liters of oxygen from that tank, so finding the energy to be intimate was next to impossible. Still, we found creative ways of enjoying ourselves, embracing the technology that would eventually consume our lives, but even those orgasms now seem a specter of what I remember them to be. Of course, we both know my memory is suspect.
Then, of course, there was that first incident. The cancer. Lymphoma. You sat by my side while my veins turned black from that chemical poison, and my body fluctuated between rejecting all food and seemingly absorbing every scrap in sight as if through osmosis. My body changed from lean and thin to bloated and round. We played dress up when my hair fell out, and I put on a show of nihilism and apathy because I needed you to stay calm. Your panic may have amplified my own, so we carried on in our usual fashion and we kept our own council, using the comfort of darkness and solitude to silently weep our fears into already tear-stained pillows.
That was when I made you that stupid promise, sitting in that giant, comfortable chair – uncomfortable with the first of many tubes in my arm – allowing the chemo to soak into my system, allowing it to plant the seed of all future health issues. Had I known it would have taken this long, I would have kept my mouth shut. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I will outlive you all.” And so I have. And so I will continue…for just a little longer.
I know the end is closing. Your breath has become ragged, like gravel bouncing around inside a balloon, and that makes me smile because it reminds me of how God-awful you used to snore, and how I would only have to reach out and hold your hand for you to mumble and roll over, sound asleep and silent once more.
I pull myself into a sitting position and reach out and fumble with the zipper of my plastic tent. The nurses would scold me if they caught me now, but it doesn’t really matter. We are close enough. Through the zipper hole, I have just enough room to reach out my hand and twine my fingers through yours. Your fingers are stiff and cold and feel like dried prunes, and for just a moment I think I feel the strength of your grip against mine, and it seems almost instantaneous that your gravel breathing stops. You don’t mumble or roll over. You are simply silent, your hand loose in mine.
“So be it,” I say. I don’t know why those words come out. My mind is thinking, it’s about damned time. I’m exhausted, and I’m ready. I shed no tears. I know we will be together again soon enough. From my sitting position, I reach out and unhook each of the machines feeding me life. I lay back in bed, listening to the soundtrack of my own death, an electric orchestra of beeps, as darkness comes and I fade away.