Thursday, November 5, 2009

How I wished for you today, pt. 1

We're sitting in a tastefully, albeit minimally, decorated waiting room outside of the Intensive Care Unit, the glass doors of which are closed and locked. The only way you can get in is by picking up the telephone and dialing the extension of the ICU nurse's desk; after confirming your familial connection, you hang up the phone and the doors slide open on their own. My brain immediately names the phone "St. Peter" and I consider adorning it with the Santa beard that Melissa gave me the day before as an early Christmas present.

The five of us--my parents, my sister, Kelly, and her husband, Nathan--are awaiting a doctor's arrival. None of us have teared up yet. We're being good optimists.

I'm tapping my toe to the Steely Dan song that was playing in my car as I pulled up. If I had known what I was coming to this hospital for, if I had known about my grandmother's post-surgical aspiration that brought me to this too-quiet room in a too-quiet hospital eight days before Christmas, awaiting news that can in no way be good, I would've been listening to something more reverent, I think. Maybe some gospel music. Maybe "Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling." But no, instead, I've got "Reelin' in the Years," its uptempo shuffle translated by my foot to the firm carpet below it. Tap tap tap.

Your everlasting summer, you can see it fading fast.

As I expected, my dad remains stoic. There's a unwavering steadiness to him that we're all relying on. My mom once told me that when Gloria first met him, she wasn't too happy about her decision to marry this West Point graduate, this Yankee from California who excelled at both sports and studies, who carried himself with the a strange yet proper balance of authority and grace. It only took her a year or two to come around, though, and it's comforting that she's behind those glass doors with a heart full of adoration for her son-in-law that she came to love more than perhaps anyone else in this world.

So you grab a piece of something that you think is going to last.

Kelly appears to be having the toughest time managing things right now. She's four months pregnant, just barely showing, and she's staring right at the ground. I can see a tiny half-tear welling in the corner of her left eye, but I ascribe that to gravity. We're a teary people, the Sherwins. She's sitting with her elbows on her knees and her hands on her face like a bored twelve-year old in church, but it doesn't fool me. Every rustle, every stirring behind the glass doors of the ICU make her eyes dart to the proper corner, attempting to see if it's the doctor, clipboard in hand, with a jubilant smile on his face, my 82-year old grandmother dancing a méringue right behind him and we can all go home and have one more Christmas together. Because Christmas is a time we give things. And none of us are ready to give this yet.

You wouldn't know a diamond if you held it in your hand.

Nathan has his hand on Kelly's back. He looks like he's trying to decide whether or not she wants him to tickle it. Every thirty seconds or so, he'll kiss the side of Kelly's head and she'll sigh just quietly enough for us to know she's trying to hide it. We're all in way over our heads with this--we don't have a whole lot of experience with death--and Nathan, having married in to this clan, is at a further disadvantage. He gets along with everyone, but there was, as there so often is, a degree of tension brought about by the nuptials. He's a smart enough guy to know that he's walking on eggshells and that he's to continue to tread lightly, but he's clearly at a loss for how to do so. I know how he feels.

The things you think are precious, I can't understand.

My mom is staring out the window into the botanical gardens that have been dusted with snow and the brown cement sidewalks look like french toast with powdered sugar. Under the harsh fluorescent lights of the waiting room, she looks just like Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice. Her face maintains that special sort of blank so frequently employed by women that share her strength. It's a look of steely resolve that is cultivated by raising your younger sister when your bastard of a father leaves his family for another one quite literally down the street, disavowing the seeds he planted and the responsibilities, leaving your mother to pick up a low-income full-time job at the drop of a hat and move herself and her three children into a shitty two bedroom apartment on a bad side of town. One day, my mother, fifteen years old, comes home to find the furniture gone and a note saying that her father and his new/other/supplemental family will be moving into the house in which she had spent the previous ten years.

I wonder where my grandfather, my mom's dad, Gloria's ex-husband, is right now. I've never met the man and don't care to. He wrote me a letter when I was thirteen that I threw away unopened the second I examined the return address. My immediate family are Mormons, and when my brother Corey was on a mission for the church in Amsterdam, my mother's father wrote him a letter and asked for permission to take him and his mission companion to lunch while he was visiting for a botany conference. Corey's a bigger man than I and agreed. They apparently had a nice meal and a good conversation. I've never solicited more information about their meeting than that.

"My mother's father." He's not something descriptive like "grandfather," something friendly like "Grandpa," or something affectionate like "Grampa." He's that bastard that saw fit to abandon the two strongest women I've ever known in the dirt and complain when child support payments--which, incidentally, he never once paid--were court-mandated. I know nothing of the man outside of his misdeeds and his name: Robert. The name shared by his son (Uncle Bobby), my father (Robert), my brother (Robby), my father's father (Grandpa Bob), and my mom's sister's husband (Uncle Bob).

I wonder how a name like that takes root in a family like it has ours. It's not just my mom's side, the Purdues: it's on my dad's side, too. Maybe there's some strange Freudian explanation: my father, a decent, hard-working man, shares the name of his wife's father, a self-centered sycophant that betrays trusts and ignores decency. Is there a connection? Did my mom see in my father an opportunity to begin again, to recast her life in the light of a good man? To give Roberts worldwide another chance? If so, it was a good move. She made the right choice.

She and my father have been married for almost thirty years. In fact, their relationship has given my siblings and me an unhealthily, unreasonably high expectation for selflessness in our own relationships. Since we were children, we've all heard the story about how they met in Key West, where my dad, an Army man, was stationed at a missile base. My mom, a Navy woman, was in the midst of training when she saw him walking past a tennis court. She was attracted to how hairy his legs were, she says--a trait that is, unfortunately for my brothers and I, hereditary--and after she introduced herself, it was only three weeks before they were engaged. Only took another three for them to get married.

Six week courtship, followed by what we all assume to be another 30+ years of wedded bliss. No wonder their children are so fucked up: the example set was too good to be met. No wonder the four of us have leapt headfirst into so many horrible relationships based on some twisted, overly romantic notion of sacrifice and beauty and serendipity that exists nowhere outside of John Cusack movies and our parents' scrapbooks.

I take a small degree of comfort knowing that Kelly found happiness. She and Nathan have been married for coming up on two years, they're homeowners, and they're at the halfway mark of being able to finally add Parents to their list of qualifications. They've already decided on a name for the little guy: Emery North Jones, named for his parents' middle names (and, in a roundabout way, Gloria, whose middle name, North, was given to Kelly).

I peripherally notice Kelly putting her hand on her stomach and I wonder if she's feeling Emery kick. That boy had better be healthy. I swear to God, if this baby doesn't come out healthy and hearty as a damn ox, I'm gonna burn this world to cinder. I'm going to bring upon it a cosmic wrath and justice that God above has not seen fit to establish. He may take Gloria tonight, and I'll have to deal with that. But if He sees fit to allow this potential life to be snuffed out like a midnight candle before it has a chance to burn, I don't know if I'll ever forgive Him. Too much has already been taken away and here are people trying to give. If He prevents them that opportunity, He and I are done.

The doors slide open and my eyes jump to the doctor stepping through them. I reflexively stand up like he was the Pope. He isn't holding a clipboard. I'm briefly disappointed.

"She's not doing well," he says, making eye contact that I both appreciated and am completely disgusted by.

How dare this man look at me, this useless piece of shit that went to school for 10+ years to heal people and he's going to have the ungodly nerve to come out here to this waiting room and tell us that she "isn't doing well?" What a waste of space this man is. The latest technology at his disposal, all-encompassing medical insurance to line his pockets, and he's going to give up on my grandmother? You're going to just stand there? Fine. Give me the goddamn defibrillators and get the hell out of my way.

"Is she comfortable?" my dad asks for all of us.

"No," the doctor says. "She isn't. She's alive, but only because of the machines. She's in a great deal of pain. It's difficult for anyone to recover from pulmonary aspiration, let alone someone of her age."

"Her" age? Her age? You sanctimonious fuck. She's in pain? She's going to die because of the vomit spreading into her lungs? Then step aside, you fucking coward, and point me to a drinking straw. I'll siphon it out. I'll take it. It'll be mine and not hers. Give it to me. Let me do what you cannot and what God will not. You passive weaklings. You sit back and let these people die and you cower behind malpractice insurance and omnipotence and expect me to take your word with an invoice and a smile on my face because you've got a medical degree and a Bible?

"What are the options, then?" my dad asks.

"The options," he continues, "are to leave the machines on and extend her life, try to resuscitate her, or make her as comfortable as possible and turn off the machines."

We sit in silence. The doctor stands unsettlingly still.

"Take what time you need to discuss it," he says. "I'll come back in ten minutes to answer any questions or see if you've come to a decision." He walks away. We huddle together around my parents.

"As some of you know," my dad begins, "Gloria's will indicates that she doesn't want any 'heroic' attempts to bring her back. Nor does she want to be sustained by machines. But we can certainly talk about our options."

"If that's what she wants, then that's what we should do," Kelly says. Her sentence comes in bursts between fighting back sobs that I can see bubbling from behind her lips.

"Do you all agree?" he asks. We all nod. "I'll go find the doctor, then, and let him know." He stands up and approaches the glass doors. He picks up the phone and the gatekeeper on the other side lets him pass.

"Do you guys want to talk about it at all?" my mom asks. She's so brave in the face of all of this that I want to apologize for everything I've ever done to her. That time I lied about my book report in second grade or the time I took $10 from her purse to go to the arcade with Andrew Yeager or when she found out that I wanted to kill myself in 9th grade (and in 10th grade when I almost did) or when I would leave church early or sneak R-rated movies home when they went out of town or when I made out with Haley until 3 AM that summer in high school and they thought I had been in a car accident and they had called hospitals and the police.

I shake my head. Any words would come out alongside tears and I need to be strong. But a wave of calm surrounds Kelly. She sits up, takes Nathan's hands in hers, and puts all four of them on her stomach. She takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, in increments.

"I just wish she could meet Emery, you know?" she says.

"She will," my mom says, the first real tear of the night tiptoeing down her cheek. "Just not here."


Ashley said...

I always appreciate your honesty in your writing. You take situations that are easy to be cliche about and add human complexity to them. I know it is more a tangent, but I really liked how you described your parent's relationship and its affect on your family.

Claire Valene Bagley said...

Writing this all out, both the fiction of it along with the non-fiction of it, has only made you more beautiful and more decent.

Gosh Andy, this is too good. Too good.

Anonymous said...

This is perfect. Thanks for it, and especially for the descriptions of Kelly and Nathan.