The Last Lap

 

autumn 086

Trees Through Tears (c) SMG

It was an unspeakably awful thing to say.

After an exhausting and unnecessary verbal battle, the hospice’s medical director–who had been openly skeptical of my physician husband’s emphatic wish not to die in a hospital (at least when I was the one to express that wish as his medical proxy)–asked whether my husband wanted to drive with me from the hospital or wanted an ambulance to take him.

“Held on to hope like a noose, like a rope
God and medicine take no mercy on him
Poisoned his blood, and burned down his throat
Enough is enough, he’s a long way from home . . . .

Laid up in bed, you were laid up in bed
Holding the pain like you’re holding your breath
I prayed you could sleep, sleep like a stone
You’re right next to me
But you’re a long way from home.”

Referring to the ambulance, that doctor added, out of my earshot but not that of our friend and my sisters-in-law, “You might as well, for your last lap.”

This remark’s casual cruelty–its trivialization of my husband’s determination to come home, its grotesque appropriation of the fundamental unit of an unending journey, when we all knew this was a one-way trip to an imminent and early end of life–makes my heart race even now, as I sit alone in a different home in summer rain’s dappled quiet more than five years later.

******

One of the many privileges of parenthood has been getting to know my children’s remarkable friends. Not long ago I went to a senior honors presentation by one of them, who gave a talk about linguistics and Jacques Lacan, and introduced me to a French Holocaust survivor’s account of a uniquely healing moment.

Gérard Miller’s film “Rendez-vous chez Lacan” shares her story of having been haunted for two decades by her nightmares of the Gestapo seizing her and her family; she was describing a recent nightmare when Lacan leapt up and ran his hand along her face– converting the terrifying power of the word “Gestapo” into, in her native French, a tender touch, a g’este à peau that she was able to recall as a physical memory.

In the ambulance on the way home I had clutched the neon pink card-stock portable DNR in my left hand, rolled like a diploma and splotched with my tears. I had touched my right hand to the side of my husband’s temple and cheek.  A g’este à peau.

It’s well past time for me to reclaim that journey  home, our last trip together.

******

IMG_4647

Just Off the Road (c) SMG

The ambulance arrived at the hospital late in the afternoon, an hour-and-a-half after we had been assured it would come.

We had a quiet ninety minutes, no one checking vital signs, no one trying to administer medication or appearing awkwardly at the door.  No machines buzzing or beeping.  I had not realized how unaccustomed we were to being undisturbed.

The room’s single window could not be opened, and the temperature seemed unbearably to rise.  We lay together on the hospital bed.

Eventually growing restless, Jim mustered the energy to walk a single circle around the unit floor, leaning against me. This was the same hospital where he worked, and every physician and nurse and staff member who saw us looked at us somberly and silently, some of them wiping away tears.

Our children and friends had been at our house for hours, setting it up for Jim’s return.

The ambulance’s two-person crew appeared at the entrance to Jim’s room as I gathered his things.  By that time the things we carried were few.  The driver seemed surprised to see me there. My older brother, who had flown in from Chicago, had driven Jim’s truck  back to our house from the hospital.

“It’s OK if I ride with you?”  I asked the ambulance driver.

“Yes, but you understand you have to ride in front.  You can’t be in back.”

“That’s fine.” I said.

I walked alongside the gurney and into the elevator, my hand on Jim’s shoulder.  We stepped out on the first floor, through a sequence of sets gently whooshing sliding doors, to intense late-afternoon sun.  I squinted and turned away to see Jim’s boss, our friend, speed-walking into the hospital just inches away, into a rare Friday evening meeting.

She immediately hugged me and I became undone, hysterically weeping into her shoulder, “He wants to go home and I just can’t stand the thought. . .”  I did not mean  the thought of going home, but of his dying.  I simply could not believe that time had come.

The ambulance crew stood there, and by the time Jim’s boss had disengaged from both of us, looked at me—undoubtedly an immeasurably pitiful sight, weeping and holding that pink paper anyone in that line of work can identify—and said, “You can go in the back.”

I sniffled into my sleeve.  “No, that’s OK, I can sit up front.”

They looked at me and spoke in unison.  “Please get in the back.”

******

For the first among thousands of trips we had made together on the same road, we faced backwards, our view of the familiar obstructed only by the outlined letters spelling “Ambulance.”

The siren was off.

And so we traveled back home, a twenty-five minute ride. Until Jim was too sick to drive, he was invariably at the wheel every time we drove.

Only afterwards did I begin to imagine, when seeing a silent ambulance, that it might contain someone truly on the way home.

******

Jim brought up two subjects, one wildly practical, and one from his heart.

His conversational palette cleanser was a ministerial reminder to me, from his cautiously frugal side as the family financial planner who had in each child’s infancy begun saved money for another college.  All that money is now gone. He did not live to see any of his children graduate.

As the ambulance pulled out in front of the hospital building where Jim had been bombarded with fruitless chemotherapy and radiation, he said, “You need to remember to cancel my phone line, because it’s a hundred dollars a month.”

That out of the way, he paused and told me quietly, “It’s important to do something for Bob.” Our Doctor Bob.

I would had to think about that for several weeks more.

******

Jim’s last trip covered the same stretch of road we had traveled thousands of times, to and from Jim’s work, our daughters’ high school, and my work far away along the highway to which it connects.

We had turned left onto that road on the way to the hospital when I was in labor with our first child, then nicknamed “Bud,” on an uncharacteristically cool August day.

We covered exactly the same path when Jim had driven us  from our first home to the hospital where our next three children were born.  Each time, the return trip on this road was made with the newest addition swaddled in an over-sized, grandmother-knit sweater—first white, then mint green, then yellow–slouched into a backward-facing infant seat. Summer, spring, and twice in winter.

The only other time I had been in an ambulance on this  road, all of the children (then numbering three) had been with me.  Jim had calmly been waiting in the emergency room on the other end: Noah, at two, had hit his head in a fall onto cement and had an ostrich egg-sized lump on his forehead. The ambulance crew gave him a green velvet teddy bear, a gift that provided him comfort long afterwards.

When we first began driving on that road there had been two working dairy farms.  The children never tired of exclaiming “Moo cows!” every single time they saw the rural wonder of wandering cows, any more than the beagles tire of the sound of the same food clattering like tiny pebbles into their metal bowls twice every day.

We passed the bakery where we had picked up treats for family celebrations, and where on the way to preschool years earlier a well-weathered man had given our four-year-old daughter a two-dollar bill that he said had been passed along to him in a bakery for good luck when he was about her age.

“Has it worked for you?” I asked him.

“It has.”

We passed the SPCA, where our younger daughter had fallen in love with countless animals and we had brought two of them home forever.

We passed the family farm stand where we had picked out juicy summer tomatoes, buttercup corn, fall pumpkins, and gourds.

We passed the fairgrounds where we had gone every summer, one son somehow deftly outmaneuvering the games’ designers so he could bring back arms full of enormous stuffed animals for his little sisters.

This was the same park where we had trudged through many annual fairs, including one only days before an August birth, when my feet were so swollen that I had to borrow huge tennis shoes from our visiting friend Jon’s trunk.  He took a look at me and laughed heartily, dubbing me “Preggo the Clown.”

We had traveled that stretch of road either at the beginning of  nearly all our family vacations, loaded with sand toys and summer books, or  ski equipment in a rack on top that I invariably forgot about before doing some degree of damage pulling into the garage at trip’s end.

Almost every day our daughters spent at high school involved at least two nearly identical round-trips.

The road branched off at about the half-way point towards our dear friends Randy and Judy’s house, which had been the siren call to moving across the state line when Jim began practicing medicine–two weeks before our first son was born.

Eventually we had driven the same route between home and the hospital to get Jim to the Emergency Room for a sequence of horrific complications. It was always in a blizzard.

This time we pulled into our driveway just in front of a van bearing bright spring tulips from relatives in California. Our friends and family were there to meet Jim. He declined the stretcher and walked inside on his own steam and he never suffered again.

The ambulance pulled away.

Inside our home, until he peacefully lost consciousness less than a day before he died, Jim laughed with friends among endless tender words and gestures.

“At last I was sure
That you weren’t far away from home.”

 

About Stephanie

In her spare time, Stephanie works full-time, and then some, as an attorney. She has published articles and delivered talks in arcane fields like evidentiary issues, jury instructions, expert witnesses, and forensic evidence. She also is an adjunct professor at a law school on the banks of the Charles and loves that dirty water, as she will always think of Boston as her home. You are welcome to take a look at her Facebook author page, or follow @SMartinGlennon on Twitter. All content on this blog, unless otherwise attributed, is (c) 2012-2016 by Stephanie M. Glennon and should not be reproduced (in any form other than re-blogging in accordance with Wordpress protocol and the numerous other wee buttons at the bottom of each post) without the express permission of the domain holder.
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24 Responses to The Last Lap

  1. rutakintome says:

    Thank you…..your posts are always exquisite and so real. Pieces of art, painted from pain and love. Thank you.

    • Stephanie says:

      Thank you so much for reading….It’s March, that infamous month, and I re-read it and was surprised at how sad is still is. Thank you for reminding me that the love cn come through as well as the pain.

  2. scillagrace says:

    I do so enjoy reading your experience and wondering…the lack of conscious acknowledgement of imminent death in my own story feels like Swiss cheese, yours a solid Brick. The unspeakably awful thing that was said to me came when I took our daughter to the same pulminologist who’d been treating Jim. When he asked how his former patient was doing, I told him Jim was dead. His first reaction was, “What are you doing about it?” I had no idea why he asked; it felt flippant. I said, “I’m grieving!” “No, I mean legally….” As if there was something to be done that I had failed to do. In truth, I guess the guy was just wondering if he was going to be sued. But not a great response to a widow who has just revealed her pain. I sat in the parking lot afterwards and cried for quite a while before I could drive myself and our daughter home.

    • Stephanie says:

      Wow. I’m speechless (also, obviously, really lagging behind on the blog….). I want to march out there and have a word with that doctor, too. Legally?! And in front of your daughter. I had hoped the lack of compassionate care was more unique to that hospice physician. I took much of my anger about it and let it out by going from hospital to hospital (more than 30) and soeaking to their staffs at rounds about how the quality of medical care lives on for loved ones, for better and worse, even when the patient is gone.

  3. mishedup says:

    weeping….
    so beautiful.
    I guess it was time to write about it, and thank you.

  4. Oh Stephanie – this has me in tears. What a good man. What beautiful – including the sad ones – memories. Thank you for sharing them so perfectly.

  5. Mike Ryan says:

    Memories, so cherished. .. he was gracious enough to give me one of my most memorable the day Gerard and I visited after the ride you described. I think of him almost daily, he changed my outlook that day.
    I won’t go into all the other memories from Junior High, High School and the college years- those are recalled in a “slightly ” different light 😊.
    This post struck close to my heart.
    Love, Mike

    • Stephanie says:

      It was such a treasure for him and all of us when he got to see “the boys” again. He didn’t want to trouble (his word, or it might have been “bother”) you all at first and had to be convinced that he needed to let you know when he was diagnosed, and it meant so much to him to see you. I hope you know how glad he was to see you again, and how it lightened his heart to remember those earlier days. I can never thank you enough, either, and am so grateful you’ve shared your wonderful (grown-up!) sons and daughter-in-law with me. ❤

  6. so sad, and so tenderly written

  7. I feel your joy and your pain, Stephanie. Thanks for sharing these insights into your life.
    Ω

  8. nostwo says:

    It is always so sad to think of losing Jim and you carrying on without him in this plane. I have feel grateful to this day that I came over to your house to drop something off….anyway, Jim was walking slowly out the back door with one of your dogs for a walk. I was shocked to see him looking so tall and strong with that great hair that made him look like a movie star to me. He smiled and said hello and I greeted him back and told him how great he looked and I was so glad to see him. He nodded and said something about the doggie? Frozen, I kept watching him from behind as he was walking along a path (I am not familiar with how your back yard was laid out, I just know it was always organically beautiful) slowly and he seemed to be in a daydream and he was smiling. I saw it as he came around a small curve – it wasn’t a teeth grin, it was a closed upturned mouth peaceful at the corners. He had his slippers on and shorts and a loose robe. He looked elegant. You, Stephanie, are elegant and eloquent and such a survivor! Hey, I still have that fabulous silk lined pink coat with the beads on it to “pick up the light”. When it gets a little cooler, I think I will put it on and come over for tea. I dearly love you. Jim is doing a great job with your photography, isn’t he? 🙂

    • Stephanie says:

      I love that picture you just drew of him. I can see him, too, just as you describe. Sometimes I will move something–a rug that Jim once walked on, or something he had touched–and the beagles will stop and sniff the air and come over as if they could conjure him up from the scent they can still find there.

  9. Ann M says:

    Your writing and pictures — and your story — are absolutely beautiful and moving. Although the story is sad, there is recovery and consolation as this wonderful family (and author) move on with interesting and accomplishing lives. Thank you for this treasure of a story.

  10. Very moving, beautifully told. So sorry for your loss.

  11. Stephanie says:

    Reblogged this on Love in the Spaces and commented:

    The last lap was six years ago. Tonight I traveled the same road and made my own lap alone across an ice-covered field,under a blanket of bright white clouds that shifted to blue on blue, heartache on heartache.

    • Ann martin says:

      Thank you so much for revisiting these beautifully

      written posts — it makes me very sad, yet I love to

      read and remember all of your writings about your

      family life events.

      Love to you and your family.

      ________________________________

  12. Catherine G Murphy says:

    This is so beautifully written and unspeakably sad. I remember that day vividly. I was so glad to see you recently, and will be thinking of you all on Thursday. You and the kids are not alone.

  13. Catherine G Murphy says:

    Excuse me—Wednesday is the anniversary, as you well know. I will be thinking of you!

  14. Ann says:

    Love to you and your wonderful family on this sad anniversary — XXXXXX —- in many ways Jim
    will always be with you — you have his love and teachings in how to be a family always together.

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