It’s Saturday. I’m sitting in a chair across from my husband. He’s lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by screens and alarms and dials and gadgets of varying sizes. They all do something different. Bags of liquid hang from a pole; carrier tubes snake in through his neck and his chest. He’s wearing a knit cap to keep his head warm, now that he has no hair. I’m trying to carry on small talk, but then he can’t breathe and then he starts shaking all over. The nurse runs in and shoots Demerol into his vein. Then he’s talking nonsense. Then he’s throwing up.
In his eyes, I see fear, a wavering that wasn’t there before. It’s all so visible now, much harder to ignore. The formless shadow begins to take shape.
Life suspends in a place that hasn’t declared itself and I sit like a child in the corner, while four members of his medical team work over him. If only this were going to be the worst day. But we are a long way from there.
I turn inward, trying to find someplace less scary to be, and end up traveling again through the last ten years. It was that long ago that Cecil was raided by the feds, and then indicted. Those were the days when life in prison was bandied about as a very real possibility. It was also when Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma came at us. It’s been ten long years since life became tentative.
At first, the prison threat tracked alongside the cancer threat. Then it was just the cancer. To me, they were both death sentences. I didn’t know when he would be taken, or by what means. I just kept waiting to turn around and see him gone.
Now I’m thinking of my mother. She had that moment. She turned around and my father was gone – taken, one day. Their love and life together were interrupted, too – snatched out from under them and suspended through time indefinite.
For her, the news came in an envelope delivered to the front door, an envelope that changed everything. The telegram started with the dreaded words: “I regret to inform you…” It’s the message that brings a military wife to her knees. My mother was seven months pregnant with me at the time. My father had been recalled to active duty with the Air Force a couple months before and had been sent to fight over the frozen tundra of North Korea. He left base one night on an interdiction mission and never returned. They could not say what happened to him. He was Missing in Action.
Two months later, my mother gave birth alone. The days and months passed. It got harder for her to picture his face and to hear his voice. She clung to the only sliver of her anguished thoughts that she could bear, hideous in their own right, but better than the alternative: he’d probably been captured and was being held as a POW.
When the war ended a year and a half later, they televised POWs crossing the bridge during repatriation in Panmunjom. As the men hobbled across, one by one, expectant and frightened families watched their television screens. My mother stood silently as she searched the faces, her hands clenched, her heart pounding. The last man came across. His family must have been so relieved. Mom’s knees buckled and she went down. In an instant, she realized her husband had vanished. There was no explanation and there likely would never be one. She would be left to wonder what had happened to him and where he was.
There should have been answers, but there weren't. Eventually, the government changed my father’s status from MIA to Presumed Dead, and that was the end of it – for them, but not for her. She wasn’t up to presuming he was dead. So, she waited and wondered and agonized every day over what might have happened to him, imagining the worst possible fates. Years passed and details of the life they shared began to fade. But, the anguish never did. It lived along side of her in his stead.
Like my mother, I have waited and agonized every day. I have wondered what would happen to Cecil, imagining the worst possible fates. I’ve tried to drink in his sweet blue eyes, for fear that details of the life we shared would begin to fade. The anguish has lived along side of us. Sometimes I saw all of him. Sometimes it felt like I was looking at a ghost.
Cecil’s life has been suspended for too long, but now we are at the crossroads. He will survive the demons or they will take him with them. The waiting and wondering is about to be over. My mother never got her answer, but I will get mine soon. Somehow, the not knowing is starting to seem better.
He looks small in the bed. He looks less powerful than he’s always been. As I write this, they are ‘finishing him off,’ to use his words. Infection already in his lines. Platelets down below 10,000. Red cells down to 8. White cells are on their way out, too.
It’s Sunday now. The sun is about to come up over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Things finally settled down last night. The fever abated. The shakes subsided. He slept well. At six this morning, the door opened, the lights went on and the team was in the room again, measuring, checking, adding more drugs to the lines. His blood pressure is mysteriously low but, otherwise, he seems strong. The fever will likely come back. And the shakes. And the breathlessness. And who knows what else. Every time I look at him, I whisper Hang on Baby. We’re almost there.
We are at T-Minus-Two: two more days of land mines; two more days of suspension. Then the babies’ stem cells will come on board.
I’m looking out the window at the flowers and birds and the sunlight – the beauty that Cecil always says didn’t get here by accident. There is some kind of power somewhere, he says. I hope that power finds him now. It is too soon for this wonderful man to go anywhere but home.