“What we desire travels with us. We must breathe time as fishes breathe water.” Denise Levertov
I knew it was a possibility when the Fireman and I began dating. I would pull the sheets back at night and trace his scars with my fingers like a maze someone had filled in twice before. After a few months, I didn’t consider the lines anymore, and it became easy to ignore the elephant in the bed. When his yearly checkups amounted to nothing for five years, pretending it didn’t exist for another 12 months became routine. It was merely a fairy tale designed to keep me on my relationship toes, until the pachyderm became restless, demanding to be noticed.
Sometimes cancer crashes loud like an ocean wave and at other times it creeps towards shore while you’re distracted by the sun - until you realize you’re sitting in a foot of water and your flip-flops are floating out to sea. My Fireman’s back ached one summer day in August. By September his feet tingled, gradually at first like a gentle storm rolling in, until one day he realized he couldn’t feel his toes and he fell. Soon after, the wind picked up, bringing thunder and high tide. The sandcastles we’d spent our relationship building washed out to sea with a tsunami one October afternoon.
My Fireman laid in a bed at Duke University Hospital for 112 days. The Pillow Nazis warded off bedsores by shifting him every few hours. What cancer didn’t steal from his strength and his mind, the surgeries, bed and chemotherapy quickly claimed. Lymphoma that has spread to the spinal cord takes more than its share each day from a person, and he needed more help than the nurses alone could give him. The hospital became my reluctant home as well. I lost my job during that time. It seems caregiving for the man you love was not part of a producer’s job description.
The hospital was 30 minutes away from home. Not an unmanageable distance to travel, but evenings brought darkness to my Fireman and being alone at night was more than either of us could bear. The few times I tried sleeping at home were a disaster. I’d lay with wakeful wondering, unable to tuck the uncertain tomorrows in next to me for eight hours. It was easier to be next to him, to know what was going on. Room 9106 and the cafeteria became the only places I went.
I named the recliner I slept in at the hospital Origami because it folded me into odd shapes as I slept. When I zigged, Origami zagged into positions my Chiropractor would have disapproved. The room was tiny, like a cell, built years before large equipment had been invented. When the chair was full extended, my head touched the only window. It was winter and the cool air seeped through the glass each evening, freezing my active brain. Origami’s footrest touched the edge of the hospital bed like a kid stuck to his mother’s knee. My Fireman used to grumble that the chair blocked his path to the bathroom at night until the day his legs stopped working, and the toilet and sink didn’t matter anymore.
He was gone before he left me. I gathered bits and pieces of him from his pillow each morning. He refused to shave his salt and pepper locks, wanting to touch something soft when he had the strength to run his fingers through what was left of his hair. His throat began doing battle with pudding and strawberry yogurt, and he slept more than he was awake. He lost interest in the TV and visitors. We’d sit in the dark, blinds drawn, the sounds of the machines keeping us company like a fly who won’t leave you alone.
I drove home one evening as I did every few weeks to do laundry. The Fireman’s mom had died of liver failure the week before, and he had done little but stare at the wall since that cruel and awful day. Origami had not been an empathetic and comforting companion to me, and I slept in my bed that night so I could cry with abandon. We were meeting with the oncologist early the next day to discuss the latest MRI results so my time under real covers would be brief.
I bought two Dove Bars for breakfast that morning from the hospital cafeteria, a maneuver that involved using two separate cashiers for fear of being shamed. Dressed for bad news, I was wearing clothes I was willing to burn. I didn’t plan on getting married that day, but the doctor’s tone made sure of it. And the fact that he was sitting. They don’t pull up a chair to stay awhile unless they’re giving you news you don’t want to hear. As the doctor left, my love for the Fireman ran down my face and dripped off my chin as my ice cream bars lay melting on the tray. He lifted his withered and shaking arm and reached for my hand. “I think we should get married as soon as possible,” he whispered. I nodded, as it wasn’t so much as a question as a statement of fact. I was mindful that those arms wouldn’t be carrying me over any threshold. They couldn’t even feed themselves anymore.
We exchanged vows in his hospital room that afternoon as the nurses decorated the door with red and pink tissue paper hearts and signs with “Just Married” scrawled in marker. There were no rings, and no pomp. Just chocolate covered roses from the social worker and a lot of tragic circumstance. The words, “Until death do you part” held tangible, painful meaning.
I brought my Fireman home the next day on hospice. It was a Thursday. He spoke his last words on Saturday, in the middle of the night. I struggled to understand his garbled speech as he kept repeating the same phrase over and over.
“Do you need water?” “Are you cold?” “Are you in pain?” I questioned.
He shook his head no, his frustration running wet down his face. I asked him to say it one more time, slowly. And in a gravelly voice he leaned forward and said, “I’ll... always... love... you.”
“I’ll always love you?” I asked. “Is that what you’re trying to say?”
He nodded his head as it hit the pillow and closed his eyes.
On Sunday he stopped breathing. Four days after that, we had his funeral. I had 112 days to prepare, and I had nothing to wear. Though we had seen it coming, we never thought it would get here.
Ten days after I buried my future, my cousin Bob, who had held my hand at my Fireman’s funeral, dropped dead of a massive heart attack while putting folding chairs away in his basement after a baby shower. I flew to St. Louis for another round of despair for a man I loved who had died too young. This one, no one saw coming. I collapsed into myself on the flight home as the adrenaline of the past six months wore off, and the losses settled in. As I walked into my empty echo of a house, my brother called to tell me I needed to isolate because of Covid.
“Haven’t you seen the news?” he asked. “It’s only for a few weeks,” he assured me. “It will be over soon.”
But Covid wasn’t over soon. As the virus blazed on, grief moved into my home and built a solid foundation. I fell deeply into its wet concrete, laying in it so long I feared it would set and I’d never get out. Three of the people I loved most in the world were gone. I had no job and there was a global pandemic. The world required me to take all of that grief, anxiety, fear and disease and...
sit with it...
in my living room...
for months on end...
in the exact spot I laid in rest with my Fireman as he took his last breath.
If he were alive, he would have said, “Ain’t that some shit.”
I hadn’t been quiet since the summer of 1979. I’ve always been a “go girl” with more going on than in my life than are hours in the day. Whenever tragedy struck, I peppered my life with a million other things. I made sure of it. I’d float on my raft on a river of tears, leaping onto the next child, job, dinner, project, or party. I should have left room the last 40 years for some emptiness, taken some time to breathe water and spend time swimming around the rocky bottom.
The stillness of my house is the loudest silence I have never heard. There’s no benefit of distraction, duty or denial in this painful, imperfect world. I know that because CNN tells me that every minute of the day. My mind is going everywhere, but I can’t safely go anywhere.
I stop wearing my contact lenses. The blur matches my mood, and I can’t bear to see what the Fireman left behind or the images on the news. I live in stretchy pants and greasy hair. I’m drinking too much, icing down my feelings with alcohol and Netflix. I remember little the next day, but my recycling bin and TV keep track of that for me.
There’s a moment each time I open my eyes when I forget what the months have brought, the three people those three weeks in February took from me. When I stir and the fog of self-medication clears, I resent being awake and everything that exists in my waking life. Frankly, I’d like to lay here until my sofa digests me. I take Benadryl and melatonin with my wine, so I sleep more, wake less. Instacart brings me what I need, and I need more and more of it all. Sometimes I don’t think I’ll survive if there’s further to fall than this. Every time my eyes land on the floor, there are pieces of sky.
Four months into isolation, a stranger looks back at me in the mirror. She is gaunt yet puffy. I try to find evidence of life in her blue eyes, but there is nothing. Her roots are as dark as her thoughts, her hair as long as the days. The girl’s emptiness frightens me, and I wonder if I’m in there anymore.
This is the price of sharing your love with people worth missing, I think.
I promise myself that instead of running away from my grief that I will honor it. That involves flushing the pills, less alcohol, and daily hot showers. I invite my sadness in with the light of morning, kneeling at the exact place where my Fireman died and my life leaked meaning. I ask myself what emotions will walk with me today, what I’m learning from all of this, and then I sit with it. I practice gratitude. Or I scream and sob while pounding the ottoman. It will all get me where I need to be.
We use that space for other things, my knees and me. I reflect on the friendships I have in my life–and those that social distancing made clear I don’t miss. What love am I willing to let into my life and risk going forward, and what needs to go to make room for that?
I think about moving forward on that floor. The world is going to keep spinning, pandemic or not. But, for now, the pace has slowed because of sickness and health, for better and for the worse. What do I long for? What do I have enough of? And how do I hold on to that?
I realize I might need my contact lenses to see all of that, so I walk upstairs and put them back in. I peer out the window of my bathroom and glimpse my neighbor Jim riding by on his bicycle. My Fireman and I used to ride bikes with Jim, racing the kids up and down the alleys at dusk. We called ourselves the Sweetwater Gang and conspired to recruit other adults and overtake the neighborhood streets from the children. I remember the wind in my hair, that feeling of possibility when you hit a certain speed.
I walk to the garage and search for my bike. It’s buried behind my Fireman’s red walker and a portable toilet. Someone has covered it with the rust-colored sheets we used for his hospital bed. I breathe time and slowly dig out from the past and place it all gently in the attic. Then I put on my tennis shoes and climb on top of my future.
There’s a place to ride walk and ride bikes a mile from my house called the American Tobacco Trail. It’s a 23-mile “rails to trails” conservancy that’s nestled next to creeks and ponds, stretching across three counties of farmland and woods. Since the entire trail is built on an old railway, the sections are at grade level except where it crosses under roadways. This is very important to me since my recent diet of alcohol and pills is not the makings of an athlete.
The first time I ride, I forget to bring my phone or my watch. As I pedal, I’m out of this body I’ve been living in. I am exhilarated and I find hope in the breeze. My thighs hurt. I am exhausted. I am experiencing something besides grief, and it is good. Returning home, I’m sure that I’ve been gone for an hour and a half. I check the clock and am ashamed that it’s only been 28 minutes. I laugh at myself, one of the few times I’ve smiled in months.
I download the MapMyRide app so I can push myself further and have a realistic view of my progress. That summer, minutes turn into miles and miles melt into hours. My vision is 20/20. There’s a family of turtles who sunbathe on a large log sticking up from the floor of a pond. Each day size orders them from largest to smallest, and I wonder how they always figure that out. I get there in time to watch the smallest baby swimming towards the dead tree, trying desperately to join his family and claim its place on dry bark. Schools of fish in a creek breathe water, and I marvel that they never need to come up for air. There are deer who leap across the path towards the forest to escape an area being eaten by subdivision. The wooden bridges make a clicking noise when I ride over them. I hum as I enter the bridges, so my voice makes a funny vibrato noise. And after it rains, there are spots on the trail laden with mud and muck so thick that I can barely push through. I relish picking up speed right before so that the dirt flies up onto my legs and face. I know it’s okay to be a mess, and I wear it like a badge of fortitude.
The trail brings clarity and comfort that I can’t find in wet tissues, and my bike is getting me somewhere. I ask myself how I can carry that through into a new life when Covid finally allows me to have one.
During summer it's difficult to see the sun from the trail amidst the thick tunnel the trees have created. It’s dark and shady even on the brightest of days and no longer matches my mood. One afternoon, I stop my bike for a water break and search for pieces of sky. Through the forest floor there is a glimmer of sun. The tall pines act as a filter and I throw my bike down so I can walk the trail and find a break in the trees. I know if the sun doesn’t hit my face at that very moment that the earth will collapse, taking me with it. The lower I stoop to the ground, the more sun I can glimpse until I lay on the dusty, gravel path with my eyes looking towards the sky. And there in the middle of the trail, flat on my back, I gaze at the rays emanating from the ball of fire. The heat of the light sleeps on my cheeks, and I am at peace. A few minutes later, a man passes me on the trail and stops to ask me what I’m doing? “Do you need any help?” he questions.
Without taking my eyes from the bright I say, “Sometimes you have to lay down in the dirt in order to find the light.”
The man puts on a mask and lays down beside me, looking up. We’re quiet for a minute, this stranger and me. “You’ve got the right idea,” he says. “We were born to feel joy, you know.”
The man gets up, dusts himself off and resumes his jog. Watching him get smaller and smaller as he disappears into the forest, I wonder if he was even real. When the clouds drift in front of the sun and the hope leaves my face, I brush myself off, pick up my bike, and ride home.
Kate Martin is a truth slayer who writes raw and witty stories about finding your voice and what it means to be human. She lives in Apex, North Carolina.