The day before Robert died was an otherwise perfect June day in Connecticut: warm but not hot, with a bit of a breeze, flawless blue sky, puffy white clouds — the sort of weather a sailor loves, and Robert was a sailor. I opened the French doors in my bedroom so he would have a greater sense of the outside world. If he noticed, he made no comment. He didn’t seem to be aware of the weather.
He was settled in among the many pillows on my king-size bed, wearing one of his black T-shirts and a robe. The bed was a problem, as it was high off the ground and he had to climb up into it, which was difficult because of the pain in his abdomen. There was a mango-sized lump just below his rib cage. His liver was engorged with tumors. Robert, a man accustomed to barreling through the world in a fast car or a fast boat, sometimes carrying me along in his slipstream, sometimes leaving me behind, now needed a stepstool and my steady hand to make it easier for him to climb, slowly, carefully, into the bed. I would hover at his elbow so he could lean on me.
He was slipping in and out of lucidity. I sat next to him, close enough to touch, but on top of the covers, with my computer on my lap. I was catching up on email. We shared the bed as though this day was just another of the many we’d spent together.
His friends, our families, were checking in. Could they drop by? Should they come? My sisters Sarah and Ursula called. They were meeting up in Boston and driving out.
I reminded Robert that his lawyer, Skip Rodgers, was scheduled to stop by at one o’clock, with papers for him to sign: a power-of-attorney and Robert’s new will.
On our honeymoon, sitting on the verandah of the pink stucco hotel on the beach in Bermuda with the remains of a room-service breakfast still on the table before us, Robert suddenly jumped up.
“I need to make a call,” he said.
Using the room phone, he dialed the States.
“I have to talk to my lawyer,” he said by way of explanation.
I pretended to be absorbed in The New York Times, as though if I were reading, I would not overhear his conversation.
When his lawyer was finally on the line, he told him he’d gotten remarried.
“Just three days ago. — Thank you. — We’re in Bermuda. — Just for a few days, Tara has to get back to work. — Right. She needs to be in my will, and obviously, remove Colby.” He spelled out my full name.
I was glad the paper was hiding my face. I thought I should be as matter of fact as Robert was, and I didn’t trust myself to disguise that his call had thrilled me. This was the moment I felt truly married.
Almost twenty-four years later, the will was relevant again. He was dying. We didn’t know how long he had to live, but Robert was hastily putting his affairs in order. The power of attorney was for me, in the event he lost lucidity and couldn’t manage his business. But the will itself would be very simple; he was leaving everything to our children, McCullough and Jack. I was pretty sure I wasn’t in it.
I was no longer his wife. Robert and I were divorced. So, I was — what?
I was the one who stepped up to the big requests; who helped him open a restaurant, not once, but twice. The second time with loathing and dread, knowing what I was in for. I was the one who withstood the myriad little indignities and the larger emotional assaults brought on by years of alcoholism. Who endured the cycles of on-and-off-the-wagon. Who said, “I can’t be married to you if you’re going to drink.” And who then suffered the brunt of his anger even after he relented and went to rehab. I was the one who put the photo album together with the pictures of the good times, the friends, his children and his family, who all wanted him to get better — and drove the five hours to Caron Family Center because alcoholism is a family disease, and you have to treat the whole family for the alcoholic to have a chance of not drinking.
I was the one who believed in the kind and considerate Robert. I kept my faith with him, even though he didn’t show up very often. I was the one who’d said, just twenty-three days ago, when he got the diagnosis of liver cancer, “Of course, you’ll come home whenever you want.”
Robert lay dozing in bed next to me. We were alone in the room. I wondered if I should be asking him questions. Getting him to talk about what was on his mind. Was he worried about dying? It didn’t seem so. Early on Robert had said, “I don’t want to die. But I’m not going to fight this thing. I’m not going to go to every doctor I can find looking for a cure. I don’t want to spend my last days in a hospital.”
He said that he wanted to show McCullough and Jack that there was nothing to be afraid of. I wondered, did he still feel that way? Was he afraid, now? Should I ask him if there was anything particular he wanted me to do? Should we be talking about funeral arrangements? Songs? Hymns? Readings? My mother is constantly updating me on her thoughts about her funeral service and burial plans. A lapsed Catholic, drawn to Buddhism, she’s been checking out the local Unitarian church in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where she lives. But that’s my mother.
Robert wasn’t religious. We never went to church. We got married in his loft in Tribeca in New York City. There would be no priest or last rites, but still, I thought, shouldn’t we be talking about this, talking today about his dying?
Suddenly Robert murmured, “Slow down for that curve ahead,” and I imagined he was back in his racecar, perhaps negotiating the track at Lime Rock. Both hands on the wheel, at ten and at two, eyes fixed intently on the road in front of him. The way he always drove, even just around town. We could pass each other on the road, and he would never wave, the way others did, recognizing each other by their car, so involved was he when he was driving.
One of the reasons we’d moved to Lakeville was the proximity of Lime Rock Park, a favorite racetrack of his. Robert had always loved cars, had owned dozens and particularly loved to race. For years it was a series of Honda CRXs. Then he joined the Sports Car Club of America and converted an Alfa Romeo for the track. He’d had a Lola that we trailered to Savannah, Georgia, for a week of racing. It was the one time I went along, hung out at the track with him, played the part of a pit crew member.
Robert was fully engaged when he was behind the wheel of a car. He’d perfected the heel/toe shift that racers used. His left foot positioned above the clutch, his right foot dancing back and forth from gas pedal to brake. His eyes sweeping from side-view mirror to rearview mirror to sideview and back again. He could feel the motor and its rhythms with his whole body. The feel of the car as the RPMs rose, letting him know when it was time to shift. Clutch, shift, gas. A renewed burst of speed. He drove with total concentration, but it was effortless.
Effortless — the way he wielded a knife in the kitchen, at home or in his restaurant. Fingers curled back out of the way of the knife blade — a whole carrot or onion separating into identically sized slices as the knife moved down the chopping board, rhythmically. Then he’d pivot on his heel and scrape the slices into the pot on the stove. With a flick of his wrist he’d shake the sauté pan, press the meat with his thumb to check its doneness, and sprinkle a liberal pinch of Kosher salt over whatever he was cooking. His fluidity of motion made it seem he did all five things at once.
Effortless — the way he piloted a boat. The way he navigated the waters of Somes Sound and the Western Way. At the helm of Raven, he would swing her around to tie up at the float off Greenings. The force of the tide there off the northwestern tip of the island made it tricky, but Robert — playing the throttle, gunning the engine just enough — would bring her starboard side smoothly along the dock. He would throw the gear into neutral and nimbly hop off, lines in hand, three times around the cleat, and one loop to knot it. He would secure the boat while his passengers would still be asking, “Can I help?”
There would be no more driving, no more cooking, no more boating. When Dr. Kruger had told him that a few days before, it was the first time since the diagnosis I’d seen Robert get upset. It was perhaps the first time that the magnitude of what was happening to Robert’s body became real for either of us. I thought of everything I knew about cancer and its treatment from friends who had died and friends who had survived. I’d seen them go through difficult regimens of chemo and radiation that resulted in nausea, vomiting, hair loss, extreme fatigue. I thought of all the things we would need to do to get through it, the adjustments that would be made — the transformation of the bedroom into a sickroom. I reviewed the possible scenarios and different outcomes.
After my friend Cletus died, I’d read two books on death and dying. Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ On Death and Dying. At the time I was looking for some kind of guide to the transformative experience of death. Nuland’s book sounded promising by its subtitle, Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter. It was not, it turned out, a primer for a “good” death or a meaningful exit; rather it was a blow-by-blow description of how the body deteriorates as it succumbs to a variety of different diseases. In thorough and often excruciating detail Nuland describes death by heart disease, by Alzheimer’s, by cancer, even by murder. Death is a violent and messy business as the body insistently holds on, overriding heart and mind and soul to cling to life.
From this book I had a sense of what any of us might expect. It seemed that Cletus, though she must have been in a lot of pain, and certainly was discomfited by the treatments to cure her, had gotten off lightly. Nuland writes in the introduction, “The quest to achieve true dignity fails when our bodies fail. Occasionally — very occasionally — unique circumstances of death will be granted to someone with a unique personality, and that lucky combination will make it happen, but such a confluence of fortune is uncommon, and, in any case, not to be expected by any but a very few people.” I had no expectation that Robert would be ‘lucky’, ‘unique’ or one of the ‘very few’.
From Nuland I knew to expect a tough passage. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ theory about the five stages of death had become the accepted route for dying — so much so that one was expected to go through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, and in that order. If a person did not, then it was probably evidence that they were stuck on Step One, denial. It seemed that Robert with his usual haste had gone right to acceptance. As usual he was disregarding the norms.
But true to form I was going to help him do it right. That morning, I’d called Lelee and asked her to meet me at the office of the Salisbury Visiting Nurse Association. She and I had been on the ambulance squad together and we’d gone on a nursing mission to the Dominican Republic with my sister Ursula. We rode our horses and walked our dogs together. Since I’d been away at school, I’d hardly had a chance to update her on Robert’s condition.
Sitting in the hospice director’s office reviewing end-of-life decisions and what Robert would need to be comfortable felt wrong and premature because he still didn’t seem like he was dying. Robert hadn’t even been on the chemo pills long enough for it to make him ill, much less have an effect against the cancer. Now we were talking about hospital beds and morphine and ways to make him comfortable. He’s perfectly comfortable, I thought. He’s in a nice bed in a nice room with his friends arriving for a visit.
A hospital bed would take up all the floor space. It would be antiseptic. It would be a statement: he’s dying.
It will make it easier to care for him, she said. Easier for him to get in and out; you can raise the head or the foot as desired; he’ll be more comfortable. If he becomes incontinent, it won’t stain your bed, she said.
I guess I don’t really want him to die in my bed, I finally admitted. They said it could be delivered that afternoon. A hospice nurse would stop by and introduce herself and get a baseline on Robert.
Yes, OK, but I explained that Ursula was a nurse and her girlfriend Kathy, also a nurse, would be there by late in the afternoon and they would take care of him and administer any drugs that he needed.
Did I want a social worker to come by and talk with the family?
Hardly necessary, I said.
Well, when it gets closer to the time, if you change your mind…
When I returned my mother Therese was in the kitchen making lunch and fielding phone calls. Jack was upstairs sorting out his camping and rock-climbing gear. McCullough hadn’t arrived yet. I realized I was now anxious for her to get home. Therese ran through a list of people who had checked in: Haywood and John called from the road; they expected to be here by four. My brothers Brian and Justin were planning to drive up from the city that night. Robert’s sister Barbara would arrive on the weekend.
Earlier one of the wait-staff from his restaurant had dropped off a chocolate milkshake.
“It’s the one thing I know he loves,” she said. It stood untouched by the bedside except for a sip when she brought it. Robert wasn’t hungry.
I settled in again, next to him on the bed. Robert’s friend Brendan walked into the room. My bedroom is on the first floor at the end of a long hallway, but an easy distance to the living room, kitchen and front door. When Brendan came in, Robert woke up and greeted him with a big smile. They talked for a few minutes; Brendan wrapped it up with, “I love you, man.”
I walked Brendan to the front door.
“What’s going on? How is he?” Brendan asked.
“I don’t know. A few days ago it seemed like he was losing lucidity, now, it’s more like he’s just sleeping a lot. Dr. Kruger told us two to three weeks.”
“OK, if I check in later?” Brendan asked.
“Of course, and let anyone you think might want to know, that they should feel free to stop by and see him.”
It was finally registering with me that Robert was dying. And yet, I still couldn’t see it happening. Even as I wrote emails to friends suggesting they come by and visit, even as I said he’s losing lucidity, even as his dozing turned more into a deep sleep, I couldn’t fathom that the end was so near. I was saying it, but I wasn’t believing it. I was doing everything I could think of to make Robert comfortable and to fulfill desires he wasn’t expressing. He wasn’t giving me any guidance. He didn’t want anything anymore.
Within an hour, his friends, our friends, started showing up. Some of them had come to say goodbye. Others came thinking they were just checking in. Each time someone new walked into the room, Robert brightened. If he was dozing, he woke up. Everyone was greeted with a big hello and a smile. A half a minute, a few words, and he’d start to fade again.
There was a moment around nine in the evening when Robert came to life. He hadn’t gotten out of my bed all day. He hadn’t had anything to eat or drink. The hospital bed had been delivered and set up. We all negotiated our way around it as my room is not large and the two beds together took up most of the floor space.
Should we move him, I’d asked Ursula, after the bed arrived.
We could wait until he needs to get up, she said.
That happened at nine. Robert wasn’t coherent or steady on his feet, but he wanted to go to the bathroom. By himself. Ursula tried to get him to use a bedpan. No. He wouldn’t. And suddenly he was thrashing. Insistent, and irritable, but not sensible.
Brian can go with him, I said. It seemed such a small thing to let him walk the twenty feet to the bathroom and back if that’s what he wanted.
Ursula, who for years had been a hospice nurse to AIDS patients, knew what was happening: the liver was no longer working, the toxins were building up, and his brain was being poisoned. She knew that Robert’s body was shutting down.
But for me, irritable Robert was familiar. This was the most animated he’d been all day. And he wanted something. And I wanted him to have it. Even if it was just a trip to the bathroom.
This is what I was prepared for. And I did not see the end in sight.