My eyes open, and I am awake. The house is silent. A sudden clunking noise lets me know the ice maker in the kitchen refrigerator dumped its load into the ice bin. The silence rings, echoes, mocks me with everything that is missing.
There is no sound of the hospital air mattress with its constant baffle and pressure. No snoring and gasping, or calls for help.
I take a deep breath. The window is open, letting in the scents of an early spring morning. The house no longer smells like body waste products.
I roll over on the bed, began my morning stretching exercises. Afterward, I kneel on the floor to do my push-ups. My dog lays there patiently, waiting for me to finish so she can roll over to get belly rubs and ear scritches.
I get dressed, the dog dancing around me, and then take her outdoors. She makes a dash for the back fence line, while I fill the scoop with chicken feed, and bring a pitcher of water to refill their bowl. Since the day is sunny, all the chickens are out to be fed, squawking and wandering around underfoot. I feed them, laughing as always to see them jostling for position, trying to jump up to get at the feed before I cast it wide for them.
I go back into the house, put on a pot of coffee. It chuckles and burbles on the counter, then stops. I listen to the silence ring like a bell. It has weight, that silence, pressing down like a storm front.
The coffee finished, I pour a cup and take it back outside with me. I sit at a round wrought-iron table, with plants half-surrounding it. There are lemon and lime trees, succulents and tropicals, cannas in a rainbow of colors.
I write in my journal for a while, occasionally taking time out to rest my eyes, absorb the grace of the day. The sunshine on my face warms my soul as well, a soothing balm to my ragged spirit.
The cardinal and blue jay are dueling it out for the best nesting spot in the high maple tree. Robins are happily chirruping along, busy nesting. Caruso, the mockingbird, is working his way through his impressive repertoire. Sparrows, finches and juncos pop in and out of the coneflower bed.
My memory spirals back, each turn another year, faster and faster. It stretches out to when we first got together. I remember morning swims, waking up early on weekends to work on the property, clean up years of neglect, make it into a place to enjoy and be proud. Those were long, full, fun days, cutting down brush, building a new set of steps for the hot tub, making the pool something to enjoy again. We’d work until sunset, then take a shower to wash off the day’s grime. Afterward, we ordered pizza and wings, and ate sitting on the couch in the living room while drinking cans of ice-cold beer.
Memories move forward, to when I was in night school, dealing with the death of my father, finishing my college degrees. We sat in the hot tub after my night classes and talked. We shared pipe dreams of being millionaires, of me retiring in my forties, of the two of us enjoying a shared life, with time to spend on the things we wanted to do.
I watched your disease inevitably degenerate instead, from a single hand crutch to two crutches to leg braces, plus crutches. Eventually, the manual wheelchair made its appearance, to be followed inevitably by the power chair.
Through it all, your spirit never flagged. You never looked for pity, and you wouldn’t accept it if someone offered it. You found workarounds. Crazy Rube Goldberg contraptions, some of them, but they worked.
I remembered the day you gave up your car keys. You told me you didn’t trust your own reflexes any more, even with the adaptive hand controls for your van. You would not be that person, the one who caused an accident because they wouldn’t relinquish their car keys. One of the bravest things I ever saw you do.
We installed a Hoyer lift by the pool, and you continued using it for a few more years. Eventually, there came a time when you could no longer support yourself in the water. That’s when you quit swimming. You quit using the hot tub when you could no longer climb in and out of it.
By this time, seizures and strokes began occurring. You spent more time in the bed, less time outside in your wheelchair. You needed more help to get simple things done.
I had to laugh — I retired in my forties, all right, and was fiscally in a fair situation, but... This was not the life I had imagined. There was no travel, none of the things I thought we would share.
The reality was different. I still had all the work to do to support a home and property, with a pool, dog, chickens, plus the care of an invalid. We traveled the world with my cuisine, cooking up a plethora of feasts from different cultures. We saw the world without leaving the house.
The mockingbird flies up to the chair next to mine, perches on it, cocks its head, looking at me, scrutinizing me. I am evidently a worthy audience, because it serenades me with the most exquisite string of bird calls. No two repeated. Each one pitch-perfect. Then it flies off in search of something else.
I learned enough medical skills to become a nurse. Treating pressure ulcers, dealing with hallucinating patients, all the skills of cleaning and changing someone in the bed without them moving out of it, giving a painless injection, intramuscular or subcutaneous. I learned the ways to move and transfer a paralyzed patient.
Patient, husband, friend, lover, life mate. All words for the same person. I took over the bills and bookkeeping. I never was good at keeping up with filing.
We got a part-time caregiver to help. We needed all the help we could get by that point. She helped make the next years livable. Her hours increased until she was a full-time caregiver, working a forty-hour week.
The years spiraled faster; the decline increased. Eventually, we came to that day when you spoke up. “I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore.”
The hardest thing was to let you know it was OK to go. After that, it didn’t take long.
I am left with three decades of memories: conversations; laughter; long evenings outside, watching the night descend; barbecues; pool parties; jam sessions that lasted until dawn; listening to our friends play live music at bars; the smell of sun-dried sheets on our bed.
Those are the memories I keep. I have no need for those other ones.
The cardinal wins the battle for the maple tree, and tells me to cheer, cheer, cheer up. The climbing warmth of the day brings the perfumes of flowers with it. Outside, there is no mocking silence.
There is only the voice of a new day.