My husband’s aunt is 85, and she was just diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It’s late—the cancer, the time, the life. But the life is precious; they are all precious.
We visited her on a Wednesday night, just after she’d had a reaction to one of her medications. It left her stranded beneath herself, somewhere between sleep and panic. It was temporary. Did she know?
I sat on the chair beside her, and she reached for me, squeezing my hand. When she fell asleep, I took my hand back, and she awoke again and held both arms out toward me. I hugged her. When she fell back to sleep, I got up and surveyed the room.
On the guest’s sofa, far too small for anyone to sleep (though a daughter or granddaughter slept there every night), were magazines and candy bars and assorted toiletries. In the corner of the ceiling, seven foil balloons, adorned with cheer and imploring Margaret to GET WELL SOON, floated.
1. Don’t buy me balloons.
I started a list that moment. No balloons. These are for children having their tonsils out. Anyone who brings me a balloon while I am being treated for or recovering from whatever ails me enough that I am in a hospital will be strangulated with their cheerful pastel ribbons. Am I giving too much weight to these helium-filled mood lifters?
2. Tell me over and over and over again the truth about my condition.
Make sure you know I understand. I will squeeze your hand once for yes.
3. Ask me lots of yes questions.
“Do you understand?” Yes. “Do you want a pizza?” Yes. “Should Chuck Prophet come sing at your bedside?” Yes. Yes. Yes.
4. If I am never going to get well, get me out.
Don’t let me die in a hospital. Take me home, and get my daughter to play me out.
I need a longer list: rules about hygiene (mine and yours); lasts—last food, last beer, last song; quality of life stuff.
Do you think about these things, too? Does your mind go there when you are beside a loved one’s hospital bed? Do you look at her gray skin, then at the perky balloons on the ceiling and feel a little bit of rage?
My back hurts. I feel the impending doom of a two-disc fusion. I worry about the CT scan that checks the progression of my lymphoma. I fear the fear. At work, I take a pill and try to put all my black thoughts into a bubble, float that bubble up toward the ceiling.
But the bubble hits the built-in sprinkler and pops. Words fall out—on my head, my shoulders, my desk. I build them into poems. And directives.