Madeleine knows Leo wants to die, so she refuses to meet his eyes. She shifts his body, trying to prevent bedsores from blooming on his dusty skin. Even down 40 pounds, he’s still heavy for her, and she sits, tired, reading aloud thick gray passages from novels the library delivered; stories she wants to read, not those he wants to hear. His taste always ran towards mysteries and thrillers, books where every turn of the page brought a twist in the plot. For her, it was fine if all the action fell in the hearts and souls of the characters.
The sound of her voice buries her other thoughts, and she relaxes just a bit, her shoulders dropping. She is rereading Jane Eyre, the book’s dark secret holding a new fascination for her.
As she turns a page her eyes fix on his gaunt fingers, pale as bones, not even a ghost of a tan line where his wedding ring used to be. She remembers watching his hands, weathered and paint-splattered, opening a bottle of wine. Way, way before all this, in the indigo evenings after the babies were asleep, they would bring a blanket and a bottle to the backyard, sharing dreams of exotic travel, their future shiny as a diamond.
Some of those dream trips came to pass—Rome, Hawaii, Costa Rica. In Aruba they spent their days indoors, dozing under the hot island breezes, and their nights walking along the beaches, talking of nothing, of everything, of their life. But now whole continents will go unexplored. Now, a trip to the backyard together is as out of reach as an Arctic expedition.
A month earlier, angry with him for shattering her dreams, she destroyed everything that reminded her of their plans and of the world beyond this overbright, makeshift hospital room, a lemon-yellow guest bedroom that once welcomed their friends. She started with the maps, unfolding them before setting them aflame, their red and blue routes untraveled, becoming gray ash, becoming nothing. The travel guidebooks were next. She ripped out pages by the handfuls and watched the cathedrals, the beaches and the cafes vanish into the flames. Finally she pulled on her boots, walked to the edge of the dark woods and threw each DVD into the night, their shining silver edges glinting with moonlight and loss.
Now, what she sees of the world comes to her, false good cheer behind their smiles. They come bearing chicken casseroles he can’t eat, books he can’t read, gifts he can’t open. They bring empty words of encouragement: “Hang in there!” “Fight the good fight.” She knows the fight left him months ago, and suspects they know it too, for when they leave she can sense the silent prayers they leave in their wake, begging God not to let their own lives end this way.
It was quick, brutal, the change from the life they lived then to the one they knew now. Six months ago they were busy and happy, an end to tuition bills in sight, celebrating the start of every month with dinner at a different restaurant in the city. They took turns making reservations, seeking out the obscure gems, the Lithuanian or Cambodian spot hidden from the tourist’s guidebooks and below the price point of local reviewers. He never told her when he felt the lump, keeping the secret to himself like a letter from an old lover, afraid of the wounds it could open. He didn’t see a doctor until she felt the lump herself and forced him to go. Within days they heard the grim news, with words like “malignant” and “metastasized” buzzing in the air of the doctor’s office like gnats, following them home.
Still, no one thought it would end like this. The doctors expected him gone in September, and so she had imagined herself an autumn widow, pale but fierce at the graveside, surrounded by yellow leaves swirling like snowflakes, by condolences. But he held on, through the bright New England holidays—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas. These extra months were a burden, not a gift, no more welcome than the news that brought them to this day.
She tried to end it, once, tried to help him. It was easy enough to get the drug. A good friend was both a veterinarian and a death-with-dignity supporter. And Madeleine knew how to inject the pentobarbital into his IV lines; her months of caring for him made her an expert at certain medical procedures. She knew he wanted her to do it; he was begging her to do it. But her courage slipped through her fingers that fall day, lying in shards around her feet.
She reads on, empathizing with both the woman trapped in the padlocked attic and the woman losing the man she loves. Bronte’s words on the page are a respite from what she is now: a surrogate nurse, housebound, waiting for death in an overheated room. Even as she reads she feels the pull of Leo’s gaze on her, knowing he wants her to try again, knowing she doesn’t have the courage to do it.
She meets his gaze. His body is spent, his face is sallow, but his eyes look just as they did 30 years earlier. This time, though, his eyes are full of pleading and despair. Those eyes have always drawn her; they were what attracted her all those years ago, peering over the high-backed leather seats on the train from New York, full of curiosity and desire. They were students then, headed back to school after Thanksgiving break, and by the end of the train ride they had discovered they were neighbors, making plans to meet for coffee in Kenmore Square. By January they were living together; by June they were engaged.
She looks away and reads on. She waits.
I’ve been a freelance writer for 10 years, and my work has been published in the print publications Boston Home and Garden, Elegant Wedding, New England Travel and Life and Creative Living, as well as the web site Healthy Glow.
Motivation: I wanted to explore how a couple with a long history together would deal with conflicting ideas and attitudes towards the death of one partner.