Death can come in many ways. It can come quickly, as I had seen in the war, from a rifle bullet piercing the body, or it can come slowly and painfully for those lucky enough to live until that “golden” time.
I sat in a hospital waiting room on this particular day as my wife of nearly fifty years lay in the hospital room just beyond the door.
Heart attack, they said. She had awakened me gently in the night. “Howard? Howard?”
“What is it?”
“Howard, my arm and my back, they’re hurting really bad. I think I need to go to the hospital”.
I rose instantly and helped her to don her robe and slippers, and as quickly as I could, helped her into the car. Before we could leave, she stopped me with a weak gesture.
“Howard, I keep all my medication on top of the dresser”.
“I know. Do you need something?”
“No, I just want you to get it and bring it with us. It might help the doctor.”
That was Helen, always thinking, always in charge, looking to make it easier for others, right up to the last.
She was immediately wheeled into emergency care. I could see them placing a mask over her face and hooking up bags with intravenous solutions.
The doctor on duty, thankfully, recognized Helen and knew of her condition. He walked toward me and placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder.
“We’ll ease her pain. She’s breathing well right now. You need to sit down, and we’ll let you know as soon as she’s stabilized”.
I sat for that small eternity waiting, praying, and crying.
My silent prayers were interrupted by a nurse. “Mr. Jones, you can come in now”.
I entered slowly, and for the first time realized that my beautiful wife had aged. Tousled white hair fell back on the pillow. There were tubes and needles coming from her body, and I saw the half foot that remained from an amputation caused by diabetes, uncovered by the sheets.
I walked by and covered the foot. It had been hard for her to look at it, to admit that her body, of which she had taken such pride, was withering away.
I stood and looked at her sleeping body, wondering what to say. Funny, for those years after we married, there was never any uncertainty about what to say. We had become the best of friends.
I heard the doctor clear his throat behind me, and I turned to face him.
“She’s in a coma now, Mr. Jones. She’s resting and breathing on her own, but it may be necessary for you to make a decision. Have you talked about what would be done concerning life support?”
I spoke from a foggy brain, “What do you mean?”
“She may stop breathing on her own. Her body may just give up.”
“How can you ask that, now? How in the world can I answer it? Doctor, me and Helen, we lived our lives never giving up, never quitting, always hoping. I can’t quit hoping now, especially not now”.
I know. I don’t want you to stop hoping. But knowing her condition, surely she mentioned something to you, in case this should happen”.
I looked at the floor and nodded weakly, “Yes” I said with trembling voice, “She said if her heart stopped, not to revive her”.
“Is that your wishes? We have to be certain on this.”
“No, it’s not my wish. It’ll never be my wish, but it’s hers, and it’s her life.”
“Then you agree with her?”
“No, damn it! No, I don’t! But it’s what she said, and it’s what we’ll do.”
The doctor and nurse left me alone, and I stood there with ony the body of Helen and a lifetime of memories.
I met Helen in 1947. I was driving my new 1946 Plymouth down the road, tuning the radio. “String of Pearls” Big Band. Glenn Miller. What a time to be alive. End of the war, returning home, starting a business of my own, and looking to start a family.
I saw her walking toward town, lugging a small boy on her hip and wearing a dress that flattered every curve of her body. I had seen her on several occasions as I drove to work, and she had made me appreciate the cloth shortage created by the war.
On this day, I decided to meet her. I pulled up slowly beside her, leaned over, and rolled down the window. She kept walking, not even looking at me.
I eased the car slowly alongside her again and spoke.
“Ma’am?” She kept walking. Her refusal to acknowledge me only made me more determined to get her to speak. I let her walk a few yards more, cursed silently under my breath, and eased the cart alongside her again. I leaned over where she could see my face.
She made no effort to look at it.
“Ma’am, I know you’re a nice lady, and I know it ain’t right to just stop by without a proper introduction and all, but I’ve seen you walking down this road several mornings now, and I almost feel like I know you. My name’s Jones, Howard Jones”.
She still didn’t look at me, and started walking again. “I know who you are” she shouted over her shoulder.
“Damn it!” I said to myself, and pulled alongside her again.
“Ma’am, I’m not trying to get fresh or anything, but it just don;t seem right for a man to pass a lady walking, carrying a big heav–healthy boy down the road”.
“I’ll get by. I was doing it a long time before you showed up, and I can keep doing it”.
I was tempted to gun that motor and just speed right on by there, and in fact I planned on it, but my foot gently hit the gas pedal again over my protest, and I eased alongside her.
“Ma’am, please” I was surprised at the pleading in my own voice. “It just don’t seem like a gentlemanly thing to do, just driving on by when I can give you a lift wherever you’re going.”
She stopped walking and finally looked at me. I gave her what I hoped was a friendly smile. She looked at her son and shifted his weight higher up on her hip.
“He does get heavy every now and then”. Her voice had softened some.
“Yes ma’am” I said, “hold on a second”. I turned off the ignition and ran around the car to hold the door for her. I ran a whole lot faster than I meant to.
“Thank you” she said politely, and gracefully sat in the car holding her son.
I learned that her son was named John. His father was also named John. She had waited for him like so many thousands of other women, hoping to resume their lives after the war. Then the news came. John would not return. A mortar shell at Anzio.
Later, in one of the many arguments we had through the years, she told me that she had watched me driving down the road, and asked who I was. She then deliberately put on her best dress and walked down the road where she knew I would pass. She was almost ready to give up when I finally stopped. She generally reminded me of that when she was ready to make up with me.
I held her hand as I sat beside her in the hospital room. I smoothed her white hair and kissed her forehead. “I’m glad you didn’t give up” I said.
After being married a year, I was questioning both our marriage and my sanity. I wondered how in the world women could possible love men when they were totally uncivilized, uncaring, and totally lacking in all sensitivity?
Nothing was ever right. We argued about meals, we argued about toilet seats, we argued about my filthy habits after I got home from work. It seemed as if we had nothing to talk about if we weren’t arguing. In total frustration, I asked my dad what to do. He said “You mean you let her talk back?”
Another time, another world. No help there.
Finally, after a year of this, I had to get away. Anywhere, it didn’t matter. A friend called and said the hounds would be running some raccoons. Did I want to come along? Hell, yes, I said.
I told Helen. She said nothing. She simply walked to the rocking chair in the living room and sat down. No protest, nothing. So went out that night and miserably listened to the hounds while I thought about Helen. I drank some whiskey with the men while I wished I was with Helen, and I stayed out till the wee hours of the morning, wondering why the hell I wasn’t with Helen.
When I came home, Helen was still sitting in the rocking chair, with her knees pulled up and her head resting on them. I saw a tissue clasped I one hand, and I knew she had been crying. That’s when I realized I was exactly the slob she said I was. I felt triumph at the thought she had been crying. That tough, stonefaced woman who had expected no less than perfection, crying because she cared. And then I wiped a tear from my own eye, and gently touched her arm.
What I had forgotten in my sudden empathy is that Helen does strange things with her body when she’s startled awake. Her fist shot straight out from her shoulder and she hit me right where a man should not be hit. When she was fully awake, she noticed I was rolling in the floor, with both hands cupped between my legs.
She instantly forgot she was supposed to be mad at me, and kneeled beside me. “What’s wrong?”
The concern in her face made me feel great, even with the pain.
“Stomach cramps” I said through clenched teeth. I figured I would play this out as long as I could. “Probably ate some bad meat while I was out”.
“What can I do?” She asked.
“Just help me to the couch. I’ll be okay in a few minutes”.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. This sort of thing has happened before”.
She was very, very nice to me that night. Howard Junior was born not long after. That boy is as stubborn as a mule, just like his dad.
In time we settled down to an easier tolerance of each other. I had worn down her resistance by being very careful to lower the toilet seat, and by carefully changing shoes and pants on the back porch before I entered the living area. I had been considerate enough to wash the dishes for her after supper every day. In fact, she was adjusting quite well to my habits and had little to say to me for the next couple of years.
On the fourth year, I noticed she had looked at me funny during breakfast. I assumed it was that certain time of month that she didn’t like to be reminded of. I came home that night and went through my usual habits of accommodation to which she had been trained nicely, and she still acted funny. She never said anything to me during supper, so I turned on the newfangled TV we just bought. I was waiting for it to warm up and I got a call from a friend at my job.
Since Helen was recovering from her monthly visitor and didn’t want to be bothered, I told her I was going out to shoot pool with a friend, so as not to bother her. She went quietly toward the living room and came back holding my .22 rifle, and the business end was pointed toward me. I knew that sometimes women can get unreasonable during those periods, but this was a shock.
“You have no idea what today is, do you?”
“Yes. It’s Wednesday.”
“What day of the month?”
“That day when you have your visitor?”
She rolled her eyes toward the ceiling, and i got the impression she was close to squeezing the trigger. Having been well trained for such situations in the war, I dove behind the couch for cover and peeped at her over the couch’s arm.
“You really don’t know, do you?”
“No ma’am. I really don’t know”.
“It’s our anniversary, you idiot! I ignored it for the first three years, but I’d like to get a little recognition now and then for the time we took our vows”.
To be honest, I never considered it. I never thought anything special about the day of the month. I never even really cared. I just knew I was very happy that day, sometime in summer, whenever she said “I do”.
Why had I not taught her to remind me of this? I assumed she would let me know if there was something important I should tell her. How is a man supposed to know a thing if he’s not told?
She dropped the rifle helplessly and started crying. Helen crying. It was unnatural. It tore my heart out. Helen had dealt with some tough things in life. She didn’t cry. Was I making her that miserable?
“I’m sorry, Helen, I just didn’t think…”
“I know, I know” she said through tears. “I shouldn’t have pointed this damn rifle at you”.
“No, no, that’s all right. I just wish I had known.”
“Would it have made a difference?”
“Yes, of course it would. I wouldn’t be having to change my pants right now if I had known”.
“I just wonder sometimes if you really love me. I wonder if you still think about Lorraine”.
“Lorraine? Helen, my whole world began the day I met you. I asked Lorraine out a few times, and then I asked her to marry me”.
“Just like you did with me”.
“Yes, but you’re so much better than Lorraine. I’ve already told you. I was slogging up the Po River Valley in Italy when I got her ‘Dear John’. We both knew it would come to that, long before I went to war. We both knew we had made a mistake. We were just too different.”
“But you loved her”.
“I thought I did. I was young and horny and stupid, and I wanted to enjoy the pleasure of sex before I got killed in a war. We got married, and it was a mistake.”
“But it had to hurt”.
“Well, the timing wasn’t the best, but I knew it was going to happen someday. The difference, Helen, is that I really knew it would happen, and I wasn’t going to try and change it. With you, I would do anything, and I mean anything, to keep you with me, forever. I’m really not very smart, but I’m trying”.
She put down the rifle and hugged me, then stepped back quickly to remind me my pants needed changing. On those special days, for a couple of years after that, I would find a card at my breakfast plate. Happy Anniversary, it said. On the fourth year and afterward, I trained her to expect a present from me the night before our anniversary. A man just has to keep on top of things.
I almost forgot. Our second son, Bill, was born about nine months after that night.
We had been married about twelve years when a scaffold collapsed from under me. I fell backwards across a brick wall, and was forced to stay in bed for several weeks. Fortunately, nothing was broken, but the deep bruises needed time to heal.
Helen took over. She found a job, worked each day, cleaned the house and made the meals. She never once complained. I never quite understood how she could hold my body with one arm and change the sheets under me, but she managed. I finally recovered, and showed my appreciation with our third son, Mike.
I looked at this white-haired woman who had done so much and been the best friend I could ever hope for. I kissed her forehead once more, and whispered in her ear.
“You know I love you. I always have, and I always will. I don’t want you to leave me, but if you have to go, I’ll understand”.
I got the call from the hospital early a few mornings later. I had returned home to get some sleep and take a bath. My youngest son, Mike, told me through a tear choked voice that Helen was gone. Howard knocked on my door only minutes later, and asked if I knew. he drove me to the hospital, where the doctor waited in a mercifully dark room.
“We did all we could” he said.
“I know”. For a second, the room started spinning, and John held me. “You all right, daddy?”
“I’ll be all right, son”.
For now, it was okay. There would be time for memories later. Every time I changed my shoes and slipped into cleaner trousers, there would be time. Every time I lowered the toilet seat, there would be time.
Ever since I picked her up in that ’46 Plymouth, we rode together as far as two people can go.
Don’t let her walk, Lord. She’ll be wearing her best dress.