July 17, 1988 – Sunday – Day 10

My second Sunday at CVPH. I was officially ensconced on the nursing room floor; the hospital administration had guaranteed the room for me for the length of Mitchell’s stay in the ICU. But, I was not comfortable, I thought, as I looked around the sterile room. There was no trace of me or my family anywhere. The closet and dresser held what few clothes I had accumulated. The mid-summer weekend attire I had brought with me did not work in the air-conditioned hospital. On their visit, my in-laws had brought me a few things from home; my sister had donated some of her clothes, but they were mostly polyester and I could not, would not wear them. I had run into K-Mart to buy some sweatpants and long-sleeve tops and some extra underwear.
I will burn every one of these things when this is over, I thought as I pulled on white briefs and a plain white bra. Likewise for the generic sweats and t-shirt. No underwire bras and hipsters, no cute casual clothes at K-Mart.
In my tiny bathroom, I surveyed my paltry collection of cosmetics. A little mascara on my pale brown eyelashes and some lip gloss was all I was capable of most mornings. I did manage my contact lenses though. It was the 80’s so my hair was cut into the longish, requisite bob and finished with an auburn rinse. And, of course, the poodle perm. It was an easy hairstyle most of the time. Wash and air-dry then fluff out the curls with a wire pick. The perm and the hair color were still in good shape. It was the best I could do at 6:00 a.m. after four or five hours of sleep.
I gathered my notebook and pen, my tiny prayer book and a paperback novel before I headed down to the ICU. Every morning it was the same as I waited for the elevator. The sounds of the hospital waking up: aides pushing carts of meds and foods, nurses checking on patients, doctors beginning rounds, the dinging of the elevator as it went from floor to floor. And the announcements: Code Red, CCU. Dr. So-and-so to ER – Stat! Code Blue, ICU.
Code Blue, ICU. My blood would run cold, my heart would hammer and my stomach would clench in a nauseating spasm. I lived in dread of those words. And I heard them at least once a day.
But not that morning. That morning I wandered into the ICU to quiet. Or as quiet as the ICU ever was. On Sunday, there were no scheduled surgeries, no visits from therapists and not many from the doctors. But, like every morning, my steps slowed as I turned the corner and got my first view of Mitch’s cubicle. The curtains were open. I paused, as I always did, at the edge of the nurse’s station, to straighten my shoulders, to take a deep breath, to plaster a smile on my face that would not ever betray the shock and sorrow I felt every time I saw what had become of my husband.
My big, strong, handsome, laughing husband. How could this bloated body belong to him? How could that unruly, black curly hair be confined within a halo of stainless steel? How could his laughter, his sly mocking jokes, his gentle words, his probing questions, be reduced to a whisper that was barely a sigh? How could his presence which was the center of my universe be confined by three walls and a curtain, strapped to a rotating bed, tied to cords and tubing?
“Good morning, Mitch.”
His beautiful whiskey brown eyes opened at the sound of my voice. He smiled.
I approached him, leaving my things on the chair next to his bed. As I bent to kiss his cheek, he whispered “Good morning, honey,” and kissed my cheek. A good start to the day.
And it was to be a busy day. Andy, Mitchell’s friend from his boyhood on Long Island, and the Best Man at our wedding, had made the long drive from New York City to visit him. I could tell by the look on his face how sad and shocked he was. But, they joked as easily with each other as they had the last time we were all together at Andy’s big house in Brooklyn. Andy let us know that his cousin, Valerie, was married to a neurologist at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady. It was near to our home in Clifton Park. Valerie’s husband worked for the big-time neurologist at Ellis and was trying to convince him to take Mitchell’s case. Though not a Regional Trauma Center like AMC, Ellis was only 20 minutes from home and had an excellent rehabilitation center, Sunny View, attached to it. It might work.
While Andy was visiting with Mitch, I ran down to the cafeteria for some lunch and then made some phone calls from the booths in the Lobby. As I was returning to the ICU, I ran into a vaguely familiar man.
“Hello, you’re Mitch Hallow’s wife, aren’t you?
“Yes, I am.”
“I’m Courtney Hall. I’m a lawyer in Saratoga, that’s how I know Mitch.”
“It is good to meet you. Can I help you?”
“Well, we are all worried about him so I thought I would come up and see how he was doing and deliver the Sunday papers to him. I don’t think they get the Albany papers up here.”
“I don’t think he is really up to visitors today.” Mitch was so strict about anyone seeing him that I did not think he would want a lawyer he did business with to witness his current state.
“No, no, I certainly understand, I just wanted to let him know that we were thinking about him. Anything we can do to help, please let me know.” He handed me his card and the newspapers.
When I delivered the papers and told him about the encounter, Mitch smiled, really smiled.
Then he said, “It is a good day.” He paused before he whispered, “My arms are tingling again today.”
I grasped his hand in joy. His eyes opened wide, an astonished look crossed his face.
“I can feel that.”
“What?”
“I can feel you squeezing my right hand!”
Oh, my God. My heart stood still as tears coursed down my cheeks.
It was a good day.
Later that night, I wrote to Mitchell who had been, and still was, the greatest love of my life:

Dear Mitch,
It’s been quite a week. You’ve done great things!
Monday – You felt tingling in your hands.
Tuesday – You felt tingling up to your elbows.
Wednesday – Tracheostomy and you were in great spirits.
Thursday – Pacemaker.
Friday – Tingling in both hands.
Saturday – Your neck hurt.
Sunday – More tingling and you felt it when I squeezed your hand. My heart was in my throat, I was so happy!
Andy visited today and Courtney Hall brought you a Sunday paper from Albany. And there were a few calls – Janet, Carl, Mary, Margot, Judy, Mary. Everyone wants you to be better. I love you and I want you to be better, too.
I am lonely without you.
Love,
Debbi

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July 9, 1988 – Day One

The nurse woke me up around 6:00 a.m. It was freezing cold. I was groggy and stiff, my eyes felt like they were coated with slime and dusted with grit; I had slept with my contacts in. I stumbled after her into the ICU. We rounded the corner of the nurse’s station and I saw that the curtain was pulled across Mitchell’s cubicle. I looked inside and gulped.
His head was encircled by a stainless steel halo from which hung a weighted cord. The halo was affixed to his head by two screws in his forehead and, I assumed, two screws in the back. He looked like Frankenstein. There were dark circles under his eyes and there was still dried blood in his moustache. I walked toward his head, on the right side of his bed, and bent to kiss his cheek.
His eyes flew open. They stared balefully at me, full of confusion. And anger. I stood up.
“Why?” His lips mouthed the words around the tube that was taped to the corner of his mouth.
“Why, what?”
“Why did you let me live?”
Oh, God.
I felt what little strength I still possessed drain out of me. Tears sprang into my eyes and with a garbled sob, I turned away from him. For the very first time since January 1976 when he told me for the first time that he loved me, I doubted his feelings for me. My anchor had just been ripped from its rock solid mooring and I was adrift.
I stumbled through the curtain and stood. Just stood, head bent, tears dripping down my face, plopping from my chin onto my t-shirt. I couldn’t make a sound. One of the nurses approached me and put her arms around me. She hugged me close.
“He didn’t want to live. He doesn’t want to live. I let them drill holes in his head and now he hates me.” I sobbed into her shoulder.
“Shhh. He doesn’t mean it. He said okay last night, I was there when he said okay. It always looks worse the next morning. He just has to get used to it. He doesn’t hate you.”
I had to leave. Seeing me with red eyes and tear-stained cheeks was not going to help my husband. I went back out to the waiting room and collected my sister to go down to the cafeteria. I needed caffeine. Preferably Diet Coke but tea would work. The hospital was a Pepsi hospital, every vending machine and the soda dispenser in the cafeteria was loaded with Pepsi and Mountain Dew. I never liked Pepsi; before our ordeal was over, I would loathe it.
My sister was glued to my side. And I needed her. I knew most of her interest in me was self-serving; I did not think my tragedy had changed her basic selfish personality. But, I needed someone and she was there. And, I will admit, she had great organizational skills. While I spent time on the telephone with friends, neighbors and family, she worked to find us a room to stay in, arranged for her husband to bring us clothes and books and food from my mother and to bring me my children.
After breakfast, after calling my parents and talking to my children, after talking to Mitch’s parents, who were on their way, planning to stay at our house that night and arrive in Plattsburgh on Sunday and after arranging for cat care and mail and newspaper pick-up with our neighbors across the street, I sat slumped in the phone booth. I did not want to go back to the ICU; I did not want to see my husband.
CVPH sits in the middle of an idyllic setting in Plattsburgh. It is adjacent to a lovely residential neighborhood; there are rolling lawns, gardens and even a duck pond. I left the icy cold of the lobby for the warm humidity of the July morning. I felt like I would never be warm again, my blood was like ice in my veins. My hands were so cold that my wedding and engagement rings spun around my ring finger. My new rings that Mitch had just had made in April for my birthday; gone was the simple platinum setting, replaced by a one-of-a-kind yellow gold swirl. I twisted them around and around as I walked across the lawn. Fear kept me cold. What if he died? What if he didn’t and was paralyzed for life? What if he could never work again? Never walk again? Never talk again? Never love me again? What could I, would I do?
I stared at the ducks for a long time. Two Mallard ducks were swimming side by side, gracefully gliding across the dark water, totally in tandem. They stopped almost in front of me. One reached over and nibbled on the other’s neck. Then they swam off to the other side of the pond, into the cattails and tall grass. Together.
In sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part. That is what we said to each other almost ten years earlier. I meant it when I said and I still meant it. And I would make Mitchell believe it too. If I could stay with him through this devastating injury, through his stupid, stupid decision to do that stupid, stupid Cannonball into the pool, he could stay with me.
My sister was in the waiting room of the ICU, armed with blankets and pillows, magazines and soda, laying claim to both sofas. I patted her shoulder and opened the door of the ICU. The curtains were open to Mitch’s cubicle. I paused. I squared my shoulders. I gulped down the lump in my throat. His eyes opened as I approached. His beautiful whiskey-brown eyes. His thick, curly lashes that had first won my heart almost 13 years ago blinked back tears. I moved to him and brushed the tears away.
“I’m sorry.”
We said it in unison.
“I’m sorry that I let them do this to you but I couldn’t let you go, I can’t let you die. Not yet, not ever.” Tears sprang from my eyes. My hand clutched his unfeeling hand.
“Shhh. Shhh.” He almost whispered the words, his lips barely moved. It was more sigh than speech. “Shhh. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I did that stupid dive. You told me, you told me. I’m so sorry.”
There we were. I bent into him, pressed my cheek to his, our tears mingling, our barely whispered words slipping into souls that clung to one thing, the same thing, the only thing: we were still together, we still loved each other. Together.
It would be all right.

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