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 did you let me live?”
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.
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.