You have taught me so much. I know we husbands don’t often admit that our wives teach us things, but they do. You are a fine teacher. I never knew how beautiful caregiving could be until you showed me.
For years I have watched you care for your frail mother. I have seen you lift her spindly body in your strong arms—wrecking your lower back one lumbar disc at a time.
I have been outside your mother’s lavatory door, listening to your easy voice guide her through her private moments.
I have helped cut your mother’s steak into itty-bitty pieces for you to feed her while she watches the “Sex in the City” marathon on TV.
And that smile your mother gives. I’ve seen that, too. It’s radiant. It is not so much like the smile of a parent, but more like the guileless face of a child.
I have been present at the grandiose birthday parties you’ve thrown for this white-haired matriarch in the wheelchair. Huge parties.
Most people would bring a cake and a pointy hat and call it a day. But you adorned the house with thousands of balloons, rainbows of flowers, and metric tons of cheap, mail-ordered Hawaiian luau paraphernalia that I am still paying off.
But yesterday, when the hospice nurse held your hand and said “Your mom doesn’t have much time left,” it hit me like a knee to the ribs.
That one wasn’t in the caregiver manual.
And do you know what the weirdest part is? I feel lost after hearing those words. Like I am surrounded by people speaking Hungarian, Japanese, and Norwegian. I don’t understand anything that’s going on. I feel disoriented. Nobody ever tells you that dying is confusing.
For the first time in my own house I don’t know what I should be doing, where I should be sitting, or standing, or what I should do with my hands. I don’t know how to comfort you. What should I say? Should I keep my mouth shut?
All I know to do is hold you while you weep. All I can do is watch your mother struggle to breathe. All I can do is pretend that I am strong, even though you know I’m faking it.
Last night, after I heard the news, I didn’t know what to do, so I drove around in my truck and cried. I just drove in circles, boo-hooing like an idiot.
I’m not good with dying. I never have been. Since I was eleven years old, after my father’s end, I have always had a hard time with death and funerals. Especially funerals.
You attend a funeral and you can always spot the people in the crowd who have never lost someone. You can see it in their eyes. Usually it’s the young people. They sit reverently, politely paying respects, and there is a beautiful innocence in their expressions.
You can tell they’ve never been referred to as “the family of the decedent.” Their invisible security bubbles haven’t been popped yet. I used to envy these people.
Meantime, the rest of us sit in the rear pews, heads down. Bone silent. Red eyes. Sniffing loudly. Haunted by the wonderful memories of our beloved ghosts.
And right now that’s kind of how I feel. I feel sad. Sad for you. Sad for your mother. I don’t want to see anyone suffer anymore. I don’t want to say goodbye to your mom, and I don’t want to see you bawl yourself to sleep. I don’t want our lives to change. I don’t want her to die. I just want things to go back to how they were.
But I know they never will.
Today, when you were spoon-feeding your mother breakfast, do you know what I was thinking while I watched? I was remembering something.
I remembered our wedding. When I held your hand at the altar nearly two decades ago. You in your gown; I in my overpriced rental tux. Your mother, seated on the front row, looking like she’d just discovered teeth. God. What a day that was. How young we all were.
We were two freckle-faced kids in formalwear who promised God that we would walk beside one another during life’s ultimate messes. We promised to be here for each other. I meant those words. I meant them then. And I mean them now.
So here I stand. Although I feel helpless, I’m ready to help. I’m not moving until you tell me to get out of the way. If you need a drink of water, let me get it for you. If you want ice cream for breakfast, I’m on it.
If you need to cry on my chest, cry until you ruin my shirt. Ruin every godforsaken shirt I own, honey. I don’t care. I’ll buy a thousand more shirts for you to cry upon.
I don’t know what happens next. But I’m here. Till death do we part. And then some.