The Thai food’s oily steam gave a yellow tint to the otherwise antiseptic air of my wife’s hospital room. A droplet of green curry slipped off her slick bottom lip to slap the blue paper napkin held in place over her chest by two metal clips attached to a grey plastic necklace given to her by the daytime nurse—a muscular Nigerian immigrant named Okafor who engaged in heavily accented, playfully witty banter with her.
Claire thought he was great. Called him “a charmer.” My god he was handsome. He knew all about bodies: their secret ways; their wondrous structures. He made me want to fling myself from the room’s second story window in what would doubtless be a failed suicide attempt, an attempt that would put me right back in the hospital, seated on a padded table with Okafor deftly putting a band-aid on my skinned knee, saying, “We’ve got to be more careful, haven’t we?”
My wife’s spoon trembled en route to her mouth. She moved like cheap stop-motion.
She finished her meal, pressed a button on the panel by her arm to shift her bed into a more reclined position, and closed her eyes. Then, eyes still closed, she said, “I want a divorce.”
This statement took me by such surprise that my brain, struggling to process it, lost all meaningful connection with my mouth. “Are you still hungry?” I asked.
She opened her eyes. “What?”
Almost completely unaware of what I’d just said, I now said, “What?”
“I ate,” she said, and pointed to her empty black Tupperware where wet greenish liquid still pooled in small patches like teaspoons of swamp-water.
“Do you want more?” I asked.
“Alvin,” she said, “did you hear what I said?”
“Could you repeat it?”
“I want a divorce.”
My wife described a feeling of gnawing guilt that’d been plagued her for, she claimed, years. She didn’t really love me anymore, she said. But she had been going through the motions of loving me and, now, riddled with carcinoma and literally on her deathbed, she wanted to come clean and exit this world by being true to who she truly was. I listened while standing beside her window, gazing out at the copse of paper birch trees on the hill behind the building, and thinking, I’m really going to do it. I’m going to jump right out. But the window was set up so that one could only open it to a gap of about four inches and I realized that, of course, the doctors had already thought of everything, even this exact situation, and that I was trapped. And, being trapped, I became like a cornered animal, vicious and uncaring, and I said, “That chemo really did a number on your brain,” which was not at all the play.
She became quite angry and began frothing at the lips.
Like a preschooler tattling on her classmate, she called for Okafor by pressing a special button on her armrest.
“Please escort my husband out,” she said, like there was some risk of me causing a scene or, at age seventy-three, becoming violent. Like I was going to start throwing chairs around. Like I could lift these chairs.
I wanted to kill her.
“Mr. Podolski,” said Okafor, “lets go.”
And I left, not because I wanted to, or would’ve otherwise, but because Okafor was there, and I have always been incapable of making a scene with my wife in front of a third party. I simply cannot do it. I would rather allow her to walk all over me than let it look like we ever argue. The worst part was that, in the hall, Okafor put a hand on my shoulder and told me that some patients, due to their stress and suffering, can behave erratically and without thinking and that it was best, at such times, to give them space.
And even though I did not want to be comforted by Okafor, I was comforted nonetheless.
At home, eating organic mac-and-cheese out of a pink plastic bowl usually reserved for one of the grandchildren, it occurred to me that I wasn’t so far off when I’d considered killing myself earlier. “It’s not,” I thought aloud, “like you can get a post-death divorce. At that point you’re just a widow or a widower.” I began to consider which method would be the most painless for myself. Sleeping pills, I supposed, or some sort of poison. But I then realized that this wasn’t a situation where I would need to be the one to die, because Claire was already on the way out. “So I just need to stall,” I said.
I called Claire’s doctor. “Doctor,” I said, trying to sound concerned in the right way, “how much longer do you think Claire has to live?”
“It’s hard to say,” he said.
“But if you had to give an estimate. Please. We’re trying to plan for our children to visit her one last time.”
“Two weeks at most,” he said.
Sitting in my study, sipping red wine and taking stock of the situation, I concluded that nothing can’t be put off for at least two weeks.
I checked the clock and saw that it was only six in the evening. I was sure she’d still be up. In fact, she’d probably have just woken up from the evening nap that her condition forced her to take. I picked up the phone. Once I got her on the line, after speaking with the receptionist and then speaking with the attending nurse in the cancer ward—thankfully not Okafor—and waiting while they checked with her to see if she was able and willing to take the call, I told her that there was no way she was going to be able to pull off a divorce before the cancer got her.
“When I married you, I married you for life,” I said, “no ifs ands or buts.”
“I have a lawyer coming to visit me on Wednesday,” she informed me. “You should be there as well. He’s going to bring all the paperwork. I’ve been in contact with him for over a month. We’re going to make it all very simple. I’m not going to be your wife anymore.”
She hung up and left me staring over the top of my mahogany desk at a Mallards of North America calendar that my son Brendan sent me for Christmas—a gift that might seem lame to an outsider but becomes quite sweet if you know me and how much I love ducks—along with a fifty dollar Amazon gift card which I’d used to purchase digital copies of a number of my favorite DVDs so that I could watch them when traveling as long as I brought my laptop. May’s photo showed a mallard from the rear, the blue bands on its wings winking white as it takes off from a still pond at dawn, surrounded in mist and disturbing the silken water. Beneath the calendar sat a tiny branded purple plastic fan that I got as a party favor at one of my last ever company events. One drawer of the desk contained a pile of such products: unsolved branded keychain Rubik cubes and stretchy branded wristbands and even a tiny, clear, still-sealed bubble-wand that I’d found waiting with my prim place setting (the folded napkin, the pure-white plate) at my nephew’s wedding reception at Virginia Beach.
The calendar said that today was Monday. I had to wait a whole day for Wednesday.
That night, I lay awake thinking about my wife and trying to picture the lawyer she claimed to have hired. Instead I kept picturing Okafor’s deeply disarming smile.
The next morning I drank black coffee and tried to figure out whether or not to visit my wife. I might exacerbate the situation by showing my face, or, worse, arrive at the hospital and be told that she did not wish to see me like I was our annoying second cousin who is always trying to convert deathbed relatives to her special niche Christian denomination. On the other hand, though, she was still my wife, and I wanted to keep it that way, and if a man has a wife and he wants to keep her as his wife and if she’s going to die in the next two weeks, then he goes to visit her every single day. Perhaps, I thought, there’s a middle ground, like calling her from the hospital café or sitting in the room with her but speaking via text.
I drove over around 7am.
At the front desk, I was told that my wife was still asleep and that I would have to wait. I found myself in the hospital café after all, drinking an ill-advised second cup of coffee that would have me anxious and needing to shit every twenty-five minutes. And now that I was feeling anxious, I went over again and again the argument that I would make to my wife about why we should stay together—an emotional argument in which I would tell her just how much she meant to me and how broken up I was already going to be after she passed and how if she were not only dead but also divorced from me it would absolutely destroy me. I planned to say the words “destroy me” and also “there’ll be nothing of myself left” which I thought sounded like a really powerful phrase, like something someone might say in an award-winning film.
My phone rang at 9:15am and the receptionist told me that I could go up.
She was deteriorating when I found her. Her pale skin appeared to be thinning, becoming diaphanous, such that if I looked hard, I suspected, I might see throbbing organs and the shifting of still-pink muscles.
“Alvin,” she half-whispered.
“Pumpkin,” I said.
“Stop with that,” she said, still in a semi-whisper, and I realized that she could not get any louder.
“Darling,” I said, sitting beside her hospital bed. “I don’t think you understand what you’re doing to me.”
I laid out for her the whole argument I’d concocted while sitting in the hospital café. But I rushed it. I was nervous. I felt shit pressing on my tightened anus. There’ll be nothing of myself left came out as, “I’ll be without anything of me.” Worse, midway through speaking, Okafor came in with my wife’s breakfast which he explained to her like she wouldn’t know what scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese and a bunch of cherry tomatoes and two pieces of toast and a cup of applesauce were just by looking at them.
“Hello, Alvin,” he said when he saw me, bestowing one of his gobsmacking smiles.
I continued only after he left.
When I finished speaking, having worked myself up to the point of almost being unable to form words—being so overcome with emotion, an emotion that throbbed in my throat—my wife said, “I’m not going to let you manipulate me.”
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“You always try to convince me that you are both hyper-rational and that your emotional needs should come first.”
“I don’t do that,” I said.
“You’ve always done that,” she said.
“Then I’ll try to be better,” I said, which is what I always said in situations like that.
“I don’t have the time left for you to be better,” she said.
“Now you look here—” I said.
She pressed the button that called for Okafor.
“Please escort my husband out,” she said as he was entering, and I wondered if, if I ran full tilt and leapt, I could break through the glass of the window.
“We’d better go,” Okafor said to me.
“Alright,” I said. “Alright.”
In my car, I wept. I don’t mind admitting it. Loneliness was coming for me. I could feel it like the empty air on all sides. And I was angry. I had stood beside her for three years. I had driven her to chemo. I had done all the chores. I had spent the first three years of my retirement following her around with the dedication of a support dog. During one week of sickened weakness I’d helped her on and off the toilet, wiping her because she could not and washing her when she soiled herself. There were months of depression when she hardly spoke. There were days when she rebelled against her own illness through a show of unfocused energy—suddenly we would have to clean, clean everything, and then we’d have to fuck, we must fuck, even if I was not entirely in the mood, she would grab me, she would be on me, and then we would need to invite the kids over for a visit, they should be here, we should see them!—an unfocused energy that lead to crazed days with fluttering, frightened trajectories, days that always crashed-landed back on our bed in fits of sobbing. And now she wanted to “be honest to herself” and turn me from a mourning husband into some asshole who pined after a dead ex. Did she not see that her retroactive honesty would make monsters of both of us?
I would not have it. I had to save us.
I lay awake all night, staring at our bedroom’s brushed nickel and walnut ceiling fan and light kit, which I’d picked out from a Home Depot catalogue twelve years prior. I periodically got up to use the bathroom and stare at my porcelain mallard-shaped toothbrush holder. If my wife were to die, or to begin dying, I would still receive a call. I was still her husband.
The next morning, I arrived at the hospital around 6:30am. I did not even approach the receptionist. I went straight to the café and bought coffee and a bagel.
I sat and sipped my beverage and watched night shift workers picking up a snack (a soft muffin, a brittle granola bar) for the drive home.
I asked the receptionist to call up and announce me at 8:00am.
My wife reclined in her bed, her eyes roving the room but her mouth slack. Her skin’s translucent quality had spilled over into the ugly yellow of old parchment. She was deteriorating.
“Can you speak?” I asked her.
“You must speak to prove that you can speak,” I told her. “Say something to me.”
A confused vowel dripped out. She furrowed her brow to focus but the effort undid her and she slipped back into her previous slack expression.
I took my seat beside her bed.
A few minutes later, Okafor came in with her breakfast. He explained the contents to me, as though I would not immediately recognize a slice of quiche, a cup of fruit salad, and a petite raspberry Danish. “For if she is able,” he said, motioning to her. “If she cannot eat in another hour, we will feed her intravenously. Do you understand?”
“I do,” I said.
I could not believe how easy it was all turning out to be.
When the lawyer arrived, he called up from the front desk.
I answered the call.
“I’m her husband,” I explained.
“Oh,” he said. “Is there something I should know?”
“You should just come on up,” I said.
He entered the room cautiously, almost tiptoeing although my wife and I were obviously awake.
He took stock of Claire. “My name is Leonard,” he said, stretching out a hand and addressing himself to me.
“Leonard,” I said, “I want to thank you for taking the time to come by.”
“Of course,” he says. “It’s no trouble. I’m used to doing this.”
He held a black briefcase in his right hand. It was packed, I imagine, with divorce-related documents.
“Leonard,” I said. “I hate to have to tell you this, but my wife wasn’t in her right mind when she called you.”
She moaned at us.
“I understand,” he said. “But I must try to speak with her. She is my client.”
He turned to her bed, and said, “Claire, can you hear me.” She managed to nod.
“Very good,” he said. “I have the paperwork you requested and I must ask you to sign it. Would you like me to read it to you?”
She nodded again.
He read it aloud. It was a terrifying piece of language. It was the beginning of my total destruction.
He put it on the tray beside her, with a pen.
With great effort she put out her hand and managed to grasp the pen. Her hand shaking. She managed to place it on the paper, but not even in the right place. She could only manage a meaningless scribble.
“Look at this,” I said. “This is not the mark of a person in their right mind. This is the mark an illiterate would make. An illiterate or an infant. You cannot possibly treat this as a document with any legal value.”
“You are right,” he said.
My wife began to writhe, but without much energy. It was almost silly, like a wobbling gelatin.
After the lawyer left, I continued to sit beside her. Her eyes flicked around the room. To my mind, they appeared panicked. I put out a hand to touch her forehead. “It’s alright,” I said. “I’m here. I’m here. I’ll be here right through to the end.”
I reached across her bed and pressed the button for Okafor. When he entered, I pointed at her meal. “She’s not going to be able to eat this,” I said.
“I understand,” he said. He moved to take it.
“I’m sorry to ask,” I said, “but could I have it? I haven’t eaten anything this morning.”
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