Jody and I curled at opposite sides of the sofa with the television muted and she listened as I unpacked my experience with Bridie earlier today. I referred to her as ‘the dying woman’ so Jody could keep track of who I was talking about. And I knew Jody absolutely appreciates the importance of confidentiality and she would never, ever break my trust in her as my support.
I have colleagues who would never dream of taking their work stories home. I guess this works for them but I don’t find it works for me. I carry these stories no matter where I am, the same way I carry my home stories into work some days. When Jody and I first met, she was unfamiliar with mental health work so I had to parade my expertise. But of course I had been to high school, so I knew all about her work. Ha! That didn’t go over so well. Over the years, however, we have become very good mirrors to each other. Mostly, of course not always, we listen carefully to the other person and ask questions that open up the situation we are talking about. Sometimes we give advice, some times dumb advice, but mostly we support each other to mine the solution that we trust the other already knows but hasn’t realized yet. Tonight Jody witnessed my sorrow regarding Bridie. “What is it that bothers you so much in this particular case?” She wondered.
“I’m not sure if it bothers me more than any of the other very sad stories I’ve heard but maybe it’s just the cleanest and therefore the easiest to process.”
“Cleanest? It seems pretty messy to me.”
“I mean clean in the clinical sense. A young woman is delivered sudden, unexpected news that she will die. It is imminent. She has three young children. She and the family are in shock but she is wrestling control over it, until of course the end. If it were more complicated like a woman finds out her husband is having an affair and she has to decide the impact of all of the many consequences – for her, her kids, her financial well-being, her….you know.”
“OK. If that’s what you call clean.”
“And so, so sad. Jody, this woman is an inspiration to me. She is so tough yet obviously so soft and real. Not that I have a list at the ready but if I had a list of people I wouldn’t mind seeing dead, she isn’t anywhere near it.”
“Let me know when you finish your final draft of that list. I have some names to add.” I knew Jody wasn’t really interrupting me, just priming my narrative.
“One of the things the client said was that she was talking to her kid’s teachers about her condition…she was worried about one of the teachers who she isn’t sure will be kind to her little one during this. What do you think?”
“I don’t know many elementary school teachers” Jody replied, pursing her lips and thinking. “But she is right to tell the teachers. Young kids can respond so many different ways. And certainly this will affect them over a long time, probably over into the next year or two, even”. Jody knew about teachers; that was for sure. She has stacked up many years worth of experience and she has faced many difficult personal situations. I wished she were Jamie’s teacher. “I’m sure this teacher will rise to the occasion. I’ve met most of the principles in this area and there are only a couple I wouldn’t trust to support a teacher through something like this if they were struggling”.
“Let’s hope we hit the right combination!” I added.
Just before bedtime, Jody and I were folding fresh laundry from a pile on the bed. I like to fold hot clothes, right out of the dryer. These clothes were a little too cool for me but I was trying not to complain about little things, Bridie’s situation bringing life into perspective. Alas, old habits die hard. “I think I’ll throw this shirt back in before I hang it up” I muttered casually, trying not to make a big deal that Jody brings the laundry up to the bed instead of folding it as it comes out of the dryer. “Whatever…” was all Jody replied. I bit my tongue rather than show her that the shirt was completely unacceptable and quietly hung it on the back of the bedroom door, ready to be re-heated and unwrinkled when she wasn’t looking.
As I said, I rattle stories around in my head. Our conversation about Bridie was still lurking. “Have you ever thought about what it might feel like to get a death sentence? To have to tell me and your family that you were going to die?” I asked Jody, while I folded a pair of jeans, the proper way.
“No. I have not.” She looked askance.
“That’s pretty emphatic. You’ve never, ever thought about dying?” I persisted, probably at my peril.
“Not really…these topics don’t enter my life very often. Honestly, Hattie. We are young. We are both healthy. We take good care of ourselves. Other than the odd time I consider putting arsenic in your potatoes I am convinced we will live forever”. Finally a smile softened her face. The cool, wrinkly shirt moment had passed.
“Well, I’ve thought about it more lately, as you might have noticed. I can’t imagine the sensation. Remember when your cousin Craig died and we went to see him in that last week…he seemed so peaceful and resolved at the end.”
“He suffered a lot Hattie. I think for him death was a better place. It sure was for his family too.”
“But no matter that they were prepared and knew he would die, I remember his wife Darlene’s agony when she told us. And she was so sad for months. She really struggled. Gone is gone, I guess.”
“Think about it. For years they were together everyday, through all the mundane and ridiculous day-to-day accouterment. The end was never in sight. Then, when he had his stroke, everything changed but it also didn’t change. She had the mundane and ridiculous job of going to the hospital and rehab centre every day. Bringing him coffee he barely touched. Changing his pajama top after every meal and dealing with nurse, doctors, family. That was her new day-to-day. When we knew things were getting worse, she had to work with him…communicate with him as best she could to decide what to do. She finally decided to do nothing and let him slip away. For him it was likely peaceful. For her, it wasn’t.”
“I hope I have you around to change my pajama top…” I reached for Jody’s hand and drew her toward me. “But I don’t ever want to live past my ability to swallow. No puree for me – except, I will go on for one week of Dairy Queen Blizzards. Then pull the plug!”
“Of course” Jody murmured into my neck. “I will do that for you because you can be so serious about these matters”.
“I am very serious. It just sounds like I am safely hiding behind humor. Look at me. I’m not even smiling.” And I wasn’t. “One week of Blizzards then done. Promise me.”
“Diapers?” A fair question.
“No…maybe…no, actually. No diapers”
“You may regret that. On TV you can’t even see the diapers on the dancing woman”.
That evening Doug and Bridie also sat quietly together, side by side on their sofa as the last of the light drained out of the living room. They were spent, emotionally and physically. Grief, exhaustion and pain eroded their core. The children were watching television in the family room with Auntie Di, who was desperately trying to distract them from the awful news their parents just delivered.
“It went a little better then I thought it might.” Bridie whispered.
“I guess we’ll see over the next few days how much sunk in”.
“Doug. Are you ok?”
“No. No, I am not ok. I am not in the least ok.”
“I’m sorry Baby. I’m so sorry to put you all through this…”
“Bridie, this is not your fault.” His address was uncharacteristically formal. “I’m just not ok. I don’t think I will ever be ok again.”
“You will be Love. You have to be…but I understand you are not ok now, and you won’t be for a while. I will need you to pretend to be ok for a bit though.”
“That I will do…for you…for the kids. But I can’t do it right this minute. Not now. I can’t get the images of those poor boys out of my head…trying to figure out what is going on; what’s going to happen. I saw you wince when they crawled up on your lap and hugged you so tight…”
“I think I need to talk with the oncologist about the pain. I’ve been holding off because I don’t want to get dopey. But its probably time to start to thinking about this. I might ask about radiation too. If it shrinks the tumor I might get some relief”.
“It’s a plan.” Doug murmured. And they fell silent again, sitting side by side on their sofa, her elegant and long fingers surrounded by his familiar, sturdy hand. Spent, in their now dark living room.