Monday, September 28, 2009

Graceful exit

The weekend was a mixed bag and work, wonder and frustration, mostly frustration.

I finally finished Dan Chaon's book, Await Your Reply and it was all right, a little confusing and the end was better than the interminable middle after a really great start, but that's what happens when you're juggling so many main characters and going back and forth in time. The writing isn't the problem (that's wonderful) and it isn't the characters (very real), but the plotting is a bit problematic. When did it become de rigueur to skip around the time line like a drunken leprechaun? Just because Quentin Tarantino does it doesn't mean writers have to following like lemmings. Whatever happened to working the back story into the flow of the novel instead of head and time hopping? Oh, well, there are worse things in novels and I'll think of them later.

In between working and trying to get some writing done, my cousin Timmy called and we talked -- for over two hours. It didn't seem that long because we spent most of the time laughing (Cruella deVille, Sr. and Jr.). He said he had always wanted to write, but what comes out on the page isn't readable. At least he likes to read. He told me about Brand, his brother-in-law who's such a big fan of my writing, and mentioned Ruthie, his wife who died recently. "I told Mom that you'd probably want to ask me questions about the last weeks of Ruthie's life and write about them."

"I wouldn't do that because it's private."

"Wouldn't it help someone else going through what I went through?"

"Yes, but I think it's too private right now."

"But it would help someone else."

Even through the tight control of his voice, I heard the tears he held back and the plea that I ask him about Ruthie's last days and write about them. He was a disappointed I didn't ask, didn't pry. Maybe later when the grief isn't so raw and bleeding. I did explain how anthologies work and that I can't just write a story for an anthology if they don't have a call out for a book with that particular theme, although with Chicken Soup I can propose a book. I may and then write about Timmy and Ruthie's story.

Timmy is an amazing man. He took compassionate leave from the Post Office (he's a mail carrier, although mail driver is closer to the truth) to tend Ruthie in her last days. Hospice had a nurse there, but it was Timmy who took her to the palliative radiation treatments for the cancerous lesions in her spine, bathed her, fed her spent every waking hour with her in her last days of life. Ruthie and Timmy had been little more than roommates for five years, married in name only.

She had left him February 2008, went bankrupt gambling online and moved back in with Timmy in December 2008. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2009 and Timmy was with her all through the chemo. As she continued to battle the cancer, Timmy stood by her, putting his life on hold. When she was diagnosed with metastatic bone cancer that had settled in her spine, she lost the use of one of her legs and eventually ended up in a wheelchair, and Timmy was with her through it all, even though she didn't tell him what the doctors told her at the beginning of August when she went home from the hospital: she was terminal. Timmy thought she was going to be all right. Ruthie wouldn't have the use of her left leg and would have to wear a brace, but she would eventually be able to walk again. She didn't tell him the truth, but that was par for the course in their marriage during the last five years.

Hospice breezed in and set up the bed and commode and all the equipment Ruthie would need and Timmy kept saying that it was temporary. Hospice is temporary all right, but not the way he thought. They brought The Box and told Timmy not to open until they told him to do so. Aunt Anne called Mom and asked her what it was and Mom called me. I knew what it was -- it was the end of life box. I called and told Aunt Anne and she insisted that Ruthie was going to be fine and was making plans to get back to work, the hope in her voice fraying around the edges because Timmy didn't know. "Why would they keep scheduling radiation treatments if it won't cure her?"

"To ease the pain. It's strictly a comfort measure, not curative."

"I thought it was strange," Aunt Anne said, "because when they started there was one lesion on her spine and by the end of the week there were four."

I think Timmy knew, but he didn't want to admit it, so he clung to the fiction that Ruthie fed him as she had fed him so many other fictions in their marriage, like the one that going through menopause decreased a woman's desire for sex. (That's a big lie; menopause increases the sex drive.) Ruthie's sex drive was fed to gambling online where she spent entire paychecks and missed payments on her car that Timmy paid.

Timmy has a problem; he's a born knight in shining armor who lives to rescue damsels in distress, even when they don't deserve to be rescued. It's a failing in the men in my family. My father had it. My brother has it. Timmy and his brother Jeff have it. Perhaps the only man in our family who didn't suffer from the disease was Grandpa Cornwell, my father's dad. He was a selfish old reprobate who didn't believe in rescuing anyone if it took time away from his own pleasures and pursuits.

At any rate, the time came for The Box to be opened and used. Timmy's compassionate leave was running out and so was Ruthie's life. She died on the last day of his leave, making a more graceful exit out of Timmy's life than she made entering it.

There's more to the story and I'm sure Timmy will eventually talk me into asking about it, but one thing sticks with me. When he talked about living with Ruthie as nothing more than roommates and not having sex, he told me that caring for her in those last days made sex seem unimportant. As he watched her life trickle away and her body burn itself out, he held her in his arms to bathe and change and clothe and feed her, closer to her in her waning hours than they had ever been in their life together. "None of that mattered," he said. "She was my Ruthie."

Yes, I think his story would help someone. Death puts life into perspective and it softens the edges of the pain and anguish people inflict on each other. It's too bad people don't learn how to treat each other gently in life or exit gracefully before Death takes them, so they can give the gifts of respect and life and compassion before it's too late to enjoy them. So much suffering and anger could be avoided.

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