Posted by: Peadar Ban | October 22, 2009

Forty-Four Years, Three Months, Eleven Days, Eleven Hours and Forty-Seven Minutes

I looked up at the sky as I walked out to the car.  Cloud islands were underlit by the just risen sun. Shades of rose and gold colored them and I imagined myself actually looking down on a strange landscape from a great height, another place; looking down on the hills and plains of these islands slowly moving by surrounded by a powder blue sea.  Away in the distance a fanfare of coppery golden light announced the sun’s actual arrival.  As Mariellen and I got into the car and drove off to meet the young student we take to school each morning I thought it would be the same kind of day it was ten years ago; the same kind of peaceful warm day.

The previous night Mariellen, whose presence in my life is such a blessing, had mentioned that the next day would be the tenth anniversary of Sheila’s “graduation”.  I thought then how much the two of them are alike.  If it had been the other way round, the same reminder would have been made, the same charity shown, the same care taken.

I remember that day.  I awoke from a brief sleep on the floor beside the couch where Sheila had spent almost all of her time the previous three months.  She still slept so I gathered the cushions I had been sleeping on and returned them to the couch in the living room, ran upstairs and took a shower, dressed and came down to find her awake.

Would she eat something, I wondered?  Tea was all she wanted.  I brought her tea and some toast, a piece of an apple.

She sipped the tea.  For possibly the hundredth time she accepted a small bit of toast, a bite of the apple and weakly waved away the rest of the meager meal, smiling that she would try again later, but I should leave the tea.  It was as it had been for years rich, black, strong Irish tea.  It would grow cold waiting for her next sip.

Outside the day got on.  It seemed as if summer had returned, bright and sweet as a morning should be.  It would be a fine day.  I opened windows to let in the sounds of birds flying by on their morning rounds, the odd dog barking at the kids off to school.  I had my own cup of tea in the chair nearby in the little room where we both had lived while we waited for Sheila to die.

Ten days before she’d come home from the hospital where she almost had died and then, miraculously I had thought, rallied.  For about a week she had returned to me with all her wit and spirit intact.  In spite of all the other evidence in front of me this gave me reason to hope.  I didn’t dare hope for the great miracle of a complete cure.  Even thinking about that made me fear presumption’s sin.  Could God do that for me?  I didn’t dare to wonder, or plead.  But I did wonder and hope that God would let her see Christmas and the new year, the new century; let us see it together.

The other hopes, of trips back to Ireland, visits and vacations together, simple days growing old, these things I’d put away with less and less regret as their time came to be let go of.  I remembered the day in the office of Dr. Baker, she so very sick from and tired of her latest chemotherapy.  “Can I just stop,” she had asked me.  I had wondered about that question for a few weeks, and what would be my reaction to it.  “I want to stop.  I am tired of this,” she continued.

We hear so much about “fighting” the disease, and about maintaining a positive attitude.  How grim I think, now.  Sheila’s attitude had always been to ignore the fact until she had a symptom; to live in the meantime as if there were no such thing as cancer.  Now she would die that way.

“I don’t have cancer,” I answered, “and I can’t tell you what to do.  I know what I would like.  If you stop and wait I’ll wait too.”  We went home to begin waiting.  And that simply meant continuing to live quietly together as she went about the business of getting me ready for her death.  That was in July.

She took me around the house that first week and showed me how everything operated, the stove and oven, the dishwasher, the washer and dryer; instructing me to put the colored wash in first so as not to get bleach stains on them.  She showed me when and how ro do the bills, and sat with me as I took care of all those things she had been taking care of for the past thirty or so years.  As usual, she was living for me, and making sure that I would live as well when she wasn’t there to help.

Each night I said good night, kissing her as she lay on the couch in the family room watching some old movie, and going up to our bedroom.  The couch was the only place where she was comfortable.  I’d become very good at arranging pillows and cushions for her so she was at her ease; so there was no pain from the tumors on her spine.

I slept alone, with an intercom on so she could call me when she needed me in the night.  A lot of the time I lay awake listening to her labored breathing remembering how we’d both listened to the children years ago breathing in the night.

In the beginning, up until mid-August she was still able to take care of herself for the most part.  But it soon became evident that she could not be left alone.  When I was not in the room, she became anxious.  I moved in, and our life became that room, mostly her sleeping and me watching; a long vigil.

Once a dy at about three in the afternoon, I would make her a martini and wheel her to the front door so she could sit and look outside while she darnk her drink and smoked a cigarette.  Occasionally we’d joke about the dangers of drinking and smoking in her very delicate condition.

There were no visitors.  Sheila was a very private person who once said, “I have enough friends.  If one of them dies I’ll think about getting another one.”  In keeping with her desire I told everyone that she was aware of and thankful for their concern and prayers, but she was, well, busy with dying and hoped they understood.

She did come out once in September for our grand children’s September birthdays.  She enjoyed the time spent and the children’s company.  I worried how much time the effort took away from the small amount she had left.  The doctor had said possibly three months back in July.  Two of them had almost gone by then.

Then her rally and my brief hopes after an overnight stay in the hospital because she could not breathe.  We had our last great time together “breathing the same air” as she liked to say, actually doing little else than being in each other’s presence.

Ten days after that stay she died.  The children, Jeanne and Andrew, were there as we sat with her for the last hours, she and I together on the couch which had been her “home”.  As the hours wore on I felt her grow increasingly more cold, her breathing more labored.  The hospice nurse told us she would die that day.  Her cold arms and legs were a sign, her labored breathing.  “Try to make her as comfortable as possible.  Help her to breathe.”

So I sat her up and put my arm behind her head.  And we stayed together for six hours, quietly.  I moistened her lips from time to time and wet her mouth with a sponge.

Finally her breathing grew easier, it seemed, slighter, softer, calmer.  It stopped.  I waited for the space of a breath or two and then asked Jeanne to tell me what time it was.  She looked at the clock in the kitchen and said it was 10:47pm.  I laid Sheila down on the couch and stood looking around me at the room wondering how close she was to us, how far she might have gone, saying goodbye and wishing her safe journey home.

Then I gathered the children in my arms and said a prayer telling them that the best part of the family had gone.

It had been thirty four years, three months, eleven days, eleven hours and forty-seven minutes since we had promised to love one another.  Ten years on so much has changed, and nothing much has changed at all.

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Responses

  1. Peter: This is lovely. I would have loved Sheila had I known her, as I love you. Slainte e baci, R

    • R.,

      Thank you, Darlin’. And she would have…she does…love you, too. She was a cute mix of Dorothy Parker and what’s her name, Arthur’s girlfriend in the film of the same name. A real New Yorker from The Heights, who knew Da Runner.

      P.

  2. DEATH,DYING,DIED–WORDS THAT PIERCE OUR MINDS AND MEMORIES FLOW FROM WITHIN LIKE BLOOD FROM WOUNDS.WE RECALL EVERY DAY,HOUR,SECOND OF WHAT PRECEDES THEM
    ; AND THEY RETURN,OVER AND OVER,TILL WE OURSELVES ARE DEAD,OUR OWN IMAGE-MAKING MEMORY BOX SHATTERED.
    DYING STARTS AT BIRTH.INEXORABLY WE MOVE TOWARD IT.IT WILL COME;NO ESCAPING DEATH,THE UNIVERSAL THIEF OF LIFE.
    THERE MUST BE A REASON FOR DEATH BEYOND THE PURELY BIOLOGICAL,SOME EXPLANATION.IT MUST HAVE A MEANING BEYOND BRUTE EXTINCTION.TO ME IT IS THE INTENSITY OF LOVE WE FEEL FOR THE DEAD WHICH GIVES A CLUE.IT TEACHES US TO LOVE IN A MANNER UNIQUE TO OUR RACE.THE LOVING ACHING HEARTS OF THOSE WHO REMAIN TESTIFY TO A SENSE OF PURPOSE WE SEE DARKLY.WE WERE MADE AND THE MAKER HAS WILLED THAT WE DIE SO AS TO GO BACK .AH,BUT TO WHERE?OUR THOUGHTS CAN’T PIERCE ITS FULL MEANING IN THE THE HERE ,THE NOW IN WHICH WE BREATHE A LITTLE WHILE.SO,WE ARE SCARED OF DEATH ;IT IS OUR PRIMARY MYSTERY AS CREATURES.WHERE DO WE GO AFTER DEATH?WILL A SOUL UNHOUSED FROM BODY BECOME OUR WAY OF SEEING THOSE WHO HAVE GONE BEFORE US AND THE ONE WHO HAS MADE US?I HOPE SO.I PRAY SO.I INTUIT IT IS SO.HOLD STEADY .THE BLEEDING WILL STOP.LOVE OF OTHERS AND OUR MAKER DEMANDS THE END OF SUFFERING AND SORROW.SO PETER ,REMEMBER SHEILA WITH ALL YOUR MIGHT.AND ALL SHALL BE WELL,AND ALL MANNER OF THINGS WILL BE WELL.JFM

    • JFM,

      Now there’s a powerful response evoked, and a thousand thanks for your sharing of it. I was treated gently by it all, and had some years to prepare. What remains these years later is what you know, what St. Paul tells us.

      Peter

  3. Thank you for this, Peter.

    • You are very welcome, Joseph.

  4. I remember how Mom had her roxicet with a martini. How she would only let YOU make the martinis. How she’d order two or three different things to eat – soup, or liverwurst – and refuse them all after a nibble? You never complained.

    Do you remember her “little rally” that day? How she fell, trying to light her own cigarette…the call to the visiting nurse…the quiet vigil we sat waiting for the nurse to come…the doorbell announcing her arrival…and Mom sitting up telling us to get the nurse some tea?

    How you both sent me to buy a new screen door afterwards?

    Remember telling Andy to stop watching The Simpson’s? Did we turn the TV off or did we turn it to Seinfeld?

    Let’s help each other remember.

    I love you, Daddy

    • Dear Jeanne,
      I remember, too, only I had forgotten the name of the drug. And, it’s true that I was the Martini master. Once, while we were traveling in Ireland, I instructed a young bar man on the recipe for a martini the way your mother liked them. It was incredibly bad, she said. That was in Waterford, when we bought your crystal.

      Love, Dad

  5. Mr. Gallaher – Jeanne shared this with us on Facebook. I lost my Dad to cancer this past June, and all of this is so familiar to me. I sit here with tears streaming down my face remembering him as I know you remember Mrs. Gallaher. I only hope that my Mom can move on and be happy some day…right now she is mad at God for not performing a miracle and keeping him here. I feel blessed that God allowed us 8 years with him after his diagnosis. God Bless you all. I’m so glad that Jeanne and I have connected again.

    • Dear Traci,
      Thank you for the reply. I am sorry to learn of your father’s death and hope that all of you, especially your mother find peace and consolation in the knowledge that he rests in the arms of God. I am very glad that you and Jeanne have re-connected.
      Peter

  6. I wish I had known Sheila…she sounds like an amazing woman…and it sounds like you did an amazing job helping her with death

  7. I just got around to reading this, Dad. The crystal you bought in Waterford was for Andrew. 🙂 Mine is Noritake… Love you –

    • The mind, they say, is a terrible thing to waste, or lose…or something. Having none, I wouldn’t know. I do remember that trip as being the one where I had to instruct the young bartender in the construction of a martini as you mother sat patiently in the booth looking out at passing traffic. He did not get it right, and had no ice nor any shaker. It is the reason I drink my gin straight, when I drink gin. Never trust a strange bartender in a strange country. One may apply the same advice to doctors, lawyers and clergymen.


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