by James Shores
On that last weekend of October it was snowing outside, a newly blanched world, while I sat inside a tiny hospital room, painted bone-white, waiting for my wife to die. Her birthday had been just a week prior, and I did my best to distract myself from asking the questions that I did not want answers to.
She was hooked up and plugged in to nearly every machine that technological medicine could offer: the heartbeat monitor, watching for irregularities; the IV drip controls, doling out her medicine, fluids, drugs—anything they needed to push through her; the temperature readout attached to her forefinger, tracking her body heat; the oxygen tubes, feeding air from a large tank up through the lines around her nose, their soft hiss a persistent ambiance to the sullen enclosure. All of this fed into her, either by temporary ports at her elbow crevice running up to her hand, taped and protected, or by a tube that dumped directly into her aortic artery through three aqueducts, surgically implanted near her right collarbone several months earlier. When you pull and push as much as they did from my wife, a more permanent solution is welcome.
Nurses worked in eight-hour shifts (or maybe it was twelve—it soon didn’t seem to matter), each with the same responsibilities but often enacted with varying considerations. Some of them came to know my wife and me by our first names, while many stuck to Mr. and Mrs. A few never addressed us at all.
Little of this left a mark on Chris; she was sleeping, for both of us.
I often look for meaning in my surroundings—I imagine most folks do. While I went on my second year of academic hiatus from Brigham Young University’s film program, the stream of life’s inevitabilities had grown into a tidal wave, and I began to wonder if there would be anything left to hold onto. Dealing with my wife, finances, and our little girl, I made small efforts here and there to be self-taught. I read about writing and wrote out ideas or even short scripts. Mostly I watched a lot of movies. It was difficult to plan beyond two-hour increments some days. Maybe I wanted to have a means of escape, a way to forget. But often the films behaved more like a polished mirror, and the reflection was hard to watch.
For some reason my first memory of any movie is The NeverEnding Story. I was only three when I first saw it. All I could remember from it was a dying horse, Artax, drowning in the Swamp of Sorrows. Being so young, I thought the horse had actually died right in front of me.
Once while my family lived in Oregon, Dad took my two brothers and me to the local theater to see Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, with Steve Martin and Michael Caine. While I understood some jokes, laughing when others did, it didn’t all make sense. How was it that people lying to other people was so funny?
I was eight when Tim Burton’s Batman came out, and again I went with my family. Batman was so dark he could have been a villain, but I latched on and saw in him a hero. Batman never could forget the death of his parents—it’s what drove him.
While living in Colorado, I saw Jurassic Park in the theater with my family, and while I knew the dinosaurs were not real, I was scared by them nonetheless. Perhaps it was the idea of how science could go wrong, or the possibility of creating monsters—or maybe I was like any kid and just didn’t want to be eaten alive while on a toilet. The syntax and symbolism of a film may be more apparent to me now, yet the simple truth of not wanting to die in the middle of the mundane still lingers.
The happy films are the ones with a cliché in them, like “happily ever after.” The loose ends wrap up, the hero wins, the villain lies vanquished. How often does the camera roll after the couple rides off into the sunset? Where is the orchestral swell for the two souls stuck in a corner room, joined in rhythm by the faint beep of a heartbeat monitor and their own shallow breathing?
I had wanted to dress Madi in some superhero costume for Halloween, but Chris had already picked out a giraffe costume months prior, one where the animal head extends beyond the cap of the suit. It was all the same to a little girl, only nine months in the world. She did look pretty cute; that, and it’s hard to argue with a woman in the middle of a bone marrow transplant.
I dressed Madi as the giraffe, ready to make the hour trip from our house to the hospital in Salt Lake. My little girl didn’t care about her outfit; she was just excited to see her mom. She had a difficult time understanding the “rules” about Mom: why she couldn’t lie in bed with her all day, why Mom didn’t live in the same house, why cold sterilizer was constantly applied to her little hands.
Most days the rules mattered to Chris and the nurses, but there were times when the rules didn’t get a say—a little girl in a giraffe costume was hard to say no to. She crawled and climbed over Chris, wanting to touch all the buttons, the bed a new playground. I did my best not to micromanage.
Eventually Madi lay down next to Mom, me at the recliner next to the bed, and we watched a movie on that tiny mounted hospital television. I don’t remember what it was.
It’s difficult for others to understand our actions, to see behind the scenes. How could they know? Like the lady outside the Outback Steakhouse who glared at my wife and me as we exited my lifted truck—it looked ridiculous parked in that handicap spot, the temporary placard hanging from the rear-view mirror. That was before all of Chris’s hair fell out, while she was still pregnant with Madi and undergoing several rounds of chemotherapy. She looked too normal to be sick.
The first day I met my wife’s grandma—Grandma Jan when she isn’t listening—she quickly sized me up, grabbing my hand with a firmness that conveyed the intent of her brevity.
“Are you the one dating my granddaughter?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Well, what are you doing with your life?”
“I plan on going to film school.”
“And what are you going to do when that doesn’t work out?”
I would leave the room, often under the guise of getting food—because, yes, hospital food really is that bad. Usually I’d go to buy snacks for her, sometimes dinner if we had the money. But more often than not, I went just to escape. I began forming a terrible metaphor for what was happening. Time was a runaway train, barreling forward, unstoppable, tearing up all in its path, my wife the bound hostage tied to the tracks, like in a bad Spaghetti Western.
But I was no Clint Eastwood. I was a helpless man, perched from a view to watch it all unfold, but too far to make a difference, to save her. The outside world became a machine, and I no longer wanted to plug in.
When driving to the store or back and forth from the hospital, if I was cut off on the freeway, or on any street for that matter, I wanted to set the perpetrating vehicle ablaze, slash its tires. While waiting in lines at the grocery store, the gas station, the hospital cafeteria, conversations leaked out behind me, in front of me—a comment from the person at the cash register, over-dramatizations of personal relationships, irrational complaints of car trouble, neighbor trouble, a statistics professor that was too difficult, a coffee maker that wasn’t brand new. The sighs and beleaguered moans and drawn-out hums of an indifferent people, wasting their breath. It grew inside of me, a cancer of my own, eating, gnawing.
As I waited in a Smith’s grocery self-checkout with a handful of items Chris had asked for—chips, salsa, and fruit snacks, food she wouldn’t eat much of because it just made her sick—a group of three college girls cut me in line. One offered a smile and a wink.
“I’m cute, don’t you think? Sure you don’t mind,” her eyes said as her lips asked, “Oh, were you in line?”
“What the —— does it look like to you?” It was all that could come out.
The threesome of girls was taken aback—their loud “look at me” manner of talking gone, the awkward silence unavoidable—and they quickly moved their items through the self-checkout line.
My eyes burned into the backs of their skulls. I wanted their world to hemorrhage, their carefree smiles to droop into early old age, while all of their anchors drop out the bottom, until they only knew anguish. I intended no physical harm, for I wanted to unload a mental burden that far exceeded any tangible pain I had known. I wanted to drag people, one by one, into that encapsulating hospital room, force them to watch their loved one whither until bone presses out against the cheek, hands, and feet—repeat the same story to every person you know because it’s all they know to discuss, hearing their “advice,” watching them return to their life while you rot in yours. I would take the car trouble, the jerk professor, the tedious nothing that life can dole out.
Actually, I said nothing to the three girls. I shook my head and waited.
So much of me wanted to look back, to return somehow to life before it bore to me its unforgiving momentum; there was nothing to outrun, but I tried. I watched Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves again, a favorite growing up. What a bad film. Then I watched Stephen King’s It, which many years ago caused my brothers and me to refuse to bathe or shower for weeks—now, there’s just a silly clown.
And what about The NeverEnding Story? If I watch it now, it will be different. What of the old memory, of how it was? A part of me wants to hold on, to keep it nostalgic and not revisit it—but only a part.
Nothing about these films has changed, but we are just meeting on different terms, and somewhere the child has left behind the childish things.
I don’t know if it was the next day, or right when I got back from Smith’s, but as I returned to the cancer wing there was a man exiting the door directly across from my wife’s room. He was visibly exhausted, the rings under his eyes seemingly filled with helium, the only thing keeping his head up. We crossed paths without a word, and I pretended to keep stride until I heard his footsteps round the corner. The door he left from, just across from mine—ours—had several crayon drawings taped against it. One said “Momy git bettr.” A nurse exited the room, briefly smiling at me, and turned into another room.
I counted for the first time. There were ten rooms. I knew how everyone in this wing of the hospital came to be here, but I still didn’t understand why. I didn’t know any of their names, I didn’t know how old or young they were or if someone was there to care for them, and I didn’t know if their cancer was stage 3 or 4. But I knew “Momy git bettr.”
However long I stood there, Chris must have begun to wonder if I were coming back because she called me.
“I’m just outside the door. I got your snacks,” I said. “And I rented a movie for us to watch.”