Peter Gallaher remembers the final, flickering moments.
I remember it was shirtsleeve warm that day, and bright, not at all like today, or at least not at all like today is now. What it may become I’ll take. I have nothing else to do but that.
And, we were awake early; she on the couch where she had been for several months, and I in the chair a few feet away where I had been for several months; in the school of love, keeping promises made to each other, fulfilling vows.
I made us tea, and sat on the couch while she sipped a spoonful or two. Then I carried her into the bathroom, I think. It has been a while and particulars, small things, fade away. I hope some day I will remember them vividly as if they were right here with me and I with them. It was, ans is in memory, for all of its trouble and sadness, a beautiful time.
Back on the couch once more, as comfortable as she could be made to be, I took my leave, ever so briefly, to wash and change. Before going I found her favorite thing on the TV; some old movie in black and white from the ’40s or before. She called them “big shoulders” films because of the shoulder pads in women’s dresses and suits…and men’s, too. But it was the women’s styles that most amused her, I think; took her mind away for a while from what she had to do, to finish. She had a fondness for those melodramas, the sweet and gentle comedies, the farces and the lively musicals.
When I came back downstairs from the bedroom unused all these months, she had fallen asleep. The morphine did that, I thought. Good, I could do a wash. That, I remember. And, when I came back upstairs she was awake. Of course, she wasn’t hungry, but we observed the formalities, and I asked her what she might want for breakfast. A piece of toast, and some more tea. I remember now my grandmother fixing me the same thing when I was sick. “Tea and toast,” she would say, “you’ll feel better right away.” I believed her, and I did.
She took a little bird’s bite from her slice of toast, and had another sip of tea. I work on reconstruction of the scene, now, not actual memory. But this was the months long ritual; and ever less and less did she eat as the days grew shorter, and our time together with them.
Of course we talked, but what we had to say had already been said months ago. For the most part our conversation consisted of her quiet requests for one thing or another. She seemed to me, now, looking back, to be anxious about being alone and very aware that she needed help in the smallest things. Of course, that may have been because she could not do for herself at all who had been so good at that; for herself and for everyone else. And, all I wanted was to be near her, “breathing the same air”, as she used to say, for as long as it may be given to us to do.
We had our last argument in the afternoon. It was all my fault. And when it was over I wished, and have wished since that the silly lapse of mine, being too long away from her, had never happened. Soon, with us, it was as if it never had happened. But, still…
The afternoon went on. It was time for her martini, and a cigarette, her last. I wheeled her to the front door where she had a sip. Holding her cigarette and glass for her she took one or two puffs, one or two and then asked to be taken back to her couch. She was very weak, very tired. Ann stopped in, briefly, and confirmed the hospice nurse’s conclusion. “She’s dying,” she said. She probably also said she would be just next door if needed. It would be like her. And, then we were alone.
I carried her into the bathroom again, and turned away for the smallest bit, to turn back and find her falling off the toilet. I picked her up and carried her back to the couch, putting her down as gently as I could. She still breathed, but was only semi-conscious. “Don’t you go until the kids get here,” I warned her.
Her last words to me were, “You bet!” When she made up her mind to do something, she did it. Wives and mothers, I have found, are like that.
Then I called Jeanne and Andrew and told them to get here quickly, and I waited.
Call it a vigil. The sun set and the evening came on and her breathing got shallower. I sat her up cradling her head in the crook of my left arm. I know the exact place, still. From time to time we moistened her lips.
Each of us with our own thoughts sat and waited. I prayed wordless prayers I still don’t know.
And then the hard rattling breath grew clear, softer. Jeanne and Andrew gathered close and held her hands. I whispered, “You can go. We love you.” The children said goodbye sitting by her side, at her feet.
And she died on one last soft sigh of breath.
At 11:47pm it will be fifteen years.
Peter Gallaher is a retired federal agent residing in Nashua, New Hampshire, where his favorite activities include singing tenor in a small ensemble at funerals, and helping his wife manage The Christian Book Corner, an online Catholic and Christian bookstore. A prolific poet, photographer, and essayist, Peter maintains four blogs, chief among them An Focal Beag agus Bog (which translates from the Irish to “A Small and Soft Word”), and is a frequent contributor to The Nashua Patch, a local online news source. While living in Ohio some years back, Peter’s Op-Ed pieces were regularly featured in the Zanesville Times Recorder.