Your Wife Knows You Are Here by Helene Kiser

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hallway leading to sliding doors of hospital ICU
Michael is awake and relatively lucid this morning, very glad to see me. Tears stream down his face as he cries silently, perhaps without realizing he is doing so again. I kiss him, rest my forehead on his, smooth the moisture from his cheeks with my hands. I’m here.

I don’t know this yet, but I will remember this moment always. Our heads pressed together, Michael’s face in my hands, breathing each other’s breath, inhale, exhale. If only I could have known, in the present tense of the moment itself, what future we were careening toward at breakneck speed, I would hold us here, like a photograph. Suspended. Permanent. Each time the image shimmers in my memory, it’s a gut punch knocking the wind out of me, bringing silent tears instantly, unbidden.

A whiteboard hangs on the wall at the foot of Michael’s bed, always in his direct line of sight. This morning it reads:

Today: Friday, April 21, 2017
Your Care Team Is: MICU
Nurse: Parissa
Today’s Focus of Care:
Do not get up by yourself!
Your wife knows you are here.

What’s your name? Your birthday? And today’s date? each nurse asks him every few hours. Michael always gets the first two questions correct, but not the third. He will give the correct month and day, but in his brain under siege, it is, implausibly, always 2018. A year in which he will not exist.

This has happened so often it’s a bit of an ongoing vaudeville. “What’s today’s date?” Parissa asks in an exaggeratedly cheerful tone, setting up the joke. A joke that is actually, really and truly, horrifying — yet we make light of the situation because: what else can we do?

“Oh, I’m going to get it this time. I’m sure of it! It is…” he pauses for dramatic effect, “April 21,” longer pause, then, with a big grin, jabbing his finger into the air in a Eureka! moment, “2018!” Nods proudly, smiles at Parissa for confirmation.

The date is right in front of his face: April 21, 2017. Yet his mind doesn’t compute it.

How little we understand about the miracle workings of the human brain, its 86 billion neurons knitted together by 100 trillion interlocking connections; even the numbers here are incomprehensible. How much more difficult, then, to unpack a brain haloed in cancer?

Now we’re alone again, he on the bed, me standing next to him. We hold hands. His hand is cold. From my mother, I inherited an almost Reynaud’s condition, where my extremities are always chilled due to lack of circulation. I wear gloves in the grocery store, earmuffs at a windy beach.

But Michael’s hand is cold now.

If this were a novel, I would work in the subtle notes of symbolic foreshadowing to underscore the heavy importance of this scene, this morning, this day in its entirety. Would secretly plant clues a reader wouldn’t fully pick up on until later, the big reveal. But I have no idea this will be the last time Michael and I will ever be alone together. Not the last time we will be the only two people in the room — this will be true for days and nights more. The last time because Michael is awake, is lucid, in his body and his mind. Is Michael, recognizably, though diminished, illogical, repetitive, unfinished, and weeping, always weeping. Peculiar to associate weeping with Michael, so physically broad and powerful, a former football cornerback.

He turns to me. “I don’t understand. I guess I’m dying? I don’t know how that happened.” His hands drop palms up into his lap.

I want to go back in time, stretch these minutes out to infinity. The weight of my unsaid words will crush me, a spider under a heavy boot. I want to keep holding him while there’s still time, hold him literally and figuratively, in my hands, my arms, my eyes, skin to skin. Dissolve into him, one body, one scream that never, never ends, swirling in weeping watercolor. Tell him I love him, tell him I’m sorry, so sorry, so fucking sorry.

Meet the Contributor

Helene KiserHelene Kiser’s poetry and nonfiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Borderlands, Clockhouse, Gulf Coast, Hawaii Review, and Indiana Review. Her poetry collection Topography was published by Linear Arts Press, and she is currently at work on a full-length memoir in flash fragments from which this essay is taken. She lives, writes, and teaches in Washington, D.C., and Tampa, Florida, depending on the weather.

Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Toshiyuki IMAI

  8 comments for “Your Wife Knows You Are Here by Helene Kiser

  1. What a beautifully written account of such raw emotions and heartbreaking reality. I am still weeping after reading this. To have such a deep love and know you will lose it is incomprehensible. Having known such joy in a marriage and accepting the reality that it must end is truly devastating. I witnessed it with my sister who lost her husband to a terminal illness. Sending healing thoughts to you…🙏🏻

  2. This made me think about what it must have been like for my mom going through the exact same thing with my dad in 1970. Heartbreaking and so beautifully written. Thank you for giving words to this hellish experience.

  3. Such a visceral memory. If only we all knew what that last time would be like — if we could forecast, script, rehearse, what would it look like? This captures the moment and the lingering regret and pain.

  4. What a horrible, lovely, strange, sad, and powerful story. Thank you for sharing. Michael was a great man. And he was clearly lucky to have you. And you him. For whatever time allowed.

  5. I wept . So beautifully written. I too wanted to hold my son forever and tell him how much he was loved, still do. Cancer ripped him away from our family.

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