Seeing Jim

In a world of heartbreak, sometimes a tenuous hope for an improbable future is all one has.

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“Jim? Are you awake? I want to read you something.”

Carol looked over at her husband, and although his eyes remained closed, the brief movement of his head indicated that he was listening. So she continued.

“‘Small cottage on lakefront, three bedrooms, two baths, half-acre property with fruit trees,’” she said, and then raised her head to glance at him. “It sounds just like what we always wanted. Just think, in the summer you can fish and I can take care of the garden, and in the fall we can pick apples and pears and — ” But there she stopped, because her husband’s steady breathing and almost imperceptible snore told her he had fallen asleep.

He had been sleeping a lot these past few weeks. Carol had hoped that the last surgery would make him stronger, more alert, more aware, even though the surgeon had advised her repeatedly against such unfounded optimism.

“Right now,” he had told her bluntly last week while Jim was in the recovery room, “our goal is just to get him back to the nursing home.”

But Carol wanted more than that, and at first, the operation did seem to have made a difference. Once his oxygen levels had improved to the point where all he needed was the nasal cannula rather than the full face mask, he was discharged back to the care facility. As for his appetite, some days he even ate almost half of his meals, Carol carefully documenting what and how much he consumed.

Each change became another step to what she viewed as Jim’s journey back to their home, even though when she broached the idea, the nursing home doctor shook his head.

“He requires more than you can provide, unless you have round-the-clock nursing care. It’s better if he stays here so he can get the kind of medical attention he needs.”

Reluctantly Carol had agreed, thinking to herself, only for now. She was sure that, in another few weeks — at worst, a few months — Jim would regain enough strength and energy that she could bring him back to their house. And then, maybe after a little more time, they could even go for drives out to the country as they used to. They had spent so many Sundays traveling to rural villages and farming communities, looking for places where they could move now that Jim had retired.

“A nice little cottage in the country,” he had said — was it just a few months ago? She couldn’t remember. “We’ll use the money we get for this place and still have plenty left. What do you think?”

She had agreed, and so each Sunday morning she would pack the small cooler with snacks and drinks for their day’s journey to unfamiliar places in search of their future home.

That’s what their plans were the day it happened. They were going to see a small bungalow, just like the one in today’s real estate section, once Jim came back from the hardware store where he was buying a few pieces for the leaking bathroom faucet. It was one of the many tasks on the to-do list that he was working through to prepare their house for sale.

And when her cellphone rang and she saw his number on the caller ID, she thought perhaps he needed more information to be sure he was buying the correct part.

But it wasn’t Jim. It was someone at the hospital who had found his phone among his bloodstained clothing, had scrolled through the contact list until locating one that said “Carol — wife,” and had made the call. By the time she had reached the emergency room, Jim’s pressure and heart rate were dropping, and the doctor told her gently that even if the surgery worked, he might not make it through the night.

She had sat there through the interminable hours as the surgeons tried to put his broken bones and damaged organs back into some semblance of correctness. And while she waited, she wondered why that truck driver hadn’t seen her husband crossing the parking lot and whether Jim would ever forget the feel of the impact when the vehicle crashed into his body.

From that day forward, Carol was on a different type of journey, one that she felt ill-equipped to take. But unlike the highway signs and mile markers that would lead to those long ago destinations, the endpoint for this trip was unknown, with the route they were following indicated only by a series of notes Carol made in her journal as she tracked Jim’s progress: The surgical site on his spine shows improvement. The pulse in his left foot is weaker. He’s gained a half pound. He’s lost some feeling in his right arm. They’ve taken him back to the hospital. He’s been discharged back to the nursing home.

Gains, then losses. Better, then worse. Richer or poorer, as the wedding vows went. And that too was a facet of her life: each evening, struggling to figure out how to pay the ever-mounting balances on medical bills. But each day, from six a.m. until he was given his last medication at midnight, she tried her best to put those worries aside and talk about the future — a future, she told herself, that she and Jim still had, a future that she could almost see, one with the two of them together.

“So this house,” pitching her voice slightly louder so if Jim was awake he could hear her, but not enough to disturb him if he was sleeping, “is well within our budget. We can sell our home and buy this one and be in it before fall. Just in time to pick the fruit from the trees.”

She kept talking even though she knew he wasn’t listening. “I think somewhere I have my mother’s recipe for cinnamon-clove applesauce. I’ll buy some canning jars and make enough to last all winter.”

“How is he doing today?”

The sound of Rafael’s voice startled Carol. She hadn’t heard the aide come in. For a large man, he was very quiet in both movement and demeanor.

“Fine,” she said. “Better,” she added, not that there was any indication of improvement. Quite the opposite, in fact. But it was what she told herself, had to tell herself.

Rafael nodded. “I was going to give him a sponge bath but I hate to disturb him,” he said. “Why don’t I come back in a bit?”

Carol nodded, and with one final glance, Rafael left the room. She wondered if he had heard any of the one-sided conversation, and if so, if he would mention it to anyone on the staff. When Jim was first brought to the nursing home, the social worker had done her best to prepare Carol for what she had termed the realities of the situation.

But Carol persisted in her belief that it was just one way of looking at it. The other was that Jim would defy the odds: heal faster, get better, regain his abilities until he was back to being the man she knew, the husband she needed and wanted and loved. That was what she held onto all those long days in the hospital, and what sustained her once they moved him here. She had to. It was all she had left.

In the early days right after he had arrived, Carol had talked to the staff doctor about the possibility of taking Jim out for short drives once he was stronger. “Just so he could see something other than these four walls,” she had explained. “Not now, of course, but maybe in a month or two. Maybe if he was out for a while, he would improve, be more, I don’t know …” and she stopped because what she wanted to say was be stronger, healthier, not teetering on the edge.

Perhaps recognizing that Carol, like so many family members he talked with, needed something to sustain her, the doctor had simply responded, “We’ll see how it goes” — an answer that, if unsatisfactory, was better than a flat-out negative.

So during the next few weeks, she had made endless notes, looking for any signs that progress was being made. Although the truth was Jim never seemed to feel any better, be any better. All he did was grow smaller and weaker and more frail right before her eyes. But Carol wasn’t ready to give up, give in. Instead she would spend the long hours when he was sleeping — and lately it seemed he was always sleeping — reading real estate ads in search of the home the two of them would occupy when he was better.

Not if, she would tell herself when doubt crept into her mind, but when. When he was better. When their life returned to the way it once was and their future again held possibilities.

Jim stirred a little and Carol resumed the conversation. “Think about it, Jim! Fresh air and sunshine and homegrown vegetables! How much — ” and she almost said “healthier” but stopped herself. That was a word she tried not to use when talking to Jim or about Jim — “how much quieter it would be there! Just the sounds of the birds in the morning and the frogs at night. Would there be frogs, I wonder? There must be because there is a lake, and frogs like being by the water. I read somewhere that they hide out in the reeds that grow on the edge of ponds and streams.”

She was rambling. She knew it. Knew, too, that Jim wasn’t listening, that he had once again fallen asleep or what passed for sleep these days. He was somewhere else, away from his body and all the pain that tormented him, leaving her behind.

“Maybe I’ll just go myself and take pictures and then, when I come back, I’ll tell you all about it. And when you’re — ” and she almost said “stronger,” but that was another word that she didn’t use when talking to Jim or about Jim — “ready, we can go together and you can decide.”

That was a formality. Jim had long since stopped making any decisions for the two of them. He left that to her.

She set the paper on the foot of his bed and closed her eyes. She didn’t know why she was so tired all the time. It wasn’t as though she was doing anything. All she did was sit and watch Jim sleep. Or when he was awake, she would talk to him or feed him his meals or gently massage lotion on his arms and legs the way the physical therapist had shown her. There wasn’t much else she could do.

“Ma’am? I thought I’d do his bath now, before the lunch trays arrive. That might perk him up so he’ll eat a bit more.”

Carol opened her eyes and looked up at Rafael. He had been a godsend when they first arrived, and she was glad that he had been assigned to care for Jim: to change his gown and bathe his body. Carol could never have done it. Even in his weakened condition, Jim was too heavy for her to manage. But Rafael, a muscular man with strong hands and kind eyes and a soft voice, could do it all with the minimum of movement. Sometimes she thought her husband fell asleep during the process, lulled by the soothing motions of the soft washcloth against his skin and the warm water washing away the sweat from his body.

She moved to pick up the newspaper but Rafael reached over and handed it to her, glancing first at the open section.

“House-hunting again,” she explained, and he nodded. She had told him about their plans, and if he knew that it would never happen, he didn’t dispute her goal but simply listened. “I found one that Jim would have — that Jim would like,” hoping he hadn’t caught her speaking in the past tense about her husband who was still here. “There’s an open house this afternoon and it’s such a nice day for a drive …” her voice trailing off.

“Why don’t you go?” he suggested. “I’ll wash him up and give him his lunch, and afterward the physical therapist will be in to do his exercises. You usually take your break then anyway.”

Her “break,” as Rafael called it, was when she sat in the cafeteria, picking at whatever was on the menu that day, instead of being in the room while the therapist did whatever she had to do to try to stimulate Jim’s muscles and tendons and nerves. Carol couldn’t bear to be in there while the session took place, not after the first one when the slightest movement brought tears to her husband’s eyes and to hers as well.

She knew it had to be done, and the therapist was as gentle as possible, but still it was too much for her to watch.

“You need to get out for a while,” Rafael said encouragingly. “It’s important that you don’t spend all your time here in this room, you know.”

Carol nodded. Rafael was right. The social worker had told her the same thing, when she came in one morning during the first few days to find Carol still there, having slept all night in the easy chair.

“You must go home at night,” she had said gently but firmly. “The staff will keep an eye on your husband and call you if anything changes” — Carol knew what that meant, since they would hardly call her if Jim was improving — “but it’s important that you take care of yourself.”

From that day forward, Carol spent her nights alone at home, carefully keeping to her side of the bed as though Jim was still there, her cellphone on the nightstand with the ringer turned up, so she would hear the sound no matter how deeply she was sleeping. Not that she ever slept all that well those nights. Instead, she cat-napped away the hours until it was time to shower, dress, and go back to Jim’s bedside.

That’s where she spent every day. It became a new normal, a new way of living. But something about the description of that lakeside cottage called to her, and she thought perhaps she could go, should go, and see what it was like. Rafael was right. It would do her good to get out of this room, this place, if only for a few hours.

Not that she wanted to get away from Jim. What she wanted was to get away from what was happening and then come back to the life they had planned rather than the life they were living. To think of something other than blood tests and CT scans and medications and all that came with it.

“There’s no need to hurry back. We’ll take care of things here,” Rafael added as he filled the basin with warm soapy water to bathe Jim. “Go look at the place, have a meal in a restaurant, enjoy the fresh air. It’s a beautiful day, you know.”

And she noticed with surprise that he was right, that the sun was shining and the leaves on the trees were gently moving in the soft spring breeze.

“I’ll only call you if …” and he stopped there.

But she knew what he meant. If something went wrong. If Jim took a turn for the worse. If they had to call for an ambulance. If, if, if … the conjunction was a constant presence in every conversation, like the hum of the oxygen machine or the beeping of the bedside monitor.

“Go on now,” he said, like a parent to a reluctant child.

Carol obeyed, stopping first to kiss Jim on the cheek. “I’ll be back in a bit and then I’ll tell you all about it and show you the pictures and you can tell me what you think. It might be just what we need, Jim — a fresh start.”

But there was no response, and, sighing, she picked up her purse and jacket from the other chair. Then, with a final glance at her sleeping husband, she left the room.

Rafael was right. It was a beautiful day. Carol opened the car window just enough to feel the breeze on her face. She had forgotten how fresh air smelled and how the songs of the birds sounded. And as she drove along the highway, she breathed it all in deeply, trying not to feel guilty about being outside when Jim was inside.

“Just a few more weeks,” she said aloud, “and then he can be going for drives with me.” And if her voice held no conviction, she ignored it. She had gotten very good at ignoring what she didn’t want to hear or see. It was the only way she could get through the days and nights.

The directions were simple: take Interstate 11 until she reached exit 23 and then turn right on County Line Road and then right again on Old Mill Lane. Then follow it until she arrived at the house, just beyond the small town, less than 40 miles away from the hospital but seemingly in another world.

When she reached the house with its For Sale sign leaning against the maple tree at the edge of the long drive, she saw immediately that the advertisement, while accurate, had failed to do the home justice. It was a lovely home, a welcoming home, the kind of home they had been looking for.

It’s perfect, she told herself, seeing how the sun had moved over the roofline to bathe the back of the east-facing house. If we slept in a front bedroom, Jim would wake to the morning light. And there is plenty of space for a small garden. I could grow our own vegetables and that would be so much better for both of us.

Carol left the car and started photographing the house: the big front porch with the swing where she could almost see Jim resting after lunch, and the back patio just off the kitchen, where the two of them could have their evening coffee. And the bay window in what must be the living room … that’s where she would place the Christmas tree with all its lights and decorations, she decided.

She took picture after picture, all the while imagining the life she and Jim would have in this place. A wonderful life. A long life.

And when her cellphone rang, and the caller ID told her it was Rafael, she ignored it and kept taking more pictures, seeing Jim on the porch, on the patio, seeing Jim in the window, at the door… seeing Jim…

Featured image: Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. Thank you all for your kind words about the story. It was a hard one for me to write because it was inspired by what I felt during the last few weeks of my father’s life–wanting to believe he would someday come home but knowing that he wouldn’t. I suppose that is a measure of the love we have for those we have lost that we can’t imagine not ever seeing them again. A reason as well to make sure that we tell those we love every day how much they mean to us.

  2. I sat by my husband’s bed a few years ago, I remember how it felt. We knew like Carol did that it was just a matter of time. I think we all need something to dream about at a time like that to help us through the tough days. It gives us something to reach for and to believe in.

  3. There’s a lot to ponder with this story. This couple had been put into an impossible situation. While Jim hadn’t actually been killed at the time the truck crashed into him, he was put into a limbo-like twilight zone until death would officially come when Carol was briefly away from the hospital, at the beautiful house she dreamed of having with him in the near future.

    I knew why Rafael was calling, and so did Carol. That’s why she didn’t answer. To give herself the last few minutes to capture happy images and fantasy of something that would never be, to hold onto. The floodgates of tears from the reality of the loss with the intense sadness were only minutes away. The phone would ring again, and she would have to answer it this time. Thank you Ms. Christie.

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