“He’s turned the corner,” Richard’s hospice nurse said this morning. We had walked out of the bedroom so we would be out of earshot. Will didn’t have to explain; I knew exactly what he meant.
This particular “corner” is not one most of us long for, but it’s where we’re all headed. Richard’s dying.
Up until now, I’d have said he was living with brain cancer, managing to enjoy something about every day even as his body failed him. Now the failures of body and brain have reached a tipping point, and much as I grieve to acknowledge it, my love has gone from living with brain cancer to dying of brain cancer.
I could see the corner yesterday morning (but didn’t want to admit it) at breakfast when his brain simply lost the ability to go from chewing food to swallowing it. It’s as if the switch that relays the message, “the food is sufficiently chewed, you can swallow it now,” quit working. He could (and did) take a bite of his favorite egg, cheese, and potato breakfast burrito with green chile (thank you, Ploughboy Local Food Market!), and he could (and did) enjoy the flavors as he chewed–and chewed and chewed, and chewed…
When I realized that he had been chewing the same bite for three-quarters of an hour, I said, “You can swallow now, love.”
He shook his head mutely, as if he had a mouth full of food.
I watched him continue chewing and asked, “Can you open your mouth? I don’t think there’s any food left.”
After a moment, he did. There wasn’t.
I said gently, “There’s no food left. You can swallow and take a drink of juice. It’s time to take your breakfast drugs, and you need juice for that.”
He shook his head.
After more chewing action, I finally persuaded him to spit out what was in his mouth, about a teaspoon of very well macerated breakfast burrito and saliva, drink some juice, and swallow his breakfast drugs.
Then I called his hospice nurse.
“I guess he’s on a liquid diet from now on,” I concluded after recounting the story. Will agreed.
So yesterday Richard “ate” sips of juice, smoothie, and some chocolate malt, all of which he enjoyed. He fell asleep before drinking his habitual cup of Belgian-style beer though.
This morning after Molly and I got him changed and sitting up in bed, he was eager for his breakfast smoothie. He swallowed each sip carefully, relishing the cool fruitiness. “Strawberry-banana,” he said, his voice a thready whisper.
Then, “Is there coffee made?”
“Yes,” I said. “Should I bring you some?”
“I think I’ll rest first.” I powered the head of his hospital bed down, rearranged his mound of covers and gave him a kiss.
“I love you.”
“And I you.”
I reached for his hand. He gripped mine. He was asleep in moments.
An hour later, Will arrived with Helen, Richard’s home health care aide. As she prepared to change diapers and sheets and give Richard a sponge bath, Will took his vitals. As he noted the numbers, Will’s eyebrows crept higher on his forehead. That’s when he beckoned me into the next room so we could talk unheard.
Once Richard was clean and dry and settled, Molly and I walked Will to the door.
“How long do you think?” I asked.
“I always get it wrong,” he said. “But I’d guess not more than a day or two.”
Molly and I looked at each other.
“Okay,” I said.
Through the afternoon, while Molly and Carol, the hospice harpist played duets in the living room and our friend Jeannie came to give Richard a massage in his hospital bed, while I took my 45-minute break to walk to the Post Office and back, doing a few errands on the way, I thought about this particular corner.
This place where “living” turns to “dying” is not one we generally celebrate. Still, as Richard’s oncologist said on the phone, he’s not in pain, he’s well-cared for, and he’s surrounded by family, friends and lots of love. That, she said, is as good as it gets.
She’s right. Still…
Am I ready for life without the man I’ve loved for almost 29 years? Hell, no. I don’t think it’s possible to be. But here it comes.