The Middle of the Night
The call came at midnight. “He died,” the voice on the other end said. No emotion.
“How are you, Alice?” I asked.
“Ok,” she answered, “Will you come?”
“On my way.” Clothes back on, I grabbed my nursing bag, ran out the door.
I remember my first day at the Van Roker cottage. Alice and I sat on metal and red vinyl kitchen chairs.
“He don’t know he got cancer,” she said, “Should I tell him?”
“Has he asked?” I countered.
She thought. “No, he tole me he don’t wanna know what’s wrong with him.”
In nursing school, we practiced "open-ended" communication. I had tried with Homer. It just wasn’t his way. He was polite, but no extra words. Never. “When he wants to know, he’ll ask. Be honest with him, though. Be gentle, but honest.”
They were an old-fashioned couple, Alice and Homer. They did what was expected--he worked at the factory, she raised the kids, kept the home neat. Both were stoic, especially Alice. She attended to Homer’s needs matter-of-factly. She asked practical questions. “Should he be sitting up?” “Which is better for him, chicken soup or meatballs?” She took my word as gospel truth. They would bicker, but Alice did what she needed to do, and told Homer what he needed to do, and that was that.
With every visit, Homer looked weaker, his legs and abdomen became more swollen, till the skin was so stretched, the fluid leaked out. No pain, thankfully. On one visit, Alice took me to the kitchen. “He finally asked,” she said. “I told him yes. You got cancer.”
“And what did he say?”
“He said ‘I wish you hadn’t told me that!’”
Shortly after that, I got the call. At the door, I was admitted by a middle-aged man in a flannel shirt and jeans bearing a plate of cheese and crackers. In surprise, I looked around the living room. Despite the late hour, fifteen people were gathered there, sharing juice and crackers. I could hear Alice in the kitchen, smell of fresh-baked cookies wafting. I was offered refreshments and ushered to a seat, introduced to neighbors, the children and grands. I looked around at all the faces – all serene, no tears, all quietly conversing. It felt like a Sunday-home-from-meeting gathering.
Then I spotted him. He had been more comfortable sitting up at the end.
There he was, on the couch, eyes open, looking on at the gathering. This was his place, at the center of everything.
His family and friends didn’t look at all uncomfortable with him there--it was as if this situation was totally natural. In that instant I saw that he loved, and was loved. Words, or lack of them, didn’t change that. I caught my breath, validated that he didn’t have his, and made myself part of the group. Time enough to call the funeral home later.
Stockholm, New Jersey
It’s the middle of the night as I write this since I can’t sleep. I have spent too much time on Facebook, alternating between taking heart that so many people seem to feel as I do about the recent election and being dismayed to the point of nausea by some of the vitriol being spewed. Often it is both, as a writer describes some abuse or hatred aimed at her or, an epithet spat at him – but then refuted by a stranger or grandmother or teacher.
I'm an ob-gyn, so the middle of the night is like a normal workday for me. I view the drive in at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. as my transition time from interrupted sleep to an important moment for my patient and spend it reminding myself to make the shift from fulfilling my needs to theirs.
I see the ones who say they are suicidal. That claim guarantees an overnight: a metal bed with a black foam pad, a clean sheet, turkey on white wrapped in cellophane and, if there’s any left, a precious six-pack of Oreos.
I looked at her as I helped with her evening pills, hoping they would bring some magic to lift the cloud hanging above us. I looked at her hands, so deformed by this monster of a disease, and I feared I might cry in front of her. I knew she wouldn't like this at all but I couldn't shake the voice of her saying that she thought she would die tonight. Or did she say "wished"?
I was twelve years old at the time and the meaning was probably lost to me. She did in fact catch the teary look on my face, and truly like a mother she knew what was on my mind. "What if I die now, would it be so bad?" she asked. I mumbled something to the effect that this was not happening but of course evaded the real question.
"I'm at the hospital," my mother said."Talk to the neurosurgeon."
The ringing phone had roused me out of a deep sleep. Already, my heart was racing, and I was wide awake as the doctor began to speak.
It was one hour past midnight, late enough that even the college students who lived in the apartment building across the street had changed their Halloween costumes for pajamas, turned off their lights and fallen into a sugar-induced sleep. I lay in bed, remembering the Halloweens of my youth when Dad and I had gone trick-or-treating together. He had protected me from the goblins, witches and ghosts that had roamed the streets of our neighborhood, and I had shared with him some of the candy I accumulated.
If I wake up in the middle of the night, that’s what time it will be, give or take 15 minutes: 4 a.m. No matter what the season, it’s dark at that time of night, it’s lonely, even the cats are snoring. If a window is open, I can hear if an owl, a coyote or, rarely, a whippoorwill or chuck-will’s-widow is crying into the night. If it’s a warm autumn night, I can hear if passing whitetail bucks grunt or click while tracking does.