43: When I Was a Coward

43: When I Was a Coward

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

When I Was a Coward

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.

~Mary Anne Radmacher

I hadn’t seen her for two weeks. The kids were on holidays and it was impossible to take the three of them into a nursing home. They were small and fidgety and there was nowhere to sit and they didn’t understand. About dying.

I’d tried to take Blake, but he was only five and the oldest and he wouldn’t be swayed.

“I hate walking through that room of old people,” he said. “They might make me sick.”

I explained they were old, not sick. Not sick in the way that could infect him, but it didn’t make any difference. He hated the place and I couldn’t blame him.

I’d come to hate it, too, had to brace myself every time I punched in the entry code and swallowed the stench of that nursing home air. I dreaded the bulging stares and the hollowed-out faces, the twisted, age-gnawed limbs, the sickly white heads and the wrinkles everywhere.

But I was an adult. I was her daughter-in-law. I’d walked beside her through every step of her cancer journey. I couldn’t abandon her now, even though she was so close, yet so far away. Hanging on for no other reason than that she couldn’t die. No matter how little she ate or how thin she became.

While my husband, Chris, minded the kids in the playground next door—he’d already had his turn—I went inside. I signed my name in that big blue book on the table in the foyer and washed my hands with that stinking antiseptic they keep in a bottle nearby.

I scooted through the common room with 20 pairs of eyes on me, staring at me, wishing they were me, or wishing I was here to help them or visit them or save them or I don’t know what. And I pasted that fake smile on my face and pretended everything was all right and that I was happy and fearless and perfectly fine with all the stares. And I looked back into those eyes pretending not to be afraid, yet really so very afraid that one day I’d be there with them too. And I kept pretending until I made it to the corridor leading to her room and then I could breathe again, at least until I came to the bed where she lay and I had to face her.

Then I dawdled in and found her lying on her side facing the wall. She was fast asleep, as Chris said she would be. I saw the thinness of her cheeks and her eyes closed tight. I saw her thick, gray hair splayed out on the pillow above her, her mouth open and the oxygen tube in her nose. I saw the caramel coloured drip-drip stains of the liquid meal supplement spilt on her shoulder.

I put my hand on her arm and she was hot to touch, snuggled as she was like a baby under her blankets with her winter pajama shirt on top and a nappy on the bottom. She didn’t move or wake, she was in such a deep sleep.

I shook her gently and I know I should have said something, should have said, “Rosemary, it’s me. Rosemary, wake up.”

I had wanted so badly to see her because I knew she didn’t have much longer and I wanted her to know I’d come again, but even if she’d woken I don’t think she’d have known me or what day it was.

I thought she’d been sick before, with her walking stick and the cancer growing in her lung and her strange, idiosyncratic ways. But she’d just been old then.

Now, this was really sick and she was dying slowly and painfully, without dignity. This is how we suffer as we watch them go and no one prints it in any of those “Coping with Cancer” booklets they hand out like painkillers at hospitals.

As I stood there, I knew I should have said something. Even if she was asleep, she might have heard me. But I couldn’t break the silence that stuck to us in that room. I couldn’t risk waking her and making her look at me with those clouded, confused eyes. I couldn’t bear to hear her mumble or gasp or dodder. Fear stopped me and stood between me and the last words I should have spoken to her.

So I had to remember the last time—or was it the second to last time, there had been so many visits—that I saw her and had flipped through the pages of her “Grandma’s Brag Book” photo album. Showing her the photos of my kids in all their beauteous youth. Photos of the babies I’d borne with her son to make her a grandmother.

Those photos reminded me of good times and I’d hoped they would remind her, too. Yet as I was thinking it was good for her to see the kids, even if it was only in photos, it was sad, too. And if I hadn’t held it together, I would have wept and wept. For her. For the ache of losing her.

Then, while I watched her sleep, I let that fear creep between us and grow. I didn’t push it away or bury it or slay it with my bravery sword. I wanted to wake her and say “I love you” so she would know, but I was a coward and didn’t say anything. The words stuck in my throat like dry rice and caught there. And I hated myself for my weakness and for those rice words sticking in my throat.

Silent and cowardly, I slipped out of the nursing home, glad to be free of its stinking touch and glad for the autumn breeze despite its chill. And though I hated the mess of the dead, dry leaves papering the walkway, I was glad to see them too.

On the ride home, we hardly spoke, only, “The smell of that place is still on me. It won’t go away.”

“Me too,” Chris said.

He opened the car windows and though the kids complained about the cold, we kept them open all the way home, hoping the stench would leave us.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, the phone call came at 2:22 the next morning. We knew what that phone ringing meant, of course, thought maybe there would be a dash to the nursing home to hold her skeletal hand as we said one last goodbye, but there wasn’t even that. She’d died in her sleep.

Peace at last and at the last, peace.

Her cancer made us die with her inch by inch, and though we’re still alive because we’re young and healthy and it’s not yet our turn, we’ll always remember the hell of her dying-but-living that consumed us.

Most of all, I’ll never forget when I was a coward and let fear stand between me and three simple words. I let her down and for that, I’ll always be sorry.

~Aleesah Darlison

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