92: The Legacy

92: The Legacy

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

The Legacy

The only thing you take with you when you’re gone is what you leave behind.

~John Allston

The oil painting is still in the back of my husband’s SUV. I steal glances at it and reflect on how well the painter captured Ken’s bright smile. Soon, Ken will have it framed. It will be my birthday gift. Perhaps the last.

“I won’t make it to Christmas,” Ken said last Halloween as we waited for the first of the trick-or-treaters. We had squabbled about where to position the jack-o’-lantern, if we should put the dogs in their outdoor cage or let them howl when the doorbell rang, if we should watch Jeopardy! or an NCIS rerun. Then Ken blurted out this news.

A diabetic, Ken’s kidney functioning had fallen dramatically since he had quadruple bypass surgery. But he had been holding steady for over a year on his GFR and creatinine levels, hovering slightly above what is termed end-stage renal failure.

I stared at him. “What do you mean?”

“I asked the doctor how much time I have left,” he said. “Since I’ve decided not to do the dialysis, it might be two months or two years. I’m so tired I think it’s probably the former.”

Earlier, we had visited a renal center in Spokane to watch videos where kidney patients discussed their experiences with the various forms of treatment. We had identified an upstairs bedroom that could serve as a sanitary refuge for home peritoneal dialysis. Until now, Ken hadn’t revealed that he’d changed his mind.

“I just don’t want to do it,” he explained. “I don’t want to have the procedure for the connecting tubes, and I don’t want to be tied down to sitting still for half an hour four times a day to do the exchanges. I want to go gracefully.”

Stunned, I handed out chocolate the rest of the evening to the Spidermen, princesses, and Hannah Montana look-alikes who thronged to the door, as Ken slouched in his recliner watching his rerun. I read a travel brochure. I didn’t want to see anything involving hospitals, death, or autopsies.

The next day, I reminded Ken of the advantages of the home dialysis as they had been explained to us. The supplies would be delivered to the home. We wouldn’t have to drive seventy miles three times a week on icy roads. We could take car trips to visit friends and relatives. He just shook his head. “I’ve made my decision.”

Though well past middle age, we had been married only seven years. I felt sorry for myself. It wasn’t fair. Ken had convinced me to retire three years earlier and move to a home in the country. We had acquired two dogs, three cats, pastures to mow, gardens to weed. I couldn’t handle it all on my own.

Then I felt sorry for Ken. It wasn’t as if he had been fading mentally. He still played chess and checkers online with a longtime friend. He still vied with me guessing answers on Jeopardy! each weeknight. He still presented himself as the snappiest dresser at the WSU Agriculture Extension harvest dinners or the Habitat for Humanity Valentine banquets.

By Thanksgiving, Ken had rallied in spirit, if not in strength. Though he still dozed off several times a day, he had more energy. We dined at our favorite bistro on the Columbia River where he treated himself to a rare martini. His son and daughter-in-law shared Christmas with us, just as they had the previous three years.

Through the bitter winter, new symptoms appeared. Ken couldn’t get warm, despite extra layers of sweatshirts and swaddling in thermal blankets. Often he fell asleep on the sofa, too lethargic to climb the stairs. He complained that our firm mattress no longer gave his hips and legs proper support.

Often he couldn’t find his glasses. Or the remote. Or car keys or wallet. Sometimes he would run errands and come back without the very item he had set out to buy. I read that such short-term memory loss is typical with kidney failure, as is irritability. Once or twice I overheard him telling people how irritating I had become. I knew I hadn’t changed. Perhaps I always have been irritating and Ken just hadn’t noticed until his health started to fail.

I watched him experiment. His GFR had gone up after a trip to England where he downed a pint in a pub each day; he tried drinking a beer each evening. He decided that the carbonation in his diet sodas had some negative impact; for months he substituted green tea. He purchased an over-the-counter kidney pill, stopped eating bananas, and finally eliminated most sugar.

Every six weeks he gets his blood test. I hover by the mailbox for days, waiting for the results. I hand him the envelope and letter opener and hold my breath. He scans the results and usually smiles. He’s holding steady.

Our birthdays passed, and our eighth anniversary. Soon we’ll be making plans for the fall and winter. Will we have another Halloween? Another Thanksgiving?

Another two months or two years? Two weeks? I sometimes sidle into a silent living room and edge towards his chair where he sleeps. I watch to see if his chest moves with his breath. When he snores, I’m relieved.

In the meantime, Ken handles each day with courage. He’s sorted through his jewelry and given his valuable tie tacks to his three sons. He’s mentioned who should get his John Lennon lithograph, the l9th century Vanity Fair Spy prints, the wooden masks, and oils.

He’s contracted with handymen, fence builders, and painters to get the house up to snuff. He’s worked with a gardener to plant the proper shrubs, honeysuckle, roses, and grape vines.

He still barbecues rib eyes and beats me at gin. And his portrait still dries in the back of his van. He’s ensured that I’ll still have his smile to brighten my days, whether or not he’s here for Jeopardy! He’s said it’s his legacy.

~Terri Elders

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