Broken Days

Broken Days

From A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Broken Days

When the phone rang that day, it was a particularly hectic time in our lives. Our daughter was two, and our three-month-old son had colic. We had just come through a month of Christmas, colds and flu. My husband and I were exhausted. He was, in fact, taking an unprecedented afternoon off from work so he could sleep.

It was our friends, Otis and George, on the phone. They had just driven our mutual friend Dan to a hospital. The admitting doctor had told them, “I don’t need an HIV test to tell you what you already know. Your friend is dying of AIDS. He’s further along than any person I’ve ever examined for the first time. He could die this weekend.”

We were stunned. Dan was our great friend. He was witty, bitingly sarcastic about pomposity, and tender and gentle with animals and children. His lively blue eyes sparkled when he laughed at himself or at us. We loved him.

Welcome to the grown-up world of people dying, I told myself. My father had died when I was a teenager, and my grandparents had all died in the ensuing five years, so I thought I understood pain and loss. What I didn’t know—and was about to learn—was that losing those we love is not only painful, but also extremely inconvenient.

Dan rallied, and a week later he was discharged from the hospital. I joined with a close group of friends to help take care of him. Our friend Linda faithfully visited him every day, whether he was in the hospital or at home. George and Otis dealt with insurance, public aid, drawing up a will and funeral arrangements. They also notified Dan’s mother and helped her around the city when she visited. I stayed in touch with Dan by phone, went to see him, and sometimes ferried him to chemotherapy sessions. During this period, I decided to hire a baby-sitter so I could keep up with my writing. But the first time she came, I used the allotted hours to cook a promised ham dinner for Dan and drive it to him through the rush-hour traffic.

Other people’s crises can bring about great disruption in our lives. To varying degrees, we do what we know how to do. We send cards and casseroles. We talk on the phone. We sit with our loved ones and remember old jokes and happy occasions. In the closet of our minds, we crave for things to return to normal so we can cease all this effort, so we can find time to catch our breath and absorb the impact of the crisis, so we can be done with the guilt we feel for not doing more, so we can mourn the loss of a friend’s life instead of the disorder of our own.

Most of us have an idea of how we think our days should go. We want nights of undisturbed sleep, regular meals and calm homes with a certain amount of order. We want family evenings filled with activities of our own choosing.

What we hate are broken days, interrupted schedules, unpredictable disorder and phone calls when we are asleep. If we are watching our favorite TV show, please don’t let the neighbor’s teenager pound on our door after being kicked out of the house. If we are trying to change jobs, don’t let Mother need weekly rides to the doctor. If we are using all our resources to manage a busy life and colicky baby, please, God, don’t let our friend collapse with AIDS.

I did a lot of thinking about stress during those months. I thought about the much-publicized checklist of stresses occurring in one’s life in a given year, and I realized that even before Dan became ill, we were pushing our limits. It seemed overwhelming that on top of everything else, we would have to deal with this.

I will always remember one morning near the end of Dan’s life. It was another hectic Saturday. I nursed the baby, and leaving him with my husband, took our daughter Lilly with me to a meeting. After it was over, I drove to Dan’s place and hauled my damp, sleepy toddler out of the car and up the two flights of stairs to Dan’s apartment.

He was gaunt and weak. He gave me a hug and collapsed back into the nest of pillows on his bed. I set Lilly at his dining table with water paints and paper. We silently watched her, both of us smiling as she unconsciously stuck her tongue out of the corner of her mouth, intently painting suns and flowers. The kitchen window framed her, its light illuminating her fair hair and soft neck.

I can still see Dan reclining on the bed. Sometimes his eyes were quietly shut; sometimes they were open with an unfamiliar, watery, pain-filled gaze. But when he watched Lilly, the pain seemed to leave for a moment. I could see him savoring the sweet, vibrant sight of my child.

I knew this would be one of our last hours together. But I was also anxious. The baby would need to nurse soon, Lilly needed her lunch and a nap, and my husband needed the car. How could one moment be crowded with so much love, poignancy . . . and worry?

If growing up is the process of creating ideas and dreams about what life should be, then maturity is letting go again. Dan died a few weeks later. My friend and mentor, Nancy, died the following year. My sister lost her life after two hard years of fighting cancer.

Over and over again, I find I am not capable or nurturing or insightful enough. I do not solace or comfort the way I imagined I would. At the same time, our home life is ragged at the edges. We give up some of our routines and pleasures so that we can find time and energy to make a water painting for Dan, to write an early-morning letter to Nancy, to bake Mom’s special coffeecake for my sister. We are not triumphant at anything. We go along.

As the ill and dying give up their lives, we give up our claim to quiet nights and neat days. Maybe it is those who die who finally teach us that through the cracks in our days often come life and love, and moments of connection.

Mary Beth Danielson

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