It’s a perfect afternoon in June, about 2 p.m., and we are up on the seventh floor. I stand looking past everyone in the room out through the parted curtains at the clouds, and I can’t take my eyes off them. Jesus, these clouds are breathtaking. My youngest daughter and her cousins sit on the empty bed, my wife and her sister lean against the counter under the t.v. which is bolted to the wall near the ceiling. Beneath the window my in-laws are parked on a hard teal leatherette couch.
I simply must see those clouds.
I hug my wife, then move to the window. They are sculptural, pure white with pink scalloped edges, icing on a wedding cake — at once they seem to absorb and reflect the sun, are emboldened by it. They’re tricky, these clouds, because they have now taken the soft mechanical hum of the hospital and made it their own, fooling me into thinking they have sleek and efficient engines as they float like blimps, casting shadows over the green hillsides. The view is every cliche that usually makes me cringe — it is all so Thomas Kinkade; the only thing missing is a cottage beside a creek with a waterwheel, wisps of smoke trailing from the chimney.
But today I am too exhausted to cringe.
Someone tugs my arm and makes me sit, everyone shifting left or right, magically enlarging the couch. No one knows what to say, so we make smalltalk, try to make the each other laugh with silly family memories.
Just moments before, I’d hugged Pauline, my mother-in-law, and said firmly into her ear, “We will talk to each other later, guaranteed,” as if my saying it with enough calm determination could make it so.
I’d been the last one to hug her. In the 20 years I’d known her, I’d never seen her look so terrified.
* * *
The surgeon had said she might not survive the surgery, adding that the tumor in her brain had doubled in size since the previous MRI two weeks ago.
Hours later, the clouds having moved along and the sky resembling the normal Georgia sky again, the surgeon returns. He confirms the worst: Glioblastoma multiforme grade 4. Very few, if any, survive more than a year, even with therapy. He gives her six months, tops.
You can feel the room drop. Eyes go bloodshot and shimmery, everyone weeps. Paul cries, “The Lord is calling her home,” and I think Goddamn it. This woman doesn’t need this with all she’s been through her whole life. Shit, shit, shit, and then my wife is in my arms, her face buried in my neck and I just keep staring at the surgeon’s hands, his thin tender fingers motioning in the air as he speaks — the worst form of cancer anyone could have — imagining those pale fingers poking — could not resect even a small portion — prodding, slicing, helpless in the end — it just kept bleeding, I’ve seen so many, but this one … .
Deep hugs all around, everyone is weeping and the memories start flowing: Remember the time…? She’s tough, she’ll beat this just like the time … and I say, She is tough. She helped Sue and I move into our first place. Let us borrow her pickup in the rain, God that was an awful day. And then out of the blue I remember the time I walked in on her while she was in the bathroom when Sue and I were first dating, and everyone cracks up. It’s the best laugh I’ve ever gotten. And the saddest.
I’m in the hallway later with Sally’s husband, Ed. We’ve sensed that our spouses need time alone with their siblings, so we’ve convened out here. We listen to Pauline’s older sister, Virginia, talk to Darryl on the phone back in Iowa. She seems to be talking at him, and it’s likely he has removed his hearing aids because she’s shouting while trying not to, She’s not gonna make it, just a few months — can you hear me? I said it’s not good. She won’t — can you hear me? Oh Darryl. Ed has been through this before with an uncle years ago. He knows the ropes and just shakes his head, tells me what will happen in the next six months or less.
Virginia is sobbing now and I don’t want to know exactly what happens next, so I go to her and she turns and practically throws her arms around me, tears soaking into my shirt and I hold her tight. I’ve hugged her before — those holiday “good seeing you again” hugs — but this is a huge release of grief in an overwhelming embrace, and I am the recipient of it from this woman I’ve only seen maybe a dozen times.
An hour later in recovery, Pauline was awake and looking like a Muslim cleric in her bandage, but talking like her old self. Ed says this is typical, and dammit if he isn’t right. The next three months will be Pauline’s last, and they will be trying, to say the least.
During that time, we learn that hospice nurses are the most loving and saintly people on earth. We would have been lost without them.
* * *
I am completely in awe of Susan’s family. Dozens of them fly or drive in from Florida, Indiana, and Iowa to be with us all, and Sally takes on the excruciating role of main caregiver in Pauline’s house, as she lives nearby, and she does this with dignity, grace, humor and style. Susan and I make weekend trips over the mountain to help out, and she takes time off from work to help Sally. Getting through this, they will be closer than ever.
Susan’s midwestern cousins are the salt of the earth, taking the time to drive day and night to be with their Aunt Pauline. They come and go and the house spills over with laughter and love. This is true family loyalty, something that is completely alien to me. In my family, we send greeting cards. Maybe flowers. (Although I am not keen on hugging, I’ve always gladly hugged my wife and kids often and with gusto.)
We sit on the porch and laugh, drink, or linger around a backyard campfire, and everyone helps out — each of us has something to offer. Even me. Surrounded by carpenters, police officers, farmers, handy outdoors people, I am the only writer. What was once a handicap — What does Jim do exactly? Stories? Graphics? Never hung drywall? — is now a valuable skill. (Susan understands, as she is the only college graduate in her family.) I willingly write the obituary and the letter to the editor thanking the small Georgia mountain community for their support.
On Labor Day evening, I had taken our kids back over the mountain in the dark for home and school the next day. Susan was falling asleep just before midnight when she realized she needed to check on her mom for the night. In the next room, she kissed her good night and told her she loved her, just as Pauline sighed and was gone.
Born on January 8, 1940 — Elvis’ fifth birthday — Pauline Archer died at age 69.
Christmas will be bittersweet this year: her struggles are over, but we miss her terribly.
I will always remember this generous, caring, thoughtful, tough woman who had a bullshit meter not even the slickest salesman could fool. She raised four kids on her own after her husband was killed in a car wreck in ’78, came to our girls’ birthday parties every year (and, we later discovered, saved every invitation) whether she was feeling up to it or not, knitted baby blankets, and sent Christmas ornaments to them every December. She gave us an espresso machine we still use every weekend, was a staunch and lifelong Democrat, was a child advocate after she retired, and could grow just about anything in her garden. Plus, she always laughed at my lame jokes. She wasn’t perfect, but she did the best she could.
Through it all, Susan has tried to be strong. Sometimes I’ll see her standing at the kitchen window watching for wild birds in the yard and I know she’s missing her mom. I don’t have a long history as a hugger, but with my newfound Power of the Hug I often gently take her in my arms and let her pour all of her sorrow and loss into me.
And then I mention the time I walked in on her mom in the bathroom.