Gearing Down For Death: Eighteen Years Or Less, Or More

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 1.206% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

“We’ve lived in this house for eighteen years,” my wife said to me.

“And?” I asked.

“I’m turning sixty this year.”

“…still not getting it.”

“Chances are good that the next eighteen years are I’ll ever get to spend in this house.”

Dying.

She was talking about dying.

But when aren’t we, these days?

“And if this is all I get, I want to make it awesome,” she continued.  “I want to appreciate every last drop of it.  So I’m making a lot of new decisions.”

My wife is wise, yo.

She wrote an entry about what she intends to do about those final years with me, and I think she’s full of wonderful ideas.  She’s been a lot happier now that she’s been sewing quilts in the basement again, reforging an abandoned corner into her quilting nook, and when it gets warmer out I’m going to spend a weekend building her a lightbox in my wood shop and oh also she’s going to die.

She’s always going to die.

She’s been dying in my head ever since I almost died.

Because right now, Facebook is helpfully showing me much-loved photos from five years ago – me in a hospital gown, my chest sporting an infected scar, from where they did a triple-bypass and I spent three days on the Ventilator.  Facebook is quite chuffed, constantly reminding me of the worst days of my life because well, it certainly was exciting, wasn’t it?

It was.  To be sure.

And that heart attack shoved me right into the realization I was mortal.

We all know we’re mortal intellectually, of course, but I think that the brutal emotional truth of a helpless death only gets ground into us by percentages: that first time you try to stand up and realize you literally can’t – that nudges you towards a fatal understanding.  That first time you feel that ache deep in your muscles that never goes away, ever – that inches you towards getting what the feebleness of a deteriorating body.  That first time you injure something and know it should have healed by now, but your body’s used up and won’t come back to baseline – that’s a taste of the finality you get to swallow.

Being on the ventilator was a huge shove towards understanding what death is.  Double-digit percentages in progress.  So much understanding that I’ve been intellectually unable to process it, even after five years.

And to a large extent, what death looks like to me is “being apart from Gini.”

Because that was the worst part; when I was on that ventilator, my vital signs so low I did not have full usage of my brain, I had no Gini.  She was in the room, but she might as well have been on another continent, or on Pluto.

Love didn’t matter.  I was just dying tissue, with no wife.

Gone.

And ever since then, we’ve been subtly traumatized; she came that close to losing me (note to doctors: do not fucking joke that this clogged artery is called “The Widowmaker,” because that tends to stick with a terrified spouse), and I did in a very real sense lose her.  We’ve been more panicky; we text each other a lot more, because if one of us has been half an hour late maybe there’s been a car crash maybe they’re dead they’re probably dead what do I do now and then we spend time trying to imagine life without the lifelong love.

I love many women.  Very deeply.  But Gini and I have worn grooves into each other.  We fit like pieces of a puzzle.  We support and enable each other’s lives in ways we do not fully understand; we are halves of a whole, added.

And the last five months of my life have brought a catastrophic mental breakdown, where I had to go into deep therapy.  That breakdown is my social anxiety, metastasized like a cancer to tear at all the good portions of my life – but the treatment’s been kicking up a lot of long-dormant thoughts, because my therapist is incisive and creative.

And I was next to Gini on the bed, lying down next to her as she snored in deep slumber, when I thought: I love her so much.  She’s going to die some day soon.  

I’d better not get too attached.

Shocked, I texted myself that just so I’d remember in the morning.  But there it was: As deeply as I loved Gini, part of my reaction to the trauma of a triple bypass and its recovery was to pull back on some level.  I loved her, I doted on her, but there was a part of me that was always unhappy because I did not commit fully.  Not the way I’d used to.

Death had brought distance.

I talked to her about it, of course, and she nodded.  “I don’t know what I can… do… about that,” she said.

“I think just hearing me is enough.”

And I’ve been paying attention to things, or trying to.  She’s right: we’ve got eighteen years, give or take.  And it’s not like death is going to go away.

Yet our relationship itself was a mad gamble.  I knew her only through phone calls and emails and a handful of stolen weekend visits – and yet I was quitting my job, moving to Alaska, agreeing to be a stepdad to two kids I’d met all of twice, settling down.

I remember telling my friends, “Yeah, this could end catastrophically.  But… I have to know.  She’s that amazing.”

Eighteen years on, and she’s that amazing and more amazing still.

Eighteen years left – or less – and I think, “If she does die, do I want to look back at my time with her and recognize the moments I could have been more present with her, but didn’t because I was afraid of truly feeling?”

Yes.  Yes, her loss would rip me to shreds.

But can I let that stop me enjoying the now?

I can’t.

And this weekend has been another window into senility, because I got a nasty case of the flu and turned into a senior citizen for a few days.  I slept for hours.  I was unable to get out of bed.  Everything ached and my thoughts refused to come together.

All I wanted was a goddamned chocolate milk.

But that’s part of our new process, you see.  Turns out my wife’s allergic to gluten – she didn’t want to be, I assure you – and so for a month we’re trying a modified diet with no sugar or carbs.  It’s been an adventure in zucchini noodles and wayyyyy too many sweet potatoes.

But when I’m sick, my body craves sugar to function.  I’ve powered through work shifts by loading up on vast gulps of chocolate milk, riding that sugar high past my clogged brains.  And I didn’t have that.

I was sleeping in, vaguely aware of the weird noises in the kitchen, when suddenly there was a mixer bowl placed in front of me on the bed.  I looked up to see Gini, looking down on me nervously.

“What’s… this?” I asked groggily.

“I can’t do a chocolate milk,” she said.  “But I looked through the recipes and there’s a chocolate chip cookie dough you can do with chips of dark sugar-free chocolate and coconut butter and all sorts of artificial sweetener workarounds.  It’s not strictly on the diet, but… I figure you’ve been so good about sticking to the diet we can work around things…”

My hands closed around that cold, metal bowl, but all I felt was warmth.  I can remember her tentative smile, seeking approval.  I remember thinking, even then, how much time she must have spent researching alternatives to sugary things, then going to the store to get these things, then making them in a complex alchemy of the kitchen.

“The batter’s a little sandy,” she said.

I hugged her.

And in that moment, I hugged all of her.  Yes.  She’s going to die.  We’ve got eighteen years, or less, or more, but there’s an end point to this.  Eventually the ventilator comes for us all.

But I was there.  Feeling her.  Feeling all of her.  Realizing that we were going to live shoulder-to-shoulder with death, and find a way to flourish under that dark shadow because what we’ve got is love, what we’ve got is cookies, what we’ve got is time spent kindly and yes oh my God yes I love her.

——————————-

In therapy, I’ve learned there’s a lot of bad reasons for blogging.  You can do it for the attention, you can do it to externalize parts of your personality you shouldn’t give away, you can do it to justify opinions you shouldn’t have.  I blog a lot less these days because I ponder my rationales more.

But sometimes, I blog to capture a moment in my life.  Just to crystallize that instant I want to keep, for good or for bad.

Today was a good moment.

Today, I’m keeping it.

3 Comments

  1. terri
    Jan 21, 2018

    can’t get the link to Gini’s blog to load 🙁

  2. Julia Dvorin
    Jan 22, 2018

    Lovely piece, Ferrett! Eautifully written true insights about a beautiful moment. Thank you. Gonna show my husband. 🙂

  3. Anonymous Alex
    Jan 22, 2018

    I’ve said this before, but you really should stop writing things that make me cry.

    -Alex

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