Getting Dead

Judith Lichtendorf


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Bring him over, they told me.

I can’t bring him over, I said. I can’t carry him and he can’t walk.

We’ll take care of it, they said,. And a few minutes later the doorman buzzed to say ambulance people were on their way up.

They were two women. Very easily and very gently they raised him from the toilet seat and helped him on to the gurney they had brought. And my husband, always a flirt, was totally himself and said to them, hell, if I knew they would send such hot women I would have gotten sick faster.

Oh you! They said to him.

They told me I couldn’t come in the ambulance with them. To meet them at the emergency room at Memorial.

I know I looked awful. I had put on a pair of jeans over yesterday’s panties and a tee shirt over yesterday’s bra. No make up. No shower. Dirty hair. Slip-on shoes that should have been retired five years ago—no socks. When I try to remember how I felt, the best I can come up with is terrified and calm and detached. Some part was watching as everything disintegrated around me, and yet nothing was really happening, nothing was going on, and everything that happened only seemed to clearly reinforce that sense. Everyone was so calm.

Joe was in a little curtained area in the emergency room. There was an intern in the little nook with him, writing on a pad. Joe was in his typical crisis mode – he was upbeat, casual, trying to be a calming influence.

Nothing’s really new, he was telling the doctor, I’m just having trouble controlling my bowels…in fact, oh shit, here we go again…

The black poured out of his anus once more.

Nurse, the intern shouted. Need help here.

To Joe he said, do you mind if we put adult diapers on you? At least until we figure out what’s happening that’s causing…

No, no, that’s fine, my husband said.

I suspect the adult diapers may have been a relief—Joe was so fastidious that even when I washed him he made me clean in between each toe, behind and inside his ears, each testicle soaped and rinsed. It had to have been so shameful to him that he was making mess, being dirty. A nurse and an aide lifted his legs and cleaned his butt with some spray stuff, diapered him, changed the linens, and the intern told me that he’d be going for a series of scans.

He’s probably going to stay overnight, the intern said. We need to find out where he’s at.

For a time, nothing happened. Joe slept a lot. I wanted to call everyone– my son, my sisters, my mom, Joe’s daughters—but after all, what did I have to tell them? He’s shitting and vomiting black? He’s going for scans? What did that mean? Should Nora fly back from Rome? What was happening?

Nothing. Joe slept. Then he’d wake up and say what’s happening?

I’d shrug and say, we’re waiting. They say you’re going for scans, but nothing’s happening yet. Don’t waste your strength, rest.

After a few hours, his World Famous Oncologist came into the little curtained space.

Sounds like you both had a difficult morning, he said.

What’s going on, Joe said.

We don’t know, the oncologist said, but we’re going to do some scans, try and see what’s happening and we’ll try to get you out of here by this evening, or tomorrow at the latest.

I know I’m terminal, Joe said. That’s no secret.

You’re right, the oncologist said, but this isn’t the time yet. We’ll figure this out, and you’ll be home in no time.

I swear that’s what he said.

I remember saying, my husband’s got a daughter who lives in Rome—should I be telling Nora to come back?

Way too premature.

I swear that was his answer.

The other thing I remember is walking a little in front of the orderly who was pushing the stretcher, wheeling Joe from one scan room to another. Holding Joe’s hand. Realizing how light and childlike it felt, how pale it looked.

And Joe, lying in the stretcher, looking at me, smiling, saying, what do I have to be scared of? I have my best friend here with me—I’m fine.

I remember feeling my heart was exploding out of my mind. I remember walking quickly and trying to walk safely in those worn out, stretched out shoes that kept trying to make me trip and fall.

Who the hell knows what they were scanning?

After a while it was dark, even though it was mid-summer, and the days were still long, long. We were hanging around in a hospital hallway, Joe in his stretcher, me in my role as companion hanging around, trying to stretch my legs by bracing against the wall. Eventually around nine or so, someone who introduced herself as a social worker came over to us, and said Joe had been admitted for the night, just so they could observe him, they’d finally found a vacant room and he’d be transported there now.

The hospital room was fine. They got him off the stretcher and into the bed without causing him any terrible pain, and there was a TV, which was already playing – I didn’t even have to call to have it turned on. Put on the Yankees, Joe said. I found the Yankees, and he said, why don’t you go home, you’ve been here all day, all night, you need to eat, get out of here, I’m fine, I’ve got the game, I’m good.

There was a nurse in the hall. Is it okay if I go home now, I asked.

Oh my dear, of course go home, she said. Nothing’s going to happen tonight, and from what I understand they’re sending him home tomorrow.

So I went back into the room and kissed him, and petted him and kissed him some more and I could tell it was annoying him; after a while he said Debbie, go home for God’s sake, let me watch the game, come back tomorrow morning. I’m fine.

And so I left.

I don’t remember getting home. I’m positive I tossed back vodka on the rocks after vodka on the rocks. I don’t remember eating. I do remember waking up very early, taking a shower, washing my hair, putting on make up and clean clothes, packing a little bag with Joe’s shirt and pants and shoes, clothes for Joe to wear home, taking the New York Times that was delivered in front of our apartment door and arriving at the hospital just before seven in the morning.

I guess cancer hospitals are different from regular hospitals—they didn’t seem to have a visiting hours rule— I was just allowed in.

When I got to Joe’s room he was awake, and he seemed to know who I was. He smiled at me.

Hey, babe, how’re you doing? How’d the game end, I haven’t looked at the paper yet?

Joe gave me one of his big, life is a party and I’m having a great time smiles. Oh, look who’s here. It’s the little bat boy, he said. Am I glad to see you! My feet are cold, little bat boy, could you rub them for me?

Those were the last words he ever said.

And they made no sense. Why was I the little batboy? Why was he calling me that? Who was he thinking about? The only thing I was sure of was that his feet were cold – so I started to rub them. He was now totally still, totally quiet – I didn’t know if he was awake, aware, was he fantasizing that he was a baseball player, were his feet getting warmer. I didn’t know anything.

By ten there had been a few assistant doctors, or training oncologists in and out. One seemed to be more senior, and I went after him.

Please tell me what’s happening, I asked. I need to know. Yesterday he was going home this morning, and now he seems so …

This was a sandy-haired, sweet young man who I am sure was and is adored by his parents and, if he is lucky, his grandparents, but he was too raw to know what he was doing, or how to do it.

I’ve never seen someone decline so fast, he said.

I paused—I needed that to register.


What are you doing for him?

We’re keeping him comfortable; we’re giving him morphine.


So should I call his daughter in Rome and tell her to come home, I asked.

He paused too— maybe he was checking if he’d broken one of the “don’t tell them too much” doctor rules—and then he said, yes. Yes. If it was me, I would call her.

I called everyone—Joe’s daughters, my son, my sisters, my mother. They’re giving him morphine. They’re keeping him comfortable. Yes, very sudden. Yesterday the doctor told us he would go home this morning.

Then I went back to his room. A nurse was there, adjusting his sheet, wiping his lips. Is he aware? I asked.

It’s hard to tell, she said. Some people think they can hear us, and that it’s good to talk to them, that it’s comforting. But it’s hard to tell.

So of course I started to talk. How much I love you, what a good husband you’ve been, what a lively mind you have, how much fun you are, what a nifty dad and step dad you’ve been, how everyone just adores you…

Joe’s oldest daughter, Leah, got to the hospital first.

She tiptoed in. I realized she was there when I heard her make a noise – not a gasp, not a sigh, something else that I don’t think there’s a name for— a sound you make when you walk into a room and there’s your father, eyes closed, skin almost as white as his sheet, hair white as his skin, his sheet.

She tiptoed over to me. Can he hear us? She said.

I don’t know. The nurse said he might, but they don’t know. She said it could be comforting to hear voices.
Leah went over to him, and took one of his hands in hers. Hi Daddy, she said. It’s Leah, I’m here. I love you, Daddy.

Then she sat down in the blue chair near the window, and folded herself up in it, curled up with her knees almost covering her face. I kept talking to Joe.

No one got there for a while— for a few hours it was just me, Joe and Leah. Finally, Leah said, maybe he’s sick of hearing you— maybe he just wants it to be quiet.

I thought about that.

Maybe she was right.

Or maybe I wanted to kill her.

I kept on talking.


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