William and I started working on our vows right away, some of them anyway. For poorer? First to check off the list. For better? Yes, even poor, it was the best we’d ever had it. Forsaking all others? Check. Love and cherish? Check and check.
When youth is at hand, it’s hard to think of one’s own mortality, or any kind of real sickness in someone barely past the legal drinking age, or younger. We just can’t wrap our brains around it. When it happens to those around us, we become hyper-curious. We need to know what they did to get themselves sick so we can be assured it won’t happen to us. We ask all the probing questions. We get answers. And we really are sorry – but bigger than sympathy or empathy is relief that it’s them and not us.
When we’re young, and it is us, we lack the coping skills for it. Maybe that’s good. Keep the questions and the worry that it could be you next, or worse, that it could be someone you need to be alive and by your side, to yourself. This way, you’re really living. This way, you won’t take any day for granted, not even the mundane ones, or the shit days. Because there’s no way to know what being dead feels like until we are dead. And there’s no way we can imagine what it would be like for someone we are sure we can’t live without to be dead. They have to be gone before we can really understand what gone feels like.
there's no way we can imagine what it would be like for someone we are sure we can't live without to be dead
William’s arm and shoulder had turned blue. I came home from work and found him shirtless in the bathroom of our apartment examining himself in the mirror. What his upper body looked like was much the same as what my father’s looked like after a massive coronary.
When my father died, most of the family sat in the waiting room of the small town hospital where the ambulance brought him. He died right there on the floor of our farmhouse but we held out hope that maybe, just maybe, the paramedics were able to resuscitate him in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Any minute a miracle-working surgeon would come around the corner and tell us he’d performed life-saving quadruple bypass surgery, surgery just like grandmother had, and Dad was alive. A doctor did come out to the waiting room eventually, but it was to tell us he was gone and the family could go say goodbye to him.
My father’s chest was exposed. He was warm to the touch. Deep blue lines like those on a roadmap streaked across his body, marking all the places the blood pushed toward the heart and then stopped because it could go no further, and it pooled there. William had those same roadmap blue lines darkening and running up his arm, over his shoulder and chest. The parts of him that weren’t streaked in those tell-tale veiny marks were a splotchy blue color.
William had those same roadmap blue lines darkening and running up his arm, over his shoulder and chest
We went to the hospital near our apartment. William had a blood clot, dangerously close to his heart. Telling this now, nearly thirty years later, I’m embarrassed at my reaction to this news. I really couldn’t grasp what the doctors and nurses were saying. Their words bounced around, floated in the air the way bits of dust catch a spark of afternoon sunlight. Inside the sterile hospital room, William and I listened as medical professionals explained the fragility of a young life when blood clots are at hand. I stared at the pattern of light seeping in through the hospital window and imagined myself floating, not weightless bits of dust floating, but me. I was floating. I had no clue what they were talking about, no idea what a blood clot meant or what needed to be done to make William stop turning blue. The nurses’ expressions told me I looked as spacey as I felt. Twenty at the time, but looking nothing near that age, I was just a dumb kid that couldn’t understand the meaning of words like deep vein thrombosis and how words like that could snatch a young, healthy husband away in an instant. The doctor and nurses quit talking to me eventually, or even looking at me, then they spoke and looked only at my husband. I couldn’t take them seriously anyway and vice versa.
“We’ll need to keep you in ICU while we’re dissolving the clot so we can monitor you, make sure you don’t move around too much. The danger is in the clot breaking loose and traveling to the heart. That could be fatal. That’s why you’ll be in ICU until the clot is dissolved.”
“How long will I need to be in ICU?” William asked.
“A few days at the least, maybe a week at most.”
I calculated the missed pay in my mind. A week without William working meant a week without pay. I was working full-time as a credit secretary for a chemical company in Memphis but the pay was less than half what my husband earned as an electrician. I wasn’t worried over a dead husband at twenty-two because that was absurd and on no planet even possible. I worried about making rent.
We both agreed I shouldn’t miss any work because we’d need every dollar I could make since there was no emergency fund for things like a week-long stay in the ICU for a barely-adult husband turning blue because of a blood clot dangerously close to the heart.
I left William there in the hospital alone. It was our first night apart since we’d married two years before. That first night wasn’t so bad. I was exhausted from a day spent at the hospital, first the ER waiting room, then another room listening to lies once we got the diagnosis. The ICU, and dissolving the clot, would start the next day. I was tired enough to go right to sleep without thinking much about blood clots or hospitals or blue husbands. He would be fine. This was ridiculous.
I wasn’t worried over a dead husband at twenty-two because that was absurd and on no planet even possible. I worried about making rent
As is typical with construction work, William’s days started in the early morning hours. He left for work a good two hours before I did. Most mornings, I slept in, barely even stirring as he leaned in for goodbye kisses on my check and I love you and hope you have a great day today. The morning after William was admitted into the hospital felt no different than any other morning, until I went to work. I had called my boss the day before because I was a no-show for work that morning. I told him we were at the hospital, William was turning blue, they said it was a blood clot. Mr. Hopkins said take as much time as I needed but I told him I needed to work, that I’d be back at work the next day.
It was like any other work day for me until I walked into Helena Chemical to start my shift and call our dead-beat creditors and yell at them for not paying us on time. My co-workers and Mr. Hopkins all told me with their diverting eyes and shrinking posture that my husband was not okay, and that was not okay. I made my way to my desk to start tearing into our late-paying customers via phone and letter, and after a morning of routine shaming and scolding and collecting, I was feeling quite normal, not floating away like wanderlust dust, not thinking anything other than give us our money, you worthless piece of shit, when Mr. Hopkins sauntered in.
“How’s your husband? Any news yet?”
“Yes. They need to amputate that arm,” I answered.
Mr. Hopkins’ face went slack, his shoulders slumped, he stammered for words. I let him stammer.
“My God…what…that’s awful…how will he…it’s his right arm, isn’t it? My God. I’m so sorry.”
Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.
“I’m kidding. I’m just kidding. He’s fine. They’re dissolving the clot now. No big deal.”
“You know you really shouldn’t joke that like. It’s a serious thing, you know.”
Mr. Hopkins went back to his office on Floor 32 of Clark Tower on Poplar Avenue with the floor-to-ceiling windows and noontime light lifting those floating specks to dance. He didn’t ask any more questions and I took to avoiding anyone else who might try.
I went straight from work to the hospital to see William. He was really hooked up to some business now in the ICU. There were wires and IVs and monitors, but he seemed fine, other than still being blue.
“Hey honey,” he said, “How was work today?”
“Work was good. How are you feeling?”
“I feel okay.”
“Is it gone yet…the thing?”
“No, not yet.”
“Do they know how much longer it’ll take?”
“It’s the same as they said before, a few days to a week to dissolve it.”
“Do you need me to bring you anything?”
“No, just sit and talk to me. I miss you.”
“I miss you too, babe. Guess what happened at work today?”
“What happened at work today?”
“I got on the phone with that asshole down in Thibodaux, Louisiana, you know, the one that hasn’t paid his bill at Helena Chemical in like six months? Well, he can just keep not paying his bill I guess because when I tried to explain that he was six months past due and we needed payment now, he started talking French and something that might have been a little English but that’s questionable and I couldn’t understand a damn word he was saying.”
I lowered my voice and tried to imitate the asshole with the French and something like English, but not really. William laughed like he always did. The heart monitor beeped a little faster so we quieted down.
“Hey, my folks are coming to stay for a couple days,” William said.
“Oh, okay. That’s great. I guess I should go home and clean house a little then.”
“No. Not right now. Stay a little longer. I miss you.”
“I miss you, too.”
“Was that the only asshole you called today?”
“Yep. That was the only asshole. I called some hillbillies though. Well, not hillbillies exactly, because they don’t live in the hills but you know what I mean.”
“Tell me about the non-hill-dwelling hillbillies.”
“Okay. There’s this one guy that always talks like he has a mouth full of chew…”
I stayed a couple hours with William, then headed home to clean our apartment. I met the in-laws as I was leaving the ICU. They didn’t ask me any questions, just hugged me and told me they’d see me at the apartment later. I cleaned a little but not a lot because I felt tired and heavy. I did make up the guest room for Jack and Rose. I didn’t offer fresh sheets though because I didn’t feel up to tackling the laundromat. My in-laws weren’t the sort to grumble about not-so-fresh sheets.
It was late when I finally lay down to sleep. With Jack and Rose in the guest room, which was highly out of the norm, and my husband not in the bed beside me again, I began to whimper. Behind the whimpering came some unholy flood of tears that grew louder and louder until my mother-in-law couldn’t stand it anymore. She took my husband’s place beside me, nestled down behind me, and held me close the way any loving mother would. I wept. She held. We didn’t speak. I went to sleep with Rose still holding on to me.
I wept. She held. We didn’t speak. I went to sleep with Rose still holding on to me
By the third day in the ICU, William was getting low. The clot was dissolving, the doctor said, but not as quickly as they had hoped it would. We were not out of the woods yet and it was all William could do to force a smile when I came in to see him. His eyes began to mist the moment I walked through the door. This was a thing I wasn’t accustomed to seeing from my husband and he knew it.
“I’m sorry…I’m sorry,” he said.
“Shhhh. It’s okay. You’re okay. Shhhh.”
I kissed my husband’s face, his mouth, his blue arm and chest. I kept kissing. I gave William a release then because I knew he needed it. With the heart monitor going wild, and the nurses just outside walking and talking, and the doctor due to come in any minute to tell us yes, it’s working, the clot is getting smaller, I poured myself over my husband like soft silk. William closed his eyes, shut out the screeching heart monitor, the days confined to a hospital bed, the thrombolytic drugs forced into his veins. He closed his eyes and took the release and me and my bold love and gasped…God…baby.
Who cares if we were caught? None of it was real anyway. At least not to me. It was like I was watching it all play out in a movie reel in my mind. And the gratuitous sex scene was not gratuitous at all. It was love.
Will you comfort him?
I poured myself over my husband like soft silk
Five days in the ICU, the clot had been dissolved and William didn’t die. It came right back though, which led to surgery. The surgeon dug for hours through the back of William’s shoulder to remove the top rib that was pressing on the vein, causing the blood to clot. The first surgery failed because the way my husband earned his living had bulked him up to the point that he was a lot denser than the surgeon had expected. He delivered the news that the surgery was not a success.
“I couldn’t get through to the top rib. Your husband has the densest muscle tissue I have every tried to dig through. Does he lift weights?” Dr. Howard asked.
“No. He lifts bundles of rigid conduit, reels of wire, and 40-foot wooden extension ladders. Those are working man’s muscles,” I said.
“It’s the densest muscle I’ve ever seen. We don’t have a choice but to go in at the neck, in front this time, to go after the first rib. I’ll need to remove a small amount of muscle there, too.”
The first rib sits at the top of the chest, just below the collarbone. What this second surgery meant was that William would have a nasty scar across his neck that would look like he’d survived a throat-slashing. This six-inch wound, in addition to the gaping crater on his back at the top of his shoulder that will never fully fill in, made William look like Dr. Victor Frankenstein had operated on him instead of steady Dr. Howard. The surgical lesion on William’s back was stitched up, but the one on his neck was stapled and very hard to look at. For days after the surgery, the wound seeped blood through the staples. It was too much, really. And we had other problems besides these life-threatening situations and surgeries. As if those circumstances weren’t enough, we had to move.
What this second surgery meant was that William would have a nasty scar across his neck that would look like he’d survived a throat-slashing
Before a blood clot tried to kill my husband, we’d signed a lease on a new apartment and gave notice of vacating our old apartment to our current landlord. Our time was up. We didn’t have a grand house with fine belongings but what we did have was pretty hard on a 20-year old, 110-pound woman to pack and move alone. I boxed up everything the best I could, pulled all the drawers out of the bedroom dressers and hauled them in the back of William’s pick-up with the clothes still inside them. I made several trips to and from the new apartment until there was nothing but heavy furniture left back at the old apartment. I began sliding and pushing the couch and kitchen table and mattresses through the front door. Anytime someone walked by as I was sliding and pushing, I secured some help for myself – Hey man, can you get one end of this? Just going to that pick-up over there? I repeated the process at the new apartment – Hey sister, could you help me unload this couch? No? Okay. That’s cool. Hey neighbor! Yes you, muscles! Can you c’mere? Get one end of this, please. Thanks, buddy! That’s how I set up our new apartment while William was sedated and unaware. When I brought him home to the new place, he was amazed.
“Who moved us?”
“Mostly. I lucked up on some sympathetic people that didn’t mind grabbing the other end of the heavy stuff.”
“Someone slit your throat and you’re still talking. That’s amazing.”
William recovered. But those scars just never stopped looking like something awful had happened to him. I mean something more awful than deep vein thrombosis, something bloody and ludicrous. Anytime we were somewhere that he needed to be without a shirt, at the river or pool, people sometimes asked me what happened to my husband. And I always gave them something bloody and ludicrous.
“How did your husband get those scars?”
“Gang fight. He was knifed. Almost didn’t make it.”
“How did your husband get those scars?”
“A botched robbery. The guy only had a knife but he went to swinging it everywhere. My husband is a real hero, jumped in front of some lady, saved her life.”
“How did your husband get those scars?”
“Shark attack. See how the scars are on both sides of his neck and shoulder. That’s where the shark bit him. That’s why the scars are on the front and back. My husband is a real…”
I never get to finish these stories if William is within earshot.
“Cheryl, stop. It was nothing like that. It was a blood clot. The top rib was removed to relieve pressure on the vein.”
“Yes,” I’ll add, “My husband is a real hero.”
In sickness. Check.
It was the first time William and I tested that vow. It wouldn’t be the last. William has been half gone from me through illness more than once. But he’s come back every time. And what I do is love him like he’s gone from me for good.
ILLUSTRATION BY RACHELLE GERINE WUNDERINK
Rachelle Gerine Wunderink was born in Canada but spent her college years in Grand Rapids, Michigan where she earned her Bachelor's in Studio Art. Her focus was on painting but she dabbles in other mediums such as printmaking, drawing and installation.
Cheryl Smart is a retired fitness instructor, an essayist, and a final year MFA candidate at the University of Memphis, where she is recipient of the 2015 Creative Writing Award in Nonfiction, among others. She is former Managing Editor of The Pinch. Her most recent work can be found in River Teeth's 'Beautiful Things' column, Gulf Coast, The Collagist, and others. Cheryl lives just on the line between Memphis and Germantown near her children and grandchildren, but she tells people she lives in Memphis. See cherylsmartwriter.com to read other works.