“Rolling down the road, going nowhere,“Home,” by Marc Broussard
Guitar packed in a trunk
Somewhere around mile marker 1-12,
Papa started hummin’ the funk
I gotta jones in my bones before they know,
We were singing this melody
Stop the car pulled out the guitar,
Halfway to New Orleans”
I stopped crying and wiped my eyes ensured her IV bags were full enough to last until morning. I recognized the names on the quality assurance label from their Tijuana manufacturing plant, only 16 miles from my home in America’s Finest City. I spent a while telling Wendy about the people who made her IV bags and their families and meals we had shared. I said it was a lot like the River Road between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the bike ride to TJ, and that I enjoyed the trip as much as the people we saw.
I forced myself to tell her a bit about my condo in San Diego and what was happening there. Like Wendy, I had grown up reticent to share personal details. My work was complex, not easily summarized on the phone, and Wendy and I had never been chatty people together. She hadn’t left Louisiana in thirty years, but always asked about my life on the phone so that she could live a bit vicariously. I felt regret for dismissing her questions, not taking time to simplify what I did like I could do regulations, and I felt that the least I could do was share some stories and hope she could hear me, or to make some jokes that only she and I would understand.
I held up my scarred left hand and showed her the watch she’d remember from her childhood. I had inherited it from our Uncle Bob just before I left Louisiana, a Rolex Oyster Perpetual that never needing winding or batteries, a mechanical marvel of that time period that absorbed energy from the motion of your arms and stored it in tiny, Swiss made springs to be released slowly, while you slept or rested. It was a Rolex, but the most unostentatious model they sold, with a simple black band and scratched acrylic face. You’d have to look closely to notice it was a Rolex. It was subtle, and despite the scratch, it was still eloquent and reliable. Uncle Bob had bought it the same year Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay brought one to the first summit of Mount Everest, and it was the same one I had seen the super spy James Bond wear in old late night movies Uncle Bob and I had watched together when I sat with him in hospice care. He was a French speaking Canadian, and when he immigrated to Louisiana in 1952 he had sought out the French speaking parts of New Orleans and splurged on the Rolex from a reputable jeweler, not knowing its history but recognizing quality and appreciating that he had achieved the American Dream and could afford a few luxuries. He had said that a spy would wear the most discrete, reliable watch possible. He was right, and his Oyster Perpetual had been working longer than I had been alive.
I told Wendy that it was old and scratched and scared, but still working and useful. “Just like me!” I said, chuckling and, for the first time in days, feeling a hint of genuine happiness shining between the clouds of worry and sadness that had depleted my sleep.
I leaned into the momentum and rotated my head to show her my greying, receding hairline and the long, arching scar across the back of my head I had had since a child, and I repeated Uncle Bob’s jokes from when he, too, had been here, in the same hospital, shaking his watch with two fingers to keep it running, telling me that I, too, would one day be like him. “Hair today, gone tomorrow!” he’d say, smirking and rubbing his balding head, like I was doing for Wendy 30 years later. I told her he was been right.
She was still young, only 16 years older than I was, and we shared the same family history, references, and secrets than only a few other people knew. All of our family had died young, too, and all had been alcoholics and died from complications related to alcohol or cigarette smoking between the ages of 62 and 64. Uncle Bob had died a few months before his first social security check and a year before he could begin withdrawing his IRA without penalty. Auntie Lo inherited both, and received only one check before dying. Granny died a few months later, just before she would have been eligible for social security or withdrawing from her IRA. Wendy had inherited all of their retirement accounts, but lived moderately; financially, at least. She became an alcoholic, just like her mother had been. Over the decades, Granny’s IRA had left Wendy dying as a wealthy woman, and I hadn’t known it and I had to process a lot that night. No one I know knows which decisions are right or wrong, or what defines life or death.
The doctor came in at 8:23am. I was kneeling with my hand on hers, and my beard was thicker from another night of growing and now stained with salt from dried tears. I slowly stood up, grunting and having to push harder with my hand this time because of swelling in my joints from not having lied down in so long. I kept my hand on Wendy’s and told him my choice with a meek voice, and he recorded it and instructed the nurses to remove the life supporting systems.
I stood aside to make room, and then gently squeezed her tiny, bruised hand that no longer had IV needles, and looked into the face I loved, and I watched the nurses slowly pull the long respirator tube from her throat and held her hand and said I was there in case she felt the discomfort of the tube being removed and her body trying to breath on its own again. The nurses moved aside and I stepped forward and placed my left hand beside her head and automatically, probably out of habit, observed the second hand of Uncle Bopb’s watch with my peripheral vision. I mindlessly monitored her breath rate and pulse, just like I had with hundreds of patients in college and in roadside emergencies here and there. I had worked as a paramedic during college to supplement the army college fund while I studied medicine and engineering, and I had always used Uncle Bob’s Rolex because it was an analog watch with Roman numerals, easy to see a quarter turn and multiply breaths in fifteen seconds by four, saving precious mental bandwidth instead of being confused by too many numbers on a digital watch and doing math and therefore not fully concentrating on what’s important. She wasn’t breathing, and she gasped and coughed up phlegm, and her heart rate became rapid and shallow and then the computer monitor began a long, steady beep that told me what I already knew. The nurse turned off the alarm and didn’t reset it, and I continued to squeeze her hand because I told her I wouldn’t leave her.
My eyes tried to shut and my upper lip quivered and I couldn’t take a breath, but it wasn’t time yet. Tears dripped down my cheeks and across my stubble and onto her face. I fought with all the effort I could muster to be with her. Finally, for reasons I can’t explain, my final words left my lips. I wasn’t thinking; they were the most true words that could stem from the strongest of the waves of emotions clashing within me. I said, “I love you, Wendy,” and then I squeezed her hand so she would know I was still there, and, unable to say more, gasping for my own breath as if drowning under those waves, I mouthed “love” again and again. I can’t describe how I felt it was time, but when I finally let go of her hand it was six minutes after the doctor had recorded her time of death.
I signed paperwork to have my mother cremated, and left the hospital in her new Lexus that she had parked only a few days before, and that still had time on the prepaid voucher. I carried her key fob and ran through the pouring rain and her door unlocked automatically for me, and as soon as I sat down and shook the water off my hat, I recognized the smell of a new car mixed with wet dog hair from her shuttling rescue dogs to and from the humane society to foster homes. It had fewer than 10,000 miles. She had bought it three months before, I knew, but when the director of the humane society had called me to tell me Wendy was in a coma, she also told me that Wendy had wrecked her car three months before; the director laughed and said how Wendy had been so focused on the big golden retriever she had had in her car that she was able to convince the paramedics to allow him to ride with her to the hospital! Wendy had always loved those dogs, she had said, as I had listened silently and first began realizing how many secrets Wendy had kept from everyone. I had listened to the director tell me things about my mother than no one else knew, and I wished more people knew her whole story rather than that quick moment that said she had been drinking and driving on the rural road between Baker and Zachary, but didn’t mention the golden retriever. The director told me he was fine, thanks to Wendy, and that she had splurged on the Lexus because of the safety features.
I had checked my phone while waiting anxiously in San Diego, and her mug shot was still available online, though I had barely recognized her because the mug shot showed her slightly drunk – or dazed from liver failure – and with puffy eyes and more wrinkles than I had remembered, and a shamed look on her face for all of her neighbors to see, her scarlet letter that only told a quick snapshot of her story. I couldn’t get that mug shot out of my mind, and my eyes began to get puffy from a combination of crying and allergies to the Louisiana springtime pollen and dog dander in the new Lexus. I drove north, squinting through my tears and the torrential rain, watching the windshield wipers marking time and lost in thought.
Halfway to Saint Francisville, at the rural intersection heading to Zachary, her car suddenly began to beep just like her IV pump had, and it took control of the brakes and steering and abruptly decelerated, sending me flying forward but caught by the seatbelt kept me from hitting the steering wheel and we stopped just in time to not collide with the car I hadn’t seen through my blurred vision and distracted mind. My heartbeat had shot up to almost 60, but the alarm silenced itself and I calmed down and waited for the traffic light to turn green, and was somehow able to concentrate on what I was doing for the remaining thirty minutes driving through torrential rain to Wendy’s retirement home near the bluffs of Thompson Creek.