We sit together in a hospital room, my cousins and my husband and me, talking about everything and laughing more than you would think, given that our loved one is lying right there in our midst, sedated and pain medicated, drifting in a twilight world. The cancer in him is everywhere, the doctors say; the rogue cells have formed a sheath over his brain and spine and there is nothing more to do. And yet he looks robust at 48, not emaciated the way cancer patients who are close to death might be. His hair is a soft fuzz over his head, the ponytail he used to wear already lost to chemo, but his cheeks are ruddy, his eyes clear when he opens them, his hands strong when he grasps his wife's hand. It is hard to hold on to the reality that he is dying.
So we sit there around his bed and talk and laugh and Gary wouldn't mind at all. Some nights my cousin distracts herself watching Netflix on her iPad. We also sit in silence for long stretches, gazing at Gary's bare chest, rising and falling, pausing sometimes, and our breath pausing with it. And then he coughs and the rise and fall begins again, and we exhale and look at each other to see who else noticed the pause.
Gary is being moved to hospice today. Last night, when they told my cousin this, her eyes welled up, and even though she had promised herself to not cry in front of Gary, the news that the doctors now felt there was nothing more they could do for her husband undid her resolve. Gary looked at her, his own eyes so sad. She said, "I love you, sweet man," and he said, through the oxygen mask and the mist to keep his airways moist, "I love you, too." They were his clearest words all day.
He is going to an airy, light filled hospice with an atrium and terraces and an enclosed courtyard and kind staff who wheel in cots for family members to sleep in next to their loved ones. My husband, bless that man, took my cousin and her sisters to visit and tour the place on Saturday when I was up north with our daughter. He said they all forgot they were in a hospital, so open and welcoming and bright did the rooms feel. There is a family lounge on every floor and someone comes by and plays the piano. And even if your loved ones cannot be moved, they can be wheeled into the atrium or onto the courtyard where they can feel the sun on their skin and the see the sky overhead. If they are able to get out of bed, there are armchair recliners on wheels with which to accomplish the same thing. My husband called me upstate after they visited and he said, "The people who designed this place have obviously thought about this."
And yet. This is the place where my younger cousin will watch her husband die.
Many people have rallied around. Gary's church family continues to visit. So do family members who live in the tri-state area. The sister from Boston had to go back to work and her two children, but the sister who lives in San Francisco is still here, and one of our other cousins arrived on Monday night to lend support. She said, "This is what our mothers did for each other, and even though we are cousins, not sisters, this is what they would have us do." They switch off, one spending the night at the hospital with Gary's wife, the other crashing here at our house, replenishing with a home cooked meal, a shower, mindless TV and a bed. I don't usually go to the hospital till the evening. I spend the day working at home, then my husband and I go to the hospital around six for the night shift. My husband might then leave me with Gary to ferry the others to the Bronx to feed the cats who are now alone in the apartment Gary and my cousin used to share. Past tense. Gary is unlikely ever to go back there.
What will it be like to go home to a place that used to be full of the man you love, the music of his Japanese flute wafting through the apartment, and now there is just silence. When everyone leaves town again, it will be mainly my husband and me, trying to stave off her aloneness. She is already a solitary sort; she doesn't have a lot of friends and doesn't belong to any organized community other than her job. She just has her family. She has us. I hope we will know what to do, how best to help her. This is hard.