Updated: Nov 24, 2020
As her love slips away, Diane spends their final moments together reliving their version of dreamland....
"Are you sure?" the nurse asks.
"I'm sure," Carol says, not taking her eyes off me. The nurse shows her how to increase the morphine if she changes her mind. Just click the little button, and off to dreamland.
But we're not quite ready for dreamland. After thirteen years, Carol will endure, in exchange for a few moments longer together.
"Did you go outside today?" she asks me. Her voice is ragged. She knows I did, for an hour this morning after breakfast. It was cool, the first scent of fall on the air. I walked for a time, thinking, then shut my eyes and turned my face to the sun. Is it today? I asked no one.
"Tell me about it."
"The leaves are starting to turn. The trees furthest out are still green - they must be getting enough sun. But the ones along the back fence, the ones in the shade there, they're starting to go. Yellow, orange, yellow, red..." I clear my throat. She hangs on my words. I've never been much of a storyteller, but I try to paint a picture for her. "The grass was wet. Maybe it rained last night. I don't really remember. It's probably only 60 degrees, even in the sunshine. It would be a good day to garden."
We both laugh. We don't garden. Maybe in another lifetime, but not here.
"Diane," she begins, breathing hard. It takes her longer to form words now, but it's okay. I savor the sound of my name on her lips. "Will you call Ben?"
I furrow my brow. Her son. He hasn't visited in a long time and she hasn't asked for him. Is it today? I ask again silently as I rise and begin to dial for her. I wait while they are connected then hand the phone over.
I turn away and busy myself tidying up, a synthetic privacy I have learned to give Carol over the years. I throw out old tissues, and straighten the few magazines on her tray. I fold up Carol's reading glasses, and set them next to the stack. Then I think better of it, and tuck them into my shirt pocket.
The call is short, and draining. When I turn, her eyes are shut as she rests on a pillow. I notice how white it is, how much cleaner than the one she is used to.
I know she is still with me, but I feel a change. A slipping.
I don't know what to say, so I don't. I take her hand, and a small smile dances across her lips. I want to kiss her, but I don't. We are alone, I think, but old habits die hard.
Someone brings us lunch, and I can't believe the day is half gone. I spoon a tiny bit of pudding onto her tongue and the sweetness lights her face. "Mmmm," she says, relishing.
Carol naps and I watch her sleep, the strained rise and fall of her chest. When she wakes, we talk some more, about our friends, about dinner.... It could be any other day. But it's today.
A doctor and a nurse come in, and I feel another shift. They are quieter, less urgent. They ask if she is comfortable. The nurse asks again about the morphine.
I'm the one to ask, "Are you sure?"
"Who'd have thought... the thing we'd want more of... is time?" Carol laughs breathlessly, and tries to wave her hand. She can't.
When they leave, I race to the door.
"Her organs are shutting down," I hear the doctor tell the nurse. "Within the hour." I'm not her wife, or her family. But this doctor is kind, and gives this update where he knows I can hear. "Burstein stays," he says to someone else, using my last name. Another kindness.
I turn back to Carol, a smile plastered on my face. Her eyes are closed again, her breathing labored. "My nose...." I go to her, gently scratching a dry spot. "What... will you do... my stuff?" she asks.
There isn't much. But I immediately think of her books, neatly lined up on the shelf. I think of how the sun comes in through the window, bleaching the covers. We've both read them all, more than once. My mind flashes to her, just three months ago. She is standing over me, having just finished another go-round with The Bell Jar. "You need to read it again," she told me.
"Has it changed?" I asked.
"No. Books don't change. We do." She threw it down next to me, then crawled into bed, facing the wall, curled up under a multi-colored afghan, gone from me to her world of thought. She wasn't angry. And she didn't mean that I had changed.
I set down To Kill a Mockingbird, and picked up the Plath book, remembering that I had always been me - gay, feminist, a little rough around the edges - but there were many things that Carol had experienced before.
Before when she was living a pretty, suburban nightmare; before when she was an Ivy League-educated battered wife; before when she was straight... before everything. Books probably read a lot differently for her before.
When we met, our chemistry was instant. I loved to shock her, and she found me funny. The first time I kissed her, she kissed me back, protected by darkness. In the light of day, the physical distance between us was palpable. At night, her body curled around mine, exploring. "Are you sure?" I asked her, the first time we made love. That time she said yes. Yes to feeling better.
I squeeze her hand, remembering those stolen moments, when we had nothing but time. Nothing but each other.
She doesn't squeeze back. My heart skips. "Carol?" I say, standing. "Baby?"
The smile dances across her lips again. She opens her mouth to speak, but only a choked moan comes out.
I let out a hard breath, my shoulders tensing with the stab of knowledge. "I love you, too," I reply, not needing - and needing - her words.
She takes a big breath in, her back arching as her lungs fill up, and I think she will burst. Then she lets it out, long, low... weak, ragged... then silent.
I squeeze her hand again, then kiss it. I nestle my face in her neck, wishing, praying she will reach up and stroke my hair. I sit back and study her face, once so full of life and love, then pain, and now... nothingness.
I stay with her because I can. I don't call for anyone. I'm selfish and I want this part of her life to be mine.
But eventually, the kind doctor comes in. "She's gone," he says, confirming what I am already sure of.
Then a guard. He removes the metal from Carol's right wrist so that the doctors and nurses can begin preparing her for... for what? I have no idea.
"Alright, let's go," the guard says, sort of touching me on the shoulder. I don't know him; he is young, and he doesn't know me, either. Us.
My eyes dart to the doctor, panicked, but he turns, not looking at me. I've been in this room for so long, that I have almost forgotten.
"It's time, Burstein," the doctor says. "I'm sorry." He lifts a sheet and covers Carol's face.
"Let's go, inmate," the guard says as he slaps the handcuffs onto my wrists. They are still warm, and I have an urge to touch her, to throw back the sheet, to lay my body on top of hers and hold on, but I don't.
He places an arm on my elbow and we walk through winding halls, and I wonder, not for the first time, why it always, always smells like vomit here. As we round the corner to my block, I begin to hear voices. Laughing, yelling. It's mid-day, there's no reason they should be quiet. But when the heavy door opens, the loud clanging of the lock ringing through the air, thirty-some heads twist to face me. They fall silent.
The guard removes the cuffs. "Sorry... sorry for your... loss... inmate," he stammers, then escapes the cell block, slamming the heavy door behind him.
I walk to my bunk, our bunk, not looking at anyone, not caring if they think I'm rude, or a bitch, or throwing shade.
Her books are gone. Her afghan is gone. The little desk where we are supposed to study for cases we lost long ago is wiped clean. A familiar heat rises in my chest, but I ignore it for now.
I lay down on her bed. I take her glasses out of my pocket and turn them over in my hands. I take in every detail, all I have left.
Sobs rock my chest, and I stifle my crying with her pillow. It smells like her, and like me, and like so many other times, I don't know where she begins and I end. I feel dead. I feel alive. I don't know why. I don't know why she was given to me, and I don't know why she was taken.
Tomorrow I will fight. I will knock heads until I get back every single book. I will kill someone for her ugly blanket. I will cause pain until I feel better.
Tomorrow this will be someone else's bed. I won't have answers, but I will have her books, and a broken hand, and a new cellmate. But tonight, this bed is hers. Ours. And I can feel her, here with me.
Of that one thing, I am sure.