Self Inhalation

On Tuesday, 24 days after he woke in the night with a fever, 21 days after the gasping, the blue lips, the call to 911 and the ambulance ride, they dragged the tubes up out of Robert’s lungs.

His wife, Judy, was there by the bed in a homemade mask matching her pink glasses, holding his left hand with both of hers. The click of their wedding bands against each other, once a jokey reminder at cocktail parties, had warmed into a daily comfort back in the 70s. No gloves. Not even now. She had a small bottle of sanitiser in her purse. She would use it later. Or maybe she’d just lick her fingers.

“He was nominated for a Pulitzer,” she said. That was the big gun and the doctor didn’t blink, which set her off on a recital of his resumé, half aware, listening to her own voice over the rustle of the nurses’ PPE gear, that it sounded like a eulogy.

“Do you remember his column in the Post? He wrote it for twenty years. Five days a week. Never missed a single day. Then there’s all his charity work with literacy foundations. And he was a director and judge for the White Hills Literary Scholarship.”

“Um, Mrs…,” said the doctor, reaching for the chart to find a name.

“Jan. Everyone calls me Jan,” she said, forcing a smile, pushing it to reach her eyes and show above the mask. I’m grimacing. I must look like I’m about to cry. It feels like I am.

“Jan, I’m sorry. There’s a woman two bays down. She’s thirty…”

“Has she been nominated for a Pulitzer?”

She couldn’t help herself. You’re getting snappy, Jan. It won’t help.

The doctor dropped his head. Maybe she could make it too hard for him. He’ll tell the nurses to put him back on the ventilator.

“Does she have nine grandchildren waiting for her to come home? Does she have children or a husband or anyone? Anyone who cares?”

“Jan,” said the doctor. His eyes were bloodshot. The skin under his eyes was puffy and looked bruised.

“I can tell you there’s a lot more people who care about Robert than care about her. What has she done with her life? What? At 30? They nominated Robert for the Pulitzer when he was 29. 29.”

And she was 28. It was enough, the recognition, the change in circumstance, to let them start a family.

“Jan, we have to prioritise by age and condition alone. I’m sorry. It is awful that we can’t help everyone. And it’s unfair the elderly are suffering the brunt of the burden.”

“It’s murder,” she said, squeezing her husband’s hand like she could force life back up through his arm.

The doctor straightened up. Oh, Jan. You’ve lost him. That temper of yours.

“No. It’s withdrawal of care. If your husband can’t survive unassisted, we will provide him with morphine to keep him comfortable.”

That was when a nurse wheeled the respirator away. Everything was gone. Just the bed and the stand for the drip were left.

“We’ll let you have some privacy with your husband. If he becomes uncomfortable or agitated, use the red call button on the wall beside you.”

They were alone. God, he looked awful. Sagging. Unshaved for weeks. Sedated. Terrible noises between the gasps for air.

She moved in closer, let go of his hand to find the mechanism to drop the railing then grabbed it again. She leaned in, her forehead almost against the side of his head.

“Inhale, Rob,” she said. What else could she say? Not good-bye. Not on the doctor’s schedule. Goddam them taking the respirator. He’d breathe on his own. She’d help him.

“Just take it slow. You don’t need tubes. You can breathe all by yourself, can’t you? Now another breath. Inhale. Deep as you can.”