You can feel his eyes trying to reach yours, to hold your gaze, but the last thing you want to do is look up because you know if you do, the sucker punch he will deliver will not just break you but shatter every inch of your already drained and fragile soul.
You think about the first time you met Rick. The way you immediately fell in love with this unique, shared, instantaneous, logic-defying connection that affectionately embraced you every time he smiled. His easy laugh that melted trouble. Those warm hugs that, throughout the years, never ceased to give you comfort. Two babies and twenty-three years later, hundreds of bedroom romps and kitchen table arguments later, roller coasters of feelings that waxed and waned later, you find yourself here. No one warned you it could be like this and the more you think about it, the more you find it harder to breathe.
Finally, you raise your head and meet his eyes but there seems to only be part of you alive. While on some level, you are dimly aware of a flurry of activity, of green scrubs and white orthopedic rubber-soled clogs racing by, of beepers rushing frantic pleas to perched ears, of a steel on steel whisk as curtains are thrown back, of clipboards and rubber fob watches, of nametags and stethoscopes, of regular people drawing their hands up to pained faces in slow motion and spilling a kind of sadness that makes others recoil, the only thing that pierces through all this fog and holds your attention are his lips moving. You barely feel the whisper of his rehearsed, yet gentle, touch to your right elbow. You glance at the surgical mask that hangs like a punctured balloon from his neck and you note the way his shoulders now sag in defeat as if losing all of your hope had physically shortened him six inches.
There you stand, not sure which way your mind is going to go because control is no longer in your vocabulary or capacity. You watch as his head imperceptively shakes back and forth in slow motion. Just yesterday, you were arguing with Rick over the toothpaste cap. The toothpaste cap. Last night you went to bed mad and it all started with the damn toothpaste cap. And now, all the images crawl inside your heart. Rick playing “airplane” with Ricky Jr. Rick teaching Sara, at sixteen, how to check the oil in her first car. Rick, leaning against the frame of the bedroom door, smiling, and you remember how his look made you feel sexy despite the wrinkles, the grey roots and the extra pounds that the years had gifted you. You can almost hear the way he used to say in that sexy, smooth-honey, southern drawl, “How’s my Baby doin? You wanna….”
But the man’s lips keep moving and his voice interrupts and cuts through your thoughts like a guillotine as the sporadic words like, “I’m sorry” and “nothing more we could do” slam against you, a relentless tsunami, and that is when you become aware that you are drowning and your ability to make it all stop is not, nor will it ever be, within your reach again. You think you are falling but you can’t be because no one else is reacting so you stand there….silently sinking until the man’s words build walls around you, boxing you in, keeping you frozen.
The man slowly guides you to a chair and this very cruel part of you no longer lets you have even moments when you are numb or distant or sheltered. His demolishing words, the sad sideway glances from strangers who dare to make eye contact, the suffocating swarm of antiseptic combined with body odor and fear, the futile offering of a small glass of water come straight at you like rapid fire knives and make it harder and harder to breathe and the only thing you want to do is claw your way out of this moment. But you know there is no way out, no other side, no where to hide or run or scream. This box you’re in is now your permanent home and that thought is so overwhelming, so desperately devastating that you just let the walls envelope you, chew on you, crush you, and hope that they can erase you.
He sits next to you and watches you breathe, hands you a Kleenex for tears you didn’t even know were there, places his hand on your back to calm this heaving body that no longer feels like your own. You are in quicksand, all the way under, and while the man tries to comfort you, he is miles above the surface and so very far away.
You are all alone now.
“Mrs. Jennings, do you want…see the body….a chapel on the first floor….is someone here to drive you home….I’m so sorry for your loss…”
Is this happening?
You mumble thank you and stare at the used, torn Kleenex wadded up inside the palm of your hand that won’t stop shaking and absently ask in a small, lost, child’s voice you have not heard for decades, “Who will put the toothpaste cap back on now?”