We tried, sometimes, to make light of things but it was difficult for me to look at my husband naked. Elliot's ribs showed like an Auschwitz prisoner's. His upper arms had lost much of their muscle. They were actually thinner than mine. His thighs were so skinny that his white briefs drooped loosely around them like badly pinned diapers.
"Don't mourn him now," I told myself, again and again. "You'll have plenty of time for that later."
My pep talks to myself cycled on a relentless loop. Just a hundred years ago a man was lucky to live to be 45, so compared to most of human history he's ahead of the game. At least he's not a soldier dying on a battlefield without morphine. At least he's not seven years old. At least we have insurance. At least I have a flexible part-time job so I can take care of him. At least we found each other. So many people go through their lives without a love like this.
I got sick of my own cajoling voice in my head. A therapist once told me I was afraid of anger. I think I was also afraid of grief - that if I gave in to it I would crumble. I would be sucked into a bottomless pit and would never come back out. So I steeled myself with smiles and tried to focus on what we still had. I didn't want to look back on these days and kick myself for wasting them in sorrow. These were the good days. I had to appreciate them because I knew it would get so much worse.
"Don't be afraid to get closer," the social worker had said." He's here now."
Maybe bottling up my distress served a good purpose. I didn't, after all, fall apart. I kept our house and family running like a finely calibrated machine.
My main goal was to squeeze in as many fun times with our children as possible. We had booked rooms for all seven of us, plus Kate's boyfriend, at the Hedges in the Adirondacks, a rustic cluster of cabins surrounding Blue Mountain Lake. Getting away always made us feel better. In June we piled into a rented minivan that would fit all of us along with board games, Frisbees, baseball gloves, books and piles of pills. Somehow Elliot managed to hike up two mountains in the drizzling rain, stopping every minute or so to catch his breath. Going so slowly we found pleasures in the path that we might otherwise have missed - tiny red lizards, hummingbirds and mushrooms in wildly phallic shapes. The lake was too cold for swimming, but we kayaked, read in rocking chairs on the porch and had campfires in the dark. There's a picture of Alex and Max laughing as they wrestle on a worn plaid couch in our cabin. It was the first time I'd seen them tussle like puppies. Like brothers.
One day Elliot and Alex bought some cheap fishing poles, caught some big ones and threw them back. One time it took so long to pull the hook out of a trout's mouth that we thought we killed it so we took it to the kitchen to cook for dinner. Soon after the fish hit the ice bucket it started twitching and sprang back to life. Wouldn't that be nice, I thought. A second chance...
"I wish we were still up in Blue Mountain Lake, just you and me," Elliot emailed me a few days after we got back. "I'll bet we could get the Colonel's room for a few days, say Sunday thru Wednesday. I just want to spend the day in bed. Happy Anniversary."
It was our eighth. Where had the time gone?
One night back home in July I found Elliot in our room in his underwear, dancing to the thrum of the air conditioner.
"Are you doing that to amuse me or because you're moved by the music?" I asked.
"Both," he said with a grin. It was funny but gave me a chill. He was loopy from all the pain medicines, Fentanyl and Lyrica on top of everything else.
He felt isolated working at home so he kept trying to schlep into the office, but commuting was getting harder. "I have to navigate the trains, the streets, on new, more powerful meds," he wrote. "I feel more than a little disoriented and my reaction time feels slow. Believe me, I'm not challenging cars to cross the street...I'm just woozy, and woozy is not the best armor for surviving in New York."
He sounded so wistful sometimes. "I'm looking at the picture I took of you in Maine...that summer we rented the house near Popham Beach. You look so fetching. I can't concentrate on anything else..."
How I loved those emails. I was addicted to their ardor. I hated to envision a time I would have to get by without them. Stop it, I told myself. Don't go there.
We had a trip for two planned on the way to picking up Alex from camp in New Hampshire in August. We stopped for a few days at our favorite bed and breakfast, the Old Inn on the Green in New Marlborough, Massachusetts. We took long walks, long baths and long naps. We visited our friend Linda's country house nearby. She and her fiance had an orchard and we picked a perfect peach. It was so beautiful we couldn't bear to eat it. For days we just admired it on the mantel by our bed at the inn. I splurged on a $45 set of colored pencils just so I could sketch that lovely piece of fruit. I spent hours on its portrait while Elliot slept. Looking carefully at the peach's delicate round shape, with its soft oranges, pinks and greens, was so calming that I felt time slow down. My breath got softer. It was almost like meditation. I felt a rare sense of peace in that room, with my husband resting and my whole body relaxed.
It struck me that the day marked the two-year anniversary of Elliot's diagnosis. His doctors had predicted that by this time he probably wouldn't be with us anymore. But he was still here with me, and we were happy.
I'm proud of my drawing that day, it came out well. And once it was finished, we bit into that idyllic peach. It was the sweetest, juiciest one I had ever tasted. It dribbled down our chins and we licked away its nectar with the purest kind of contentment. We live for moments like this.