She fell into bed, completely exhausted, and immediately crashed into a deep, but uneasy sleep. She tossed and turned as images, voices, memories and fears jumbled together into a series of nonsensical but disturbing dreams. When she awoke several hours later, she felt as though she hadn’t slept at all.
She knew what time it was before she opened her eyes and looked at the alarm clock on the nightstand beside her bed. On nights like this, she always awoke at precisely the same time.
It had been a trying week, beginning with her poignant and revealing conversation with her son, immediately followed by Christmas with her in-laws. Mercifully, they did not broach the topics of her husband’s medical condition or future.
A series of meetings with Dennis’ physicians in the days immediately following the holiday progressed exactly as she knew they would. They patiently answered her questions, summarizing the contents of voluminous files overflowing with the results of numerous tests conducted in the days since the accident, as well as copious notes detailing the observations of his nurses and other members of the hospital staff. The doctors’ opinions remained unchanged: Dennis would never emerge from his comatose state. His condition was permanent, the damage to his brain irreversible.
“It’s a shame he didn’t have an advanced directive,” they bemoaned again. “Are you certain that he didn’t have a living will? There’s no chance that he could have prepared such a document without your knowledge? Have you searched your home, his office? Have you discussed the situation with his business associates? Is it possible that he consulted an attorney on his own, apart from you?”
The same questions elicited precisely the same responses from her. The one thing she knew for certain was that Dennis would never have met with an attorney alone, without her. Dennis loved her and she was confident that he had, throughout their marriage, been faithful to her. He believed that they should make important decisions together and had resolved to schedule an appointment with an attorney for both of them. The preparation of such an important document was not something he would undertake without her.
“And Dennis never told you what his wishes would be if he were to end up in his present condition?” the doctors probed.
“Not really,” she hedged, looking down to avoid eye contact lest they intuit her lack of candor. She could not bring herself to tell the physicians treating Dennis just how adamantly he had communicated his wishes to her, unconsciously fearing the ability to make a decision about his future in her own time would be yanked away from her.
“Well, we need to make a decision soon,” they advised. “Dennis could live many years in his present condition. The hospital will not treat him indefinitely. At some point in the near future, the hospital will insist that you make other arrangements for his care if you are unwilling to discontinue life support,” the hospital’s “discharge planner” had informed her without emotion.
“Discharge planner,” she mumbled to herself as she stared at the alarm clock’s neon green letters, the only illumination in her dark bedroom. “A fine title,” she continued as she turned over and closed her eyes even though she knew that she would not be able to get back to sleep and would find herself shuffling to the kitchen to make coffee in just a few minutes.
But she did drift back to sleep as she remembered the night her son was conceived: New Year’s Eve.
After he went away to college, their relationship evolved into a casual friendship. She convinced herself that she was no longer in love with him, keeping herself busy with her studies, friends, and an occasional date. She told herself that she simply had not met the right young man, the one for whom she would long as she had yearned to be with him. And she might have succeeded in moving past her love for him had it not been for that night.
They had been exchanging e-mails and telephone calls. When he came home for the holidays, he would drop by and they would resume their habit of visiting the lake and coffee shop where they would spend hours talking. Most of the time, he dominated the conversation, telling her about the new people he was meeting on his college campus, the other young women he was dating. There was no mention of the woman with the dark heart — like her, he claimed to be “over” that and interested in beginning a relationship with someone entirely new. She believed that this new phase of their relationship constituted healthy progress.
Soon she too left home and began attending college on a campus two hours away from his school. They continued their friendship, sometimes talking on the phone until into the wee small hours.
One night as they chatted, she spontaneously invited him to visit her.
“Hey, you have to come see my new apartment! No roommates. I’m living alone for the first time in my life and I love it,” she exclaimed. “I even cook!”
“No way,” he teased her. “You? Cooking? That I’ll have to see to believe.”
“Fine,” she challenged him. “Get down here and see it for yourself. Saturday night. I’ll cook dinner.”
“You’re on,” he responded quickly. “I’ll be there with a bottle of wine.”
“Great! See you then,” she found herself saying before she had time to consider what she had just done. After she hung up the receiver, however, she began to appreciate the implications of her thoughtless outburst. He was coming to her apartment for dinner.
“Oh, my God,” she said to herself. “Did I just ask him for a date? Did he accept? Is that what just happened?”
She spent the remainder of that week stunned, dazed and utterly unsure about what to expect on Saturday evening. She was determined to follow through with her commitment, no matter what it meant, so she cleaned her apartment thoroughly, set the dinner table — a bouquet of fresh daisies surrounded by candles as the centerpiece — and cooked his favorite type of food — Italian. When everything was ready, she dressed in the new outfit she had purchased for the occasion and waited for him to arrive.
Candle wax ran down the sides of the candle holders and dripped onto the new tablecloth. The daisies wilted. The food grew cold, dry and stale. Night fell and the world grew quiet as, one by one, lights in the windows of the residences in the neighborhood were extinguished.
And still she waited.
She sat, curled up under a blanket in the living room window seat, and waited for him to arrive until she finally dozed off. The last time she remembered looking at the clock, the time was 3:45 a.m.
The next morning, she awoke with a start to the sound of a ringing telephone. Certain it was him, she ran to it anxiously only to hear her best friend’s eager inquiry, “Well, how did it go? You said you would call me and you never did! Does that mean things went really well?” her friend gushed excitedly. Before she could answer, her friend continued, “Oh, good Lord, I didn’t even think until just now! Is he still there? Oh, jeez . . . you can call me back later if you need to!”
Now fully awake, she quietly hung up without even answering her friend’s questions. She turned the telephone’s ringer off, threw the previous evening’s dinner into the trash along with the wilted flowers, burnt candles, and the beautiful new tablecloth, and spent the rest of the morning cleaning the kitchen. She did not leave her apartment that day or the next or the one following. To avoid talking with her friends — or their in-person appearance on her doorstep — she changed her voice mail greeting to say that she was suddenly called out of town to attend to a family emergency.
She stayed in her apartment, wondering why she had invited him to dinner, why he neither arrived at the agreed-upon time nor called to beg off and, most importantly, contemplating why it still mattered so much to her.
During those three days, she finally admitted to herself that she never stopped loving him and enjoyed their friendship as one enjoys the consolation prize in any competition: Appearing to observers to accept it graciously, but feeling a part of oneself slowly die from disappointment.
Finally, she resumed attending her classes and finished the semester, returning home to spend the holidays with her family.
He called, but she ignored his messages, convinced that her own best interests would be served by having no contact with him whatsoever. She believed that she would never be able to care for another man, much less marry and have children, unless and until she found a way to stop thinking about and longing for him. And she knew that so long as he was present in her life, her feelings for him would only intensify. She could not bear the thought of ever again listening to him talk about dating other women or, worse, announce that he was in love with and planning to marry someone else.
She never talked about these things with anyone — not even her closest friends. Instead, she kept her feelings hidden, changing the subject if his name came up in conversation. She told the one friend with whom she had confided about the dinner invitation that it was she who canceled their plans for that evening when she was needed at home, concocting an elaborate story about her mother experiencing a medical scare that turned out well. Her friend believed her.
And it was that same friend who encouraged her to return to her apartment on December 30, rather than remaining in her familial home until after the New Year, insisting she attend her friend’s first-ever New Year’s Eve party. She agreed, feeling optimistic and upbeat, determined that with the New Year would come new promise, purpose and relationships, especially since her friend was eager to introduce her to a handsome young man named Dennis with whom her friend was sure she would “hit it off.”
It was that night, as she was getting ready for her friend’s party, that he showed up, unannounced, at her apartment.
Click here to read Chapter Twelve