Pulling on a pair of gloves, I pushed past the privacy curtain around her bed.  “How are you tonight?”

She blinked at me for a few seconds, then slowly, stuttering, replied, “I’m…well, here.”

I smiled.  “Yes, but you’re being discharged!  You don’t have to spend the night in the hospital!”

Again, the moment of delay before the response.  The oddly flat, emotionless face.  “…I suppose.”

Her husband, hovering at the side of the bed, said, “These nurses are going to help you get dressed, honey, so I can take you home.”

Suddenly, the emotion that had been absent rolled back into her eyes.  She scowled at him.  “You….oh, you don’t give a rat’s ass about it!”

I moved to where he was standing, gave a sympathetic smile.

“I’m so sorry –” he murmured.

“You have nothing to apologize for,” I replied, softly enough that she couldn’t hear.

He left to go get the car, to pull it around to the loading zone in front the ER.  The other nurse and I gently re-dressed her, pulling on an adult diaper, slipping on the shapeless sweatpants and sweatshirt, carefully maneuvering her stiff, jerky limbs into a wheelchair.  Her Alzheimer’s was so severe that she was almost entirely unable to help us.

And then the other nurse wheeled her out front to where her husband of sixty years sat waiting in a warm car on a rainy night, waiting to care for a woman who no longer knew who he was most of the time and seemed to hate him for it.

~ ~ ~

We don’t get any guarantees.

We have the hope of success, of happiness, of a long life filled with joy and growth and wonder.  We have control over some things, small things, things we can choose – or not – to improve our chances, to stack the odds in our favor.  We keep the faith that everything will turn out OK.

And in every sentence in that last paragraph, the key word is one in which there is implicit uncertainty.  Hope.  Chances.  Odds.  Faith.  As if we all know, deep down, that there is an element of randomness, of things outside our ken or control, things that can rise from the dark in an instant and change our carefully figured equation.

The terror in our nightmares is not a monster or a boogeyman.

It is a variable.

~ ~ ~

Variable: Time (Health)

My second job as a nursing assistant, a million (fifteen) years ago, was on a medical-surgical-oncology floor.  The hospital was literally three blocks from my apartment, and directly across the street from my university.  I have never had a better commute.

The nurses I worked with were kind, funny, compassionate, and deeply devoted to their patients.  They knew them by name, knew their long, intricate medical histories, knew their spouses and their children.  They administered complex, highly-toxic rounds of chemotherapy, covered from head-to-toe in yellow gowns, masks with eye shields, two layers of elbow-length purple gloves.

And when all the treatments had failed and the patient chose to live out their remaining weeks or days or hours with comfort and peace, the nurses pulled out all the stops.  Rooms were crowded with cots, food, flowers, music.  Pets made secret impromptu visits via the service elevators.  And, afterwards, the nurses went to their patient’s funerals, and wept with their families.

On this particular quiet summer afternoon I was delivering dinner trays, pulling them from the massive silver food service cart and setting up each patient to eat.  I pulled a “family” tray from the cart – specially ordered for a family member staying with a hospice patient – and, after quietly knocking on the door, entered the room.

The patient was a woman in her fifties, dying of cancer.  She was pale, very thin, and completely bald.  Her hands were bony, her long fine fingers drifting along the bedsheets from beneath the cuffs of a dark blue pajama top.  She lay on her back, head tilted to one side, deep in the absolute stillness of unconsciousness that precedes death.

And laying on the bed next to her, curled around her body, holding her as John embraced Yoko for Annie Liebovitz just hours before he died, was her husband.  His arms were wrapped fully around her, one leg thrown over her, his head tucked deeply into the space between her neck and her shoulder.  He, too, was asleep, but his was the calm, restful sleep of those who will wake up again.

Their room was very quiet.  No flowers, no extra cots, no portable CD player whirring in the corner.  The late afternoon sun filtered in the window, a patch of light warming her feet, the head of the bed in shadows.

It was the embrace of a couple who had planned on more time.  It was the embrace of a man who, even in sleep, tried to shield her from the inevitable with his body, pinning her gently to the bed so that when death came he might have one final chance to fight to keep her.

It was the embrace of a man who, when he met his wife for the very first time, at that party in college back in Madison thirty years ago, said to himself, maybe I’ll luck out, and we’ll be the couple that gets to have forever.

His grief, even in sleep, grabbed me by the throat.  I felt like I might die from it, suffocating silently where I stood.  Never had I felt such violent, unbearable emotion.

I silently put the dinner tray down on a small table by the door, and left.


When I returned to work the next evening, the room was empty.

~ ~ ~

We don’t get any guarantees.  But we play the game anyhow.

And I think, for most of us, we don’t sit in a recliner in the middle of the night, weighing all the variables, weighing all the things that might go wrong, deciding what our risk tolerance is, choosing whether or not we are willing to take a step despite how much ground could collapse from beneath us under its weight.

I think most of us just dive on in.  We get married.  We get pregnant, have a kid, get pregnant again.  We change jobs, take chances, move to different cities, different countries, get in a car and drive on the freeway, board an airplane and take a flight, walk downtown at night to our favorite restaurant.

We don’t plan on things going wrong.  We’d go mad.

So here’s the spectacular part about us:  when things go wrong, we rise to the occasion.  We adapt.  We change again.  We make it work.

We do our best.

~ ~ ~

Variable:  Health (Time)

“Please, Rosemary, please stop crying.”

I could hear the young mother begging her daughter for relief from out in the hallway.  Rosemary, tiny at eight months old, a feeding tube secured to her cheek, flushed with fever, wailed in her mother’s arms, the fretful angry cry of a sick child awake long past her bedtime.

“Please, baby.  Please stop crying, just for a minute.  Momma is so tired.”

Rosemary had been born early and plagued with genetic problems since the NICU helped her take her first breath.  It was flu season, and we were waiting for our overwhelmed lab to process her flu swab and check for RSV.  A positive test would buy her yet another admission to the pediatric inpatient floor.

Rosemary continued to cry.  Rosemary’s mother whispered, “Oh, God, please,” and I stood up from where I had been leaning against the wall outside her room, eavesdropping, and knocked on the door.

I held out my arms.  “Come on, Rosemary,” I said.  The wailing stopped abruptly, startled into cessation by my sudden appearance.  “We’re going for a walk.  Momma needs a break.”

Her mother bundled her into my arms, and we walked into the hallway, leaving her exhausted momma to doze in the room.  Rosemary stared at me suspiciously.  She was beautiful.  Pale, fine hair, deep green eyes, immaculately cared for by a very young woman who wasn’t expecting a child with complex medical needs, but rose the occasion regardless.

We wandered slowly down the hallway, looking at lights, pictures on the walls, listening to the hum of the blanket warmer, chatting with other nurses who passed us by.  Rosemary relaxed against me, distracted from her misery by the change in scenery.

And as we walked down the quiet dark hallway across from the trauma room, I quietly sang the only children’s song I know.


Baby beluga in the deep blue sea

Swims so wild, swims so free

Heaven above and sea below

And a little white whale on the go


And as I sang of the sea, I remembered the husband curled around his wife, all those years ago on the oncology ward.  I’d flown to Florida the week after she died, a long-planned trip to see one of my closest friends.  And we’d driven together to the ocean, a quiet beautiful beach along the panhandle, the shimmering waters of the Gulf stretching on into infinity.

And I remember slowly walking into the ocean, letting the warm waters catch my body, floating on the waves, letting the rhythm of the heart of the world wash away my tears and his grief, carried from a thousand miles away.

It was the very first time I had gone to the ocean to grieve, but it would not be the last.


And as Rosemary and walked through the hallway together, I rocked her gently, changing my weight from one foot to the other, swaying back and forth, the instinctive movement we all seem to default to when we hold our children.

It is the motion of the sea, the motion of the wind on the waves.  We all came from the water, and although our minds have no memory of such a distant time, our bodies have never forgotten.

She fell asleep in my arms.

And for a little while there were no variables for either of us.


Baby beluga, oh baby beluga

Is the water warm

Is your mother home with you, so happy…..