It has been over seven months since she died. When I look back at those last few days all I remember is the darkness, the gloom, the pall that was cast over everyone in the household while we waited for her to die. I remember Emily’s mood in particular. The cruelty of the situation was too much to handle. Up until the day before she passed she was completely cognizant of what was happening. She was a 25 year-old woman with a husband and a dog and plans for a long happy productive life. Instead of living and loving as she had done so well to that point, she was going to face eternity alone.
What do you say to someone in that situation? As anyone who spoke to her for more than 20 seconds could see, she was incredibly intelligent. Trying to comfort her with bullshit was out of the question. So I just sat there. I held her hand. When she would break down I would get in the bed and hold her. When I broke down I did my absolute best to leave the room. “God damn it, Mackin. Don’t make it any worse for her.” Became my mantra.
I guess one of the worst moments for me was the morning before she died. Hospice had sent a hospital bed for her to make sitting up possible. Even though it was way more convenient, Emily wanted no part in it. It was another sign of her impending doom. She would stay on the couch in the living room for hours trying to sleep, just to avoid going back to our room. But soon enough it became too hard for her to move and she had to relent. After a day or two of being in the hospital bed, coupled with the effects of the cancer spreading through her brain she became confused about where she was. She would say to me,
“Ben, why can’t we just go home? I hate sleeping here, I don’t want to be here. “
“Darlin’, it’s ok. We are home. You have your TV, and bedspread, look here’s your dog.” I put her Dash on the bed to try and drive the point home. “Try to relax.”
“Why are you lying to me? Where’s the doctor? Find out when I can go home.”
After awhile it just became easier to play along. I agreed and acted discontent with her. The show of solidarity seemed to make her feel better.
“I don’t know, baby. I’ll go find someone and fuss at them.”
“Oh Ben, don’t fuss at them. Just find out when I can go home.
“Ok, Darlin’. I’ll be back.”
That was easy enough until later that day.
She was sleeping and I was holding her hand and trying to wake myself, our selves…whatever…. Trying to wake up from the nightmare we were living. All of a sudden she opened her eyes and looked at me. I smiled at her and kissed her hand and put it on my cheek.
Emily looked horrified and snatched her hand away from me.
“Excuse me sir, I don’t know you.”
I felt my heart drop into my stomach. That hurt. I know her head wasn’t right, I know she was confused and didn’t mean it, but fuck, that one hurt.
“Emily, it’s me Ben. Your husband.”
“No sir, I’m sorry but I don’t know you.”
It was dark in the room and maybe she couldn’t see my face well enough. I don’t know. There was no convincing her. I had to play along.
“I’m sorry ma’am. I hope I didn’t offend.”
“I’m married.” She said with narrowed and offended eyes.
“Oh really. I’m sure he is a good man.”
“Is he good looking?”
She looked at me indignantly and said. “Of course he is.”
I sat there for a few more minutes and she asked me to go get her mother.
“Sure. It was a pleasure talking with you Misses…..?”
“It was a pleasure talking with you Mrs. Mackin.”
She slowly drifted back to sleep and I left the room as Emily’s sister came in to sit with her. I went outside, sat in my car and broke down.
Later that evening I was the only one in the room. As usual I was holding her hand. I had to. Physical connection became important to me in those last few days. Holding Emily’s hand ranks very high on my list of favorite things ever. She had the softest hands. The absolute softest. I’m not exaggerating. Her hands were always cool too. Not cold but delightfully cool. Which is one of the small ways we were so compatible. I am about as warm natured a person as you can find. My hands and body are always heated. So us holding hands was mutually beneficial because she was always so chilly and I so hot…temperature wise.
Anyway, I was holding her hand and reading a book….what was it??….a book of short stories by O. Henry I think. I can’t remember the exact story. Anyway, I was holding her hand and felt her stir. She turns her head and looks at me. I was worried she was going to freak out again. But I could see in her beautiful green eyes that she recognized me. It wasn’t a “glad to see you” look. It was more of a look that she had business to discuss. She said:
“So you park the car.”
“…..um sure, babe.”
“I’m going to go in an get a table. I don’t want to be late.”
“Do you want me to get you something?”
“A drink. Do you want me to order you a drink?”
“Sure darlin’. A gin and tonic would be good.”
“Ok. I’ll see you in a bit. I love you.”
She fell back asleep shortly after that. While those were not the last words we said to each other, that was the last full conversation we had.
The day she died she was hard to understand. She rarely spoke and when she did, it was very short. When she spoke it was normally a request for water, which was administered by a dropper because she was unable to hold on to a cup. With every request there was a please. When she had had enough water she would say thank you to the best of her ability. I would tell that I loved her. She would respond with what I tell myself is “I love you too.” I can’t say for sure.
Her family and I and my mother kept vigil. We all took our opportunities to tell her how much we loved her. Around noon on a Sunday, I was sitting in the family room sending an email and watching Mother Dearest starring Anne Bancroft. My brother-in-law walked in and gave me a look. I think he might have said something too but I just remember his face. It was a look of pure devastation. I stood up and went back to the room Emily was in. I sat on the left side of the bed. Her Mom was on the right. Her father had been at mass. We had called him and told him to hurry home. My Mom had gone to the grocery store. Her cell phone could not get signal in Vicksburg.
Emily’s breathing was spacing out. The pauses were getting longer and longer. Her father arrived and sat at the foot of the bed. We sat and watched. Long pauses between breathing. …..Slowly in…………….slowly out. I recognize that Emily was the one dying but I felt like I was witnessing my own apocalypse. The world as I knew it, the world as I loved it, hung in the balance of Emily’s labored breaths.
I remember thinking, how could this be? How could this lady, this wonderful, strong person be dying? This was the girl who happened to go to the same college that I went to when she had her choice of any college in the country. The one that introduced herself to me in August of 2005 saying, “Ben? I think our parents know each other from Spring Hill in the 70s. The brilliantly smart, funny, awkward, gorgeous brunette, born in Los Angeles, lived in Japan, raised in, and from what I can tell with a great amount of bias, was the pride of Columbus, Mississippi. The lovely young woman who took an interest in a short, chubby and sometimes funny kid from Virginia who barely got into and out of the same college, the girl who was essential in building him into the man who writes this story. How could this be happening to her?
We sat there. Slow breathing. Struggling.
I remember being not sure of what I wanted to happen. Of course on one hand, I wanted her to keep fighting. Fight through and breathe normally, to stave off death for as long as she could. On the other hand she was tired. Her chest was heaving, struggling. We had no way of knowing if she was comfortable. Part of me wanted her to cross completely over. End the suffering.
She carried on breathing for a few minutes, the pauses got longer…. Then all of a sudden her whole body seized up to the point where she rolled to her side. Then she exhaled and that was the end. It was 12:20 p.m. on Mother’s Day. The sun was out on a beautiful Mississippi spring day and the gardenia bush outside our window had just bloomed. Emily loved gardenias. The world, this plane of existence, was without Emily Irene Henry Mackin. We are poorer for it.
Emily and I had been on a roller coaster since November 4, 2009. That was the day her head was hurting so badly I took her to the Emergency room. The day the E.R. physician told me that there was a large spot on the X-ray of Emily’s brain. We…and by we I mean Emily with me there some of the time, had been through the ringer. Three years, six months and eight days from that rainy cold November night to the day she died. In that time Emily had beaucoup surgeries, hours of radiation, beaucoup chemo sessions, beat cancer, saw a relationship crumble due to circumstances far beyond anyone’s control, taught at a snobby catholic girls high school in New Orleans, found time to talk to me while I was deployed, built the aforementioned relationship back up, lost a kidney to cancer, got re-diagnosed with brain cancer, more chemo sessions, got married, more chemo sessions…. And the end. The entire time the thought of giving up never entered Emily’s head. If there was an option to continue treatment, then damn it, that was what Emily wanted to happen. Her enthusiasm to continue living at all costs despite the consequences to her own comfort was inspiring. She is the bravest person I have ever known.
Needless to say the last three and a half years ranked among the world’s worst roller coasters with its ups and downs. The ups were amazing. The wedding Emily’s parents were able to give her was absolutely beautiful. The whole day she glowed with the happiness and excitement that only those who have experienced true hardship are able to have and appreciate. But as amazing as the wedding was, at the end it was all downs. Speaking for myself, over the last six months I felt like I was hurtling down into a never-ending abyss. Watching your best friend and partner whither away is the worst combination of heart breaking and soul killing. The only positive spin I could put on this part of my life is that I was doing it with my best friend. I knew then that Emily was coming to the end of the track. I knew she was going to get off this ride and go on another one. Leaving me to continue my terrifyingly dark descent. If there is a God I have no doubt that Emily is with him/her…. or Him/Her…whatever. I go back and forth as to whether there is a God but that is a discussion for another time.
In abrupt conclusion, Emily was one of the most pure spirits you could ever hope to meet. How the hell I lucked out and got her to marry me, I’ll never know.