“Babe? Will you come in here?” Chris was sitting in the middle of the couch in his office. His right arm stretched out along the back of the couch, and he was reclined somewhat against the back cushion, his swollen belly giving him little flexibility. “I’m having shortness of breath. It was worse when I was lying down last night. But I still feel it.” I crouched in front of him and asked him questions about what he was experiencing, if it was scary. “Babe, I think we need to go in,” I said. “Shortness of breath is one of the things we’re supposed to look for.” He said, “Really, my body hasn’t been doing what it should be doing for weeks now,” and I nodded, agreed: “No, it hasn’t been.”
Chris then paused for a moment and looked away. “I hate it when you talk to me like that. With that voice. You make it sound like you know everything that’s going on with me, and you don’t. I want to feel like you’re next to me, walking with me.”
I paused, staring at him. “I’m sorry you feel that way, babe. I don’t want you to feel like I’m looking down on you or analyzing you. I want you to feel like we’re together. I’ll do my best to be careful how I say things.”
Chris looked up at the ceiling and said tightly, almost as if to himself, “You don’t get it. I can tell you don’t understand what I’m saying.”
I tied Chris’s hospital gown in the back and helped him slowly stand up, his hands on his walker, me supporting his left elbow as he gradually rose to his feet. I reached down and wiggled loose the fat, pink plug of his IV pole from the wall behind the bed and draped the cord over a bag hook at the top of the pole. I grabbed a blue disposable mask for him to put on, and we set off on our first hospital hallway walk.
It took a minute, figuring out the best side for me to walk on. He poked at me for walking half a stride behind him, so I rolled the pole quickly to move up and match his latitude. Halfway down the hall on the wall to our left was a large photograph of a goldfinch, and we remarked on the lovely wildlife. We chatted and laughed quietly about how much the woman who brought Chris’s breakfast tray seemed to adore him. (“My friend!!” she had said as she passed us a moment earlier.) Once down the hallway and back up the other side, we stopped at a large picture window that faced northwest. We tried to figure out what was what in the distance–the sharp, white steeple that pierced the sky, the curve of road we could see retreating behind thick woods, the mansions lining the ridge up to the right. We lingered together for a while at the window. Eventually one of us said, “Welp. Should we head back?” As we completed the hallway loop that took us back to room 909, I shuffled my step once so our slow feet were stepping in sync, parallel, how we always liked to walk.
The tech brought in fresh towels and told us to press the call button if we needed anything. I said, “Welp, I guess they don’t help you bathe… Looks like it’s Team Schmerf!” “The dynamic blue-o!” Chris added. I laughed, the bursting out kind of laughter.
Chris hoisted himself to a stand from the side of the bed and shuffled to the bathroom with his walker. I was right with him, my hand holding his upper right arm gently, but ready. In the bathroom, he slowly circled around and backed up to the toilet. He lowered himself, gripping the handicap bar on the wall with his right hand, holding his gathered gown with his left, and I started the shower. Chris said, “It has that handheld shower head down there…can you unhook that?” The handheld shower head was attached to a pole that ran the height of the shower. It could move up and down on the pole, as on a track, but there wasn’t an obvious way to free it. “Hmmm…lemme see…” I wiggled it, swiveled it from side to side, moved it up and down, looking for any button or lever to release it. “I don’t think it comes off, babe. I’ve tried everything.” “Well, I don’t believe you. I think you should call the tech.” “I promise, babe! There’s no way to detach it from the wall! It just goes up and down! I don’t know why it doesn’t detach, but it doesn’t!” “I know you think it won’t come off. But I still don’t believe it can’t. Go press the call button.” “Fine. You’ll see!”
The tech came in and agreed, “Yeah some of these don’t come off the pole. Some of them do.” “See, Chris??” “But let me see… Oh, there we go.” She lifted the shower head off of a small metal peg.
Chris faced the back corner of the shower stall, holding on to the handicap rails with both hands, arms in a V. His entire back was as wide as his shoulders, all the way down through his waist. The fluid in his abdomen had filled and thickened his whole torso. His feet were puffy and shapeless, and his legs were like tree trunks from the edema. His arms, though, never huge but always substantive, had shrunken with fat loss and atrophy. I studied his body as I gently scrubbed his back and legs with a loofa, taking extra care near the massive wine-colored stains covering his left underarm and rib cage. Bruising from his surgeries was slow to fade.
We figured out the washing as we went along. Just changing positions and getting out of the shower and gowned again–making sure the shoulder snaps were rightly aligned and around the right places–were each little puzzles to solve. Once dressed, Chris stood at the sink and commented on how gaunt his face had become. We both watched his reflection.
Leaving wet towels and washcloths strewn on the bathroom floor, I set up the walker in front of Chris, and we slowly set out for his bed. “Well that was a real nice time together, Babesbie,” he said.