Now That You’re Gone

by Alice Swope

The silence in the room was eerie, the stillness unreal.

I stabbed at the fried egg, angled my fork to my mouth, and dropped it with a clatter onto my plate before automatically raising my head to listen. I heard nothing – just an oppressive stillness.

I picked up the fork and took a bite, still listening. The only sound in the room was the happy purring of Remus, my cat.

“Okay, Paul, what’s holding you back?” I muttered. “Come on. Yell. I’m eating eggs this morning. You know how I hate cold eggs. You always call when I’m eating eggs.

“Why aren’t you asking me for help? Where is your bed? Where have you gone?”

I looked around the room, wondering if the pain would ever go away. The words “Hon, I’m sorry, but can you help me?” beat into my brain.

I could see into the clean, orderly living room where the furniture was arranged attractively. For just a second I couldn’t remember what had happened to Paul’s hospital bed.

I pushed my plate back, dropped my head onto my arms, and started to sob.

Paul would never ruin another meal for me. He’d never again drag me out of a tub of warm bubbles to bring him a glass of water. He’d never again interrupt a favorite TV program to ask me for his pills. My time was my own. I was free to do what I wanted, when I wanted. I had all kinds of time – time stretching into infinity. I had too much time that I didn’t want.

From Wonder to Woe

I guess I’d loved Paul from the moment I first saw him. We went together a few months, were married in a glow of happiness, and settled down to the perfect life. I expected this wonderful life to go on forever.

How little we know what lies ahead for us. How little we know of God’s plans for us.

One day our legs were knocked out from under us: Paul was diagnosed as having incurable cancer of the bone.

After we’d screamed in frustration and denial, after we’d hugged and cried, after we’d fully accepted his fate, we determined to live each day to the fullest.

Frustration

Each day Paul got weaker until he was confined to a hospital bed, which we set up in the living room. That’s when the frustration began.

Sometimes I’d find myself resenting that our routine was being disrupted so completely.

Paul and I had always shared the daily tasks. I fixed the breakfast while he made the coffee. Paul got home before I did, so he usually dried and folded the clothes I’d washed. We weeded the flowers, kneeling side by side. He washed one side of the car, I washed the other. We were a real team.

After Paul got sick, I had to give up all outside activities so I could stay home and care for him. At the same time, I wondered if it had been a good idea to keep him home, as I knew nothing about nursing. I had to try it, though, for it meant I could be with Paul all the time.

Changes

Our lives changed so drastically. Mornings I didn’t have time to dress or have a cup of coffee before the daily grind began.

Paul needed his medication on time, or the pain became too horrible for him to manage. He needed to have his teeth brushed because his mouth was dry and his lips were cracking. He needed his face washed and a change of clothes and bedding, for he had no bladder or bowel control. He had to have a drink of juice and a small breakfast.

Finally, I’d get a cup of coffee. As I’d sit down to savor it, Paul would often call, “Honey, can you help me? I seem to have lost my balance.”

When I’d get back to my place at the kitchen table, my coffee would be lukewarm. I’d pour it down the drain and go in to dress and put on some makeup for the day.

Paul would call me, “Excuse me, Honey, but I’ve dropped my spoon.”

On my way to him, I’d sputter in a whisper so he couldn’t hear, “Isn’t it enough I get your breakfast first? I haven’t even had a cup of coffee yet.”

I’d paste a smile on my face and go to help him, knowing I didn’t really mean to be annoyed. He needed me; I needed him. I loved him so much.

Loving Moments

Of course, my whole existence wasn’t irritation and frustration. Most of the time my life consisted of true love and great concern.

I’d inch close to Paul, where he lay on his hospital bed in our now-cluttered living room. I’d run my fingers over his bony hand, covered with thin, parchment like skin, and I’d remember the early years of our marriage.

I’d hold his head close to my shoulder and coax him to eat a few more bites of custard.

My hands would gently wash his emaciated body and my lips would trace a line across his face and neck as I gave him all the love I’d always had for him.

That was the way most of our life went, interspersed with the flares of annoyance, washed with oppressive guilt.

When Paul died, all I could think of was those moments of irritation. Sometimes my guilt would entirely consume me. With the guilt would come my overwhelming tears.

‘Help Me’

Now I looked up from my plate and from long habit, I listened in vain for a voice saying, “Hon, excuse me. Can you help me a moment?” How I longed to rush to his side to help.

The words help me banged into my mind.

The Bible I hadn’t opened in months beckoned to me. I ignored it, turned my back, and picked up the morning paper. One item mentioned a little boy suffering from leukemia. He needed a transplant. He was at home with a single mother.

I felt for her and what she must be going through as she tried to take care of him, as she worried and fretted over his condition. Sometimes she must feel hemmed in and long for a little time to herself. Help me.

A few days before, I’d read of a man who took care of his terminally ill wife at home. Help me.

I tossed the paper across the table and looked over at the Bible. I flipped through its pages and stopped at Matthew 23:11. I read that the more lowly your service to others, the greater you are; to be the greatest, be a servant.

Help me still clanged in my brain.

Getting the Point

Was this a message of some kind? Could I help these people? I’d had enough experience with Paul; I could give others a few hours of freedom.

I shook my head. Nope. Not me. I’ve had enough.

I flipped through the Bible again. Ephesians 5:15, 16: “So be careful how you act; these are difficult days. Don’t be fools; be wise: make the most of every opportunity you have for doing good” (TLB).

Help me.

I sighed. “Okay, Lord. You’ve made Your point.”

I closed the Book gently and looked toward the living room. It was so empty with no hospital bed and no food trays. No Paul.

I heard Paul’s voice whispering, “Help me.” I decided that right after breakfast I’d call on each of these families and offer my services. A peace I hadn’t felt in ages entered my body.

I pulled my plate back toward me, picked up my fork, took a bite of egg, and gagged.

Well, one thing hadn’t changed: I still hated cold eggs.